Great Walks of New Zealand: the Greatest Three, Routeburn, Kepler and Milford
I spent the better part of March (2023) hiking in New Zealand. In addition to some day hikes, I did three of the famous Great Walks of New Zealand – namely Kepler, Routeburn and Milford Tracks.
The experience has definitely exceeded my expectations. The Great Walks, as the name suggests, offered such an unparalleled experience and beauty that it made it difficult for me to enjoy the day hikes (offering equally beautiful scenery) that I did in between the three walks. If I ever travel to New Zealand for a third visit, I would probably devote all my time to do the Great Walks, which are nine in total. I truly enjoyed the headspace that comes with the multi-day hikes and experiencing the true disconnection that you feel a little bit more strongly with each step, kilometer and day left behind.
In addition to my separate posts on each one of Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks, this is an introduction post about the concept of Great Walks, basic trail information and my impressions on each one of the three tracks. All three are uniquely beautiful in very different ways and the walks never felt repetitive in terms of the scenery. Kepler makes you experience the thrill of high altitude hiking whereas Routeburn offers the picture perfect scenery as mesmerizing as in Switzerland. And Milford Track takes you through a landscape so majestic that you literally want to stop and scream (speaking from experience) looking at the hundreds of roaring waterfalls emerging from giant cliffs.
What are the Great Walks of New Zealand?
Great Walks of New Zealand are nine multi-day hiking trails managed by the Department of Conservation. Each trail offers a different experience and mind-blowing variety of scenery. All the trails are very well maintained and marked, which make it easy to navigate the terrain (during the walking season, which for most tracks run from late October until the end of April and under the fair weather conditions). While some of the sections involve steep climbs, I think anyone with a moderate level of fitness can manage these trails to the extent they pack lightly. The photo gallery – Kiwi Land – includes numerous photos from the tracks.
Three of the Great Walks, namely Lake Waikaremoana, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Whanganui Journey are located in the north island. The remaining six that include Kepler, Routeburn, Milford, Paparoa, Heapy, Rakiura and Abel Tasman Coast tracks are located in the south island.
Since the tracks involve multi-day trails, hikers stay either at the huts managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) or at the campsites (though camping is not an option for some of the Great Walks – for example there is no camping along the most famous of the Great Walks, the Milford Track). Some of these hikes are seasonal – meaning that the DOC support at the huts is only available during the Great Walks season (that covers among others Kepler, Milford and Routeburn tracks). During the Great Walks season, the huts are staffed (with very friendly rangers who give a hut talk every night and update the hikers about the weather and trail conditions) and cooking gas and flushing toilets are available. There are bunk beds and mattresses but hikers need to bring their own sleeping bags and pillow (if you use one, I simply used my hiking jacket). Outside of the walking season, hikers are strongly advised to check the weather conditions before setting on their hikes, snow storms are not unusual, and none of the amenities other than the unstaffed and unequipped huts are available.
How to book the Great Walks?
Great Walks can be booked at the DOC Great Walks Booking Website. Bookings for each hiking season usually open in late April or early May. Since, for some of the more famous trails, there is a limitation on the number of people who can start the trail each day – 40 to 50 people in total – the huts (especially for Kepler, Routeburn and Milford Tracks) get fully booked very quickly. I heard that for the 2023 season, Milford Track sold out in 12 minutes. This should, however, not discourage you. Thanks to the cancellations (which are not very rare), I was able to book Milford Track in late December (for mid-March hike) and Kepler and Routeburn Tracks in January (for early March hikes). I met people at the huts who could get a booking merely a week before they started the trail. Having now done all three hikes, I am grateful for the limitations on the number of hikers, which really made each hike feel more special. I enjoyed the immense sense of solitude in some of the most otherworldly scenery that I have ever experienced in my life – dramatically elevating the lasting impact of the experience.
While the accommodation along the trails, in terms of comfort, ensure a very down to earth experience with very basic – yet atmospheric huts – where each hiker brings their own sleeping bag, cooking utensils and food, the Great Walks are not necessarily a cheap hiking experience. In addition to the hut fees (for which there is a dual fee structure in place), one also needs to take into account the track transport and food expenses. The huts along Kepler and Routeburn tracks cost 102 New Zealand Dollar/night for foreign visitors (and half the price for New Zealand residents). For Milford track, the cost of huts per night is 110 New Zealand Dollar for foreign visitors. While I strongly think that the experience is definitely worth the cost, all the cost items add up. There is a pricing chart at DOC website displaying the hut cost for each one of the Great Walks. For me personally (as a solo hiker), the total cost of Routeburn Track came down to 480 New Zealand Dollar. The most expensive one was Milford Track as it was a four day track and the track transport was exceptionally expensive. The total cost of my Milford Track was around 700 New Zealand Dollar. Also keep in mind that I usually carry the minimal amount of food to keep my pack weight as light as possible, which also helps to keep my food expenses relatively low.
Great Walks track transport
Since the Great Walks of New Zealand are very popular both among the New Zealand residents and foreign visitors, there is an excellent infrastructure in place that not only covers the well maintained trails and huts but also the supporting third party services such as track transportation (even track food packages) for those hikes where public transportation does not extend all the way to the trailheads. The track transport companies basically take you from the nearest established base town (in the case of Kepler, Routeburn and Milford Tracks, it is Queenstown or Te Anau) to the trailhead and collect you again at the end of your hike.
For all three tracks, I used the services of Track.net and I was very satisfied with their professionalism (and flexibility in terms of last minute changes). For those traveling with a car, most companies also offer car relocation between the starting and ending point of the tracks.
Kepler Track – walking through the clouds
Kepler Track located on the south island of New Zealand was the first Great Walk that I did. Looking back now, it is the track that made me feel most excited in terms of the scenery. The second day of the track follows a ridge exposed on both sides where you are surrounded by the mountain ranges and lakes. It felt like walking through the clouds.
Kepler Track – in terms of the logistics – is relatively easy as it is a loop hike where you start and end the track at the same point (where there is a car park). It is therefore fairly convenient for those with their own transport. The trailhead is also close to Te Anau town (some hikers start the trail in Te Anau). The whole track is 60-kilometers long and commonly walked in 3-4 days. Luxmore Hut where most hikers spend their first night (if started from Broad Bay) is quite famous for its iconic views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding mountains. You will likely come across many hikers who either do a day track to Luxmore Hut (or to Luxmore Mountain requiring another hour) or spend a night at Luxmore and get back to the trailhaed without walking the whole Kepler. While I truly enjoyed my time at Luxmore Hut relaxing, mingling with the other hikers and observing the beautiful kea birds, the Luxmore Hut felt more like hotel compared to other huts, including the Iris Burn Hut sitting on a valley and Moturau Hut located by a lake – which both felt more atmospheric and in tune with the surrounding nature. You can also take a look at my more detailed Kepler Track post.
Routeburn Track – picture perfect scenery
I met many people who have done the majority of the Great Walks during my trip and most of them said that Routeburn Track was their favorite. And it is for a very valid reason. Among the three of the most famous tracks, Kepler, Routeburn and Milford, Routeburn offers the most picture perfect scenery with endless greenery, high altitude lakes and impossibly picturesque huts that would be a perfect fit for Tom Sawyer’s adventures.
While some people do the hike in a day (not trail runners), Routeburn Track is more commonly completed in three days with a two nights stay at either Routeburn Flats or Fall Hut and Lake McKenzie Hut. All the huts along the route, Routeburn Flats Hut, Routeburn Falls Hut and Lake McKenzie are uniquely beautiful. The first one sits on the floor of an endless looking valley whereas the second one overlooks that same picturesque valley. Lake McKenzie hut is located right next to a lake and feels like a summer cottage. I also wrote a separate most detailed post on Routeburn Track.
Milford Track – epic hike and a moving experience
Any experience, which is as highly hyped as Milford Track leads to this inevitable question – is it actually overrated? No, in my experience, Milford Track is not overrated – not even close to it. Milford Track was my third and last Great Walk in New Zealand. By the time that I did Milford, Kepler and Routeburn already felt very satisfying experiences with wonderful weather and great scenery. So before I started Milford Track, I felt like I had already seen it all. Furthermore, I had the absolute worst weather in Milford – very heavy rain (to the point they did not know until the morning if we could proceed with the hike). Yet, Milford Track still blew my mind. It is an epic hike. The majesticity of the track is incomparable – among all the three hikes, Milford is the one where you will really feel like hiking through otherworldly terrain.
Milford Track is the most controlled one among all the Great Walks. In addition to the limit of 40 hikers a day, each hiker needs to follow the same route and the trail cannot be hiked in reversed order (this can be done in Kepler and Routeburn Tracks).