Valley of the Trolls – Lake Wilson – Mt Erebus, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Lake Wilson & the Valley of the Trolls is an absolute classic hike in Mt Aspiring National Park. Add on an adventurous side trip to Mt Erebus (1978m) for even more grandeur.

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus

A visit to the Valley of the Trolls and Lake Wilson had been on my to do list for quite a few years. We finally did it in our last month living in New Zealand, staying a night and climbing to a vantage point high on Mt Erebus on day 2. The area is accessed off the Routeburn Track, which already takes you through some of New Zealand’s best scenery. But this off-track side trip will take the scenery next level.

Before Sophia and I started camping I had considered doing this as a long day-walk. This is possible, but staying a night at Lake Wilson will give you more opportunities to explore the area, including an adventurous side trip up Mt Erebus (1978m) if you like to gain height. Views at dusk and dawn were extra special, so that will be added reward for carrying your tent.

Route notes at the end. For fit and experienced parties I’d say this walk is ‘moderate’ to Lake Wilson, but ‘hard’ to Mt Erebus.

Valley of the Trolls – Lake Wilson – Mt Erebus: The Scenery

Routeburn Track to Harris Saddle

Just a handful of photos here as you can see a bigger selection in my original posts: Routeburn Track to Routeburn Flats, and from the flats to Harris Saddle/ Conical Hill. (Note that you don’t climb Conical Hill on this route, although you could as an additional side trip).

Routeburn Track to Routeburn Flats, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Routeburn Track to Routeburn Flats, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Routeburn Track to Routeburn Flats, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Routeburn Track NZ: Routeburn Flats to Harris Saddle and Conical Hill

Routeburn Track NZ: Routeburn Flats to Harris Saddle and Conical Hill

Routeburn Track NZ: Routeburn Flats to Harris Saddle and Conical Hill

Routeburn Track NZ: Routeburn Flats to Harris Saddle and Conical Hill

Valley of the Trolls and Lake Wilson

After leaving the Routeburn Track you follow the western edge of Lake Harris (where I saw the ducks in the next photo), and enter the Valley of the Trolls through a section containing large boulders. Presumably this is where the trolls hang out.

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Blue Ducks / Whio. I actually walked right past these guys and only saw them when I turned around to take a landscape shot. Nice green marbling on the water as well.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Past a section of large boulders and into the Valley of the Trolls. It was a bit boggy in this section.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Looking back down the Valley of the Trolls. Conical Hill on the right.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Our campsite next to Lake Wilson.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
I went for a wander around the western shore of Lake Wilson.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Lake Wilson. This was the only shot from the shore where I fit in the whole lake.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
On the western side of the lake.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Mt Erebus

I climbed up above our campsite and took a some photos at sundown. Here’s just a couple…

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Valley of the Trolls at dusk.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
I liked that stripy rock on the left.

Day 2: Mt Erebus and Walking Out

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Early morning reflections in Lake Wilson.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
On our way up Mt Erebus we passed by some spots I’d visited at dusk.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Nice alpine plants.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Mt Xenicus as we climbed up towards the south ridge of Mt Erebus.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Looking towards the summit from our vantage point on the south ridge of Mt Erebus. There was no way along the crest of the ridge from here so I think we would have had to drop back down and go up on the right hand side. Normally I’d be sure to bag the summit, but we were short on time and Sophia talked me out of it. The views were still excellent and well worth the climb.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Views from our ‘almost summit’, looking SE. From pictures I’ve seen online, this view of the tarns is better than what you get from the summit.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Mt Xenicus and friends.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Impressive peaks in the Darran Mountains, including the highest peak in Fiordland, Mt Tutoko. I love the ice caps.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Lake Wilson
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Lake Wilson pano. I took a couple and Sophia preferred this one.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Rugged scenery.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Returning from Mt Erebus. I loved this angle on Mt Xenicus, which is impressive when viewed from the Routeburn as well.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Look at the colours of those rocks!
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Fabulous coloured rocks, especially purple and green.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Mt Xenicus reflected in a pool.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Great colours and patterns in lake Wilson, with Mt Erebus beyond.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Back into the Valley of the Trolls.
Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
An interesting rectangular tarn as we approached Lake Harris. Not far to the Routeburn Track from here.

Route Notes

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Follow the Routeburn Track until Harris Saddle. Descend on an impact track to the western shore of Lake Harris. Continue through the Valley of the Trolls, crossing the stream near an obvious waterfall. Climb the narrow gully to the lake Wilson Outlet where you can camp. Our route to a vantage point on Mt Erebus is approximate, especially the dotted line. This takes navigation skills and possibly some trial and error.

Valley of the Trolls

If you’re coming from Queenstown / Glenorchy then start at the Routeburn Shelter. It’s pretty fast progress along the well graded Routeburn Track, especially as far as Routeburn Falls. From there it’s a bit more rugged to Harris Saddle. (See my route notes from our walk to Harris Saddle and Conical Hill).

At Harris Saddle, before you get to Harris Shelter, drop down to the lake’s edge on an obvious impact track. Continue along the lake shore past some big boulders at the northern end of the lake. You are now in the Valley of the Trolls, although I’ve never seen it named on any map. Continue over boggy ground up stream, crossing the stream to the true left (left looking downstream) as you approach a waterfall.

Lake Wilson

You have two options for accessing Lake Wilson from here. The shortest is to climb up the gully next to the waterfall (on the true left). This is mostly straightforward in the right conditions, except for one section where you have to climb up a one to two metre rock shelf. In dry weather and with a walking partner to help you out this will be okay. But it might be tricky by yourself with a big pack, or in wet weather, or indeed in winter/ spring with snow and ice about. In fact I’ve read that the whole gully can be covered in snow and ice until early summer, requiring crampons and ice axe to take this route. The second and longer, but apparently easier option, is to continue north-east up the valley, climbing easier slopes to Lake Wilson from there.

The area around the Lake Wilson outlet offers a few flat camping spots. That afternoon I crossed the outlet (you might get wet feet) to walk for a while around the western edge of the lake for very nice views in golden light. You can walk around the whole lake, although that takes a good 2-3 hours I believe. I also climbed 10 minutes above our campsite to take photos at dusk.

Mt Erebus

The ‘easiest’ route to Mt Erebus is to gain the south ridge and follow this to the summit. Nevertheless, nothing about this route was particularly easy, except the first 30 minutes or so. I was happy to successfully navigate through confusingly rocky terrain to the ridge, but made a mistake and climbed up onto the crest of the ridge too early. We reached a very good vantage point doing this, but there was no way forward to the summit from there.

The red line on my route map is quite approximate, especially the dotted section. You’ll need to feel your way through the topography. There are a few cairns higher up as you approach the ridge, but I didn’t see them until on our way back. The photo below is of that section, taken in the evening as I was wandering above our campsite. The red arrow is my memory of the route 2.5 months after doing it – so treat it with caution! You can see the terrain and plan your route quite well as you approach from the left hand side (out of frame). But as you progress past the arrow head you cannot see much of the way forward due to big rocks. Some guess work will be required.

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
This is the terrain enroute to the south ridge. I marked this up 2.5 months after doing the walk so I might be wrong, but I remember aiming for below some cliffs. You can see all of this terrain as you approach from the left hand side (out of frame), but as you progress past the arrow head you cannot see much of the way forward due to big rocks.

We wanted to return to the Routeburn Shelter that day so Sophia talked me out of backtracking and trying for the summit. But I think the correct route, (that Sophia was originally going to take), was to sidle for longer just to the east of the ridge, and climb to the summit up the south-eastern flanks. You can see in the following photo that this area had snow in February, so you’ll need ice axe and crampons for much of the year. I actually don’t think we would have needed to step onto the snow. The snow drifts we did encounter were absolutely rock hard, so I wouldn’t have wanted to.

Valley of the Trolls, Lake Wilson, Mt Erebus
Looking towards the summit from our vantage point. There was no way along the crest of the ridge from here so I think we would have had to drop back down and go up on the right hand side.

Returning to Lake Wilson was still a bit tricky to navigate, and we didn’t fully manage to retrace our steps. If you were carrying all your gear you could continue down the valley without returning to the lake, but we had to pick up our tent.  Getting back down the rock step in the gully was slightly easier than going up: Sophia went down first and I lowered our packs down, then climbed down myself.

Here are some photos from a party that made the summit. It’s hard to tell their route up, but you can see the views north that I didn’t get. We’ve actually been into that area on perhaps our best ever walk (thus far) – a circuit via North Col, Lake Nerine, Park Pass and Sugarloaf Pass – so I wasn’t too fussed about seeing it from this angle. (See that post here).

There are other more technical routes to Mt Erebus from the north and west that might suit those with the right experience, and that could be better with snow cover.

The route to Lake Wilson outlet will take roughly 5-7 hours with full packs, (it was about 2 hours from Harris Saddle I think, taking it easy), and perhaps one hour less on the way back. Allow 4+ hours to climb Mt Erebus, although if you are determined and navigate well you can probably do it faster than that.

Author: Edward Hathway

I'm a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

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