Climbing Mount Holdsworth: a weekend in Tararua Forest Park

I love that feeling you get when you reach the summit of a mountain.

I’ve only felt it a few times, as I am by no means an expert when it comes to mountain-climbing, but it gives me such a buzz of excitement to know I’ve reached the top – especially when it’s a tough climb like Mount Holdsworth.

The Tararua Forest Park is a huge stretch of land in the Wairarapa, about 90 mins drive from Wellington. It is the largest conservation park managed by the Department of Conservation on the North Island, at 116,535 hectares – it stretches from Otaki on the Kapiti Coast to Carterton in the Wairarapa, up towards Palmerston North and south towards Featherston. This is the perfect spot for anyone looking to spend some time hiking; when you’re up on the ridges or lost in the forest you feel miles away from civilisation.

There’s plenty of walking tracks in the area, including a 3-day loop named the Jumbo circuit. I would have loved to do the full loop, however, we only had two days since we had to be back at work on the Monday morning. James and I had locked in a weekend with our flatmates Emily and Jesse for weeks – and last weekend we went. We hiked up to Powell Hut where we stayed the night, and walked up to the summit of Mount Holdsworth the next morning before returning the way we came. I was going to write this post earlier but then the earthquake happened… Here’s how we got on.

climbing mount holdsworth, tararua forest park - spinthewindrose.com

Holdsworth Roadend to Rocky Lookout

We parked at Holdsworth Roadend Car Park, located at the foot of the Tararuas by Holdsworth Lodge, and began our hike at around 11am, having driven from Wellington that morning. The first part of the walk is along the Gentle Annie Track and was easy. The very start of the walk was completely flat, and then we began a slight descent. Our only difficulty was the flooding; there had been so much rain on the previous few days that the streams were completely overflowing. Luckily, James and I wore our trusty hiking boots so we sploshed straight through – but Em and Jesse had to be careful where they stepped in their trainers. Beside that, the track is well graded.

Into the forest...
Into the forest…

We reached Rocky lookout after around an hour of walking. The sign from the main track to the lookout says 5 mins; it’s more like 30 seconds. And you’re greeted by a huge rock! The view at this point is apparently very beautiful on a clear day. According to our flatties, you can see all the way across the Wairarapa. Unfortunately for us, the weather had other plans; our view is below…

Allow 1.5 hours to walk from the car park to Rocky Lookout 

Rocky Lookout, Tararua Forest Park - spinthewindrose.com

Rocky Lookout to Mountain House Shelter

We continued along the track, ascending some stairs but mostly just trudging slowly up the hill. The forest got greener, the ferns more wild, but the rain was slowly getting heavier too. Isn’t it annoying when it rains? Especially when you’re going uphill. I always prefer to wear shorts for an ascent, and my legs were bright pink  by this point. We were too hot to wear our coats but too cold not to!

We crossed the boardwalk and reached a clearing, where a sign advised we had another 30 minutes of walking until we would reach the Mountain House Shelter. I think the rain must have been encouraging us to walk faster; we got there about 15 minutes later.

So much greenery!
So much greenery!

The Shelter is the third hut that has stood in this spot as the previous ones were damaged so much in the high winds. The second hut was a proper bunk house with separate men’s and women’s dormitories, used by tourists who would take horse rides up the track in the early 1900s. Today the Shelter is simply that: a wooden shelter which is a good spot for a rest and a bite to eat. It’s 736m above sea level and has a water tank, though you should boil the water before drinking, and there is a long-drop toilet nearby. We hung up our coats. Mine was dripping wet – I definitely need to invest in a better waterproof jacket (I really like this one) for future hikes. After lunch (marmite sandwiches and a banana), we continued on our hike.

Allow 1 hour to walk from Rocky Lookout to Mountain House Shelter

Note: For this part of the walk, visit this page on the DOC website.

Mountain House Shelter on the way back (in the sun!)
Mountain House Shelter on the way back (in the sun!)


Mountain House Shelter to Powell Hut

The track between Mountain House Shelter and Powell Hut is very tough. It’s only a distance of around 1 kilometre but the track has such a steep incline. By this point I was a little grumpy; I was cold, wet, and quite tired. Most of the track is stairs, which I don’t know if I prefer or not. Apparently you used to have to pull yourself up the tree roots; luckily we didn’t have to scramble up the hill.

At the lookout where noises echo across the valley
At the lookout where noises echo across the valley

We reached the top of the trees and were even more exposed to the wind and rain. Surely the hut couldn’t be far off? We found a huge rock that overlooks the valley – again, on a clear day, you can see for miles. If you clap, you’ll hear it echo across the valley. We passed a couple of hikers on their descent and I tentatively asked if it was much further to the hut. They said “60 seconds!” and… they were right! Up one last set of stairs and there it was – like a heavenly refuge welcoming us from the hideous weather.

Allow 1 hour to walk from Mountain House Shelter to Powell Hut

Powell Hut, Tararua Forest Park - spinthewindrose.com

Powell Hut is a serviced hut with 28 bunks, four gas stoves, some benches and tables, and a great fire that heats the whole hut. The toilets are long-drops which are a few metres outside the hut. During peak season you should book your stay beforehand (we did, regardless of the fact it wasn’t very busy), though in the winter you can turn up with your backcountry hut tickets (3 tickets per adult; $15).

The hut is in a gorgeous setting, nestled in the hills amongst the tussock grasses. When we arrived, it was too cloudy to see more than a hundred metres in front of us. We had been planning on doing the summit that same afternoon, but visibility was just too poor; there would have been no point. We took off our jackets and boots – we had steam coming off us! – and retreated to the warmth and dryness of the hut. There was a group of trampers who had already arrived and had the fire lit ready, so we had dinner, drank our wine (a bitch to carry but the best reward!) and played a few card games.

The next morning, I was hoping that the cloud would have cleared (I even set my alarm for 2am to try t photograph the stars but it was way too cloudy). Unfortunately we had no such luck and it was too grey for a proper sunrise. However, the clouds rising out of the valleys was still a gorgeous sight.

Note: There’s more information about Powell Hut on this page on the DOC website.

Cloudy valleys - The view from Powell Hut
Cloudy valleys – The view from Powell Hut

Powell Hut to Mount Holdsworth Summit

After a nutritious breakfast of porridge and sultanas, we began the final ascent. We left our packs at the hut so that we would be able to walk faster. This part of the track is completely exposed to the elements – the clouds were moving quickly but luckily the rain had stopped. We carried on the ascent, along the ridges as the track passed through a wetland and up the rocks. After about 45 minutes of walking we reached the strange metal geological structure that marks the summit. Phew!

Allow at least 1 hour to walk from Powell Hut to the Summit of Mount Holdsworth

En route to the summit of Mount Holdsworth

En route to the summit of Mount Holdsworth


The descent

We didn’t hang about at the summit of Mount Holdsworth for too long because it was a) cold, b) windy, and c) a huge cloud was coming. After a few mandatory photos we turned to start our descent – walking straight through the cloud. We reached the hut after about 30 minutes of walking, careful not to slip on the loose rocks, and admiring the strange mosses that covered them. After stopping at the hut to grab our packs, go to the bathroom and fill our water bottles (the water tasted strangely of smoke, so we used a few of my purification tablets, which made it taste like antiseptic instead…)

We continued on our descent, which was easier than the way up but much more harsh on the knees. The forest was simply beautiful after the rain from the day before – so incredibly green! Thankfully the flooded rivers had calmed slightly from a night without rain. We were back at the car within another 1 hour 45 minutes – hard to think that just 3 hours earlier we had been at the top of a mountain!

Mount Holdsworth - spinthewindrose.com

Top Tips

  • Access to the Tararua Forest Park is from three points: via Holdsworth, via Waiohine Gorge in the south-east, and via Otaki Forks, to the West.
  • The best way to get to the park is by car, as the entrances are some distance from the closest towns. There are some taxi/bus that can be hired between Masterton and Holdsworth – ask at the iSite in Masterton.
  • Remember to book your hut accommodation in advance, or take your backcountry hut tickets with you.
  • For more information on hiking in New Zealand, read a post I wrote dedicated to the subject!
View from the top
View from the top!

Have you climbed Mount Holdsworth or spent much time in the Tararua Forest Park?

Thanks for reading and safe hiking!

abbi-signature-spinthewindrose

All information is true and correct based on our experiences on 12th and 13th November 2016. This post contains affiliate links which help to run this site.

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7 Comments

  1. I remember one of the times when I finally reached a summit – or whatever specific destination there was – and it was indeed overwhelming. Gapsing in awe, catching breath, silly happy giggles, taking pictures and just being proud of oneself all took turns within seconds. Your pictures look lovely, it feels like being right there! Oh how I miss New Zealand!

  2. Such a beautiful place! so sorry that the weather didn’t co-operate with you this time but I still think, that the pictures are amazing. I get a little grumpy too when things don’t go the way I want and I’m hungry or tired, but afterwards when you think, it must of been a great achievement that you made it all the way.

  3. Love treks to the mountain peaks. It is indeed such a wonderful experience to reach the peak and look at the view below. It is such a pity you were not able to photograph the stars because of the cloud fever. I am sure the scene with the twinkling stars would have been enchanting.

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