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Guide to Visiting Castle Hill New Zealand (Kura Tawhiti)

Guide to Visiting Castle Hill New Zealand (Kura Tawhiti)

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

Castle Hill New Zealand is an incredible natural, historical and cultural wonder of New Zealand’s South Island. Here is everything you need to know about planning a trip to see the limestone rock formations at Castle Hill (Kura Tawhiti).

Castle Hill, also known as Kura Tawhiti by the indigenous Maori Tribe Ngai Tahu, is one of the most popular stops on the scenic Arthur’s Pass Drive. Visiting this geological wonder serves much more than the usual pit stop, with plenty of things to do and much to learn about New Zealand’s geology and history.

Walking between large limestone boulders at castle hill, new zealand

Tip: Visit Castle Hill From Christchurch

Looking to get to Castle Hill but don't have your own vehicle. You're in luck.

This awesome day trip from Christchurch is currently the best-rated tour to Canterbury's most impressive natural wonder.

You can book either a private or a shared tour experience. Either way, you'll get a professional local guide to show you the best highlights on the way along the Great Alpine Highway.

Hogs back trail at castle hill, new zealand

Where is Castle Hill New Zealand?

The famous Castle Hill rocks are located in the Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill Conservation Area, approximately 54 km from Arthur's Pass and 150 km from Christchurch.

You'll find the conservation area between Darfield and Arthur's Pass.

There is a small township close by that shares the same name, so if you're looking for quick plug-in directions on Google, be careful not to miss the Castle Hill rocks.

I've pinned the location of the car park on the map below.

Castle hill conservation area map

How to Get to Castle Hill Independently

Getting here involves a gradual altitude climb on the incredibly scenic Arthurs Pass scenic drive (Highway 73 - West Coast Road). Arthur's Pass Road is well-maintained and sealed the entire way.

Access to the famous geological site is at the huge car park with plenty of road signs. It's very difficult to miss since you'll see the large limestone boulders lining the hillsides from both directions on the road.

From the car park, there is a clear, open, and marked track to access the boulders, where you can explore freely or follow the set tracks.

View of surrounding mountains and car park at castle hill, south island new zealand
View of surrounding mountains and car park from the top of the boulders

Related: Catlins Road Trip Itinerary

Peter's lookout drive we seek travel

Tip: How to Get Around in New Zealand

Rent a car! New Zealand is very safe for motorists & driving is the best way to explore the country.

I always DiscoverCars to get the best deals. Or, if you want a camper, I've had good experiences in NZ with Spaceships & Travellers Autobarn.

About Castle Hill (Kura Tawhiti)

  • Altitude: 700 m
  • Hiking Difficulty: Easy
  • Time: 30 mins- 2 hours

The Castle Hill rocks site is a New Zealand conservation area, and also holds a Topuni status, which means the values of Ngai Tahu are respected and upheld.

The car park is large and accommodates both regular cars and campers. The car park isf ree and there is also a public toilet on site.

How Did the Rocks Form?

New Zealand has one of the most rapidly changing and diverse landscapes on the planet. To illustrate this, the Castle Hill conservation area (now at 700 m+ AMSL) was once underneath a large inland sea known as the Waimakariri Basin.

The limestone rocks were formed from years of sediment compression and then shaped by erosion following a large uplifting event. This unique type of landscape is known as a Karst landscape.

You can learn a lot about the geology of the region by checking out the many DOC informational signs around the car park and conservation area.

Castle hill limestone rocks

Indigenous History and Rock Art

Indigenous Ngai Tahu tribes put great value on the Kura Tawhiti area. There are historic rock carvings and art located at two separate resting areas within the conservation site.

On my most recent visit, I noticed that there were new pou whenua figures (by Riki Manuel) erected near the entrance. There is an informative sign here as well educating visitors about the ancestors connected to the land and worth taking some time to check out.

Pou whenua statues in new zealand

Things to do at Castle Hill New Zealand

Now that you have a little bit of a background understanding, you might be wondering; "well, what can I do here?". I've visited Castle Hill on several trips to New Zealand's South Island and absolutely love this spot for photography and hiking.

Whether you're a history nut, Lord of the Rings fan, climber, hiker, or just looking to fill time, there are plenty of things to do at Castle Hill New Zealand.

Related: Read the guide to Castle Hill in Townsville (Australia).

Castle hill new zealand limestone rock formations kura tawhiti conservation area
Castle hill rocks
Castle hill new zealand kura tawhiti

Walking Tracks and Paths - Kura Tawhiti Hiking

There are several walking tracks and paths that wind through the limestone rock formations. Many climb up to high viewpoints where you can get some pretty epic views of the entire site.

Hogs Back Track

The main track leading on from the car park and looping through the Castle Hill site is known as the Hogs Back track. This is very easy to find, but you don't have to strictly stick to the track.

I chose to just explore the area, snapping some photos and climbing to the top of some of the boulders to get some unique angles and views.

Hiking tracks on castle hill

Your best bet for hiking and walking around Castle Hill is just to explore freely!

Grayl water filter bottle

Get Clean Drinking Water on Your Hike

I take the Grayl GeoPress Purifier Bottle on every hike and use it as my go-to source for filtering water all over the world. I've even used it to drink tap water in India!

Compare how the GeoPress stacks up against the best water bottle filters on the market.

Rock Climbing and Bouldering at Castle Hill

There are several rock climbing and boulder crags around Castle Hill. While I love rock climbing, I'm not going to pretend that I'm an expert in the sport. If you have crash mats or ropes and climbing gear, then you'll have a blast.

The Crag has usfeul information regarding climbing at Castle Hill.

Climbing the rocks at castle hill new zealand
Running next to large limestone boulders in new zealand

Watch the Sunset

If the confusing and unpredictably Arthur's Pass weather allows, then watching the sunset at Castle Hill is definitely a solid bet. The limestone formations create a unique and beautiful landscape that is a dream for photographers.

Casttle hiiill liton
Girl in queenstown, new zealand

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Take in the Night Sky

The Arthur's Pass road is known to have some of the best night skies for astro enthusiasts. This is due to the remoteness and the altitude.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a clear sky when we stayed near Castle Hill. If you do, make sure you share the photos!

Related: Earnslaw Burn New Zealand

Visit the Nearby Cave Stream Scenic Reserve

For those up for a raw and epic caving experience, I'd highly recommend visiting the nearby Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.

This is a unique cave-walk experience with bolted-in ladders and ropes to help you navigate against a flowing stream within the cave. If you're up for an underrated and wild adventure, definitely leave time enough to visit the Cave Stream after Castle Hill.

Flowing river through cave stream
Cave stream ladder arthurs pass caving
Cave stream cave

Castle Hill Lord of the Rings Scene

Castle Hill New Zealand was the selected setting for one of my favourite scenes in the Lord of the Rings. If you're a LoTR geek like me, then this fact is likely going to be a huge motivator for wanting to visit Castle Hill.

Castle Hill appears in the iconic Lord of the Rings scene where the Fellowship take rest amongst a rocky plateau en route to the Misty Mountains. They are all enjoying some food and laughs while fencing.

Here's the iconic scene for reference (begins at 1:03).

YouTube video

Where to Stay Near Castle Hill

Are you looking for a place to stay near Castle Hill? When I traveled to New Zealand's South Island on my first trip, I stayed in a Spaceship, which allowed me to get around easily and camp for free at freedom camping sites across New Zealand.

Below I'll link some of the most popular Castle Hill accommodation options near Arthur's Pass as well as the free campsite which I stayed at.

Arthur's pass alpine motel

1. Arthur's Pass Alpine Motel Motel

The best-reviewed and bang-for-buck motel in the area. These rooms offer kitchen facilities & great views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Cabin lodge in arthur's pass

2. The Nook Lodge

While I didn't stay here, if you're in a larger group or if you'd prefer an entire apartment, then you can't go wrong with The Nook. This place offers a private bathroom, bedroom, living room, & mountain views.

Mountain house accommodation in arthur's pass

3. Mountain House Backpacker Lodge

A Great lodge within 1.4 km of Devils Punchbowl Falls & just 600 metres from Arthur's Pass Train Station, this backpacker lodge offers excellent common areas (lounge & kitchen) for socialising with other travelers.

More options closer to Castle Hill:

  • Forest Lodge - The only accommodation at Castle Hill. This backpacker-style accommodation offers amazing mountain views and is just 7 km from Mount Cheeseman.
  • Porters Lodge - A little further down State Highway 73, well off the beaten track and amazing views in the hills of Craigieburn Valley.
  • Springfield Motel and Lodge - This motel isn't as close to Castle Hill as the others. However, if you're heading south on Arthur's Pass back towards Christchurch, then this would be a sensible stop after visiting Kura Tawhiti.
Castle hill lodge

Campsites and Freedom Camping

There are a few campsites along Arthur's Pass. I decided to stay at Andrew's Shelter campsite since it was free.

The road out here is very scenic, but a bit of a detour and gets a little rough. Still, nothing a regular 2WD can't handle in normal weather. The sandflies here were absolutely brutal though, so be prepared for that.

Andrews shelter campsite arthur's pass

You also have the option of staying at Okuku Reserve. This site is a paid DOC campsite, which means it is still affordable. Reviews say that the sandfly issue is still present here like most of Arthur's Pass and the West Coast, so I guess it's just something you have to deal with.

Spaceships rentals we seek travel

If you missed my tips above, then you might not know about the great camping apps available for road-trippers in New Zealand. I used the Spaceship app, as well as Campermate to find places to sleep and other useful facilities.

Castle Hill New Zealand: Words From the Dalai Lama

Did you know, that the Dalai Lama visited Castle Hill on his trip to New Zealand in 2002 and proclaimed the hill the Spiritual Centre of the Universe?

More Photos of Castle Hill New Zealand

Here are some more photos of Castle Hill from my several visits that I hope will encourage you to visit this historic conservation area.

Castle hill rocks
Hogs back track hiking at castle hill
Castle hill lord of the rings rocks

More Things to do Near Castle Hill

Looking for more things to do in New Zealand's South Island? You'll find a bunch of free travel articles and hiking guides in the list below.

If you have any questions or updated information about visiting Castle Hill New Zealand, please help other travelers out by leaving a comment below!

Castle hill, new zealand
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.