Warning In winter, when there may be sudden falls of snow, the Arthur's Pass Road may be negotiable only by automobiles with chains, or sometimes not at all. Because of the sharp bends and steep gradients in the Otira Gorge vehicles with trailers, caravans and vehicles over 13m in length are banned.
When gold was found on the west coast in 1863 the authorities in Christchurch were concerned to find some way over the barrier of the Southern Alps into Westland. Most prospectors travelled by boat to Hokitika on the west coast and the recovered gold was also shipped from there. But transport overland was safer and more reliable than the voyage on the wild Tasman Sea. There was of course the narrow Harper Pass that had been used by the Maoris to get to the Westland greenstone deposits; but the swarms of prospectors and their heavily laden pack horses soon reduced the track to an impassable state.
In 1864, therefore, two surveyors, Arthur and George Dobson, set out on horseback through the valleys of the Waimakariri and Bealey rivers. Arthur found the pass that now bears his name, but the steep descent on the west side to the Otira River, and particularly the Otira Gorge, were difficult to negotiate.
In 1865 work began on the construction of a road over the pass. An army of almost 1000 workmen armed with picks and shovels hewed the road out of the rock, and within a year a coach was able to drive on it from Christchurch to Hokitika. Beef cattle, too, were driven over the pass to supply the building workers and gold miners.
In the 1920s a railroad line was laid broadly parallel with the road, bypassing the Otira Gorge in a tunnel 8.6km long.
After the railroad line was completed the camp that had accommodated the track layers and tuneless became an alpine holiday resort, from which beautiful trails lead into the majestic mountains. Here too is the national park visitor center, with displays on the natural history of this part of the Southern Alps and on the construction of the road and the railroad line.