Shotover Saddle Route | An Epic Alternative To Cascade Saddle

There is no denying that the Matukituki Valley, in Mt Aspiring National Park near Wanaka, is one of our all-time favourite destinations in the world! And lucky for us – and you, there are endless trails carved across the rugged landscape just waiting to be explored.

While you may have heard of the more popular tracks such as the Cascade Saddle Route, Liverpool Hut Track and French Ridge Hut Track, chances are you have only just stumbled across the Shotover Saddle Route and you’re now wondering what it’s like and if it’s worth the steep ascent!?

We were in the same boat when we first visited the Matukituki Valley, walking past the sign for the Shotover Saddle Route on our way to Aspiring Hut. Due to our inquisitive nature, we had to find out what this lesser-known trail was like and made a plan to come back on our next visit to hike the Shotover Saddle Route.

Spoiler alert, the panoramic views from the Shotover Saddle are 1,000 times worth the steep and often non-existent trail! However, your work is certainly cut out for you and in this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know so you can decide whether the Shotover Saddle Route is the hike for you.

Hiking up a golden ridge at sunset on the Shotover Saddle in Wanaka

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

Quick Statistics For The Shotover Saddle Route

Distance
18 km return

Time
7 – 9 hrs return (best done as an overnight hike)

Navigation Difficulty
Hard – see below for detail

Trail Difficulty
Hard – see track notes for detail

Physical Effort
Hard

Elevation Gain
1,235 m

Highest Elevation
1,554 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Car park, shelter, toilets, untreated water

Where Does The Shotover Saddle Route Start?

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

The glacially carved Shotover Saddle lies between Red Rock and another 1,853 m unnamed peak, with incomparable vistas across the deep Matukituki Valley to Rob Roy Peak and the monstrous glacier that clings to the formidable mountainside.

The hike to Shotover Saddle begins at Raspberry Creek Car Park, which is located at the end of Wanaka Mt Aspiring Rd. You’ll find a toilet block, untreated water and a shelter at the large car park – which allows freedom camping for self-contained campervans.

The Shotover Saddle Route branches from the West Matukituki Track, which extends from Raspberry Creek Car Park to Aspiring Hut. The sign-posted turn-off for the Shotover Saddle Route is easily found 5 km along the West Matukituki Track, just after you climb an especially steep switchback along the road.

How To Get To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Due to the popularity of the Matukituki Valley – mostly thanks to the Rob Roy Glacier walk, there is a shuttle service that will transport you from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park where you’ll start your hike to the Shotover Saddle. 

However, the shuttle services only run during the summer season so if you’re visiting over the winter period, you’ll need to make your own way to the trailhead.

Shuttle Options For Raspberry Creek Car Park

Wanaka Transfers is the most popular shuttle service for the Matukituki Valley, offering shared transfers for $55 one-way and private transfers for $195 one-way for up to 4 people – with an additional $35 NZD per person for a maximum of 11 people. Wanaka Transfers starts operating on October 1st and concludes for the year by the end of April.

The shared transfer from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park and return requires a minimum of 4 people to run and leaves at 8 am and departs from Raspberry Creek at 3 pm every other day. Unfortunately, this means you have to smash the hike within 7 hours or spend two nights in the valley – which we would not be sad about!

Driving From Wanaka To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Driving through the creeks on Mt Aspiring Road before Cascade Creek Car Park

To reach Raspberry Creek Car Park from Wanaka, you’ll simply head west out of Wanaka via Wanaka Mt Aspiring Rd. You’ll pass through Glendhu Bay and past the turn-off for Treble Cone Ski Resort just before the road turns to gravel.

The final 30 km of Wanaka Mt Aspiring Rd is unsealed, with lots of one-way bridges and cattle grids. The cows and sheep are free to roam beside the road so take it slow and keep an eye out for the livestock.

Once you reach the last 10 km of the unsealed road, the conditions get a little more challenging with at least 8 fords to cross and more potholes to avoid. While the road is doable in a 2WD in fair weather, the streams that you must cross can fill up quickly after rain or snowmelt. 

We highly recommend checking the conditions of the road on The Wanaka App before departing as there is no phone service once you hit the gravel road. If you’re visiting in winter, be aware that this road is only suitable for 4WD and can even require snow chains at times.

Click here for directions to Raspberry Creek Car Park

Note: Google Maps states that the drive from Wanaka to Raspberry Creek Car Park takes 2 hours. This is severely over the top and unless you drive at 15 km/hr for the entire 30 km unsealed road, a more realistic time is 1 hour.

Who Is The Shotover Saddle Route For?

Standing on the Shotover Saddle looking at Rob Roy Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park

If you’re looking for an adventurous trail that will test both your navigation skills and stamina, the Shotover Saddle Route is the perfect hike for you! Unlike the more popular trails in the Matukituki Valley, this hike is rarely walked – which adds to its allure but also means that the trail is almost non-existent in sections.

In all honesty, we found the Shotover Saddle Route even more challenging than the Cascade Saddle Route. The track requires more navigation skills and is steeper and more slippery thanks to the dead snow-grass that fills the mountainside. And without any rock to hold onto, you’re reduced to grabbing onto the sometimes spiky grasses for handholds.

With that said, the trail is shorter compared to Cascade Saddle and has less elevation gain. This makes a day attempt easier and with a hiking daypack rather than a heavy hiking backpack, the ascent won’t be as challenging.

Navigation On The Shotover Saddle Route

Hiking up the steep Shotover Saddle Track in Mt Aspiring National Park

Navigation for the Shotover Saddle Route is quite challenging – made worse if there is low visibility. A few factors contribute to the need for good navigation skills which we will list below.

  • The orange poles that mark the route from the West Matukituki Track to the tarn on the shelf below the saddle are sometimes few and far between
  • The trail is barely noticeable for the majority of the climb, with countless animal tracks providing false direction
  • The trail marked on Alltrails and on the DOC topo map is no longer the correct one
  • Once you reach the tarn on the shelf, you’ll need to use your own discretion for the final (and steepest) climb to reach the true saddle – which we highly recommend doing

But not all is lost, you can use our mapped Alltrails activity to follow the route that we took. You’ll notice that we have linked to our return journey above, this is because we had much more success keeping to the intended trail on the way back than we did on our ascent.

Hiking The Shotover Saddle Route In A Day

Hiking the West Matukituki Valley Track in Mt Aspiring National Park

The return hike to Shotover Saddle takes roughly 7 – 9 hours to complete, making it possible to do in a day. However, it will be a big day! We averaged between 30 – 45 minutes per kilometre for the 4 km ascent – though we were carrying heavy overnight backpacks.

Start as early as possible (you can even camp at Raspberry Creek Car Park if you’re travelling in a self-contained campervan) to get the most daylight hours. You’ll want to take plenty of breaks on the ascent – especially if the sun is beating down – and a swim at the large tree overhanging Matukituki River before the 5 km walk back is absolute bliss.

Remote Wilderness Camping On The Shotover Saddle

Camping on the Shotover Saddle in Mt Aspiring National Park

For the best experience, spend the night camping up at Shotover Saddle. You’ll likely be the only ones up there and we can’t even begin to describe how incredible the sunset and sunrise were from this vantage point.

However, there are no facilities at Shotover Saddle or any toilets once you leave Raspberry Creek Car Park. You’ll need to pack everything with you to be self-sufficient while remote wilderness camping.

The rules for remote wilderness camping in New Zealand are very straightforward. You need to be 200 m away from the trail and practice responsible camping. This includes avoiding any fragile vegetation and using a poop tube in alpine terrain as there are too many water sources to safely dig a hole.

Best Camping Spots At Shotover Saddle

Star Trail in Mt Aspiring National Park on the Shotover Saddle next to an alpine lake

There are several incredible places where you can pitch your tent on Shotover Saddle and below on the shelf. We camped on the other side of the saddle, beside a tiny alpine lake, overlooking the southern mountain ranges near Glenorchy.

The only thing you need to check for when you’re finding a spot for your tent – other than where the wind is coming from – is the dampness of the ground. There are some boggy sections in the depressions – which are also usually the flattest spots!

Here is a list of the best camping spots at Shotover Saddle:

  • Beside the tarn on the shelf below Shotover Saddle – if there is a strong southerly wind the shelf provides a good barrier and allows you to watch a beautiful sunset over Rob Roy Glacier.
  • Beside the alpine lake on the southern side of Shotover Saddle – This is where we camped and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise from the tent. The top of the saddle is only a few minutes away where you’ll get the best sunset views.
  • On Shotover Saddle – If you’re gifted with no wind, then the best views are undeniably from the saddle itself. However, you are completely exposed in most directions so this is only ideal if it is extremely calm.

Watch Out For The Pesky Kea

Kia chewing on a plastic gas bottle cover while camping in Mt Aspiring National Park

Kea, the cheeky alpine parrot, calls New Zealand’s alpine home and while they are ridiculously adorable and funny, they’re also incredibly destructive. There is a juvenile gang of Kea that roam between the peaks surrounding the Matukituki Valley who especially love to hang out on Cascade Saddle and Shotover Saddle.

When we camped on Shotover Saddle, we had no issues with the Kea ruining our tent. However, they were around and causing havoc with another camper’s cookware that he left on a rock.

Be wary of the Kea when you’re camping at Shotover Saddle and try not to leave your tent until after dark. Keep all your belongings inside and the tent zipped up – they will try to hop into the tent if something looks especially interesting!

What To Pack For Your Hike To The Shotover Saddle

Cooking a backcountry meal on the Shotover Saddle in Wanaka

The Shotover Saddle Route leads you into the unpredictable alpine, where the weather can change on a dime. We highly recommend packing a rain jacket and a warm layer – such as a fleece jacket – no matter if you’re camping overnight or completing the route as a day hike.

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

  • Hiking boots – the terrain was quite uneven and overgrown, having a sturdy pair of boots gave us extra protection from the vegetation and rolled ankles.
  • Emergency beacon – there is no phone service in the Matukituki Valley and carrying an emergency beacon could seriously save your life!
  • First aid kit – you can find a good range of first aid kits at Macpac, however, we recommend adding an emergency blanket – especially for day hikes – as they’re not usually included in the hiking first aid kits.
  • Hiking poles – The descent was much easier with trekking poles to balance ourselves.
  • Warm layers – we always take a fleece jacket and a down jacket with us on alpine hikes.
  • Camping gear – If you plan to stay overnight, bring your warm sleeping bag and an insulating hiking sleeping mat as it can get very cold overnight – even in summer.
  • Hiking stove – don’t underestimate how good a hot meal is for dinner after a hike!
  • At least 2 litres of water – there are some water sources along the route, we recommend using a water filtration system as part of the trail weaves through farmland.
  • High-energy snacks and meals – our favourite freeze-dried hiking meal is Campers Pantry’s Indian chicken pilaf.

Best Time To Hike The Shotover Saddle Route

Sunrise over Rob Roy Glacier and the West Matukituki Valley from the Shotover Saddle in Mt Aspiring National Park

The best time to hike the Shotover Saddle Route is from November to April when the terrain is most likely void of snow. In addition, we recommend waiting for a dry and calm day to hike as the tussock fields get extremely slippery in wet conditions.

Note: The Shotover Saddle Route is closed for lambing from the 17th of October to the 7th of November. Access is prohibited during this time.

Hiking The Shotover Saddle Route In Winter

If you’re planning to hike the Shotover Saddle Route during winter, you’ll need additional gear such as crampons and maybe even ice axes to navigate the icy and snowy terrain. We only recommend attempting the climb in winter if you’re comfortable hiking in these conditions and have adequate avalanche awareness training.

Shotover Saddle Route Track Notes

Raspberry Creek Car Park To The Shotover Saddle Route Trailhead

Hiking along the West Matukituki Track in Mt Aspiring National Park

You’ll begin the walk to the Shotover Saddle Route from Raspberry Creek Car Park, jumping onto the West Matukituki Track that winds alongside the Matukituki River. The first 5 km is very straightforward. You’ll simply follow the undulating private farm road, enjoying the breathtaking vistas of the deep mountainous valley unravelling as you walk.

You’ll encounter several small stream crossings on your journey towards the Shotover Saddle Route turn-off, but all are easy to navigate with plenty of rocks to hop across.

After a particularly steep switchback, you’ll arrive at a sign for the Shotover Saddle Route right before the road begins to descend again.  A stile and an orange marker will lead you towards the beginning of the ascent – which starts immediately on the left side of the lower section of Bride’s Veil Falls.

For more information on the West Matukituki Track, you can read our guide for Aspiring Hut which describes the first 5 km of this trail in more detail.

The Shotover Saddle Trailhead To The Conservation Sign

Shotover Saddle Trailhead
Hiking up the steep mountain side on the Shotover Saddle Route in Mt Aspiring National Park

There is barely a trail to follow once you step off the West Matukituki Track, instead you’ll rely on the orange trail markers to lead the way. The first section is very steep and we found that zigzagging up the prickle-filled paddock to be the best course of action. But not long after, the gradient mellows out slightly before the next steep section.

After a total of 5.6 km, the trail markers will guide you to a shaded creek. Markers on the tree signal where it is best to hop across. From the other side of the creek, the track continues relentlessly up the steep slope, with parts of the path easily visible and others impossible to find. Often, you’ll get tricked by a sheep track rather than the actual route.

Cow Skull hanging from tree at the creek crossing on the Shotover Saddle Route

The terrain begins to transition from bracken fern to tussock grass after 6.7 km and 631 m elevation – most of which you’ll do in the most recent 1.7 km. The only consolation to the never-ending ascent is the incredible views that unfold below. From this vantage point, you can see all the way to Aspiring Hut and over to Rob Roy Glacier.

The track gets partially easier to follow once you hit the alpine, with natural rutted steps shooting straight up to the spur. And after 200 m of walking through the tussock grass, you’ll hit the spur that will loosely lead you to the rocky outcrops above.

Climbing through the orange tussock grass on the Shotover Saddle Route

The Conservation Sign To The End Of The Trail Markers

After 7.2 km, you’ll reach a sign for the Kimi-akau Conservation Area which marks the official end of the private farmland. This is a perfect spot to stop for some snacks and a break as you’re finally halfway up the gruelling ascent!

Once you’ve replenished your energy levels, you’ll continue for a moment before meeting up with the original Shotover Saddle Route that’s marked on Alltrails and on the DOC topo maps. But don’t be fooled in thinking that this means the track will be easier to navigate because it won’t!

Hiking along a ridge overlooking Rob Roy Glacier on the Shotover Saddle Route
Climbing up the steep Shotover Saddle Route using the tussock grass to assist

The track continues in the same barely visible fashion, with the tall tussock grass on the slope making for some slippery walking – extra concentration is needed to avoid the sharp plants and find the easiest route up the mountainside.

Finally, after roughly 8.4 km, you’ll arrive at the last marker just before a pretty alpine tarn that sits on a shelf below Shotover Saddle. This spot is perfect to pitch your tent if the wind is a little strong as there are plenty of protected places to camp. You’re afforded mind-blowing views of the Matukituki Valley from here, but the best views are yet to come.

The End Of The Trail Markers To Shotover Saddle

Hiking along the final shelf on the Shotover Saddle in Mt Aspiring National Park
HIking up the final steep section to the Shotover Saddle

To reach Shotover Saddle, you’ll need to ascend the steepest slope yet – which isn’t marked at all. You’ve got roughly 500 m to go at this point if you shoot straight up, but the easiest way to ascend is to walk to the left and traverse the spine. We went straight up and it was extremely loose and steep – we would have struggled without trekking poles to steady us.

But finally, you’ll navigate through some large rocky slabs and find yourself on the sweeping Shotover Saddle. Everywhere you turn, you’re gifted some of the most breathtaking mountain vistas we have had the pleasure of witnessing. There is seriously nowhere else in the Matukituki Valley that offers such incredible views of the mighty Rob Roy Glacier and the formidable peaks rising above.

Exploring The Breathtaking Shotover Saddle

We reached the Shotover Saddle after clocking 9.2 km (we did a bit of backtracking) and 1,297 m of elevation. The hike took us a total of 3 hrs 45 minutes walking time and 5 hrs 30 minutes total time. The ascent itself took us almost 3 hours walking time!!

But it’s all worth it once you start exploring the vast saddle and the glacially carved landscape that stands before you. Several tarns are scattered across the rolling saddle and we found the perfect – slightly protected – tent site just a little further south from the saddle’s high point.

If you choose to camp on top of Shotover Saddle, we recommend watching the sunset from the top so you can watch the mountains light up on both sides of the saddle. For sunrise, the best views were from our tent looking south. The summit of Red Rock lights up spectacularly!

Side Trip To Red Rock

Image of Red Rock above the Shotover Saddle Route in Wanaka
Red Rock from Cascade Saddle

Red Rock flanks the western side of Shotover Saddle and is easily recognised by its distinctive peak adorned with a vibrant array of red scree. While the ascent to the summit of Red Rock from Shotover Saddle is relatively straightforward, you will encounter a giant scree field that is notoriously slippery and loose.

To access the climb, head west from the saddle and begin to climb up the northeastern face of Red Rock. The ascent is roughly 1 km from the saddle to the peak of Red Rock and approximately 300 m elevation gain.

While the climb can be arduous, the effort is well worth it once you reach the peak. You’ll be greeted by awe-inspiring panoramic views that stretch across the entire Matukituki Valley. If you follow the ridge a little further west from Red Rock’s summit, you’ll be able to glimpse Mt Tyndall – one of the esteemed ‘trampers peaks’ nestled within this picturesque landscape.

Returning To Raspberry Creek Car Park

Hiking back down the Shotover Saddle Route in Mt Aspiring National Park

Once you’re ready to return, find the most gentle gradient possible to descend back to the shelf. We found going down to be a lot sketchier than going up so take your time and rely on your poles for balance.

Once you’re at the shelf, you’ll simply need to follow the orange trail markers once more to return back to the West Matukituki Track. We actually found that navigation was much easier on the descent compared to the ascent as it was easier to spot the next marker.

But with that said, don’t lose sight of the markers as it is possible that you’ll get cliffed out if you don’t pay attention.

The descent to the West Matukituki Track took us 2 hours walking time, with a total time of 3 hours which included a long break at the conservation sign to mend a cut on Dylan’s knee from a fall at the start of the descent.

We highly recommend stopping at the shady tree that hangs over the river and the beach just after the steep switchback on the West Matukituki Track. This is by far the best spot for a swim and the perfect way to shock those muscles into recovery!

Swimming hole on the West Matukituki Track near the Shotover Saddle Trailhead
The perfect swimming hole

We made it back to Raspberry Creek Car Park in a total of 3 hours moving time and 4 hours 30 minutes total time – including lunch and a swim in the river. The stats for the whole trip out and back were 6 hours 50 minutes walking time and 10 hours total time.

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

Leave No Trace

The Matukituki Valley is a combination of national park and private farmland. We are fortunate that the owners of Aspiring Station permit walkers to cross their property and it’s each and every one of our responsibilities to leave no trace.

To ensure we keep a positive relationship with the owners of Aspiring Station, please stick to the trails and keep a good distance away from their livestock. Furthermore, pack out what you pack in – including food scraps and tissues – and practice the correct methods of pooping in the alpine.

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

The Hidden Spring accommodation in Wanaka
The Hidden Spring

The Trailhead for the Shotover Saddle Route is roughly 1 hour west of Wanaka, which is the ideal place to base yourself while exploring the Matukituki Valley. You’ll find plenty of accommodation options in Wanaka to suit a wide range of travellers. 

Our favourite place to stay is The Hidden Spring, which offers affordable studio-style accommodation just a 5 minute drive from the town centre.

Camping Near The Shotover Saddle Route

If you’re travelling in a certified self-contained campervan, then you can camp at Raspberry Creek Car Park. This is the best option if you’re planning to complete the Shotover Saddle Route in a day as you can start as early as possible.

Camping at Raspberry Creek Carpark in a self-contained campervan
Raspberry Creek Carpark

Here is a list of other camping options near the Matukituki Valley:

  • Albert Town Campground – Located on the edge of Clutha River, 7 minutes east of Wanaka’s town centre, this campsite is $10 per person, per night and runs on a first-come-first-serve basis.
  • Red Bridge Camping – This is a freedom campsite for self-contained campervans only. The gravel car park that serves as the campsite is located 13 minutes from Wanaka.

Final Thoughts

We had little knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into when we set off to summit Shotover Saddle. But that’s sometimes the best way to enter into adventure! While the ascent was gruelling and difficult to navigate at times, we loved every minute of the Shotover Saddle Route – even if some parts had a gasping for breath!

If you’re searching for a hike that will test your skills and keep you away from the crowds, then the Shotover Saddle Route is the one for you! Just remember to allow enough daylight hours and carry a head torch if you plan to complete this hike in a day.

We hope you have found our guide to the Shotover Saddle Route helpful for your trip planning. If you have any further questions about this hike or the Matukituki Valley walks in general, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or reach out via Instagram.

Happy Hiking 🙂