Stairway to Heaven: Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay Escarpment Track

That old Led Zeppelin number is one of my all-time favourite songs.

Dad used to play it to us kids at bedtime when we were little. So when James and I discovered there is a walking track near Wellington that shares the name, we were intrigued and eager to give it a try.

The Stairway to Heaven walk is one that only opened recently, and is officially called the Escarpment Track. It’s part of the Te Araroa Trail, which is a 3,000 km walking track that goes from the very top of NZ’s North Island at Cape Reinga to the very bottom of the South Island at Bluff. It’s located on the Kapiti Coast, about a half hour drive from Wellington or a 45 minute train journey away.

The Stairway to Heaven Hike, spinthewindrose.com

This weekend the weather was bloody gorgeous – a huge contrast to the start of my last blog post…! When the sun is out in Welly you have to make the most of it, because it won’t be long before the wind or rain come back and you’re cooped up indoors sheltering. James and I jumped at the chance to get out for a hike.

The Escarpment Track gets its nickname because of its many, many, many stairs. The track is 10km long and takes around 3.5 hours to complete. I was expecting a really tough hike, but was surprised to find it wasn’t that bad (read: we’ve done worse) however, you do need to be prepared before you go.

You can walk the track in either direction. I think it’s easier to walk it from Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay as you go down the stairs more than up them. But in doing that you are also basically walking towards a cliff-edge. This walk isn’t suitable for those who are afraid of heights or who suffer from vertigo, or for those who are super clumsy and might fall off the hill (though I am still here to tell the tale!) In all seriousness, an elderly man who had heart problems died on this track, perhaps because it was so tough. Be prepared!

Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com

How to get there

You can walk the track in either direction; it commences/finishes at Paekakriki and Pukerua Bay. To get there you can either drive or take the train, though there is no parking available at either end of the track, so you’ll need to leave your car at the train station and walk to the track. The Kapiti line train departs from Wellington often, even on Sundays. A Day Rover will give you unlimited travel on all lines on one day and costs $14 per person which is cheaper than two one-way tickets. Visit metlink.org.nz for more info on transport.

Starting at Pukerua Bay: Follow the signs for the Te Araroa trail, through the residential area of Sea Vista Drive, to Muri Park and past the (now closed) Muri Station. You’ll see a sign for the Escarpment track at the Station gate.

Starting at Paekakariki: Turn right when you get off the train and walk to the station exit. Don’t cross the train tracks or the road; take the path that goes alongside the main road for about 10 minutes and you’ll come to a bridge with some steps that lead under it to Ames Road. Take the steps, go under the highway and you’ll be at the start of the track.

If you choose to drive and leave your car at one end of the track, you can hop on the train to the other end for $3.50pp.

Note: Loads of people take the train, so trust me when I say you won’t look out of place in your hiking boots and cagoule!

Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com

Climbing the Stairway to Heaven

James and I chose to walk from Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay and I think we made the right choice. The start of the track is leisurely, a steady incline but nothing too difficult. You’ll pass through some coastal bush but mostly be exposed to the sun – so make sure you wear sun cream!

Then the steps begin. The stairways zig-zag up the hill to its highest point, and from here the views are truly stunning – be sure to take a photo.

I have always thought that climbing up steps as opposed to a hill is so much harder! The trouble with this track is that it is just so steep; they couldn’t have avoided putting steps in when they created the track!

 Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.comStairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com The descent

The descent in my opinion was worse than the climb. You have to go slowly and keep steady; the stairways zigzag down the hillside so you could very well shoot off the end in strong winds or if you lost your balance. Easily said, but I’m quite boundy when it comes to walking, I tend to just plonk along without looking where I’m putting my feet. This track definitely made me pay more attention!

The track descends via the steep stairways before passing through a Kohekohe forest where you might spot a fantail or two. These are the birds that will follow you as they try to catch the tiny bugs hovering around your body. There is another set of (even steeper) zig-zag stairways before the track begins to level out; you’ll cross two swing bridges and then continue on a slow decent towards Muri train station. The trail is marked with the ‘Te Araroa’ signs once you leave the station and continues through a residential area to the Pukerua Bay train station.

Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com DSC02801

Overall

What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I would recommend this walk to anyone looking for great views and a bit of a workout! It’s a must if you live in the Wellington region since it’s so easily accessible by train.

In terms of fitness, it isn’t the hardest hike I’ve done (that goes to the Tongariro or the Pinnacles in the Coromandel…!) It took us about 2.5 hours to complete, including a stop for lunch and to take photos.

If you walk from Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, you won’t have to climb so many steps, but you’ll have to go down an awful lot of them. Alternatively, if you walk the track in the other direction, the climb will be more tough but the descent won’t be as dangerous. Choose wisely!

Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com

Be prepared

Make sure you are adequately prepared for this walk before you set off. I do not recommend choosing this track in heavy rain or strong winds, as the majority of the track is made of wooden steps which could get slippery. There are no barriers, meaning when you come down you could literally fall off the side of the cliff. Even if the weather looks fine when you leave, be prepared for sudden changes, as is common in New Zealand!

You’ll need sturdy walking shoes, lots of water, a waterproof jacket and/or long sleeved top, some food, and a hat/scarf/gloves/sunglasses. Oh and your camera!

The track is steep, narrow and exposed; only people with a reasonable level of fitness should attempt this walk, and it isn’t suitable for those who suffer from vertigo. Don’t go onto the railway – you could get a $20,000 fine. There are no toilets or bins on the track; take all your rubbish with you and practice toitū te whenua (leave the land undisturbed). No horses, dogs, bikes or motorised vehicles are allowed.

For more information visit the website here.

Stairway to Heaven, Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, spinthewindrose.com

Do you enjoy hiking at the weekends? What do you find harder: stairs or hills? If you’ve hiked the Escarpment Track, please share your opinions in the comments below!

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Abbi X

Note: All of the photos in this post are my own.

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