Looking down over the Arrow River on the way to Macetown
Things to do

Discovering Macetown

Guide by Roxanne de Bruyn

Last Updated 25 January 2024

Venture into the wilderness above Arrowtown on a historic route followed by miners during the Gold Rush.

A tourist hub, it can feel like it’s difficult to escape the crowds in Queenstown and the surrounding areas. If you want to disappear into the bush and see what the country must have looked like during the Gold Rush, a trip to Macetown will fit the bill perfectly.

Only 15km from Arrowtown, Macetown Historic Reserve is only accessible by walking, mountain bike or four-wheel drive. The route is steep with numerous river crossings and is only accessible in good weather conditions.

Historic Macetown

First settled in the 1860s, Macetown was established following the discovery of gold in the Arrow River. Once the alluvial gold was depleted, quartz was found in the hills. By the 1930s, however, the mining industry had died and by the 1930s, Macetown was a ghost town.

Once home to around 2,000 people, Macetown is now completely empty. A handful of the historic structures have been restored including Smiths Bakehouse, Andersons Battery and Needhams Cottage. You can also see the remnants of a few old buildings including old schoolroom and stone fences, along with some original fruit and shelter trees.

The buildings are a good distance apart, so don’t expect to wander down a fully restored main road like you can in Cromwell. Instead, Macetown is an isolated and lonely spot and peering inside the old buildings gives an indication of the cramped conditions residents of the town must have in. There is good signage in the town and interpretation panels tell Macetown’s story through following the life of Jack Glasson, a fictional character based on real incidents and anecdotes.

It's also well worth walking up Rich Burn Valley to see the Homeward Bound Stamper Battery. Used to crush quartz so gold could be extracted, stamper batteries were heavy iron machines typically weighing half a tonne.  

There are several of these dotted around New Zealand, abandoned to the forest once the gold ran out. The stamper battery at Macetown is four-storeys high and a particularly impressive relic of New Zealand’s gold mining days. A highlight of Macetown, the stamper battery is a challenging 45-minute walk from the end of the track.

While you can go inside the restored structures, they are sometimes locked due to vandalism. You can also camp at Macetown Historic Reserve and there is a toilet on site.

The route to Macetown

Mountain bikes, walkers and vehicles all use the 4WD track which connects Arrowtown to Macetown.

The trail takes you up through the hills with sweeping views over the Arrow River and mountain passes. Spring is a beautiful time to visit as the countryside is dotted with colourful lupins and yellow broom. There are also several historic features on-site including the remains of stone walls and historic hotels.

Macetown by 4WD

The 15km drive from Arrowtown to Macetown takes at least an hour each way, depending on weather conditions. The terrain is challenging with narrow sections, and steep drop-offs, and crosses the river 23 times.

There are organised 4WD tours which allow you to experience the route for yourself. Expect a bumpy if exhilarating ride, with views across the valley and down into the river.

You’ll find yourself driving along the edges of sheer cliffs and crossing the river lined with wildflowers, marvelling at the number of people who made this journey in the 1800s. The trip includes a stop at Macetown and a couple of other points of interest, as well as the opportunity to try panning for gold in the river.

If you want to go to Macetown independently, be aware that the insurance on rental vehicles does not cover trips to Macetown. If you don’t have your own four-wheel drive, consider joining an organised tour, cycling or walking instead.

The track is suited to drivers with experience in rough conditions on steep terrain. If your vehicle becomes submerged, damaged, or stuck on the track, you will need to arrange your own vehicle recovery.

Mountain biking to Macetown

Mountain biking is a wonderful option for visiting Macetown during the warmer months of the year. The mountain biking trail follows the same route as the 4WD track, so be prepared for multiple river crossings. You’ll have to carry your bike across, for the most part, so expect wet feet. Aside from that, it’s a fairly moderate track and you can expect to take around 1-2 hours each way from Arrowtown.

Check the weather conditions before you go and get the latest trail conditions from one of the local bike shops. Heavy rain can mean the river is too high to pass and snow and ice can cover the track in winter and spring. The best time for this ride is in the late summer and autumn (between February and April) after the snow has melted.

Walking to Macetown

The walk between Macetown and Arrowtown is 15km and typically takes around 3-4 hours each way. While there are a couple of bridges, you’ll have to cross the river in many places, so check the conditions before you go. If the river is too high, you won’t be able to cross.

An alternative route via Big Hill Track (4-5 hrs) avoids some of the larger river crossings. However, this track is steep, climbing above 1000m and is only suitable in good conditions. From here, you’ll have views over the Wakatipu Basin and beyond. If staying overnight in Macetown, you may choose to follow the 4WD track one way and return via Big Hill Track.

Once again, walking to Macetown is best kept for the warmer months as there can be a lot of ice and snow in winter. The Macetown to Arrowtown route is part of the multi-day Motatapu Track, which follows a historic route linking the Wānaka and Arrowtown areas.