Stafford Route Trek (2 Day)
Duration: 2 days, depart/return Queenstown
Distance: 5-6 hour hike the first day, 4 hours the second day. Off piste but no climbs.
When you’re lucky enough to stumble upon the opportunity to experience a magical place that very, very few people have ever been to… well, what are you waiting for? Hiking the Stafford Bay Route in South Westland National Park is a two-day adventure that will take you deep into New Zealand’s rugged West Coast, with a bit of mud thrown in.
If you’re comfortable hiking for the day on a variety of terrain and are looking for a gentle introduction to backpacking, a night in Stafford Hut will definitely get you hooked on ‘going bush’ and I’ll show you why this West Coast adventure is one of the best overnight treks on the South Island.
We start at Jackson Bay, a small fishing village literally at the road’s end on the South Island’s remote West Coast. Moments after we get our packs on, we’re walking in the dense rainforest of South Westland National Park. If you’re not used to carrying a pack while hiking, no worries, there are no big climbs on this walk and you won’t need to bring much more than what’s normally in your daypack plus a sleeping bag and change of clothes and I’ll take care of the rest of our gear.
Surrounded by the gurgle of streams, springy moss-laden floors, the tangle of thick vines and native ponga tree ferns towering 30 feet above our heads, you might think you’ve just walked on to a set for the next Jurassic Park movie! It’s simply breathtaking.
I have hardly ever run into anyone else on the Stafford Route as it’s not so much a clearly defined track as a scavenger hunt of sorts that definitely requires some good map reading skills. We’ll be following a series of markers placed on the odd tree along the way so keep your eyes open. Now, as the name suggests, the lush rainforest we’re enjoying is a rather wet environment so be prepared for lots of river and stream crossings as well as a few swamps and bogs to navigate. (In other words, fun times ahead!)
As we make our way up the Smoothwater River, what was knee deep three hours ago has now transformed into a stream that we can easily jump across. One last grunt and we are at the top of Stafford Pass, which is a modest 243m in elevation. Then once we descend down the other side, we’ll leap over the stream again and it’s like the first part of our hike in reverse. An hour later the stream has gathered strength and we’re back to knee-deep river crossings again.
About five hours into our trek, we should start to smell the salty seawater in the air and just be able to pick out the faint sound of ocean waves breaking on the beach. Our home for the night is a cozy, 6-bunk hut tucked in a small clearing amongst the bush only about 100m from the beach. Stafford Hut is one of more than 800 backcountry huts maintained by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation that are scattered throughout the country for public use, although this one is hardly ever used (or rather found, I should say).
It’s sparse with not much more than a table, mattresses on the bunks and whatever we’ve brought with us, but we’ll eat and sleep well tonight. I’ve got a fire cranking in the wood burner in no time — a beautiful place to kick off wet boots and talk about the day that was over a hot brew or two.
After a good night’s sleep, we pack up and walk out along the stunning rocky coastline, which is only passable during low tide. For the next three hours or so, we’ll hike across numerous beaches separated by coves, each offering something special. Hugh rock pillars jut out of the ocean, breaking the smoky blue line of the water while the native forest clings onto cliffs high above the ocean, seemingly suspended in air.
It’s hard to imagine if much at all has changed out here since prehistoric times and you are now among the very few who have been fortunate enough to experience this utterly wild landscape where time as we know it seems meaningless.
Just four hours after leaving the hut this morning, we’re back at the car. There are simply no words to adequately describe the past couple of days, so silence may be the only way to really process it as we relive each moment of this amazing adventure on our drive back.
The incredible views. The euphoria of emotions. Is this what freedom feels like?