Arthur's Pass is an every-day name for the State Highway 73, a road that was originally traced in 1865–66 to connect Christchurch to the West Coast goldfields.
The road includes actually two two passes, the more famous and higher Arthur's Pass at over 900m and perhaps more beautiful but lower Porters' Pass at over 700m. The whole route is spectacularly scenic even in a country that does scenic on an everyday basis, and what makes it more attractive is the great variety of landscapes in what is a barley 200km stretch of a road that can be driven, if not stopping, in about three hours flat.
But it's much better to devote a whole day to the Arthur's Pass, to allow time for photo and picnic stops, even if you don't include any proper hiking (or tramping as Kiwis would have it). Even better, spend some days exploring the Alpine glories of the high country on foot, or if you are a skier, take advantage of several ski fields in the eastern section of the route.
The SH73 (also called the Great Alpine Highway) leads from Christchurch (Canterbury district) on the east coast to Greymouth/Hokitika on the west. We drove it west to east in late September, in a lovely, sunny and dry weather.
The Arthur's Pass route branches off the main west coast highway between Hokitika and Greymouth, at a place called Kumara Junction and near a village called Kumara (one wonders what living in a place named "sweet potato" does to the inhabitants). It starts climbing, at first gently, and then much more steeply, through the Otira Gorge.
The road itself is bendy but not particularly difficult, at least in our sunny conditions. But I have seen wind and snow warnings for this route and the road, as any alpine road, can be closed or limited in its opening, as well as requiring chains because of snow and ice.
At first, it's a different landscape that I expected, with mountains still green and water-logged, and deep valleys: we are clearly still in the west, with its high rainfall and steep mountainsides covered in vegetation.
The pass itself, with a formidable viaduct in a steeply-sided gorge, and a waterfall streaming over a specially constructed tunnel-bridge inside which cars travel, feels wild and desolate: at over 900m above the sea level it's a true high country, and the falling darkness makes it even more atmospheric.
After the pass things change very noticeably: the eastern side of the mountains is strikingly drier, with the lush woods replaced by tussock grass. The night falls as we drive across the Waimakariri River, with the dusk pink and saphire and the Evening Star shining incredibly brightly above us.
The land between Arthur's Pass and Porters Pass is a real alpine paradise with ski fields and fantastic walking country as well as some good caves.
The road itself is wildly scenic in the manner that the South Island makes one quite complacent about: wild-looking mountains covered in reddish-yellow, tufty tussocks of grass, regular sequence of triangles like from a child's drawing, with snowy tops shining in the blazing sun.
Twenty kilometers or so, before the high country thrills finish past the supendous curve of the Porters' Pass, there is Castle Hill Basin, a lovely area surrounded by mountain ranges, and with a an extensive area of limestone outcrops in its centre.
The rocks form a veritable labirynth on a hillside, and a magnificent place for a walk, be it a ten minute stroll, a spot of bouldering or a more energetic and longer but less skilled climb to the top of the ridge where the boulders finish.
After that, Porters' Pass and then a quick drive to Springfield and then on to Christchurch through flat farmland.