Hiking the Greenstone Caples Track – a great alternative for the Routeburn Track
Welcome to this article about the Greenstone & Caples Track. If you have come to this article to read more about this amazing hike, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve written a complete hiking guide of the Greenstone Caples Track for you below and hope you’ll find it useful. I’ve hiked this trail in 2018 and a few weeks later I hiked The Routeburn Track for the second time in my life. Even though I have to admit that the Routeburn Track is stunning, the Greenstone Caples Track proved to be a worthy alternative for the Routeburn Track. It’s almost as scenic, much cheaper, way less crowded and well worth your time. So sit down, relax and enjoy my article below.
How I got to know about the Greenstone Caples Track
Ever since my first visit to New Zealand back in 2002 I knew I’d come back in the future. It took a while, but I returned in 2011 and again in 2018. The latter two trips were mostly dedicated to hiking New Zealand’s famous trails. In 2011 I mostly hiked The New Zealand Great Walks but on my most recent trip, I decided to get off the beaten path a bit more and explore some lesser known trails. I had already hiked The Routeburn Track and The Kepler Track back in 2011 and was now looking for some alternatives that would be less crowded but as scenic.
A few years ago, a New Zealand friend of mine, who actually lives nearby my hometown in The Netherlands, pointed out to me that the Greenstone Caples Track is a great alternative to the famous Routeburn Track but less the crowds. I immediately wrote that down in my notebook with ‘hikes I want to make one day’ and knew that during my next trip to New Zealand, this one would be on the top of my hiking list, together with the Angelus Hut hike in Nelson Lakes National Park.
This is how I found out about the Greenstone & Caples Tracks (which can in fact also be hiked separately) and when spending three months in New Zealand in 2018 I knew this was going to be my number 1 bucket list item.
Planning a trip to New Zealand? Make sure to also read my complete travel guide for New Zealand here!
About the Greenstone Caples Track
If you wish to hike the full round, the Greenstone Caples Track is 4 days in length. Department of Conservation classifies it as an easier tramping track, meaning that it’s a generally well formed tack for comfortable overnight tramping/hiking trips. You cannot book the huts beforehand and need to purchase a Backcountry Hut Pass or Backcountry Hut Tickets beforehand, which you can do for example at the DOC Office in Queenstown. The DOC Huts on this track are serviced in summer months, have mattresses and running water. You’ll need to bring your own food, cooking material, sleeping bag and anything else you may need on this trip. As opposed to the Great Walks, stoves are not provided so you’ll need to carry those as well.
The Greenstone Caples Track will take you through two valleys and is a loop walk, so you’ll eventually get back to the trailhead, unless you decide to combine this trail with the Routeburn Track. The trailhead is at Greenstone Road End, 86 kilometers from Queenstown. As I wanted to get an early start I decided to stay overnight in nearby Glenorchy which is about an hour from the Greenstone Road End.
The trail is generally well marked and not too difficult. I solo-hiked it and found it rather easy compared to other mult-day hikes in New Zealand. There were some minor unbridged stream crossings along the way as well as some knee-deep mud sections, but nothing major to worry about.
How to get to the Greenstone Track
Before I’ll give you a detailed day to day description as well as alternative hikes, I’ll tell you more about how to get to the Greenstone and Caples Track. Most trampers will start this hike from the Greenstone Road End, along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. You can also start from the Howden Hut on the Routeburn Track, but more on that later at the alternative routes section.
If you are driving, then it’s 86 kilometers from Queenstown or 35 kilometers from Glenorchy. From Queenstown it’s about a two hours drive, from Glenorchy one hour. The majority of the road past Glenorchy is on a gravel road and past Kinloch there will be various rivers to ford. If you have a rental vehicle, make sure to check whether you are insured for river crossings, most likely you won’t be though. While I drove it on the way over to the Greenstone Road End the crossings were okay, however on the way back it got a bit more trickier as it had been raining and the fords got wider and deeper. In case of heavy rain, the fords may become impassable.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can use the service of a track transport operation service such as Info & Track who have organized transport all around Queenstown. I have not personally used them so cannot recommend them from my own experience, however they are advertised on the Greenstone Caples Track brochure by DOC.
In which direction should you hike the Greenstone & Caples Tracks?
Since the main track is a loop track, you can hike it either way. However, I ran into a guy who had hiked it before and he advised me to hike it anti-clockwise, so starting with the Caples Valley. This is the narrower one whereas the Greenstone Valley is wider. As I wanted to take advantage of the good weather I had, I decided to stick to his suggestion. The track is also described by DOC this way, however there is no need to walk it anti clock-wise. Below you will find a detailed day-to-day description of my hike!
Day 1: Greenstone Road end to Mid Caples Hut (2-3 hrs, 9 km)
Day one of the Greenstone Caples Track leads you along the Caples River. In this part of the valley you’ll find a lot of stock so don’t feel worried if you feel something is looking at you. After you’ve passed the confluence of the Greenstone and Caples Rivers, follow the Caples Track to your right. The trail will stick to the bush edge most of the time but in some parts, you’ll walk along with the cows in the grassy parts.
Tip: do not forget to look behind you every now and then. The views of the mountains behind you are truly stunning and turned out to be some of the best views of the whole track. The walk to Mid-Caples Hut is relatively short (it took me about 3 hours, the mentioned 2 hours are rather fast I’d say) plus time for pictures.
After the first two hours it became cloudy but luckily I had already enjoyed some amazing views. Just before you get to the hut, you’ll cross an incredibly scenic gorge with bright blue water. I decided to first drop my gear at the hut and head back to the gorge for pictures later, as I wanted to make sure I’d had a bed for the night. It actually turned out to be pretty quiet at the hut, there eventually were less than 10 people for the evening.
Note: the location of the hut is incredibly scenic, however the sandflies are a pain. If you decide to head out after your arrival, cover your arms and legs and be prepared for a sandfly attack!
Day 2: Mid Caples to McKellar Hut (6-7 hrs, 22 km)
The only (somewhat) alpine section of the Greenstone Caples Track awaits you on day two, when you cross McKellar Saddle into the next valley. I started my day early as this is generally a rule when I hike solo without cell phone connection (read more here about tips for safe solo hiking as a female). The first section of today’s hike will take you through the forest and you’ll gradually climb up to McKellar Saddle. From here the views are stunning, I had overcast but I can imagine it’s even more beautiful on a clear day.
As the saddle pretty much marks the half way point of day 2, I decided to grab lunch here. The majority of the walk on the saddle is on boardwalks in order to protect the fragile nature. The highest point is at 945 mts and after the saddle you’ll gradually walk down to the Greenstone Valley floor. Just before McKellar Lake you’ll get to a junction, from here you can hike to the Howden Hut on the Routeburn Track (more on that below) or McKellar Hut, the final destination for today.
DOC describes the McKellar Hut as one hour away from the track junction, however it took me a little longer. Once again the views are amazing and the location of the hut is awesome.
Day 3: McKellar Hut to Greenstone Hut (6 – 7 hrs, 18 km)
You’ve now reached the Greenstone Valley which is much wider than the Caples Valley. The hike from McKellar Hut to Greenstone Hut is across the bottom of the valley and stunning all the way. There’s a few minor rivers to be crossed as well as an old landslide you’ll walk across.
The Greenstone Hut is a 10 minute walk away from the track and is quite a but busier than the huts for the previous nights, since people who hike the Te Araroa Track (New Zealand’s long distance tramp) can also overnight here. I arrived at the Greenstone Hut mid afternoon and spent an awesome few hours enjoying the sunshine and overlooking the amazing views in the distance. Note that the hut was full well by the middle of the afternoon so arriving early is wise.
Day 4: Geenstone Hut to Greenstone Road end (3-5 hrs, 12 km)
I woke up after a rainy night and decided to quickly pack my bags and hike the final section of the Greenstone Caples Track. The first part of the hike was quite dry and led me through the forest most of the time. Slip Flat is a large open area and according to the track brochure, there should be an emergency bridge to cross the creek. The creek indeed turned out to be rather large so I decided to find the emergency bridge upstream. It seemed like there was a trail afterwards, but somehow I lost it and I got a bit confused. If you decide to go for the emergency bridge, my suggestion for you is to follow the creek back to the original track rather than trying to find your own way. There were many ‘sort of trails’ which I thought were right but eventually it took me quite a while to find the main trail back. I later realized they may have been stock tracks which confused me.
The final part was rainy and wet and I decided to hike quickly back to my car, as I wanted to make sure to get out in case the rivers on the Greenstone Road would become impassable (I was a bit worried as I didn’t have vehicle with high clearance and there’s no cell phone connection in the area).
If the weather would have been good, I’d have done the additional walk to Lake Rere but given the downpour, I figured it wouldn’t be worth it in the end.
After I got back to my car I changed into a dry outfit and decided to hit the road in order to get the crossings over and done with. Two of them had become rather deep and I was glad I got through them okay.
Greenstone Caples Track Map and Brochure
You can pick up a copy of the Greenstone Caples Track Map and Brochure at the Queenstown DOC office. They will also be able to provide you will all necessary information regarding the track as well as potential closures etc. You don’t really need a topographical map as the track is well marked with orange poles and signs in some places. Other than losing the track for a moment after the emergency bridge, I found it rather easy to find. With the Routeburn Track becoming more and more popular, I heard this is becoming a more hiked alternative for the Routeburn Track as it doesn’t require advance reservations and staying at the huts is cheaper than the Great Walk Huts.
Routeburn Greenstone Track
It’s possible to combine the Greenstone track with a section of the Routeburn Track. If you wish to do so from the Greenstone Valley, my suggested itinerary would be:
Day 1: Greenstone Road End – Greenstone Hut
Day 2: Greenstone Hut – McKellar Hut
Day 3. McKellar Hut – Howden Hut or onwards to The Divide
Day 4: Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut (you can also combine day 3+4 into one long day)
Day 5: Lake Mackenzie Hut – Routeburn Falls Hut
Day 6: Routeburn Falls Hut – Routeburn Shelter
Note that reservations for all huts on the Routeburn Track are required and need to be made well in advance. I hiked it in March 2018 and booked it in November 2018 and most of the spots were already booked up.
Routeburn Caples Track
You may also combine the Routeburn Track with the Caples Track. In this case, my recommended route would be:
Day 1: Greenstone Road End – Mid Caples Hut
Day 2: Mid Caples Hut – Howden Hut
Day 3: Howden Hut – Mackenzie Hut
Day 4: Mackenzie Hut – Routeburn Falls Hut
Day 5: Routeburn Falls Hut – Routeburn Shelter
If you wish to end at The Divide, you can overnight in Howden Hut and from there hike to The Divide. From here, you can catch a bus back to Queenstown or combine it with an excursion to Milford Sound like me and my friend did when we hiked the Routeburn Track.
Things to consider when hiking the Greenstone & Caples Track
As I mentioned, it’s a generally easy multi-day tramp if you are an experienced hiker and are physically fit. Do not forget to pack all I mentioned above as well as raingear, since you are hiking in one of the wettest parts of New Zealand.
As it’s way less busy than The Great Walks, you may find yourself alone most of the time. At least, I did. If you’d like to hike in solitude, your best bet is to get up early before everyone else does. I only ran into a handful of people each day (maybe not even) and would just see other people at night in the huts.
If you want to camp on the Greenstone Caples Track, you can do so at along the bush edge and 50 meters from the track. More information and rules for campers can be found on the track brochure.
What’s the weather on the Greenstone Caples Track
This part of New Zealand is among the wettest in the country, meaning that you will most likely get wet. Parts of it lead you through Fiordland National Park, which is known for it’s insane rainfall. During this same trip I also did the Routeburn Track and the Hump Ridge Track, both located in Fiordland National Park and I got soaked to the bone most of the time. I don’t want to discourage you, moreover be realistic. I had two days of sunshine, one day of overcast and one day of rain on the Greenstone Caples Track. Not a bad score if you ask me!
Conclusion and disclaimer
Looking back on this hike, I found it one of the highlights of my most recent trip to New Zealand. The track was incredible scenic, quiet and not too difficult. Yes, the Routeburn may be more famous, but looking back on it, I’d rather to this one again.
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