Gillespie Pass Circuit | Is This New Zealand’s Best Multi-Day Hike?

If you’re looking for the ultimate hike to showcase everything that New Zealand is famous for, then you must add the Gillespie Pass Circuit to your South Island hiking itinerary!

Gillespie Pass was at the top of our bucket list of hikes in New Zealand’s South Island and we are stoked to announce it did not disappoint – instead, it left us in a constant state of awe. The 3-4 day circuit kept us captivated with ever-changing vistas and the perfect dose of challenge, but the stand-out moment was watching the sunrise from Crucible Lake – a morning we will never forget.

But all good things come with a challenge and the Gillespie Pass Circuit is no different. The circuit requires some additional planning and preparation, with multiple river and stream crossings that can become impassable in bad weather. But we’re here to help!

In this post, you’ll find everything you need to know to successfully plan your multi-day Gillespie Pass adventure. Included, we’ll provide information about the jet boats and river crossings, as well as offer helpful and accurate insight so that you can decide whether the Gillespie Pass Circuit is the right hike for you.

Hiking at Crucible Lake frozen at night with stars filling the sky
Moments before sunrise at Crucible Lake

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Essential Information You Need To Hike The Gillespie Pass Circuit In Mt Aspiring National Park

Quick Statistics For The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Distance
55 km circuit (36 km if you take the jet boat at the start and end)
64 km circuit – Including Crucible Lake (45 km if you take the jet boat at the start and end)

Time
3 – 4 days

Navigation Difficulty
Easy – Moderate – see details below

Trail Difficulty
Hard

Physical Challenge
Hard

Elevation Gain
2,895 m (Including Crucible Lake)
2,571 m (if you take the jet boat at the start and end)

Highest Elevation
1,624 m

Fees And Bookings
Hut and Camping Fees (see below for details)
Jet Boat Fees (if you choose to utilise the service)

Facilities
Trailhead: Toilets, car park, DOC Information Centre
Young Hut: Drop toilets, untreated water, mattresses, heating
Siberia Hut: Drop toilets, untreated water, mattresses, heating

Where Does The Hike To Gillespie Pass Start?

The Gillespie Pass Circuit travels through two breathtaking mountainous valleys in Mt Aspiring National Park – the Young and Siberia Valleys. You’ll connect the two valleys by hiking over Gillespie Pass, which lies beneath the imposing Mt Awful. You can complete the circuit clockwise or anti-clockwise and start the hike from various points along State Highway 6 (Makarora-Lake Hawea Rd).

Car parked at young river car park for the Gillespie Pass Circuit in New Zealand
Young River Car Park

There are three parking options to start the Gillespie Pass Circuit, which we have summarised below:

  1. Wilkin River Jet Boat Parking: Opposite the visitor centre in Makarora, there is a small grassy gated car park. You can leave your car here for a $5 donation if you’re using the Wilkin River Jet Boat service for at least one of the river crossings. 
  2. Young River Car Park: Located 2.5 km north of Makarora, you’ll find a small gravel car park on the left. Look for the signpost “Access to Young Valley.” This is the most central location to park and the most common if you’re not using the jet boat service.
  3. Blue Pools Car Park: This is the closest access to the bridge crossing that avoids one of the river crossings. However, parking here means you’ll have to walk 10 km along the road from the Wilkin River crossing on your return.

Note: If you are travelling in a group with more than one car, you can easily park one car where you intend to start the hike and the other where you plan to finish. Alternatively, you can also try to hitchhike.

How To Get To The Gillespie Pass Circuit Trailhead

The Gillespie Pass Circuit begins near the town of Makarora, which is located 55 minutes north of Wanaka, 2 hours north of Queenstown and 3 hours south of Franz Josef. Makarora is situated on the popular scenic route that connects Wanaka to the west coast, known as Haast Pass.

Google Map Directions from Queenstown to Makarora

Getting To Makarora By Public Transport

Intercity offers a bus service connecting Queenstown to Franz Josef, providing a convenient way to travel from Queenstown or Wanaka to Makarora using public transport. This service operates on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The one-way fee is $75 NZD from Queenstown and $45 NZD from Wanaka.

Note: The timetable and fees for the Intercity bus service stated above were applicable while writing this post in December 2023.

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Gillespie Pass Circuit Tour Options

While the Gillespie Pass Circuit is easily doable for intermediate to advanced hikers with a good level of experience hiking and camping in the rough backcountry, there is an option to take a guided tour with Aspiring Guides if you don’t feel comfortable tackling this adventure alone.

Getting To Makarora By Car

The drive to Makarora is one of the most scenic road trips in New Zealand’s South Island! It’s also a very easy drive from either Franz Josef, Wanaka or Queenstown as you’ll simply follow State Highway 6 the entire way. Just make sure you allow enough time to stop at the many scenic lookouts along the way.

Interactive Map Of The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Interactive map of the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Click to access our interactive map

Note: The above map has been manually created so the points are not 100% GPS accurate, but more guidelines to help you understand the terrain.

Which Direction Should I Hike The Gillespie Pass Circuit?

Hiking over Gillespie Pass with Mt Awful dominating the background

We hiked the Gillespie Pass Circuit in an anti-clockwise direction. This involved walking northwest up the Young River, crossing over Gillespie Pass, and walking out via Siberia Stream and Wilkin River. While there is no significant advantage to either direction, we highly recommend completing the circuit anti-clockwise for several reasons…

  • The steepest part of the track is from Young Basin to Gillespie Pass, which is easier to climb rather than descend
  • It’s more enjoyable to complete the longer and slightly less steep track from Gillespie Pass to Siberia Stream as a descent
  • If you’re comfortable hiking in the dark and a fast walker, it is possible to complete the hike to Crucible Lake for sunrise and catch the 2:30 pm jet boat from Kerin Forks on the same day
  • Taking the jet boat from Kerin Forks is a great way to finish the hike
  • It’s easier to hitchhike from the town of Makarora if you do both river crossings and need to get back to your car

Who Is The Gillespie Pass Circuit For?

Hiking over Gillespie Pass with sun rays beaming through Gillespie Valley

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a 3 – 4 day adventure boasting translucent turquoise rivers, rugged snow-capped peaks and an unimaginably beautiful alpine lake. The hike demands a good level of fitness and concentration on the steep pass and river crossing experience if you’re not willing to pay for a jet boat ride.

But if you’re searching for an off-the-beaten trek that is arguably better than – or just as impressive as – any of the Great Walks in New Zealand, then the Gillespie Pass Circuit is the hike for you!

With that said, it is essential to ensure that you’re adequately capable for the Gillespie Pass Circuit. There have been numerous fatalities due to hikers drowning after attempting the river crossings at the start and end of the hike. If you’re unsure whether you have the experience needed for these crossings, we recommend playing it safe and booking the jet boat.

To find out whether the Gillespie Pass Circuit is the right hike for you, check out this video from the Department of Conservation (DOC).

River Crossings On The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Crossing The Makarora River

The Gillespie Pass Circuit starts on the true right side of the expansive Makarora River, which is inconveniently on the opposite side from the town and the highway. To complete the circuit, you’ll need to cross the river twice – once at the Young River confluence (roughly 3 km north of Makarora) and again at the Wilkin River confluence (roughly 5 km south of Makarora).

These are significant river crossings that require experience and become impassable after heavy rainfall. It’s strongly advised to only cross when the river level is low and there is no rain in the forecast. Alternatively, you have the option to book a jet boat ride with Wilkin River Jets for one or both of these crossings.

Another option is to park at the Blue Pools Car Park and take the Young River Link Track. However, this will add 7 km to your first day and either require a car shuffle from Makarora or another 10 km on your last day. Plus, you’ll still need to either cross the more challenging Wilkin-Makarora River confluence or book a jet boat for the return journey.

We lack experience with river crossings so we opted for a jet boat ride for both crossings. But in hindsight, we could have easily crossed the Young River confluence at the beginning of our hike as the water level was low. We would have discovered this if we had called the Wilkin River Jets before booking.

Note: The best source for information on the river levels and advice is the Wilkin River Jets. They have the best on-the-ground knowledge about the rivers and will kindly help you decide whether you need to book the boat.

Stream Crossings For Crucible Lake

Crossing the Siberia Stream while hiking to Crucible Lake
Siberia Stream Crossing
Crossing the Stream on the Crucible Lake day hike
Crucible Lake Stream Crossing

After crossing the Makarora River, there are no more mandatory river crossings along the rest of the Gillespie Pass Circuit. The only time you’ll encounter a significant body of water (aside from the small creeks along the circuit) is when you access the Crucible Lake Track.

To access the trailhead for the Crucible Lake Track, you’ll need to cross Gillespie and Siberia Stream. Additionally, there is another stream halfway up the climb that needs to be crossed. During our November hike, the water levels were just above our ankles for the first two crossings and at our knees for the last one. They were easy to cross with the aid of trekking poles, but be cautious as these streams can swell after heavy rainfall. If rain is on the forecast, it’s best to avoid crossing them.

Booking The Wilkin River Jet Boat For The Gillespie Pass Circuit

The Wilkin River Jets offer a convenient service for both the start and finish of the Gillespie Pass Circuit. If you choose to use their services, you can also park your car at their overnight parking area in Makarora. This eliminates the need for car shuffling or any highway walking.

Jet Boat Drop off From Makarora To The Young River Mouth

Wilkin River Jet Boat driving down the Makaroa River in New Zealand

The Young / Makarora River confluence is generally the easier crossing. However, if you’re unsure or if the river level is above low-medium, you have the option to take a short 10-minute jet boat ride from Makarora to the Young River mouth for $30 NZD per person.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer a pick-up service from the Young River mouth, so this requires you to complete the hike anti-clockwise – which we recommend anyway.

Jet Boat Drop Off / Pick Up From Kerin Forks To Makarora

Wilking River Jet Boat driving down the Wilkin River after picking up hikers on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

Generally considered the more challenging crossing, you can avoid a long 15 km walk from Kerin Forks and the final river crossing by booking the jet boat from Kerin Forks to Makarora.

This enjoyable ride takes roughly 30 minutes and costs $140 NZD per person. It is a bigger investment to consider, but we were glad to do it as the hike out from Kerin Forks is apparently quite a long and monotonous valley walk.

Wilkin River Jet also offers this as a drop-off option, which allows you to walk the circuit clockwise and cross the Young / Makarora River confluence on the final day. If the river is too high when you arrive, you can always walk the extra distance and cross via the Blue Pools bridge.

Navigation On The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Hiking over Gillespie Pass while walking the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Poles used for navigation over Gillespie Pass

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is clearly marked with signage throughout the entire track. We had no trouble spotting the next orange trail marker, and for the most part, the path was well-defined.

However, it’s important to note that in fog, heavy rain, or snow, navigation can become more challenging – especially on the pass. During these conditions, we recommend using a GPS tracker, such as Alltrails, to ensure you stay on course. We always track our hikes and find it super helpful to track our progress and estimate our remaining hiking time.

Alltrails map of Gillespie Pass Circuit
Alltrails map of Gillespie Pass Circuit

Below we’ve included links to our GPS mapped Gillespie Pass Circuit Hike. Included you will find GPS-stamped images along the trail which provide a further breakdown of what you can expect on the hike.

  • Day 1 – Makaroa to camp near Young Hut
  • Day 2 – Young Hut to camp in Siberia Valley
  • Day 3, Part 1 – Crucible Lake sunrise, Day 3, Part 2 – Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut
  • Day 4 – Siberia Hut to Jet Boat pick up

If you find this information useful, you can follow us on Alltrails and view all of the hikes we have tracked throughout Australia and New Zealand – there are a lot of them!

Best Time To Hike The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Hiking up the ridge of Gillespie Pass in Spring

The best time to hike the Gillespie Pass Circuit is from mid-November to the end of April. During this time, the chance of encountering impassable streams and heavy snow on the pass is minimal. However, it’s not impossible so be sure to check the weather conditions with the DOC centre in Wanaka before finalising the plans for your trip.

Between May and November, it’s not advised to hike this route due to a high avalanche risk and heavy snowfall and ice on the pass.

How Do I Book The Huts On The Gillespie Pass Circuit?

The DOC booking system for the backcountry huts in New Zealand can be challenging to nut out – especially since there are different rules for different huts. Below, we’ll provide details and explain the requirements for staying in Young and Siberia hut.

Young Hut

Young Hut is 16 km into the Gillespie Pass Circuit (if you’re walking anti-clockwise) and can be found tucked into the trees beside the Young River. The hut has two bunkrooms with a total of 20 shared bunk beds, a large dining and kitchen area and a large balcony overlooking the turquoise river and the distant rugged peaks.

The price for Young Hut is $25 NZD per person, per night. It runs on a first-come-first-served basis and cannot be pre-booked online. Instead, you’ll need to visit the DOC centre in Wanaka and purchase one serviced hut ticket. Alternatively, a backcountry hut pass can be used for Young Hut year-round. The benefit of this is that it allows flexibility as you don’t need to commit to a certain date.

Here is a list of amenities you’ll find at Young Hut:

  • Fireplace
  • Two drop toilets (bring your own toilet paper and sanitiser)
  • Untreated water
  • Mattresses

Siberia Hut

Siberia Hut is set in a vast grassy flat beside Siberia Stream, 28 km from the Young/Makarora River confluence. The hut has a large sunny deck, two bunkrooms with a total of 20 shared bunk beds and a spacious dining and kitchen area with giant windows overlooking the snowy peaks.

From late October (Labour weekend) to the 30th of April, the price for staying at Siberia Hut is $30 NZD per person, per night. Bookings must be made in advance online, which means you’ll need to select a specific date. An additional $10 NZD fee is charged if you book over the phone or in person at the visitor centre and Backcountry Hut Tickets cannot be used during this period.

From the 1st of May to late October (Labour weekend), Siberia Hut runs on the same first-come-first-served basis as Young Hut. During this time, the price is the same but you will need to purchase 3 standard hut tickets from the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka before you leave. A Backcountry Hut Pass can be used during these off-season months.

Here is a list of amenities you’ll find at Siberia Hut:

  • Fireplace
  • Two drop toilets (bring your own toilet paper and sanitiser)
  • Mattresses
  • Untreated water

Camping On The Gillespie Pass Circuit

If you have a tent and camping equipment, we highly recommend camping on the Gillespie Pass Circuit. Not only are you able to pitch your tent in some of the most incredible places, but it also allows flexibility as you won’t need to lock in a certain date.

Below you’ll find the details for various camping options on the Gillespie Pass Circuit, including where you can and cannot pitch a tent.

Young Forks Campsite

Young Forks Campsite on the Gillespie Pass Circuit in New Zealand

Young Forks Campsite is the only dedicated camping area on the Gillespie Pass Circuit and costs $10 NZD per person. To pay for the campsite, you’ll need to get one blue backcountry hut ticket from the Wakana DOC centre before departing.

The campsite is situated 10 km from the Young / Makarora River confluence on the banks of the Young River North Branch, just after the swing bridge. You’ll find a grassy flat that is slightly slanted, but there are enough flat spots around that are perfect for a tent. It’s a beautiful location, with waterfalls flowing over the precipitous mountains across the river.

Here is a list of amenities you’ll find at the Young Forks Campsite:

  • Shelter with seats and a preparation table
  • Outdoor fireplace
  • Untreated water
  • Drop toilet (bring your own toilet paper and sanitiser)

Camping At Siberia Hut

Macpac Tent camping at Siberia Hut on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

You can opt to camp near Siberia Hut and use the facilities there, however, there is no dedicated campsite and we only found a few flat spots right next to the river. Camping here costs $10 NZD per person, per night. You will need to purchase a camping ticket from the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka before your departure.

Wilderness Camping On The Gillespie Pass Circuit

Camping in Siberia Valley near the Crucible Lake Trailhead
Siberia Valley – Near Crucible Lake Trailhead

In New Zealand, you can pitch a tent in most conservation areas that are managed by the Department of Conservation. Of course, there are rules and exceptions – such as the Milford Track and other Great Walks – and some areas are off-limits due to fragile vegetation.

The rules for freedom wilderness camping are that you must be 200 m away from a hut or the trail and practice responsible camping. Ensure you’re not camping on any fragile vegetation and use the toilets along the trail where possible. If you need to dig a hole for a toilet, ensure you’re 200 m away from a water source and dig a hole at least 20 cm deep and wide.

Here is a list of the places where you cannot camp along the Gillespie Pass Circuit:

  • Crucible Lake – or anywhere in the basin before the lake
  • Gillespie Pass
  • Young Hut – there is only a small space for helicopter landings

Here is a list of our favourite places to camp along the Gillespie Pass Circuit:

  • Young Basin once you leave the treeline after Young Hut, you’ll wander into an incredible basin before the ascent to Gillespie Pass.
  • Gillespie Stream Just after you emerge from the treeline on the descent from Gillespie Pass to the Siberia Valley, you’ll come to a pretty little clearing beside the stream. There are fewer sandflies here compared to the Siberia Valley.
  • Siberia Valley – While the sandflies are vicious and come in droves, the valley before Siberia Hut is absolutely stunning and offers ample places to camp near the river. But we recommend camping as close to the treeline as possible to avoid some of the sandflies.
Mt Awful standing dramatically behind Young Basin on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Young Basin Wilderness Camp
Flat opening near Gillespie Stream for wilderness camping on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Gillespie Stream Wilderness Camp

What To Pack For The Gillespie Pass Circuit

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a 3 – 4 day adventure in the mountains, where the weather can change rapidly and snow storms are possible year-round. Due to the river crossings and potential bulging streams, it’s recommended to pack a tent for the circuit in case you become cut off from the huts.

Cooking meal with a Jetboil on Gillespie Pass overlooking Mt Awful

Below we’ve listed the basic essentials you’ll need for the Gillespie Pass Circuit:

Gillespie Pass Circuit Track Notes

Day 1: Makarora To Young Hut

Distance: 16 km (18 km from Young River Car Park, without a jet boat)
Time: 5 – 7 hrs
Elevation Gain: 764 m

Crossing The Makarora River

Selfie on the Wilkin River Jet Boat

We began the Gillespie Pass Circuit with a jet boat ride from Wilkin River Jets. This service departed from Makarora, where we left our car in their private car park, and took us to the confluence of the Young and Makarora Rivers. The ride took roughly 10 minutes and left at 9 am.

There are two locations where the jet boat can drop you off, depending on the river levels. We were dropped at a pebble beach and the driver pointed us to the link track that begins in the treeline to the north. If you’re dropped here, you’ll find a wooden fence and a DOC sign at the treeline that marks the start of the trail.

Jet Boat drop off on the Young River side of the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Jet Boat drop off location
Hiking through the gate at the beginning of the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Gate at Jet Boat Drop off

If you’re experienced with river crossings and choose not to take the jet boat across the river, you’ll start your journey at the Young River Car Park, 2.5 km north of Makarora. From here, walk upstream for roughly 10 minutes to the confluence and search for the shallowest and safest place to cross the Makarora River. You’ll easily spot the worn Blue-Young Link track on the other side and follow it south towards the DOC sign mentioned above.

The Gillespie Pass Circuit Trailhead To Young Forks Campsite

Follow the orange markers as they guide you west along the forested Blue-Young Link Track. The rough and root-filled trail continues for approximately 500 m, with a chain to help you ascend a particularly steep rock slab, before merging with the official Gillespie Pass Circuit Track.

Climbing up the steep rock trail at the beginning of the Gillespie Pass Circuit

The trail mellows out the moment you set foot on the Gillespie Pass Circuit Track, allowing you to enjoy an easy walk as you wind deeper into the Young Valley. A dense canopy of silver beech trees accompanies you for the majority of the first 6.5 km, with the only difficulties being several creek crossings scattered throughout the easy-natured trail, though these creeks are often dry in summer months without periods of rainfall.

After 6.5km, you’ll emerge from the forest into a vast clearing with waterfalls plunging on either side from the sheer rock walls. This is an awesome place to camp if you have a tent and you’re aware of how to responsibly wilderness camp.

From the clearing, the track continues to weave in and out of the treeline and tussock flats for another 3 km – encountering some muddy and overgrown sections – before arriving at a swing bridge that crosses the Young River North Branch. A sign on the other side of the bridge directs you to Young Forks Campsite, a 2-minute detour north and roughly 10 km from the trailhead.

Young Forks Campsite To Young Hut

Young Forks Campsite on the Gillespie Pass Circuit in New Zealand

We arrived at Young Forks Campsite after 3.5 hours, including a half-hour stop for lunch in a shady spot beside the river at the 6 km mark. Even if you don’t plan to camp at Young Forks, it’s a good rest stop to fill up water from the tank and use the drop toilet.

Once you’ve had a rest, return to the track junction beside the bridge and follow the Gillespie Pass Circuit Track as it meanders towards the South Branch of the Young River. From this point, the trail becomes increasingly technical with steep pinches along the undulating terrain and plenty of fallen trees, roots and rocks to pull yourself up and over.

Hiking up the steep treeline towards Young Hut on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Traversing the steep mountainside on the Gillespie Pass Hike

While the track demands more attention for the last 6 km, the moss-filled forest and vibrant blue river provide a breathtaking scene that allows you to forget your sore legs from time to time. You’ll encounter a rickety bridge at the 13.5 km mark, which takes you over Stag Creek and offers a brief reprieve from the rugged trail to enjoy the sensational scenery upstream.

Crossing Stag Creek Bridge before Young Hut on the Gillespie Pass Tramp

Finally, after approximately 16 km, you’ll emerge from the forest into a clearing where Young Hut sits. The hut offers magnificent views across the river to the flanking mountain range that soars between Siberia and Young Hut.

Young Hut Balcony on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

We camped 400 m before the hut, in a grassy clearing beside the river – which is also a popular spot to return to for a swim if you’re staying at the hut. But if you have enough energy left, we highly recommend continuing on for another 45 – 60 minutes and camping in the Young Basin – if we knew what we would find there, we would have dragged our tired bodies the extra 1.5 km without a doubt!

Camping near Young Hut on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Our Wilderness Campsite near Young Hut

Day 2: Young Hut To The Gillespie Stream Campsite Via Gillespie Pass

Distance: 8 km (approximately)
Time: 5 – 7 hrs
Elevation Gain: 929 m

Young Hut To The Young Basin

If you choose to stay at Young Hut or our camping spot 400 m southeast by the river, we suggest starting at the crack of dawn to catch the early morning rays lighting up the Young Basin. You’ll need roughly 40 – 60 minutes to navigate the steep and rough forested trail that steadily climbs from the hut to Young Basin.

Hiking up the steep forest trail to Young Basin on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Hiking through dried creek bed on the way to Young Basin

When you emerge from the treeline, after 1.5 km and 235 m of elevation gain, you’ll likely lose any breath left as you stare at the mighty Mt Awful soaring above Young Basin. The trail crosses a bridge over Young River and continues towards the head of the basin, weaving through low-lying alpine shrub and tussock, on an easy path that allows you to drink in the incredible landscape surrounding you.

Crossing the foot bridge in Young Basin towards Mt Awful and Gillespies Pass

After a further 1.5 km and roughly 45 minutes, you’ll find yourself at the base of the climb to Gillespie Pass. This is also the last water source until you descend from Gillespie Pass to Gillespie Stream – which you’ll reach in approximately 3.5 – 5.5 hours.

Note: Plenty of top-quality tent spots can be found throughout the glacially carved basin – we were kicking ourselves for not continuing on the night before – but please be responsible and set up on the hardy tussock grass and use the toilet at Young Hut.

Climbing From The Young Basin To Gillespie Pass

Climbing the steep mountainside of Gillespie Pass

After filling up with water, follow the orange-tipped poles as they begin to wind up the mountain pass on your left. You’ll ascend straight up for 500 m, on a trail consisting of deep ruts and sheer rock slabs that require the use of your hands to pull you up.

A very short respite occurs after 500 m and roughly 30 minutes as the track traverses to the left. This allows you to catch your breath and truly take in the incredible landscape that’s unravelling beneath you.

Epic view of Mt Awful from Gillespie Pass in New Zealand

After the brief traverse, you’ll continue ascending the zigzagging trail markers up the steep slope. Some sections are quite exposed and we were glad to have trekking poles to keep us balanced, but with no technical sections that require awkward manoeuvres, the main challenge is the ridiculously steep gradient.

Climbing up the steep rock slabs found on Gillespie Pass

The gradient finally mellows out as you reach Gillespie Pass and all your hard work is immediately paid off as you stare at the incomprehensible raw beauty that engulfs you. Everywhere you turn, jagged snow-capped peaks rise from the deep glacially carved valleys on either side of the pass, the turquoise rivers adding a splash of colour to the golden brown landscape.

Hiking over Gillespie Pass with Mt Awful dominating the background

The 2km climb from Young Basin to the pass took us 1.5 hours, with a total of 600 m elevation gained in that very short distance! If you’re gifted with calm weather like we were, we highly recommend enjoying a long lunch at the top of the pass while regaining your energy for the descent to come.

Descending From Gillespie Pass To Gillespie Stream

Descending from Gillespie Pass to Siberia Valley on the Gillespie Pass Tramp

After you’ve explored the sprawling pass, follow the orange markers southeast as they lead you to the final climb for the day. Luckily, the rocky ascent only lasts for 200 m before you’re standing at the highest point of the Gillespie Pass Circuit and looking back at Mt Awful from a new perspective.

Gillespie Pass highest point covered in snow with Mt Awful in background

Note: There were a few patches of slushy snow left on the peak above the pass when we hiked the circuit in mid-November, which continued for a short while on the descent, but it was easy to navigate without microspikes or crampons and much of it was avoidable.

You’ll descend from the 1,629 m peak on a mixture of rocks, dirt and snow grass, weaving between the giant boulders scattered across the mountainside on an ever-so-slightly gentler gradient compared to the climb.

Hiking in snow on Gillespie Pass
Hiking through tussock grass on the Gillespie Pass

After 1.5 km of descending, you’ll leave the majority of the giant boulders behind and continue down the steep snow grass slope towards Gillespie Stream. Watch out for the dead snow grass covering the track and hidden muddy sections which can be very slippery – especially if it’s wet or icy.

The trail dips into the treeline once again, after a total of 7.6 km, and you’ll enter an enchanting silver beech forest overrun by exposed tree roots. The forest trail continues for another 400 m until you’ll finally arrive at the banks of Gillespie Stream. It took us roughly 5 hours to reach the stream from Young Hut, excluding a very long lunch at the pass.

Descending through rough tree roots towards Gillespie Stream

Gillespie Stream Campsite

A grassy clearing awaits on the banks of Gillespie Stream, providing a peaceful oasis to set up your tent. This is where we would have camped if we weren’t planning to hike to Crucible Lake for sunrise, and where we recommend camping to avoid the mass army of sandflies that live in the Siberia Valley – not that you’ll be spared from sandflies completely, but there was a great deal less in this clearing by comparison.

Grassy clearing for wilderness camping near Gillespie Stream on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Gillespie Stream Wilderness Camp
Flat opening near Gillespie Stream for wilderness camping on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Gillespie Stream Wilderness Camp

Note: Remember, there are no toilets or other facilities at Gillespie Stream so please be respectful and follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.

However, if you plan to hike to Crucible Lake for sunrise, it’s best to descend to the valley (adding an extra hour and 3 km) and camp next to the trailhead beside Siberia Stream to avoid an even earlier start! But beware, your tent will become a tomb for sandflies and your body will be feasted on if you step outside – so perhaps eat an early dinner at Gillespie Stream beforehand.

If you’re utilising the huts on the Gillespie Pass Circuit, you’ll need to continue descending to the valley floor for another 2 km before walking a final 2 km alongside Siberia Stream in the grassy flats to Siberia Hut. This will take an additional 2 hours approximately.

Day 3: Gillespie Stream Campsite – Crucible Lake – Siberia Hut

Distance: 14 km (approximately)
Time: 6 – 8 hrs
Elevation Gain: 615 m

Gillespie Stream Campsite To Siberia Stream

Hiking down to Siberia Valley from Gillespie Stream on the Gillespie Pass Circuit Hike

After enjoying another magical morning in Mt Aspiring National Park, you’ll hop back onto the trail and continue the descent to the Siberia Valley below. The trail loosely follows Gillespie Stream, dipping in and out of the lush beech forest that lines the steep slope and crossing several small creeks – which are generally easy to manage without getting your feet wet in summer.

You’ll continue along the undulating rough forest trail for almost 2 km before reaching the final steep descent that zigzags to the valley floor. The descent lasts for almost a kilometre until finally leading you to the sprawling Siberia Valley.

Final descent to Siberia Valley

From this point, you can simply follow the signs pointing southeast to Siberia Hut and be there within 45 minutes. But we strongly recommend taking the side trip to Crucible Lake – we promise you won’t regret it!

Beginning The Ascent To Crucible Lake

crossing Siberia Stream on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Siberia Stream Crossing

To reach the trailhead for Crucible Lake, you’ll first need to cross Gillespie Stream and Siberia Stream. Trail markers guide you to the best crossing locations, yet the water was still lapping at our knees when we crossed, requiring us to take our shoes off – though we saw lots of hikers keep their boots on and deal with wet shoes, so choose your poison.

You’ll reach the base of the climb roughly 1 km later, which starts on the true left of the creek that flows down from Crucible Lake and into Siberia Stream. We highly recommend dropping your packs here and taking only the essentials – water, snacks, warm layers, a first aid kit and an emergency beacon. But make sure you hide them thoroughly in case a rogue Kea finds them!

Immediately, you’ll begin to climb steeply up a labyrinth of exposed tree roots, some clinging to giant rock slabs and boulders. Luckily the steepest section lasts for a short 800 m, though you’ll gain 275 m elevation in that time! From there, you’ll begin to traverse along the undulating trail over a mixture of rocks and tree roots.

Hiking down a mess of steep tree root on the hike to Crucible Lake
Climbing the steep trail to Crucible Lake on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

After 1.4 km, you’ll arrive at the banks of the creek and yet again, get ready to cross the knee-deep water. Once you’re across the creek, the orange markers will lead you to the right and continue towards the distant snowy peak of Mt Alba.

Crucible Lake Stream Crossing

Note: If you decide to hike to Crucible Lake for sunrise like we did, you will have to navigate the difficult trail and cross the stream in the pitch black of night to make it to the lake.

Crossing Crucible Stream at night

The Creek Crossing To Crucible Lake

You’ll re-enter the forest for a brief moment, encountering some muddy sections, before leaving the treeline behind and entering an open field of snow grass and alpine shrubs. After walking through the valley for roughly 1.5 km, the track becomes slightly harder to follow. But as long as you keep an eye on the trail markers, you’ll stay on course.

Hiking through the valley to Crucible Lake on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

200 m later, you’ll begin the final ascent up the rocky moraine wall to Crucible Lake – which continues to stay hidden until the last moment. No words can describe the feeling once you climb over the last boulder and gain your first glimpse of the incredible Crucible Lake.

Exploring Crucible Lake

Crucible Lake frozen with icebergs under the night sky before sunrise

Crucible Lake is nothing short of magical, especially if you visit in spring when the lake is covered in broken ice and icebergs that have detached from the glacier clinging to the sheer rock walls of Mt Alba on the far side.

Mt Alba rises over 1,000 m above Crucible Lake and if you visit for sunrise, the peak lights up magnificently from the rising sun. But even if not, the view will leave you breathless. But don’t forget to look behind you, where you’re afforded a stunning view of the creek snaking through the valley, with snowy peaks piercing the horizon beyond the creases of the mountainous valley.

Crucible Lake frozen at sunrise

We took roughly 2 hours to reach Crucible Lake from the base of the mountain and 1 hour 30 minutes to descend. But we suggest allowing extra time to truly absorb the wonders of Crucible Lake, and if you’re crazy like us, you might even be tempted to swim in the frozen lake!

Crucible Lake To Siberia Hut

Once you’ve finished exploring the vast moraine wall above Crucible Lake, return the way you came to the track junction beyond the two stream crossings in Siberia Valley. From this point, you’ll enjoy an easy walk through the grassy flats for roughly 2.5 km. Siberia Stream meanders beside you and you’re afforded beautiful vistas down the winding valley as you walk.

Hiking through Siberia Valley to Siberia Hut on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

After approximately 45 minutes and one last creek crossing, which had ample stepping stones when we were there, you’ll reach Siberia Hut. The quaint hut is tucked into the foothills of a towering mountain range, with a refreshing waterfall just a few minute’s walk away, which you won’t want to miss!

Eating Campers Pantry Meals on the deck at Siberia Hut on the Gillespie Pass Circuit
Gillespie Hut Waterfall, perfect swimming hole on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

If you’re planning to camp at Siberia Hut, there aren’t very many flat spots available other than right beside Siberia Stream – which is sandfly territory! But even if the tent sites aren’t perfect, it’s nice to have the luxury of a toilet and the use of a hut for your last night. However, if you do stay within 200 m of Siberia Hut and use the facilities, you will need to pre-purchase a camping ticket from the Wanaka DOC Centre before your hike.

Day 4: Siberia Hut To Kerin Forks (Jet Boat Pick Up)

Distance: 7 km (24.5 km from Siberia Hut to Young River Car Park)
Time: 2 – 3 hrs (8 – 9 hrs from Siberia Hut to Young River Car Park)
Elevation Gain: 212 m

Your final day on the Gillespie Pass Circuit is either a very relaxing one, with only an easy 2 – 3 hour walk, or a long one ending in a river crossing and a highway walk to reach your car. We chose to take the jet boat from Kerin Forks, so we can’t comment on the trail from Kerin Forks to Makarora. But from what we have heard, it’s quite overgrown in places, yet easy to follow.

Siberia Hut To The Kerin Forks Hut Turn-off

If you’re taking the jet boat ride back to Makarora, you’ll continue walking southwest from Siberia Hut, following the true left bank of Siberia Stream. For the first 1.3 km, you’ll wander through open flats on a grassy trail before entering the flanking forest.

Hiking along Siberia Stream towards Kerin Forks Hut

As you walk deeper into the forest, it becomes more alive with countless species of ferns and moss growing on the beech trees. There are a few small creeks to cross and the trail begins to gradually ascend soon after you enter the forest, but it’s a very easy trail that’s suited to day walkers who catch a plane into Siberia Hut and walk out to Kerin Forks to catch the jet boat back.

Hiking through the forest from Siberia Hut to Kerin Forks Hut
Hiking down to Kerin Forks Hut

After 3.8 km, you’ll reach a high point and begin the zigzagging descent to the river flats once more. The descent lasts for roughly 2.5 km before arriving at the turn-off to Kerin Forks Hut across Wilkin River.

Kerin Forks Hut Turn-Off To The Jet Boat Pick-Up

Jet Boat pick up location on Wilkin River on the Gillespie Pass Circuit

Staying on the true left of the river, you’ll continue along the grassy banks for roughly 15 minutes before arriving at the jet boat pick-up location. If it’s a warm and sunny day, this is a beautiful spot for a swim while you wait for the boat. The 7 km walk took us 2 hours walking at a leisurely pace along the easy trail.

If you’re continuing onto Makarora, you’ll stay on the true left of the Wilkin River and follow the trail markers through the overgrown flats for another 15 km, crossing the Makarora and Wilkin Rivers at the confluence. Remember to check the river levels and only choose this option if you have a high level of experience crossing rivers with changing conditions.

Other Important Information For Hiking The Gillespie Pass Circuit In Mt Aspiring National Park

FAQs For The Gillespie Pass Circuit

How Hard Is Gillespie Pass?

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a fantastic adventure for confident intermediate and advanced hikers. While the walk itself is quite straightforward, albeit extremely steep in sections, the weather can play a major part in creating increased challenges for this multi-day tramp.

It’s important to be aware of the weather conditions before finalising your plans for the Gillespie Pass Circuit and only go if you have a clear weather window. This can be done by calling the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka and talking to the staff at the Wilkin River Jets to learn about the river and stream levels throughout the walk. 

Can You Camp At Crucible Lake?

Unfortunately, you cannot camp at Crucible Lake or in the hanging valley leading up to the lake. This is because the terrain is full of fragile vegetation that will be damaged by tents and walkers leaving the trail. Instead, you can camp in the Siberia Valley at the trailhead for the Crucible Lake Track.

But please be aware that there are no toilets or other facilities here so you will need to be self-sufficient and pack out all your waste – including human waste.

How Long Is The Gillespie Pass Circuit?

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is 55 km long if you start at the Young River Car Park and complete the river crossings at the beginning and end of the circuit. This includes 2.5 km of highway walking from Makarora, where you’ll end, and the Young River Car Park.

If you choose to take the jet boat rides at the beginning and end of the trek, the Gillespie Pass Circuit is 36 km long. To include a side trip to Crucible Lake, you’ll add on 14 km if you start and end at Siberia Hut, or 9 km if you visit the lake on the way to Siberia Hut from Gillespie Pass.

How Many Days Should I Allow For The Gillespie Pass Circuit?

The Gillespie Pass Circuit takes roughly 3 – 4 days to complete. We highly recommend allowing 4 days for this incredible circuit so you can have a full day for the side trip to Crucible Lake.

Can You Camp On Gillespie Pass?

Camping is not permitted on Gillespie Pass due to the fragile vegetation that grows there. Instead, you can wilderness camp in the Young Basin to the east or in the Siberia Valley and Gillespie Stream to the west. But please be aware that there are no toilets or other facilities here so you will need to be self-sufficient and pack out all your waste – including human waste.

How Do I Get To Crucible Lake?

Crucible Lake is located above the Siberia Valley and can be accessed via the Gillespie Pass Circuit. To reach Crucible Lake, you’ll cross two streams in the valley and follow the well-marked forest trail to the hanging valley beneath the lake. A rocky ascent up the giant moraine wall will lead you to the magnificent alpine lake. This track is usually done as a side trip from Siberia Hut.

Do I Need To Take A Jet Boat For The Gillespie Pass Circuit?

Taking a jet boat for the Gillespie Pass Circuit isn’t mandatory, however, if the river levels are high or you don’t have experience crossing rivers with continuously changing conditions, then it’s best to play it safe and book the jet boat for the start and end of your hike.

To find out about the river levels and whether you need to book the boat for both the start and end, contact Wilkin River Jets.

Can I Hike The Gillespie Pass Circuit In Winter?

Hiking the Gillespie Pass Circuit in winter requires additional equipment, mountaineering skills and a strong understanding of complex avalanche terrain. It’s strongly advised against for the average hiker as the pass becomes covered in snow and there is a high risk of avalanches in the valleys.

Leave No Trace

Standing on Gillespie Pass looking out at Mt Awful

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a magical place to explore and we are very lucky to be allowed to wilderness camp in the valleys. To ensure we respect the environment and prevent any reason for the Department of Conservation to change these rules, we must all play our part in protecting the wonderful landscape.

When you’re hiking the Gillespie Pass Circuit – or any track for that matter – please follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. It’s as easy as taking your rubbish with you (including food scraps and tissues), sticking to the trail where possible, avoiding fragile vegetation where not possible, and using the toilets along the circuit. 

If you’re planning to wilderness camp on the Gillespie Pass Circuit, please bring a poop tube to do your business – unless you can wait to use the toilets at Young Forks, Young Hut and Siberia Hut. Multiple water sources are coursing through the valleys, making digging a hole 200 m away from any water near impossible.

Where To Stay Near The Gillespie Pass Trailhead

The Gillespie Pass Circuit begins in Makarora, a small rural town 1 hour north of Wanaka. We highly recommend basing yourself in Wanaka for this hike as it’s one of our favourite towns in New Zealand’s South Island and there are countless other hikes in Wanaka that you should add to your bucket list! Plus, Wanaka has a large shopping centre and various outdoor shops so you can stock up on all the gear you need before your hike.

Beautiful sunset beaming through the Hidden Springs Accommodation in Wanaka patio and living area
Hidden Springs, Wanaka

Here is a list of our top recommended places to stay in Wanaka:

Camping Near The Gillespie Pass Circuit

You’ll find a DOC campsite located just north of Makarora near the iconic Blue Pools, called Cameron Flats Campground. Camping here is $10 per night, per person or free if you purchase a DOC Campsite Pass.

DOC Campsite at Cameron Flat
Cameron Flat Campsite – Blue Pools

Here is a list of other campsites near the Gillespie Pass Circuit:

Final Thoughts

The Gillespie Pass Circuit was at the top of our list of hikes to complete in New Zealand and we can honestly say that the hike exceeded our expectations! The trek provides the perfect balance between challenge and mind-blowing scenery, but Crucible Lake was the highlight of our 4 day adventure.

We took the jet boat for both river crossings to be safe because we have very little experience. However, in hindsight, we would have been more than capable with the low river levels for the Young / Makarora River confluence at the beginning of the hike. Talking to the Wilkin River Jets before booking the boat ride would have given us this information. But in any case, we enjoyed the boat rides and the ease of planning that it provided. 

Before your hike, don’t forget to check the weather and trail conditions with the DOC visitor centre in Wanaka. And remember to book Siberia Hut if you plan to stay there and purchase any hut or camping tickets you’ll need for the circuit.

We hope our extensive guide to hiking the Gillespie Pass Circuit has helped you plan your trip. If you have any further questions about the trek, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – either by leaving a comment below or contacting us on Instagram.

Happy Hiking 🙂