Copland Track, West Coast of the South Island
The Copland Track is located south of Fox Glacier on the West Coast in the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area. It’s a 7 to 8 hour walk (17 km / 10.5 miles) into Welcome Flat Hut and an absolute highlight of our Winter Rimu trip that runs from May until September.
Very popular amongst local Kiwis, the Copland Track has experienced a boost in popularity in recent years and is now also becoming well known on the international hiking circuit. This is partly thanks to the Department of Conservation (DoC), who has poured considerable resources into improving the track to make it wider and safer, including the installation of modern swing bridges (don’t worry – they’re perfectly safe and not as scary as they may look!). This newfound popularity is also thanks in part to the increased spotlight on natural hot springs dotted around the country, lots of which are only accessible on foot! Another sign of its growing popularity is the fact that DoC now supports a permanent hut volunteer over the summer months to make sure people are paying their hut fees and generally looking after the hut.
Description of the Copland Track
There’s no easing into the Copland Track. It’s an onslaught of the senses from the moment you step off the bus at the start of the track. From the get-go, you’ll be greeted by the local sandflies that celebrate when you stand still to get your pack ready. Leaving those little, um… nuisances behind and heading into the bush, it’s easy going for the first hour or so, over a nice, forgiving forest floor and across long open patches of grass. The fun really begins when the track joins back up with the Copland River, providing a fun challenge to the hiker navigating the mossy boulder field. You'll also see “Dog Rock” (it looks just like the head of an Irish Setter) which is about 1 hour short of the half-way point on the track.
A little later, respite comes in the form of the ironically named “Architect Hut” – four simple walls, a roof, 2 bunks, 2 mattresses and a wee potbelly stove sum up this hut. But it’s the smaller touches that capture the imagination here. The hut visitor book is always a good read and the empty bottles of wine conjure up telltale images of warmth and rosy cheeks. Hopefully, you haven’t delved too far into your packed lunch already, but if you have, your guide is always a miraculous source of further snacks. After lunch, the track continues winding its way up the valley with some memorable swing bridges to cross and views of the Southern Alps. It’s a long tramp that is challenging for most, but as our 'Winter Rimu' travelers always comment – it’s well worth it!
Should I walk the Copland Track?
Walking this fairly demanding track all day – albeit pleasantly distracted by the stunning views – is a challenge for most, but the rewards are well worth it. Here’s a typical scenario that may help you paint a picture of what it might be like to hike the Copland Track on the 'Winter Rimu':
1) You’re 6 ½ hours in and you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn. You chastise yourself for not listening more carefully to your trip leader giving important directions earlier. Whilst eating the yummy lunch your guide packed for you earlier, you adjust your balance to take the pressure off your sore knee.
2) Someone behind you, probably with the same self-reprimanding thoughts, suddenly yells out, ‘The hut! We've made it!’ You'd think by the edge in their voice that it was a matter of life and death. Maybe it is for them…
3) You reach the hut, drop your backpack and wonder how you're already sitting in front of the fire with your boots off – they must have a life of their own those boots…
4) Your hot-springs-radar is on, you’ve stripped off to the bare essentials and you're grabbing a mug of mulled wine to keep you warm on the way for the complete experience. It’s only now, whilst half-naked, that you realize your group is sharing the hut with other hikers! But not to worry, they give you knowing looks and remind you to take a water bottle too.
5) As you slip into the soothing pools with squelching mud underfoot, all the aches melt away and you realize with a grin: this is why we came to NZ!
The Copland Track and its mountaineering legacy
The Copland Track was once the tail end of a favorite alpine route across the main divide of the Southern Alps known as the Copland Pass. It linked the grandeur of Mt Cook on the Eastern side with the contrasting beauty of the West Coast Bush. Experienced climbers with ice axes, crampons and other mountaineering gear would start in the Aoraki/Mt Cook village, making their way along the Hooker Valley track and then up the moraine covered glacier for 5-6 hours of steep climbing, careful to avoid crevasses. They could then take a rest or overnight stop in the Copland shelter before crossing the mountain pass and making their way down the western side.
Unfortunately, this route is no longer accessible due to a rock slip on the eastern slopes, but there is an alternative route nearby for mountaineers called Fitzgerald Pass.
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