Cascade Saddle Route | Your Ultimate Hiking Guide For 2024

From the moment the Cascade Saddle Route hit our radar, we were hooked. With promises of enormous glaciers, glimpses of the mighty Mt Aspiring and a thrilling ascent that would afford us magnificent views of our much-loved Matukituki Valley, nothing was holding us back.

That is, except for the untamed weather that torments the mountain peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park. Sadly, our first few plans of hiking the Cascade Saddle Route were squashed by high avalanche warnings, icy rock slabs and deep snowdrifts. 

But we waited semi-patiently and finally, were gifted a perfect weather window for the Cascade Saddle Route. And spoiler alert – it was even better than we could have imagined!

The Cascade Saddle Route is a challenging hike in the Matukituki Valley, near Wanaka. But in all honesty, the warnings we were given from the DOC visitor centre were a little excessive. 

So to help fellow experienced hikers determine whether they’re capable of hiking the Cascade Saddle Route, we’ve created this detailed guide that will cover everything you need to know. Plus, you’ll find plenty of inspiring images that help shine a light on the trail conditions.

Hiking on the Pylons on the Cascade Saddle Route in the Matukituki Valley near Wanaka

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Essential Information About Hiking The Cascade Saddle Route In Mt Aspiring National Park

Quick Statistics For The Cascade Saddle Route

Distance
34 km return from Raspberry Creek Car Park

Time
10 – 14 hrs return (best done as an overnight hike)

Navigation Difficulty
Moderate – see below for detail

Trail Difficulty
Hard – see track notes for detail

Physical Effort
Very Hard

Elevation Gain
2,113 m

Highest Elevation
1,803 m 

Fees And Bookings
Aspiring Hut & Camping (Optional)

Facilities
Trailhead: Car park, shelter, toilets, untreated water
On The Trail: Toilets, shelter and untreated water at Aspiring Hut, Toilet on Cascade Saddle

Where Does The Cascade Saddle Route Start?

Camping at Raspberry Creek Carpark in Mt Aspiring National Park

Located within Mt Aspiring National Park, the Cascade Saddle Route winds up the imposing mountainside that towers over Aspiring Hut in the Matukituki Valley. To reach the start of the Cascade Saddle Route, which is located behind Aspiring Hut, you’ll park at Raspberry Creek Car Park and walk into the valley via the West Matukituki Track.

Raspberry Creek Car Park is 1 hour northwest of Wanaka, located at the end of Wanaka Mt Aspiring Rd. The sprawling car park is the starting point for most of the hikes in the Matukituki Valley, including Rob Roy Glacier, Shotover Saddle Route, French Ridge Hut and Liverpool Hut.

You’ll find a toilet block, untreated water and a shelter at Raspberry Creek Car Park. Certified self-contained campervans are also allowed to stay overnight at this car park – which is highly beneficial if you want to try and smash the Cascade Saddle Route out in a day!

How To Get To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Directions from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park

Mainly due to the popularity of the Rob Roy Glacier walk, there is a shuttle service that will take you from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park. However, this transfer service only operates during the summer season – which is typically from October to April.

Wanaka To Raspberry Creek Car Park Shuttle

Wanaka Transfers is the primary provider for transfers to popular destinations from Wanaka. They offer shared transfers to Raspberry Creek Car Park for $55 NZD one-way and private transfers for $195 NZD for up to 4 people, with an additional $35 NZD per person for a maximum of 11 people.

Their operating season begins on October 1st and concludes on April 30th. For the shared transfer, the shuttle requires a minimum of 4 people to operate. Departure from Wanaka is at 8 am, and return from Raspberry Creek Car Park is at 3 pm, however, these shuttles only operate every second day.

Unfortunately, these pick-up times mean that you’ll need to spend two nights camping in the Matukituki Valley as 7 hours is generally too short to complete the entire Cascade Saddle Route.

Driving From Wanaka To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Driving through a ford on the way to Raspberry Creek Carpark

The drive from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park is navigationally straightforward. All you need to do is head west out of Wanaka on Wanaka Mt Aspiring Rd.

However, once you reach the Aspiring Helicopters shed, the road turns to gravel and you’ll spend the final 30 km bumping over corrugation and avoiding sheep and cows that roam the open paddocks. But the views while you drive make it all worth it!

For the last 10 km, you’ll also encounter at least 8 fords which are usually shallow enough for a 2WD in fair weather. However, if there has been a large amount of rain or snowmelt, then these can swell. Before departing Wanaka, we recommend checking the current road conditions on The Wanaka App.

Road Trip in New Zealand driving in Mt Cook Nation Park

New Zealand, The Road Tripping Capital Of The South!

The absolute best place to road trip in the Southern Hemisphere is New Zealand, the land of giant glaciers and vibrant lakes. And for the best deals on campervans, you can’t beat Jucy!

Note: According to Google Maps, the estimated drive time from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park is 2 hours. This is extremely excessive! Unless you plan on driving at an average speed of 15 km/hr for the entire 30 km unsealed road, a more realistic estimation is roughly 1 hour.

How Hard Is The Cascade Saddle Route?

Hiking in the snow on the Cascade Saddle Route

There is no denying that the Cascade Saddle Route is a challenging hike. For one, you’ll ascend a mighty total of 2,113 m elevation – 1,455 m of which is completed within 7 km! But to be completely honest, we expected it to be harder thanks to the intense warnings we were given.

The main reason that the Cascade Saddle Route is considered a dangerous trail is due to the weather, exposure and the high consequences should you fall in the alpine section. We waited until we had a clear weather window to hike the Cascade Saddle Route and in fair conditions, we found the climb relatively straightforward. There were only a few sections in the alpine that forced us to use our hands to scramble over the steep rock slabs.

Looking down the steep trail on the Cascade Saddle Route
Hiking up steep rock slabs on the Cascades Saddle route

If you’re an intermediate to advanced hiker and you attempt the Cascade Saddle Route in good conditions, you should have no problem reaching the saddle. With that said, if the exposure is too much for you, you’ll still receive sensational vistas just above the tree line – before the steepest and most exposed sections occur.

Note: It is highly advised not to attempt the Cascade Saddle Route if the weather calls for ice, snow, rain or high winds and we’d have to agree. That is unless you have the relevant gear and experience for these conditions.

Navigation On The Cascade Saddle Route

Hiking along the Cascades Saddle Route following orange poles to mark the trail

The Cascade Saddle Route is well-marked throughout the entire hike, making navigation a simple task. In the forest, you’ll find orange markers nailed to the trees and in the alpine, there are orange-tipped poles evenly spaced along the route.

With that said, if visibility is low in the alpine then locating the markers can become more difficult. For this reason, we always recommend tracking your hike through a GPS-tracking app such as Alltrails. This way, you can always retrace your steps if you find yourself in rapidly deteriorating conditions.

If you’d like, you can use our mapped Alltrails activity for the Cascade Saddle Route. However, I didn’t make it all the way down to the actual saddle as we were running out of daylight hours, so Dylan ran down while I protected our backpacks from the Kea. You’ll need to continue for roughly 300 m to reach the saddle, pictured below.

Can You Hike The Cascade Saddle Route In A Day?

Hiking on Cascade Saddle with Mt Aspiring in the background

We are living proof that you can complete the Cascade Saddle Route in a day. However, we don’t recommend it unless you’re extremely fit or low on time like we were! It was a mission that I would gladly not do again – if only for the reason that we couldn’t properly enjoy the saddle with impending darkness nipping at our heels.

If you have no other option, it is possible and you can easily walk the West Matukituki Track back from Aspiring Hut by torchlight. But if you’re not pressed for time, then we highly recommend spending the night either at Aspiring Hut or in the hanging valley beside Cascade Creek.

Hiking through the hanging valley on the Cascade Saddle Route

Where To Camp For The Cascade Saddle Route

You have two main options for camping along the Cascade Saddle Route. The most popular option is to camp at Aspiring Hut and do Cascade Saddle as a day trip. The second option – which offers more spectacular views – is to wilderness camp beside Cascade Creek in the hanging valley right before Cascade Saddle.

Below, I’ll briefly summarise what you can expect for both campsites and also provide another two options that require you to be well-versed in responsible wilderness camping.

Camping At Aspiring Hut

Aspiring Hut's beautiful view out to Mt Aspiring National Park
Aspiring Hut

Aspiring Hut offers the easiest option for camping when you hike the Cascade Saddle Route. You can drop your camping gear at the hut and pack only the essentials for the trip up to the saddle and back. Having a lighter pack will also make the climb much less challenging.

However, you will need to pay $5 NZD each for camping and $40 NZD each to stay in the hut. Plus, the views for sunrise and sunset are way better from Cascade Creek compared to Aspiring Hut.

Read this post next for more information about staying at Aspiring Hut.

Camping On Cascade Saddle

Campsite on Cascade Saddle with a drop toilet
Campsite with a drop toilet on Cascade Saddle

There is a dedicated free campsite on the Cascade Saddle Route, located in the hanging valley beside Cascade Creek. This incredibly stunning valley is roughly 3 km before the saddle and has a drop toilet and some protection from high winds.

The only downside to camping at Cascade Creek is due to the cheeky Kea that frequents this area. There is a juvenile crew of Kea (alpine parrots) that have been known to shred hikers’ tents! However, we encountered the same flock at the Shotover Saddle and our tent survived.

Wilderness Camping Along The Cascade Saddle Route

Great viewpoint over the Matukituki Valley and Mt Aspiring
Small tent site on the climb to Cascade Saddle

There are two ideal wilderness camping locations along the Cascade Saddle Route that can accommodate one to two tents. 

The first is a small clearing just before you leave the forest that is suitable for two tents comfortably, but you could squeeze three small tents in there. This is a great choice if you need some protection from the weather.

The second option can be found just after you break away from the tree line. You’ll find a flat space next to the trail that can fit one tent comfortably and two small tents cosily. This spot will offer better views and is ideal if you don’t have enough time to reach Cascade Creek.

However, neither of these campsites have a toilet so you will need to either carry your poop out with you or utilise the toilets at Aspiring Hut and Cascade Creek.

What To Pack For Your Hike To Cascade Saddle

Hiking along the Pylon on the Cascade Saddle Route in Mt Aspiring National Park

The Cascade Saddle Route is a demanding hike that takes roughly 10 – 14 hours to complete. We recommend packing more snacks than you think you’ll need as the ascent seriously takes it out of you! A few electrolytes won’t go astray either.

PS, don’t forget insect spray! The sandflies in the Matukituki Valley – especially at Aspiring Hut – are vicious! Unfortunately, the only thing that has worked against these feisty creatures is a spray with at least 40% deet.

Here is a list of the essential items we suggest packing for your hike to Cascade Saddle:

  • Hiking Backpack – we recommend at least 55 – 65 litres for an overnight trip and a 28 – 34 litre daypack if you’re completing the hike in a day
  • Hiking Boots – if you prefer hiking shoes, they will suffice in the middle of summer but don’t forget that snow is common at the peak year-round
  • Trekking Poles – we found poles extremely valuable for our descent
  • Head Torch
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Blanket – most hiking first aid kits don’t come with an emergency blanket, but these are essential for treating hypothermia
  • Emergency Beacon – if you don’t own an emergency beacon, you can rent one from the DOC visitor centre or the Macpac store in Wanaka
  • Rain Jacket – the weather can change on a dime in the mountains, we also recommend packing rain pants if you own a pair
  • Warm Layers – we usually pack both a fleece jacket and a down jacket when we hike in the alpine
  • 3-Season Tent – we’ve had the Macpac Duolight for over 5 years and we highly recommend it!
  • Hiking Sleeping Bag – if you’re camping on Cascade Saddle, expect the temperatures to drop near zero overnight
  • Hiking Sleeping Mat
  • Hiking Stove – you won’t need gas if you’re staying in Aspiring Hut
  • Water Filtration System – if you’re camping on the Cascade Saddle Route, you’re only options for water is from Cascade Creek and another stream halfway through the forest section

Best Time To Hike The Cascade Saddle Route

Hiking through the hanging valley on Cascade Saddle

The best time to hike the Cascade Saddle Route is from November to May. However, even during the summer hiking season, you’ll want to wait for a clear weather window. The steep rock slabs and snow grass become quite treacherous in icy or wet conditions and low visibility makes navigation a frustrating task. 

Furthermore, there is a high avalanche risk at Cascade Saddle from June to November. If you’re visiting in early spring, we recommend stopping in at the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka to check the avalanche risk.

Hiking The Cascade Saddle Route In Winter

To hike the Cascade Saddle Route in winter, it is essential to have additional gear and knowledge. This includes crampons, ice axes, avalanche probes and a high level of avalanche awareness. Again, we recommend chatting with the team at the DOC Visitor Centre in Wanaka for the current conditions and to assess whether the risk aligns with your skill level.

Cascade Saddle Route Track Notes

Raspberry Creek Car Park To Aspiring Hut

Hiking on the West Matukituki Track in Mt Aspiring National Park

To begin the hike to Cascade Saddle, you’ll leave Raspberry Creek Car Park and jump onto the West Matukituki Track, heading towards Aspiring Hut. This is an easy and relatively flat walk (compared to what’s to come) along a private farm road that follows the Matukituki River.

You can expect to take between 1.5 – 2.5 hours to complete this 9 km section of the Cascade Saddle Route.

For more information on this part of the hike, you can read our detailed guide for Aspiring Hut.

Aspiring Hut To The Creek Crossing

Once you’ve had a rest at Aspiring Hut, and dropped some of your gear if you’ve chosen to stay at the hut, it’s time to put those legs to work!

Beginning the Cascade Saddle Route from Aspiring Hut in the Matukituki Valley

You’ll find the start of the Cascade Saddle Route located behind the Rangers Hut at the edge of the forest. The track begins quite mellow, with a steady climb through the vibrant fern-filled forest.

The gradient gradually increases as you continue ascending along a dirt track infiltrated by boulders and tree roots. I ditched one of my poles after 1 km as the climb began to call for the use of hands more frequently – but it wasn’t wholly necessary.

After 2 km along the Cascade Saddle Route, you’ll detour around a mass of fallen trees. Markers indicate the new way to go and will help you easily locate the original track once more.

The track continues for another 200 m past the detour before delivering you to a boulder-strewn creek that you’ll hop across. This is the last reliable place to fill your water bottles before reaching Cascade Creek, roughly 3.5 km and 1 hr 45 minutes away.

The Creek Crossing To The End Of The Treeline

Crossing the creek on the Cascade Saddle Route

After crossing the creek, you’ll keep ascending through the dense forest for another kilometre. The gradient continuously increases, with more tree roots to clamber over. But eventually, you’ll find yourself in the little sheltered clearing that’s perfect for a tent or two.

Hiking up the final section of the Treeline on the Cascade Saddle Route near Wanaka
A small tent site can be found just off the left of the trail

From this point, there is only 200 m left before you’ll pop out of the tree line and into the wide open expanse of the alpine. The views that await are nothing short of incredible and will help you forget about your burning legs.

It took us roughly 1 hr 15 minutes to hike the 2.6 km from Aspiring Hut to the treeline, with an elevation gain of 676 m.

The Edge Of The Treeline To The Iconic Photo Spot

Almost immediately after leaving the tree line and starting your trek through the snow grass, you’ll find the second wilderness campsite we mentioned earlier. This campsite can accommodate one tent – or two small tents squished together. From this spot, you’ll witness a truly magical sunrise and sunset. But it is extremely exposed, so we only recommend camping here if there is no wind on the forecast.

Great viewpoint over the Matukituki Valley and Mt Aspiring
Small tent site on the climb to Cascade Saddle

From the potential campsite, the gradient steps it up a notch and shaley rock slabs begin to dominate the trail. We found plenty of good foot and hand holds on these slabs, which were quite grippy in dry weather. The real challenge comes with the slippery dead snow grass that blankets the track!

After ascending through the open alpine for 700 m, you’ll arrive at a viewpoint that rivals the infamous Roys Peak ridgeline. This incredible ridge looks out across the Matukituki Valley to Mt Aspiring and you can even spot the tiny red dots of Liverpool and French Ridge hut on either side of the valley.

Cascade Saddle Route lookout over Mt Aspiring and the Matukituki Valley

Once you’ve used this perfect photo opportunity to catch your breath, return back to the trail and get ready for the steepest section yet.

The Iconic Photo Spot To The Pylon

Climbing up a steep rocky track towards the Pylon in Mt Aspiring National Park

The trail becomes increasingly dominated by rugged rock slabs as you close in on the high point above. But again, we continued to find enough holds to feel comfortable.

As you reach the 13.4 km mark (at roughly the 1,710 m contour line), you’ll come across a sign that warns of fatalities. This has been deemed the most dangerous section and is generally accompanied by snow.

Hiking up the extremely steep and exposed trail on the top of the Cascade Saddle Route
The final push before you reach the Pylon
Exposed section of trial at the top of the Cascade Saddle Route
Looking down trail from the final push

The main reason for the warnings on this 100 m stretch through a narrow gully is due to the high exposure. However, as long as you take your time and choose your steps carefully, then it is no more difficult than the sections you’ve already accomplished.

And finally, after a total of 13.5 km and 1,534 m elevation gain, you’ll catch your first glimpse of Cascade Saddle. Waterfalls adorn the mountainside across the hanging valley and Dart Glacier offers a truly breathtaking sight.

Cascade Saddle and Dart Glacier

Before beginning the descent to Cascade Creek, take a quick detour to the Pylon (the highest point on the trail) for 360-degree panoramas of the impossibly beautiful landscape.

It took us approximately 1 hr 45 minutes to hike the 1.5 km from the treeline to the Pyon, gaining a total elevation of 685 m in that short distance.

The Pylon To Cascade Creek

Descending down to Cascade Creek while hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park

The descent to Cascade Creek is steep with sections of loose shaley scree. But the main challenge is the slanted rock slabs that you’re required to traverse across. However, these look more menacing than they are and we found it quite easy with the help of a hiking pole for balance.

After 1 km, you’ll arrive at Cascade Creek – a striking ice-blue stream that weaves through the hanging valley on its way to Matukituki River. This is where the official campsite is along the Cascade Saddle Route and along with a toilet, you’ll find plenty of flat spaces to pitch a tent.

Cascade Creek To Cascade Saddle

Crossing Cascade Creek while hiking to Cascade Saddle

To continue your journey to Cascade Saddle, you’ll need to cross Cascade Creek. Unless the creek has swelled due to rain or snowmelt, this is an easy task. However, it does require you to either get your boots wet or walk through with bare feet

We chose to walk through with bare feet, but it’s not the most ideal situation as some of the rocks are quite sharp. If you do take your shoes off, be careful of the grey shale rocks.

The trail continues north, traversing through the undulating glacially carved valley. Some sections were still covered in snow when we visited in December and the parts that weren’t were boggy with snowmelt. But we hardly noticed as the views held us completely captivated.

Hiking along the Cascade Saddle in the snow

Finally, after another 2.5 km, you’ll arrive at the edge of the traverse where you’re gifted mind-boggling views of Dart Glacier, Mt Aspiring and the Matukituki Valley. This is where I stopped and took care of the backpacks while Dylan ran down to the true saddle roughly 300 m away.

Enjoying The Vistas At Cascade Saddle

While the overall views are better from the vantage point where I stopped, from Cascade Saddle, you can see right down the valley towards Dart River. There are flat spots suitable for a tent at the saddle, but you’ll be in a highly exposed area which – from experience – is not worth it!

Honestly, no words can adequately describe the incomprehensibly beautiful landscape that you’ll witness on Cascade Saddle. While the images scattered throughout this article do a better job, it’s still nothing compared with experiencing this destination yourself!

The hike to Cascade Saddle took us a total of 7 hours – including 45 minutes for lunch and getting sorted at Aspiring Hut. The ascent from Aspiring Hut took us 4 hours, during which we gained 1,455 m elevation in the short 7 km distance.

Returning To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Admiring the view of Mt Aspiring from the Pylon on the Cascade Saddle Route

Once you can manage to tear yourself away from the jaw-dropping scene before you, get ready to make the trek back to Raspberry Creek Car Park – or Aspiring Hut if you’re smarter than us!

The descent from the Pylon to the treeline is more challenging than the ascent – especially with tired legs. Take your time and use hiking poles to increase your balance as you navigate the steep terrain.

The return journey from Cascade Saddle to Aspiring Hut took us roughly 3 hours – taking off an hour from the ascent. For the complete Cascade Saddle Route, we took 9 hrs 30 minutes walking time and 12 hrs 45 minutes total time.

Other Important Information For Hiking The Cascade Saddle Route In Mt Aspiring National Park

Leave No Trace

Cascade Saddle is one of the most incredible places we have witnessed, with such a distinctive display of past glacial activity and what mother nature is capable of. But it is also a fragile environment that needs our help to thrive.

Cascade Creek flowing through the hanging valley towards Mt Aspiring

When you’re visiting Cascade Saddle – or anywhere for that matter – it is essential to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. This involves packing out what you pack in, including human waste if you are camping away from the toilet and any food scraps. Furthermore, stick to the designated trail and avoid stepping on fragile vegetation.

The beginning of the hike to Cascade Saddle also traverses through private farmland. The owners of Aspiring Station have been kind enough to let hikers utilise their land so we need to show respect and stay away from the livestock and keep to the trail.

Where To Stay Near The Cascade Saddle Route In The Matukituki Valley

The Hidden Spring accommodation in Wanaka
The Hidden Spring

The best place to base yourself for hiking the Cascade Saddle Route and exploring the many other tracks in Mt Aspiring National Park is Wanaka. Located 1-hour southeast of the Matukituki Valley there are plenty of things to do in Wanaka that can keep you occupied for at least a week! 

Wanaka offers a diverse selection of accommodations to cater to all types of travellers. Our favourite place to stay is The Hidden Spring, a budget-friendly studio situated just outside the town centre. Below, we have provided our top recommendations for every budget.

  • Hampshire Holiday Park – The most budget option, located on the water in Glendhu Bay which is 15 minutes northwest of Wanaka
  • YHA Hostel Wanaka – Another budget option that is located in the town centre, within walking distance of restaurants, cafes and other stores
  • Wanaka Luxury Apartments – A mid-range accommodation that offers one or two bedroom fully-furnished apartments near the centre of town
  • Ashgrove Lane – This two-bedroom apartment is a great mid to high-range option that’s perfect for two couples and is located next to the town centre
  • Marine Terrace – A luxury accommodation option that boasts incredible lakeside views while still being within walking distance of town

Camping Near Cascade Saddle

If you’re road-tripping New Zealand in a campervan, you’re in luck. There are three free or cheap campgrounds near the Cascade Saddle trailhead to choose from. If you’re self-contained certified, our top suggestion is to stay at Raspberry Creek Car Park. This will allow you to start the hike early and wake up to the breathtaking sight of the sun illuminating the majestic surrounding mountains.

Toilets and shelter at Raspberry Creek Carpark in the Matukituki Valley
Raspberry Creek Carpark

Here is a list of the other free or cheap campgrounds near Cascade Saddle:

  • Red Bridge Campground – This is a freedom campsite for self-contained certified campervans, located 15 minutes southeast of Wanaka. There is a toilet but no water at this campsite.
  • Albert Town Camping Ground – Located on the banks of the Clutha River, located 7 minutes northeast of Wanaka, this is a first-come-first-serve campground that costs $10 NZD per person, per night.

Final Thoughts

The Cascade Saddle Route was one of the first hiking trails to be added to our bucket list for New Zealand’s South Island. We were drawn in by the promise of challenge and incomparable views of a formidable glacial landscape. And we’re glad to announce that it held up to the hype – even surpassing our expectations!

However, we found that it wasn’t as difficult as we had been warned – in good weather conditions that is. Initially, I doubted whether I could complete this hike, thinking it was too advanced for my skill level. But it turns out that some of the hikes in Tasmania, like the Western Arthurs Traverse and the Mt Anne Circuit, are far more demanding.

This isn’t to say that the warnings given by DOC aren’t warranted, but they aren’t always tailored to accommodate an individual’s skill level in fair weather.

We hope that this guide has provided clarity and helped you determine whether the Cascade Saddle Route is within your grasp. If you’re still unsure whether the Cascade Saddle Route will be too challenging for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via Instagram or email.

Happy Hiking 🙂