Nestled into the side of the Southern Alps, lies the best natural hot tub you’ve ever seen.
The entry fee is paid in hours hiked, as the only way to access this hidden natural beauty is via a deceptively gruelling 18km hike.
A Brief History Of The Copland Track
This popular hiking track had it’s ticket to fame cast firmly in stone, when labourers working on the construction of the path back in the early 1900’s, accidentally stumbled upon these now infamous natural hot pools.
But that was an accidentally discovery that came very close to not happening at all.
Before we go any further into the reasons why, I should probably show you what the modern day Copland Track looks like.
It’s initial purpose, was to act as “…a route for a mule or horse track from ‘The Hermitage’ across the alps to the West Coast via Hooker Valley and Baker’s Saddle.”
With this in mind, construction work on the track began in 1901, and would go on for a total of 12 years.
For 9 years prior to the commissioning of the Copland Track however, debates inside the Department Of Lands And Survey raged on.
Their man on the ground, kiwi explorer Charlie Douglas, was against the proposed Copland Route.
His initial 1892 survey of the area concluded that an alternate route should be found.
The Department Of Lands And Surveys disagreed.
So in the summer of 1894/95, backed heavily by the Tourist and Health Resorts Department, they sent Charlie and follow explorer Arthur Harper out for a second look. This time taking in a wider area.
As fate would have it, the efforts of the exploration saw Charlie Douglas battling health problems which would leave him unable to complete the survey.
Arthur Harper pushed on without him, and concluded that the Copland Route was indeed the most viable.
It was during 1901, in the early stages of the tracks construction, that labourers working under the supervision of Charlie Douglas first discovered the hot pools at Welcome Flat.
Hiking The Copland Track To Welcome Flat Hut
The hike starts out following along the flood prone banks of the Copland River, before veering off for some leg burning fun as the alpine ascent begins.
From the very beginning of the track, we follow the river straight up the Copland Valley.
There are several challenging river and stream crossings to contend with, not the least daunting of which is situated just a minute or two into the hike!
Our first real obstacle is the crossing of Rough Creek – a fairly shallow but quite wide body of water that I realistically never stood any hope of getting across without getting wet feet.
Even though I’m notoriously bad at river crossings (as Jess likes to remind me), this isn’t the type of stream you can hop scotch your way across.
I take the wet feet on the chin and put it down as the price you pay for the beauty you see.
We push on for a few more leisurely miles, taking in several much smaller stream crossings – this time without the burden of having to try and stay dry.
As we while away the miles, occasionally managing to peal our eyes away from the stunning blue waters, we find ourselves walking through some truly spectacular forest and mountain scenery.
Time for an early lunch.
Refuelled and ready to go, it’s soon time for a spot of bouldering further down the river, as we negotiate a recent landslide area.
The terrain slows us down a little, as we try to pick a path through the rocks.
Not that we’re in any real rush.
Eventually, we hit Architect Creek Hut and we know we’re roughly half way.
From here, it’s onwards and upwards to the shelter of the Welcome Flat Hut, which sits a further 440m above sea level.
The only thing that breaks up the climb is the occasional massive swing bridge.
After that, it’s back to the grind.
The elevation gains are, ironically, fairly unwelcome at this stage in the day, but with the smell of warm spring water in our nostrils, we push on and smile while the track attempts to eliminate all but the most committed.
I’ve done this hike 3 times now, and every time I seem to underestimate it.
Maybe the relaxing evening in the hot pool, followed by a cruisey downhill on the return leg is enough to make me forget the hard work from the day before.
Hut Fees And Where To Camp At Welcome Flat Hut
The Department Of Conservation work hard to maintain a massive network of tracks and backcountry huts all across New Zealand.
And the Copland Track is no exception.
Having committed 12 years to the initial building of the track, ongoing maintenance and improvements recently saw the entire of Welcome Flat Hut being remodelled.
Visitors to the hut can now enjoy relatively new facilities in this serviced alpine hut.
There are now several smaller bunk rooms, for something a little more in the way of privacy, as well as double glazing and underfloor insulation for those colder months.
There are 31 bunks available, and in the busy season these fill up fast! So booking is essential. You can do that online here on the DOC website. Bunk prices are fixed at $15 NZD per person per night.
The area around the aptly named Welcome Flat is also ideal for camping.
Prices for tent sites are also fixed at $5 NZD per person per night.
I’ve stayed in the hut and carried in a tent for camping and both are great and very cheap options.
I think ultimately, although the hut is great, I’d take camping any night. As long as the weather’s good!
There’s just no beating being it.
The only downside are the sandflies, whose numbers can get a little out of hand in the wet terrain. Make sure to cover up and get some good spray to keep them away!
If you’re keen to save the 5 bucks to put towards your celebration end of hike beer, don’t forget you can also camp for free as long as you’re more than 500 meters away from the hut and you don’t intend to use any of its facilities.
Where Is The Start Of Copland Track?
The start of the Copland Track is situated just off SH6 in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
If you’re coming at it from the North, aim for Fox Glacier, then keep going. 26km further down the road will bring you to a very well sign posted turn off on your left which will take you down to the carpark. If you pass the Karangarua River bridge, you’ve overshot.
What To Bring
Standard hiking gear should serve you well for the most part here.
A good pair of hiking boots are key if you want to avoid soggy socks, as there are numerous water crossings involved, particularly in the early stages of the hike.
The hut itself doesn’t have much in the way of cooking equipment. You’ll need to bring your own gas and portable burner, as well as any pots and pans you’ll need to cook your dinner/breakfast.
There are a couple of pots and pans left behind by previous hut users, but don’t bank on them being there and being available when you want to use them.
The hut has a fire for heating and is reasonably well insulated so you should be cosey enough even in those tricky months where the outside temperatures start to drop off. Don’t forget, if you need a warm up in the middle of the night, the hot tub is always on.
Other things to think about are insect repellents – the sandflies here can get pretty ferocious. Cover up where you can to avoid exposing skin.
You’ll also want your swimming gear for the pool (something I managed to forget last time I was here) and a bottle of wine to enjoy while you’re in there.
Oh, and don’t forget your headtourch so you can see your way back to bed after the sunset.
You can read more about the hut and its amenities here or in the Copland Track DOC Brochure here.
Staying Safe While Hiking To The Hot Pools
Not to be ‘mum’ but there are a couple of safety points you should think about before you set off.
The main one being…you’re over on the west coast, where it rains. A lot.
All that moisture leaves its mark on the terrain of the area, and the Copland Track itself crosses through two active landslide areas.
If you’re heading out to tackle the hike to the hot pools, keep an eye on the DOC website here for the latest landslide info.
If it’s been raining heavily, or if heavy rain is in the forecast, the track is also quite often closed or completely impassable. This is because of the numerous stream/river crossings that you have to make in the early stages of the track.
In bad weather, these can all rise very quickly and I’ve heard a couple of bad tales of very close calls from hikers who were caught out here unexpected.
Don’t take the risk.
Play it safe, if only for my sake. This blog needs all the readers it can get.
Oh and one final note…
If you do make it there, keep your head above the water.
In any geothermal water, these ones included, there’s always a small risk of amoebic meningitis being present. Keep your head above the water line and you’ll be fine.
The Copland Track easily makes the cut as one of my all time favourite hikes on New Zealand’s South Island, and if you’re a fan of relaxing in natural hot springs under clear star studded skies, I dare say it’ll soon be one of yours too.
Have you hiked the Copland Track? Let me know what you thought!