New Zealand is home to some of the best hiking in the world and is renowned for its ten Great Walks, which draw more than 120,000 hikers to its paths each year. Despite there being 35 maintained tramping tracks spread across the country, routes like the Milford and Kepler Tracks receive a disproportionally high number of these visitors and, due to their popularity, have caused overcrowding and revenue issues as a result. These conditions have forced the Department of Conservation (DoC) to institute a reservation requirement and increased fee structure for foreigners for all accommodation (huts) on the Great Walks.
Even with the DoC’s attempts to damper traffic, huts tend to be fully booked many months in advance which leaves prospective visitors disappointed when they are unable to align their schedules with bunk availability. However, what most don’t realize is that there are more than 950 huts operated by the DoC along the aforementioned 35 tracks, and only those along the Great Walks require reservations. What’s more, all non-Great Walk huts can be had for a fraction of the cost and do not require advanced booking.
Once I began researching Great Walk alternatives and discovered the opportunities and ease of planning they provided, I quickly honed in on the Greenstone and Caples Track.
Greenstone and Caples Tracks Description
The Greenstone and Caples Tracks are, as evidenced in the name, two distinct routes. Combined, they create a loop of approximately 61km (38mi) in length with the option to add side trips or link up with the Routeburn Track (Great Walk). It can be walked in either direction and is considered “intermediate” in terms of difficulty. It is generally hiked in four days, the first and last of which are shorter than the middle two if staying at all three huts.
The Greenstone Valley and surrounding area were first discovered and used by early settlers of the region, the Waitaha. At that time, it was the most direct way to get from the island’s West Coast to Central Otago and Lake Wakatipu and was also a source of pounamu (Greenstone) which was highly sought after as a material for tools, weapons, and jewelry. In the 1860s, Europeans popularized the area with the introduction of trade routes, steamer excursions, and tourist groups which vulcanized its prominence. Today, much of the area is still owned by local tribes and leased to the government of New Zealand for use as a hiking and camping destination.
Often seen as a cheaper, easier, and less-crowded alternative to nearby Routeburn, the Greenstone and Caples Tracks are a great route in their own right and a wonderful way to spend a few days reconnecting with nature.
When To Go
The “Great Walks Season” is from October to the end of April, which is the time of year when the weather is most amenable for all hiking in New Zealand. Most Great Walks huts, which require advanced booking, will be full for the entire season and the Greenstone and Caples Tracks will be busy as well. We went in early April and although it was a bit chilly in the mornings (around 40°F/4°C), it always warmed up and was very pleasant.
There were very few other hikers out on the trail and the huts were nowhere near capacity each night. I suggest going during the “shoulder” seasons of early October or early April for these reasons. While you may still go outside of the regular season, the huts will not be serviced (e.g. toilets will not be functional, coal not available for fires) which makes things more difficult.
The tracks officially start and end at the Greenstone Car Park (map), which is approximately 86km from Queenstown. The section of road from Kinloch to the parking lot is gravel, and there are three sections that require “fording” small streams. However, unless there has been an unusually high amount of rain it’s not a problem to do this – even in a rental car with low clearance (which is what we did without issue). However, if it’s been raining heavily then the road itself may be washed out and impassable, so if that’s the case then you should call or stop by one of the DoC’s Visitor Centers to find out the most up-to-date conditions.
You can also reach the tracks by driving up from Te Anau and parking at The Divide (map). This road is more passable in poor weather, however it adds a couple of hours to the journey if coming from Queenstown and also requires an hours’ walk from the parking lot to the trail.
There are many travel companies who can take you to either point, but you can also drive yourself and leave your car there overnight as we did. There is no fee for parking at the Greenstone Car Park and they have bathrooms available on-site (Campervans, however, are not allowed to stay overnight). We also saw many hikers hitchhiking along the way and even gave rides to a few of them. The road between Greenstone and Queenstown is well-travelled and so if you do not have a vehicle you should be able to thumb a ride relatively easily.
There is no fee or permit required to enter Fiordland National Park or any part of the Greenstone and Caples Tracks (or any other track, for that matter). The only costs you’ll need to consider, other than your gear, are transportation and hut tickets. Transportation can vary depending on how you decide to get there – hitchiking is free, renting a car and driving is cheap, and private transport will run you $50-75 NZD per person each way based on my research.
Hut tickets can be purchased online, at DoC visitor centers, and at several other places in New Zealand. Note that backcountry hut ticket prices vary depending on the location of the hut. All the huts on the Greenstone and Caples Tracks cost $15 NZD per person per night in 2019 — less if you decide to camp — compared to $135 NZD per person per night on the Great Walks . I recommend you buy your tickets at a DoC center a couple of days before your trip because their friendly staff will make sure you get the correct tickets and can also provide up-to-date information on the trail conditions and estimated occupancy.
Gear & Equipment
Most of the others we saw on the Greenstone and Caples Tracks were carrying huge packs with giant loads, which is completely unnecessary for route of this length and difficulty. If you’re staying in the huts, you won’t need a tent or sleeping pad (although we brought them just in case the huts were full) – just a sleeping bag and a little extra clothing. Here is everything I brought (click the links to see exact items):
The tracks are very clearly marked and well-defined, making it nearly impossible to get lost. Signage is everywhere to assist with navigation and the trail is indicated by orange triangles posted on trees.
Some grassy sections within the valley are a little harder to navigate as shrubs sometimes obfuscate the trail, but even in those situations if you stop and look around you’ll be able to find it easily enough. A digital map of the Greenstone and Caples Tracks is also available on Guthook’s Guides for a small fee. This app is fantastic as it shows every hut, water source, and hill — all while tracking your progress via the GPS on your phone without needing an Internet connection. I used this app as my main method of navigation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2018 and found it useful on this trail as well (albeit not necessary).
As mentioned, the typical itinerary is 4 days/3 nights if you stay at all three huts along the route. Depending on your fitness level and time constraints, this could be shortened to as little as one day if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
When we did our trip, we wanted to maximize our time in nature and so opted for the longer option. One thing to note is that we hiked the Tracks in a counter-clockwise fashion (Caples and then Greenstone) whereas many hikers appeared to go the opposite way. Because we started late in the afternoon, we wanted a shorter hike on the first day.
Day 1: Greenstone Car Park to Mid Caples Hut – 9km (2hrs)
Easy walk along the Caples River, meandering through forested areas and valleys with minimal elevation gain or loss.
Day 2 – Mid Caples Hut to McKellar Hut – 22km (7-8hrs)
Day 3 – McKellar Hut to Greenstone Hut – 18km (6hrs)
Day 4 – Greenstone Hut to Finish – 12km (4hrs)
Why Hike The Greenstone & Caples Track
If you’re keen on hiking in New Zealand but either can’t afford the Great Walks or simply want a less-crowded experience without having to book ahead, you should seriously consider the Greenstone and Caples Tracks. What the route lacks in alpine traverses and extreme views it makes up for with peacefulness and tranquility. It was one of the highlights of our trip and a wonderful experience. For more information, visit the DoC’s wonderfully comprehensive website.
What has been your experience hiking in New Zealand?