The Richmond ranges stretch from Picton in the East to St Arnaud in the west, bordered by the Queen Charlotte Track in the north, and the Wairau valley to the south. The north-south Kaituna river valley between Havelock and Renwick divides the eastern and western sections of the range, carrying SH6 and interrupting what is otherwise a continuous extent of crown land and unbroken tramping country. Peaks reach to over 1700m and the main ridge of the ranges spends about half of its time in bush and the other half in tussock and rock/scree. The ranges get a moderate number of weekend and overnight visitors, but trampers in the area can expect empty huts on most weeknights, and when you do meet people, they are likely to be the more adventurous / independent sort who have gone to the trouble of discovering this little-known tramping haven in the north of the South Island.
The western Richmond Ranges are blessed with an excellent network of quality tramping huts – all with water, mattresses, and all but two with fireplaces/stoves. The ranges east of SH6 by contrast have no DOC facilities, and the only private hut in the area (Cullen Creek Hut) is locked and has no indication of who to contact for access. Camping is thus the only option in the eastern ranges, and water can be a problem in summer with most smaller creeks drying up and 700m descents to the main waterways a necessity to replenish supplies.
Many north-south tracks cross the range, including the Waikakaho Cullen Creek Track in the east, and tracks to Mt Riley, Fosters Clearing, My Royal, Mt Richmond and Old Man in the western ranges. No clear east-west routes are shown on maps or on DOC information guides. This route guide aims to partially remedy this by documenting the east-west route along the length of the Richmond Ranges main ridge.
The eastern Richmond Ranges are dealt with here in a separate route guide. The two ridgeline routes can be combined into a single 10+ day tramp from Picton to St Arnaud (providing access across Mt Riley station is granted).
Ideally, access to the eastern-most peak, Mt Riley, is over private land from the Mt Riley Station roadend (P28 710765), off SH6. Advance permission is required as the station owners do not like to give permission on the day. Alternatively, public access to Mt Riley is available from Onamatutu Scenic Reserve, (O28 692735) off the Northbank of the Wairau. Again, it is best to phone DOC in advance as logging operations may also close this access.
At the western end access is via the unnamed track to Red Hills Hut, off SH63 11km east of St Arnaud (N29 076378).
Numerous intermediate access points are available from the Wairau Northbank road in the south, via the Pelorous valley or from Nelson in the north.
Bus transport is available to both Mt Riley Station road on SH6, and the Red Hills track on SH63. Access to Onamatutu Scenic Reserve is by private vehicle – otherwise it’s a 12km walk along gravel roads to SH6, where bus transport is available.
Onamatutu Reserve to Fosters Clearing Hut via Mt Riley & Mt Sunday:
An easy climb up a cut, marked track followed by a short section along a defined ridgeline, through mature beech.
From the Onamatutu Scenic Reserve, follow the signs along Briggs Road to the Mt Riley track, 2.5km down forestry tracks. It is possible to park at the roadend here and save yourselves the 2.5km walk. From the car park a loop track leads to the ridgeline east of Mt Riley, where it joins the track from Mt Riley station. It then swings west over Mt Riley and Mt Sunday summits before returning south to the carpark. This section of track was closed due to logging when I visited so I can give you no further information. DOC quote 8 hours for the loop, and I’d expect to reach the Mt Riley summit in 2-3 hours.
Climb to Mt Riley and on to Mt Sunday along the eastern branch of the loop track. Leave the loop track 200m south of Mt Sunday, and head due west to pick up the main ridge. From here on it’s a relatively easy 5km route first west then south along the ridgeline to Fosters Clearing, through mostly open beech. 5km, 1h45
Fosters Hut sits in the clearing on the ridgeline – you can’t miss it! It’s a comfortable 4 bed forestry hut with amazing views over the Wairau valley and Blenheim.
Fosters Hut to Mt Fishtail Hut: 8-14hrs
An easy first 4hrs along a well travelled ridgeline route to Mt Royal. Beyond Mt Royal the route is less well travelled, and scrubby in places. A steep climb over Mt Fishtail.
From fosters hut a pack-track leads down to the Fosters Clearing on the saddle to the west. 1km, 10min
From the saddle at Foster’s Clearing the ridgeline route to Mt Royal is signposted. It’s a very good route through mature, widely spaced beech as far as the clear tops of Mt Baldy for more views. The descent west of Mt Baldy is a bit scrubby, but mature beech resumes for the rest of the ridgeline until the treeline at Mt Royal is reached. This is a well-travelled route, and except for the descent off Baldy is easily followed. 9.5km, 3h50
The bare scree tops of Mt Royal are the first glimpse of the ‘other face’ of the Richmond ranges – it’s not all trees, and rock sections and rewarding views will become more common as you head west. Pick up the markers for the Mt Royal track to the west of the summit, and follow the well maintained path SSW along the ridge until it turns SE and drops off the ridge at pt1198. There route continuing along the ridge to Mt Fishtail is not signposted, but a reasonable well-traveled ridgeline route continues SSW to clearings at pt1250. The ridge swings W again here, and beech becomes scrubbier in places requiring occasional bush-bashing to travel the 3km to the treeline at Mt Fishtail. It’s a steep rocky scramble to the summit of Mt Fishtail – but the views of the entire range, the Sounds to the north and Wairau to the south make it well worthwhile. Mt Fishtail Hut is visible below amongst scree on the south face of the peak, but it is necessary to continue W to the obvious saddle before cutting back SE to the hut, as the south face is steep and bluffy. 7.5km, 4h00
Mt Fishtail Hut sleeps 4. It’s small and rattly, with no fire. But it’s comfortable & cozy and keeps out the wind which whips across this exposed face. More amazing views of the Wairau and Kaikouras complete the package.
Fishtail Hut to Fell Hut 5-9 hrs, 10km
A moderate to hard ridgeline route with slow, steep climbs through mature beech, and slow flat sections through thick, scrubby stunted beech.
Return to the saddle west of Mt Fishtail, and follow the ridgeline west over a couple of small peaks before descending steeply SW back into the bush. The ridgeline descends rapidly to 1100m through open, mature beech, and it’s easy to believe you’ve followed a spur towards the valley floor. However, a saddle eventually appears with steep bluffs climbing beyond. These can be bypassed to the south for an easier climb to the scrubby summit of pt1269 - from where the descent due W along the main ridge is obvious. The ridge broadens and becomes scrubbier as it climbs to pt1359, and some compass work may be required. From here its 1.5km of hellish stunted beech NW to pt 1327. Gators are recommended – or be prepared to lose some skin. The low saddle towards Mt Fell is obvious when you reach it, but not before – don’t be tempted to drop looking for it until you can see it below you and due west. Several small bluffs make the descent more interesting, and be careful to avoid side-spurs leading you towards the valley floor. The climb from the saddle to Mt Fell is much easier. Climb due W up the obvious ridge though mature beech, interspersed grassy clearings and finally tussock. For Mt Fell summit continue up and W. Alternatively, the poled / marked track to Mt Fell hut can be reached 1km south along the bushline (it may be easier to climb a little out of the tussock/scrub before heading south for easier travel). 10km, 6h00
Mt Fell Hut is another well-maintained 6-bed forestry hut with ‘glimpse’ views of the Sounds.
Mt Fell Hut – Mt Richmond Saddle Hut, 2-4 hrs, 4km
An easy-moderate marked tramping track, with a 500m climb / descent over Mt Richmond.
From Mt Fell Hut, regain the ridgeline W of the hut. A poled track sidles S up the east face of Johnson Peak before swinging due W at a col before the summit, to climb moderately steep scree faces to Mt Richmond itself. It’s a 500m climb from the hut to Mt Richmond summit, the highest point in the range. Amazing views are guaranteed – so long as it’s not cloudy, raining or snowing. A stone corral has been built on the summit and provides shelter to wait out the next gap in the weather. From Mt Richmond summit the poled track swings NW along a broad rocky ridge, before dropping W to Richmond Saddle, where the hut may be visible below. It’s a steep, 550m descent – but the rocks are stable and going isn’t as bad as it looks. 4km, 2h00
Richmond Saddle Hut (sleeps 6) sits in a clearing on the saddle, directly on the track and should be hard to miss, even in fog.
Richmond Saddle Hut – Old Man Hut (turnoff): 7-14hrs, 14km
A difficult unmarked ridgeline route to Ada Flat, through frequent thick scrub and along a sometimes crumbling ridgeline. One steep, slippery descent down a loose gravel chute beyond pt1234. Easy tramping tracks from Ada Flat onwards.
This is the hardest section of the Richmond Ranges due to thick scrub on the ridgeline. An alternative route would be to drop down the track to Top Valley, and follow the valley track climbing back to the ridge at Old Man. But then you wouldn’t have walked the ridgeline, eh?
It all starts easy: leave the track at Richmond Saddle and head WSW though mature beech then tussock to the 1st peak, pt 1393. The ridgeline continues west through tussock and occasional scree to Grassy Knob, before descending back to the bushline. From here things get tougher – the bush is thick and stunted beech, and it’s a case of picking your way SSW along the obvious rocky ridgeline towards pt1434. Where the beech gets even thicker! It’s a steep descent to reach the saddle between pt 1234 and 1331 – the loose gravel chute on the north side of the ridge is the only viable route I have found. Be careful.
The worst is now over. Cross pt 1331, then contour the north face of pt 1370 remaining in mature beech below bluffs and scrub to reach the saddle with pt1424. Again, stick to the north face of pt1424 below the ridgeline, climbing gently to keep below thick scrub (don’t drop too far or you’ll hit steep gullies). After about 1km the scrub higher up ends ends near a series of clearings, and you can regain the ridgeline and pick up a well traveled ridgeline route west to Ada Flat. 5h30, 9.5km
Heading SW over Ada Flat, pick up the poled route (‘The Alpine Route’) and cut track SSW to Old Man. There is a water tank on the summit of Old Man – very welcome in the dry ranges. From the junction at Old Man summit the track west along the ridgeline to Old Man Hut and Mt Rintoul is signposted and well maintained. A signpost points marks the junction of the Alpine Route and the track down to Old man Hut 1h30, 4.5km
From the junction, it’s a 1km, 250m descent through steep beech to clearings and a stream where the 6 bed Old Man Hut is located. For those continuing to Rintoul the descent to the is not necessary.
Old Man Hut (turnoff) – Mt Rintoul Hut: 3-5hrs, 4.5km
A moderate poled tramping track, including two steep 400m+climbs/descents over the two high and exposed peaks of Mt Rintoul. Would be very difficult in poor visibility as route is not obvious and poles are sparse in places.
Do not be fooled by Mt Rintoul. It is not a mountain. It is in fact two mountains with a steep, low saddle between them.
From the Old Man Hut turnoff the track climbs west to the bush-edge at the foot of the eastern peak, and then up good stable scree to the summit, a 350m climb. From the summit the disheartening low saddle before the west peak is visible, with an impossible knife-back ridge linking the two peaks. Fear not, you don’t have to walk along that ridge. Instead, the poled route drops steeply W down a series of loose gravel chutes to the scree-face at the foot of the southern face of the knife-back ridge. Poles continue, sidling below the bluffs to the base of western peak. From here they climb steeply up loose scree to regain the ridgeline between the two peaks, which they follow to the summit. Another 450m climb. If you’re not too tired- look NE from the summit for wonderful views over Nelson and to Motueka valley. From the western summit of Mt Rintoul the poled route crosses the summit, and descends to the bushline, from where a cut, marked track continues to the 6-bed Rintoul Hut, from where you can watch the lights of Nelson as you cook a well earned feed! 3h00, 4km
Beware of bad weather – the poled route between the 2 peaks is very hard to find in fog, and a number of parties have reported spending several days trapped between the two peaks waiting for visibility to improve.
Mt Rintoul Hut - Tarn Hut 2.5-5hrs, 8km.
Easy tramping track along a mainly bush-clad ridgeline. One rock/scree section over Purple Top, but well-poled and easily followed even in mist.
From Mt Rintoul Hut a clear cut track continues to the bushline at Purpletop, from where a poled route leads to the saddle to the south of the summit. Circling the summit, the poled route descends back west into stunted beech, where a wide cut track leads to the junction south of Bishop’s Cap. Taking the left-hand track south towards Tarn Hut, you’re back into mature beech. After 3km of ridgeline and sidling, a signposted turnoff descends east to Tarn Hut, whist the main track continues along the ridge. It’s only 200m and a 40m descent to Tarn Hut (5 beds) and the only lake in the Richmond Ranges – surely worth a look! 8km, 2h30
Tarn Hut – Top Wairoa Hut
An unmarked route along the broad beech-clad ridgeline, followd by a steep, scrubby descent to the hut. Alternatively, a valley-floor tramping track following the Wairoa, with multiple river corssings.
Bad weather forced me off the ridge between Tarn and TopWairoa, so I can only speculate about the ridgeline route. The poled route continues 4km south to Bushy Top (ominous name!). From here it’s bush-bashing along the broad ridge 5.5km W, SSW and W to Wards Pass. Then a further 2km climb through bush to the treeline at pt1195, followed by an easy climb up the broad tussock / rock ridge towards Red Hill summit. For those wishing to spend the night, the descent to the Wairoa forks to reach Top Wairoa Hut looks steep and scrubby from the hut, but would be possible.
From Mid Wairoa Hut a sidle track leads up the Wairoa valley to the forks below Top Wairoa Hut. The track crosses several steep faces and has 8 river crossings of the Wairoa - but is relatively good for a sidle track (not too many ‘unnecessary’ climbs and descents of the valleyside). From the forks, the track is not well marked, but climbs the scree-face on the north face of the southern branch, 200m above the confluence. From the top, you’ll pick up markers again and the cut track to the hut. 3h00, 7km
Top Wairoa Hut – Red Hills Hut via Red Hill: 8-14hrs, 21km
A moderate to hard ridgeline route along a sometimes narrow and exposed ridgeline. Lots of boulder-hopping and scrambling early on. The ridge later broadens out towards the plateau, but becomes featureless, and careful map/compass word would be required in bad visibility.
The Red Hill Range is unlike anything else I’ve seen in NZ. A 16km-long collection of large boulders heaped haphazardly into a ridge – with no bedrock in sight. An almost entirely barren landscape of intensely red rock. And the most abrasive rock I’ve ever met, at that. Take too a look at your boots before you go – as they’ll never look the same again, the rocks will shred them.
From Top Wairoa Hut, follow the track west towards Mt Ellis, until you cross the 1st creek shown on the map. By this stage, the scrub should have abated, and you can leave the track and climb to the ridgeline. Circling around the heads of the two creeks beyond, it’s a short, climb over the first large red bounders to the ridgeline NW of Red Hill. Follow the ridge SE to Red Hill summit, where the remains of a trig-point can be found amongst the boulders. At 1791m this is the highest point in the trip.
The two unnamed and unnumbered peaks between Red Hill and pt1770 are very tricky to cross, and though many parties report successful but nerve-wracking crossings along the ridgeline, an easier option is to descend into the basin to the west of the ridgeline. From there it’s an easy climb back to the ridge at pt1770. South of pt1770, things get gradually tamer – the ridge broadens out, the boulders get smaller and the gaps between them less daunting. Occasional flowers can be spotted, though it’s still a barren place. By the time you reach Chrome, patches of tussock start to appear, and soon you’ll be wishing you were back boulder-hopping as you stumble over tussock tops for the last couple of km down to The Plateau. Head directly for the trig-point visible across the tarn-scattered plateau, (‘N’ 1331 on the map) and keep heading the same direction beyond it to find yourself directly above the Red Hills Hut. 21km, 8h30
Red Hills Hut was run-down, grafitti scarred, with no fireplace, and the 9 beds sag so badly that the floor proved more comfortable. It has been replaced by a modern tramping hut since my cvisit. Enjoy the last night of tranquility before the madness of St Arnaud.
Red Hills Hut – SH63 / St Arnaud: 1hr / 4hrs
An easy walk down a 4WD track to the road, followed by a long road section for those wishing to continue to St Arnaud and beyond.
A 4wd track leads 5.5km from the hut to SH63 (1h15). From here it’s a further 11km (2h30) along the road to St. Arnaud.