I arrived in Queenstown on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, I did not have any time to enjoy the town. In all honesty, the town itself is not particularly special but the surrounding scenery dominated by the Remarkables Mountain Range is the dictionary definition of a picture perfect scenery. I quickly had to do some food shopping for the Kepler Track that I was scheduled to start hiking the next morning. Kepler Track is located in the South Island of New Zealand and considered to be one of the best Great Walks of New Zealand.
The 60-kilometer long trail – commonly finished in two nights, three days – is famous for its second day where hikers spend nearly the entire day walking on a ridge exposed on both sides with views of the Lake Te Anau, Lake Manapouri and the surrounding peaks. Besides the wonderful scenery that I can now attest to the splendidness of, Kepler is also one of the least complicated tracks among the most famous three Great Walks (Kepler, Milford and Routeburn) in terms of the logistics. Kepler is the only circular hike among these three Great Walks. It means that the you end the trail at the some spot that you started, making the transportation convenient especially for those traveling with their own car (who may otherwise need the expensive car relocation service offered by the track transport companies).
Booking Kepler Track
I hiked the Kepler Track in late February in 2 nights/3 days with stays at Luxmore and Iris Burn Huts. While the 2 nights/3 days seemed to be the most common choice, I also met hikers who did the track in 1 night/2 days as well as those who opted for the 3 nights/4 days option with a stay at beautiful Moturau Hut (right by a lake) on the third night. As I also briefly touched upon in my Great Walks overview post, Kepler Track requires (very) advance booking during the Great Walks season (that runs from the end of October until the end of April). Since there is a limit on the number of hikers who can start the track each day (40 to the best of my knowledge), the track gets fully booked very quickly. But do not let that discourage you. I could get a booking for late February in early January due to the cancellations. The bookings can be done online using the Department of Conservations Great Walks reservation website.
While I used Queenstown as a base for my Kepler Track (since I was going to start the Routeburn Track the day after I finished Kepler), Te Anau is a much better choice for number of reasons. First of all, it is much closer to the trailhead. So close that some hikers start their track in Te Anau. I also find Te Anau to be a much more pleasant town than Queenstown. It has a surprisingly good range of eateries including atmospheric New Zealand pubs, coffee shops. It is also home to two fairly sized grocery stores and outdoor equipment shop for last minute track shopping. There is also a long lakeshore walk, which is a wonderful place to unwind after a long hike. When in Te Anau – where I stayed as a base-town for my Milford Track hike – I stayed at Te Anau Central Backpackers, which is located close to the lake and the main street of Te Anau. One of the biggest draws of the hostel was the ability to book a single room for just a little extra – around 15 New Zealand Dollar – on top of what you would be paying for a dorm bed.
Where is Kepler Track?
The main trailhead for Kepler Track is located merely 5-kilometer from Te Anau. The hikers have the option to start their hike either in Te Anau, Kepler Track car park (5-kilometer from Te Anau), Rainbow Reach (12-kilometer from Te Anau) car park or Broad Bay, which is easily accessible with a 5-minute boat ride from central Te Anau.
Since I would be arriving from Queenstown with the Intercity morning bus, I chose to start the trail at Broad Bay – an option which shortened my hike by 1.5 hours. As also mentioned in my post about Great Walks where I provided a brief overview of Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks, I used TrackNet for transportation for all three tracks. They are very responsive to emails and very flexible in terms of the last minute changes.
On the last and third day of the track, I arranged my shuttle to pick me up at Rainbow Reach car park, which is the common pick-up location for the pre-arranged track transports, for a drop-off at Te Anau. Finishing the trail and having to ride the shuttle back for only 20-minutes on the last day was a true blessing. There are, understandably, no showers in the huts and I am sure most hikers dream of their first showers, along with a good cup of coffee, during the last few kilometers of the hike. I sure did.
Huts along Kepler Track: Luxmore, Iris Burn and Moturau Huts
There are three huts managed by New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) along Kepler Track. Unlike Milford Track where staying at a hut is the only option, there are also two camping sites along Kepler. The first campsite is located on Broad Bay and the second one is next to the Iris Burn Hut. There are no camping sites near Luxmore and Moturau Huts. As a result, for those opting for the camping option, the second day – between Broad Bay Campsite and Iris Burn Campsite – will be a long day. I met a lovely French couple who opted for that option and while they were exhausted at the end of the second day, it is still a fairly doable hike.
Luxmore Hut, which is merely a 2-3 hours hike from Broad Bay is a destination and is among the most famous Great Walks huts. I met many people along the trail who were doing a day hike to Luxmore or who would just spend a night at Luxmore and go back to Broad Bay the next day. It is a beautiful two-story hut that overlooks Lake Te Anau. In addition to the hikers delighted with the view, the hut is also a frequent hang-out place for the beautiful kea bird – a large parrot – of New Zealand. During the Great Walks season (end of October to the end of April), the hut is equipped with flushing toilets and gas ovens. There is also a DOC hut ranger who gives hut talks each evening at around 7pm. The huts along the Great Walks including Kepler all come with bunk beds and mattresses. The hikers need to bring their own sleeping bag, food and cooking utensils. Outside of the Great Walks season, when the huts are unstaffed, you also need to carry your own gas cooker.
While Luxmore is the most popular one among the three Kepler huts, Iris Burn Hut sitting on the valley surrounded by mountains is the one that appealed to me the most. It has a more welcoming vibe where you truly feel like you are staying in the middle of a forest in this remote area surrounded by majestic landscape scenery. There is also a waterfall side trip from the hut that takes around 40-minutes round-trip. Despite the cold weather, there were many courageous hikers who, very loudly but still joyfully, jumped in the water.
Kepler Track can be walked in either way. The most common way is to start either Kepler car park or Broad Bay and walk in the direction of Rainbow Reach with a stay at Luxmore, Iris and Moturau Huts (although most people skip the last hut and finish the hike in three days). You probably already heard about the strenuous first day hike from Broad Bay to Luxmore Hut. The trail steadily climbs through the forest and the DOC estimation for the hike time is around 4-hours. However, for anyone with a moderate level of fitness, the trail is not very strenuous (thanks to gradual incline) and the hike usually takes around 2.5-3-hours leaving plenty of time at Luxmore for side trips that include Luxmore Caves.
Broad Bay to Luxmore Hut – 8.2-kilometers
The first day of Kepler Track (DOC has very helpful track brochures for the Great Walks including Kepler) involves a moderately yet steadily steep climb up to Luxmore Hut. The trail took me around 2.5-hours at a leisurely pace. The entire route until reaching above the tree line at around the 2-hour mark goes through a forest, which reminded me of the forests of Japan. The trail is very well marked and it is almost impossible to get lost. I started the trail at around 10.40am and arrived at Luxmore Hut at around 1pm. The first part of the day was a little cloudy so there were not many photo stops.
Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut – 14.6-kilometers
While the hike on the first day is pleasant with rewarding lake views once you reach the top, what makes Kepler Track an epic hike is the second day when you spend almost the entire day walking on a ridge with many relatively innocent ups and downs. The route from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut may take around 5 to 8 hours depending on your speed. It is definitely not a trail to rush through. So I highly recommend leaving Luxmore Hut no later than at 8am to maximize the time on the trail where – on a sunny day – you will likely have many photo stops.
While most trail descriptions mainly focuses on the first day of the hike up to Luxmore Hut as the more difficult section, the second day – as agreed by many of the hikers – is more challenging with endless ups and downs. But the views definitely make up for the challenge. Along the trail, there is a short 30-minute detour to Mount Luxmore. I skipped the detour as I was too excited to reach the Hanging Valley where you walk on a ridge exposed on both sides. While the photos of the ridge may look a little intimidating yet deliciously inviting, the trail is not too narrow and felt perfectly safe on a sunny day with only light rain. But honestly, Kepler Track is not a trail that I would be eager to explore on a windy and rainy day. I talked to many hikers who did Kepler under bad weather conditions and they were not too happy with the experience. Some of the Great Walks such as Milford (that I did on a tremendously rainy three days) offer great experience regardless of the weather conditions. The heavy rain results in hundreds of temporary waterfalls and render the forest parts even more atmospheric. However, the biggest draw of Kepler is the exposed ridge walk with lake and mountain scenery, which would not only feel not so safe in case of low visibility but also not really enjoyable.
Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach – 22.2-kilometers
The third day of the hike, which connects Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach and covers a distance slightly above 20-kilometers, is a fairly easy 5-6 hours track that mostly involves flat terrain and forest hike. While the trail can feel a little bit underwhelming after the epic views of the second day, I still found it to be a pleasant hike with occasional lake views.
Kepler Track was the first Great Walk that I did. So it will always hold a special place in my heart. While it is very difficult to decide which one of the famous three Great Walks is the best – I often feel inclined to say that Kepler is my favorite. The reason? That second day on the ridge where one feels like walking through the clouds, a memory that still gives me goosebumps.