Trail Profile: The Copland Track, New Zealand
Located on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Copland track takes you up a river valley for an up-close view of the Southern Alps. The Copland is less crowded, less developed, but equal in scenery to the Great Walks.
Distance: 15.5 miles (25km) to Douglas Rock hut, 31 miles (50K) round trip
Trail Type: Out and back. Mountaneers can do it as a one-way across an alpine pass.
Trail Rating: Moderate to challenging. Hazards include flooding, avalanches and rockslides.
The starting point is a trailhead on SH 26 about 15 miles south of Fox Glacier. There is ample parking at the trailhead, and Intercity and Atomic shuttles can do dropoff/pickup if booked ahead of time. Hitchhiking is also a possibility.
Carpark to Architect Hut: 6 miles (10km)
The first thing you’ll do on the Copland is ford Rough Creek. It’s not as bad as it sounds! Over the next few miles, the track has several wet crossings and muddy sections. We wore our camp shoes (crocs or sandals) to keep our hiking shoes dry. The mud can be deceptively deep. Lollygag almost lost a Croc when he glopped in up to his shins! If the weather is clear you’ll get beautiful views of the river, including the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua rivers at a marked lookout early on. Once the track rises out of the river bottom, the scenery changes to ferns, waterfalls, and cable bridges crossing streams.
Architect Hut is roughly halfway between the carpark and Welcome Flat Hut. An army veteran with a GPS device told us he clocked it at 10K, with only 8K remaining to Welcome Flat. We got a late start (arrived at trailhead at 1:30PM), so decided to call it a day at Architect Hut. We found the hut to be occupied with sandflies and mosquitoes. The woods nearby seemed much more welcoming, so we pitched out tent in a clearing. Several minutes later we had swarms of bugs hovering on our screen! The bugs are notoriously bad at Architect Creek. (Little did we know!) We spent the evening reading in our tent with brief excursions to see the valley view. Another hiker contemplated sleeping in the hut, but the flies drove her to hike on after just a few minutes. Tents are recommended if you are staying here!
Architect Creek to Welcome Flat 5 miles (8km)
The track continues along the north side of the Copland River. The grade is a gradual uphill climb with a few more intense ups and downs. There are several rockslide areas that can be tricky. Enjoy more cable bridges, ferns, NZ birds and occasional views. The cable bridges have a 1-person capacity. We had some to ourselves, and had to wait for others to pass at a few. Either way they are very exciting crossings!
Welcome Flat is a well-appointed hut! It has 31 bunks and several tent sites. We’ve heard it gets crowded at times. It has clean running water, flush toilets, a dining room, outdoor patio, and hot tubs! Not exactly hot tubs, but geothermal pools. We arrived at Welcome Flat around lunch time, so we dipped in the pools during the heat of the day. They felt good on our sore legs, but sandflies and sun kept us from lingering.
The most popular way to hike the Copland Track is to hike up to Welcome Flat hut, stay the night, and come down the next day. Our original plan was to do it this way. We changed our plans last minute to add an extra day to the hike, because a night on the trail is always better than a night in town! This allowed us to continue on to Douglas Rock Hut for night 2.
Welcome Flat to Douglas Rock 4.3 miles (7km)
After Welcome Flat Hut, the track officially changes to a ‘route’, and the difficulty goes from intermediate to expert. This section is a different kind of fun! The first mile or so after the hut is actually pretty flat, but there are several difficult stream crossings, and the track is more of a series of cairns than a defined path. Once the track leaves the riverbed and goes up the valley side, it gets really interesting!
The route from Welcome Flat Hut to Douglas Rock Hut is especially vulnerable to floods, avalanches and rockslides. In places where the trail was washed out, it is re-routed straight up the slope, across the slide area, and then straight back down to the original trail. Talk about pointless ups and downs!
The track continues to follow the valley just above the river towards Douglas Rock Hut. We were surprised several times to look down and see the river still beside us, despite the elevation gain on the trail. It is one steep river! We finally made it to Douglas Rock Hut in time to have dinner and take in the scenery.
We lucked out with clear weather, an caught views of 6,000′ peaks all around us. The steep slopes are cut by effervescent waterfalls and topped with glaciers. We were blown away by the scenery. It is one of those places you can sit and just look at the landscape, and keep finding new things. After dinner, Lollygag kept walking out on the cable bridge by the hut to look at the cliffs and waterfalls.
There is a slightly better viewpoint just a 5 minute walk from Douglas Rock Hut. If you continue up the trail and take a right at the first “Y”, you will come to a clearing with open views of the surrounding cliffs, waterfalls, and glaciers.
There was one other couple staying at Douglas Hut with us. One was the staff member that advised us at the Department of Conservation (DOC) site! It didn’t take long for the AT to come up in conversation. Our new friends had hiked a section this summer and met some of the same hikers!
Welcome Flat Hut has to be booked in advance. Architect Creek and Douglas Rock are first-come, first-bunk. All huts have mattresses, so you could go without a tent or sleeping pad to save weight. Potable water is available at huts.
We thought there was only one hut on the Copland, and one way to hike it, until we talked to staff at the DOC center in Franz Joseph. The DOC website separates the upper (Upper Copland Valley Track) and lower (Copland track) sections of the Copland, so you could look at the lower and not know the trail goes beyond Welcome Flat! We don’t want you to be limited by the information you have, so here are some potential trip plans for the Copland:
(Note: Always consult DOC staff for current trail conditions and weather before heading out!)
Intermediate hiker 1-night plan: Hike up to Welcome Flat, enjoy the hot pools, spend the night, and hike out the next day. Plan on 7-10 hours of hiking each day. Come back next time for the upper valley.
Intense 1-night plan: Hike all they way to Douglas Rock! This is a very difficult 15 mile climb, so start early. We would also take an extra day’s worth of food. Heavy rains can leave you stranded on this section of the trail.
Intermediate 2-night plan: Day 1: hike to either Architect Creek (if you don’t like crowds and don’t mind mosquitoes), or Welcome Flat Hut (if you like to soak in hot pools under the stars). Day 2: Day hike up to Douglas Rock with light bags, stay a second night at Welcome Flat Hut. Hike out on day 3.
Intense 2-night plan: Have a little of the mountaineering spirit? Day 1: Hike to Douglas Rock, spend the night. Day 2: Day hike up the valley towards the mountain pass. Potential views of Mt. Cook, more glaciers, and Himalayan Tahr. Spend a second night at Douglas Rock Hut. Day 3: Hike all they way back out. It’s easier downhill than up!
*Intermediate 3-night plan: Day 1:Hike to Architect Creek or Welcome Flat, Day 2: Hike to Douglas Rock. Day 3: Explore the track above Douglas Rock, stay at Douglas Rock again. Day 4: Hike out to Carpark. *Again, a day on the trail always beats a day in town!
The Copland Track is a different kind of fun. It is not an easy hike, especially above Welcome Flat Hut, but it is some of the best mountain scenery we have laid eyes on. We both wished we had planned 3 nights on the track so we could explore more. It is a chance to see the Southern Alps up close and appreciate their size from a human scale. If you are touring the West Coast, take the time to walk the valley and see what these mountains are like at 2 mph (3.2kph).
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