New Zealand’s Great Walks – Kepler and Routeburn

You may not know this (I certainly didn’t) but New Zealand is famous for it’s hiking – in fact one of the hike’s, the Milfred Trek was once described as the “Finest walk in the world.” A bold statement to be sure.

Unfortunately, whenever something is the biggest, best (or in this case finest) it gets overrun with visitors. Such is the situation with the Milfred which is so crowded that you must book slots on the trek up to six months in advance. Which of course I didn’t. The DOC (Department of Conservation) only allows 40 people to walk the trek at a time – and the huts only sleep 40 people.

Luckily, even if you aren’t one of the chosen few (which I’ve been told usually ends up being the more older, and more organized, set) NZ’s DOC has taken the time to organize many, many other walks for your enjoyment. Eight of them they have decided are so enjoyable as to be deemed “Great Walks.”

If you wish to go tramping (because in NZ, it’s tramping, never treking) along one of the Great Walks there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You must book in advance – must. If you show up without a reservation at a hut, the ranger as the right to charge you twice as much for a space. If there is no space, you will be turned out in the cold (quite literally)
  • Some of the walks do allow camping, however not at every site. Make sure to do research beforehand to determine if camping is an option.
  • Hut’s provide shelter, bathrooms, running water and bed’s with mattresses. They do not provide linens or pillows. There are also no trash cans – what you bring in, you must bring out.
  • Some hut’s have gas stoves that can be used. However, you must bring all your own food and cooking utensils. No food or water is available for sale on the tramp, so you must bring everything you will need.
  • You must pick up your tickets at the DOC site no more than two days before your departure.


With the exception of the Milfred Trek, which requires you to walk in a certain direction and to stay at every hut, great walks can be done at your own pace. You can take anywhere from one to five nights doing most of the treks.

My friend Herb planned our entire adventure and with the motto of “why do one great walk when you can do two?” went ahead and booked us to do the Routeburn and the Kepler in four days. The DOC estimated that each trek should take between 3-4 days and now we were signed up to do both in that amount of time.

Logistically it was a nightmare. Here is the schedule:

  • Day 1: Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, spend the night in Glenorchy
  • Day 2: Drive from Glenorchy to start of the Routeburn trek, walk 8 hours to third Routeburn Hut (walking past the other two).
  • Day 3: Walk 6 hours to end of Routeburn trek. Drive two hours to Te Anu to pick up tickets to Kepler Trek and purchase food for Kepler Trek. Spend the night in Te Anu.
  • Day 4: Walk 12 hours to second hut on Kepler Trek (skipping first hut)
  • Day 5: Walk 10 hours to end of Kepler Trek and return to Te Anu

The schedule was daunting to be sure – but the most complicated part of the whole ordeal was figuring out transportation for three people to and from these treks. The Kepler is a loop, so you can at least leave your car in the parking lot. However, the Routeburn ends on the otherside of a mountain range which takes 5 hours to drive around.

Buses are crazy expensive and since we had a camper van we would need to take an additional bus back to the start to pick up the van. After working out the prices for three people on around 7 different buses, we ended up paying someone to pick our car up at the start of the Routeburn and drive it to the other end so it would be waiting for us when we arrived. (The service is called Trackhopper and they did a great job if you are interested).

The Hike

The two hikes were amazing – probably the best short hikes I’ve ever done (obviously not much beats Everest). Both the Routeburn and Kepler involve a hike that starts with a strong uphill followed by a few hours of scenic hiking before a descent back below the tree line.

The huts are spaced about 4 hours apart, but the hiking estimates seem to be pretty random. Sometimes we could knock out an estimated 6 hour hike in 4 hours, othertimes it would take 3 hours to do an planned 1.5 hour hike. It became very frustrating in planning lunch breaks and other stops.

However, the good news is that both hikes were totally doable in our planned two days. As long as you got an early start and understood that each day could be between 8 to 10 hours of hiking, we had no problem making it to our planned end points in plenty of time – even with several breaks and lunch stops.

At night we stopped at the huts where we made food with the provided gas cookers and generally just hung out until the sun went down. I highly recommend brining a book to read as there isn’t much to do at the huts. Sand flies were a huge problem on both hikes and I was usually covered in bites. They were so annoying that we had to spend most of the time we weren’t hiking inside the huts (They tend not to bother you if you are hiking).

Although the hikes were challenging, its not the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I think most people of reasonable fitness would have no trouble completing them in 2-3 days.

Kepler vs. Routeburn

I researched which of these two hikes was better before my trip and people seemed to be reluctant to choose a favorite. However, I think I can easily say that I enjoyed the Kepler much more than the Routeburn. The Routeburn is easier – by a long shot and does have amazing scenerary. So if you worried about your fitness level that would be my choice.

However, the Kepler is just, honestly, the most amazing views I have ever had. You spend about four hours hiking along a ridge well over the tree line overlooking the fjords. I forgot all about the fact the I was hiking because I enjoyed the sites so much.


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7 Responses to New Zealand’s Great Walks – Kepler and Routeburn

  1. Rob says:

    beautiful. I’ll be on the Routeburn in a week. I was up in Tongariro and it was *SO* beautiful. Once again I don’t want to go home from NZ. But winter’s coming (and spring at home) so I’ll leave. Also, they probably won’t let me stay :)

  2. That must have been a very fun hike! Amazing post and amazing photos mate. I really enjoyed reading this and the photos were a treat for the eyes. I wish I could take a holiday like this. But sadly I don’t have the time yet so now all I can do is write about the places I love:
    I know it’s not nearly as good as yours but I like to try.
    Greetings from Athens

  3. Dan says:

    It’s the milford track not the milfred trek!!

  4. Suki F says:

    Those are amazing views! It must have been a great adventure.

  5. Sally says:

    Wonderful pictures! really excellent experience!! Awesome publish and amazing images partner. I really experienced studying this and the images were a cure for the sight. I wish I could take a vacation like this!

  6. Fabiana says:

    Wow! Those views are amazing. I am just getting started with hiking and haven’t done places like that. But i really look forward to it.

  7. Andre says:

    Awesome pictures! 4 days for both that is impressive. May I ask on which of the two tracks were the photos taken?

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