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A Warm Welcome: Hiking the Copland Track

 Geoff Marks

 

Westland Tai Poutini National Park lies at the heart of New Zealand’s largest stretch of wilderness. Covering 1,320km² the park extends from the top of the South Island right down to Fiordland and encompasses some of the most diverse landscapes in New Zealand from the highest peaks and glaciers of the Southern Alps, through pristine rainforests to the wild West Coast.

A unique feature of Westland Tai Poutini National Park is its complete mountains to sea landscapes which are uninterrupted by human development and make for some of the most dramatic natural features on the planet. With a wide network of walking and hiking trails, the National Park is also one of the most accessible stretches of New Zealand wilderness.

Views of Aoraki Mount Cook and the glaciers from Gillespies Beach, Fox Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Westland Tai Poutini National Park offers incredible, uninterrupted mountains to the sea landscapes. Photo: Gillespies Beach near Fox Glacier. Credit Geoff Marks.

Located just south of Fox Glacier, the Copland Track has offered visitors a great introduction to the diversity of the National Park for over 100 years and is an achievable overnight tramp for those with moderate fitness and some hiking experience.

From the Copland car park on SH6 to Welcome Flat Hut it’s an 18km walk which takes most people around 7 hours. The track is currently in great condition thanks to maintenance work conducted by Fox Glacier Guiding staff and the Department of Conservation through the Jobs for Nature funding which has helped support the local Glacier Country community during the covid-19 pandemic.

Hikers walk through native rainforest on the Copland Track Fox Glacier West Coast New Zealand

From the car park the track climbs steadily through lush native rainforest. Photo credit: Geoff Marks.

The Copland Track has been popular with visitors to the West Coast since the early 1900’s. In 1903, the Minister for Tourist and Health Resorts identified that the Copland fitted well with the Government’s grand plans for the fledgling national tourism industry as part of the West Coast loop route for travelling down the coast to The Hermitage in Mount Cook. So began the development of the track for tourism.

During the early years of the track, the journey up the Copland Valley was often undertaken as a guided trip on horseback as far as the Welcome Flat Hut, which was built in 1912. From here, tourists were guided up and over the Copland Pass and down to The Hermitage. Parts of the original bridle track are still visible today as you walk up the valley.

Today, the track is well maintained and whilst it’s a steady climb up to Welcome Flat Hut, there are numerous viewpoints and several – if somewhat chilly – swimming spots along the way which offer a good place for a picnic lunch and a rest.

A hiker crosses a swing bridge on the Copland Track West Coast New Zealand

Numerous swing bridges span the side creeks and rivers along the track. Photo Credit Geoff Marks.

The current hut at Welcome Flat was built in 1986, but it’s not your typical DOC hut. The grand design consists of two storeys, with 31-bunks located on the top floor and a spacious kitchen and dining area downstairs. Bookings are essential, but whilst you’re online, check availability for the Sierra Room which offers private accommodation for up to 4 people and includes a hot shower!

Notwithstanding the luxuries of the Sierra Room, all trampers are assured of the warmest of welcomes at the hut by virtue of the nearby natural geothermal hot pools, which offer weary hikers the chance to soak away their aches surrounded by the grandeur of the Southern Alps. A night-time soak under the stars is a must do, especially as there are no sandflies to bother you at night!

Hiking on the Copland Track Westland Tai Poutini National Park New Zealand

A dramatic view of the Copland River from the Welcome Flat swing bridge. Photo Credit Geoff Marks.

Whilst most people will only stay one night at Welcome Flat, a more relaxing way to enjoy the wilderness experience is to plan a two-night stay which allows an extra day to explore further up the Copland Valley towards Douglas Rock. The track is a little rougher beyond Welcome Flat but offers more expansive views of the Southern Alps including access to some stunning waterfalls and more glacial-fed swimming holes. Kea and other native birds are regularly seen further up the valley, and it pays to walk quietly and stop regularly to appreciate your natural surroundings.

Hiking on the Copland Track Westland Tai Poutini National Park New Zealand

Venturing further up the Copland Valley from Welcome Flat offers spectacular views of the Sierra Range and a sequence of stunning waterfalls. Photo credit: Geoff Marks.

The return walk from the hut back to the car park is mostly downhill and is usually a little quicker than the hike up the valley. It’s then a short 20-minute drive back to Fox Glacier where a range of accommodation is available as well as a good selection of cafes and restaurants for a well-deserved dinner. And for those suffering from hot pool withdrawal symptoms, it’s only a 30-minute drive to Franz Josef to visit the gorgeous Waiho Hot Tubs.

If you don’t have time for an overnight trip to Welcome Flat Hut, or you don’t feel that you have the necessary experience, download our guide to the best walking and hiking in Glacier Country here.

Know before you go…

The Mountain Safety Council, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation has a great video guide to walking the Copland Track. Check it out here.

Always follow the Land Safety Code and check in with the local DOC office in Franz Josef or Haast before you start your walk to confirm weather and the latest track conditions.

Storm clouds over the Southern Alps on the Copland Track West Coast New Zealand

Storm clouds brew over the Sierra Range near Welcome Flat Hut, with the bright red flowers of Southern Rata visible in the forest canopy. Photo credit: Geoff Marks.