The Greenstone - Caples Track: A Routeburn Alternative
All over New Zealand, people keep telling you about the gorgeous Routeburn Track, but when you tried to book your huts you discovered that as a Great Walk, everything had been booked up for months! To your dismay, there is nothing available until well after you are supposed to return home from New Zealand. So what are you to do?
The Greenstone-Caples track is a great alternative, and a gentler option for those with a slightly lower level of fitness. Not only is it a 20 minute drive from the Routeburn, it also has gorgeous landscapes, smooth trails and even boasts flushing toilets at the huts. And for only $15 a night, it is a steal in comparison to the $70 Routeburn huts. (Soon to be $140 for visitors). It can also be done as a circuit, so there is no need to arrange a pick up on the other side. For those who really want a taste of the Routeburn track, there is an option to daytrip there via a connecting path on day 3. Maybe life isn’t so bad after all!
There are two different starting points for this track, and a few side trails for more advanced trampers, so there are plenty of ways to make this track your own. If you choose to follow the traditional loop, there are 3 DOC huts fairly evenly spaced along the trail. There are also 2 huts maintained by the Deerstalkers association, which you can book out before you leave. We started from the Greenstone carpark and walked clockwise up the Greenstone Valley. The DOC map recommends starting on the Caples side for some reason but we were happy being rebels, and equally happy giving up hours up uphill hiking for a steeper, but fairly quick climb.
The one thing that should be noted about driving to the Greenstone Carpark is that you will need to cross 3 or 4 fords if it has been rainy. Long and low vehicles are not advised. When we drove down it had been sunny for about three days so we figured we would be alright. We nervously crossed two fords in our Mitsubishi L300 Sportpac despite our anxieties about how deep one of the creeks was. But bravado and our motivation to prove how bad ass our own Ace Vantura was, pushed us past all the smaller cars left on the side of the road by fearful drivers. We made it through with no trouble and were so glad we did. When we arrived at the carpark, we knew we were right not to have worried because most of the cars there were much smaller than our own.
If going up the Greenstone Valley, you will be met with an immediate side trail option to take an hour long detour along the water to Rere Lake on the way to Greenstone Hut. Our legs were fresh and our packs weren’t crushing us, so we opted for this route and were so happy we did. After walking around some paddocks with beautiful views of Mt. Earnslaw in the morning sun, we reached Elfin Bay. It was already almost warm enough to strip down and swim, but we figured it was too early to be taking all of our gear off. We sat for a few minutes on the shore before keeping on towards Rere Lake. Besides a French hiker in jeans and some hunters moving their kill on an ATV, we had the whole track to ourselves. The forest we walked through felt different than anything else we saw on the rest of the tramp. And the reflections on the lake were some of NZ’s best.
After about an hour, we met back up with the Greenstone track and it was a relatively easy walk all the way to the hut. The paths were wide, the ground flat and we even crossed a sweet bridge over a gorge right before the end. The hut itself is situated with a great view up the valley, and is also right on the Te Araoa trail, so be ready for a busy hut in the summer. The 20 person hut was packed with a diverse group of hikers, from long haired TA thru hikers to Kiwis in their 70’s, making for a lively evening. The whole hike was a little more than 12km and took only about 5 hours. Since we were doing it in March, we were lucky enough to catch the Amanita mushrooms in full swing too.
We decided to stay another day at Greenstone Hut because the forecast was wet, and wet meant our car couldn’t pass the fords, so we weren’t in any hurry. It is nice to have the luxury of taking it slow and relaxing in the huts, but we clearly weren’t the norm. Everyone else was out of there by 7:30am and we had the hut to ourselves until about 1:30 when the first new hikers started to arrive. Even the Warden was surprised when he was checking his tickets later that night and recognized us again. He first joked that maybe the 12km the day before had been too grueling for us and we needed a recovery day. But he agreed with us taking it slow since it is nice to not need to get up early and instead have a relaxing day. We got to read all the magazines in the hut, and met a whole new group of people.
It was wild too because one of the new comers looked so familiar to us, but we couldn't quite figure out why. Eventually it dawned at us that we knew her from a time we volunteered at Rotokare, a wildlife sanctuary in Taranaki, seven months earlier. We couldn't believe the odds that we could run into each other on a completely different island in a tiny little hut miles from civilization. Once we recognized each other it was all hugs and and catch ups and promises to see each other again when we returned to Taranaki (which we did). I love how the universe brings people together again in the wildest of ways.
The next day the stir craziness was starting to set in, so we set off before the sun rose. It was impossible not to get up early since our other hut mates insisted on using their brightest flashlight function and talking in their loudest voices at 4:30am. We were glad to be off so quickly though, because the world outside was shrouded in a light mist, and when the sun rose it looked like we had stepped into a sepia filter. Everything was cast in this encompassing orange glow, a very cool way to start out our 18km hike to McKellar Hut. It seems like a long hike, but this day was one of the easiest days of hiking I have ever done in New Zealand.
We walked through the Greenstone Valley, which hardly has any change in elevation the entire way. There was one small river crossing which we crossed using step stones despite the heavy rain the day before. The hardest thing about it was when we crossed onto the farmers land and had to watch out for cow pies. We also had to make sure we didn’t disturb the stock, but that didn’t stop them from disturbing us.
We made it to McKellar hut in less than four hours including a short lunch break. We timed it very well too because it started to pour as soon as we got there. We made sure to have a fire going for the other 8 soaking wet people that showed up that night. Compared to the Greenstone Hut, McKellar was so quiet. It was nice too because the rooms are removed from the main kitchen/hang out area so people are less likely to wake others up in the mornings which even makes up for the isolation from the communal fire.
We really were taking it slow because we decided to have another rest day when we woke up and the weather was pouring again. We knew that we were going to be crossing McKellar Saddle, which is the one high point on the entire track and therefore has stellar views. And since the clouds were so low, there was no point in missing a fantastic view if we didn’t have to. A friendly Canadian couple going the same direction decided to hang back with us, so at least we had some good company this time. We learned that they had been volunteer hut wardens and had also tramped around 6 other trails in New Zealand, and this trail for them was the easiest as well.
We watched people slowly trickle in throughout the day and by the time night fell it looked like only 12 of the 26 bunks would be filled. But at about 8pm, we saw some flashlights bobbing through the windows in the pouring rain. A group of 14 Australian entrepreneurs arrived, soaking wet and grinning some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen despite being soaked through. They were doing a team challenge and had no idea that they would be hiking the Greenstone-Caples when they left Australia two days before. They had taken 11 hours to walk from Mid Caples, and had stayed together as a team the whole time. There were exactly enough mats for all of them too although I’m sure at that point they would’ve slept anywhere.
The next morning we left early to make room for the large group of 14 in the kitchen. The forest just outside the McKellar hut is absolutely magical. Moss hangs off of the gnarled trees like extra padding on a football player. Everything is a striking green color and the forest is full of bird song. We saw countless examples of the usual suspects, fantails, rifleman, and robins. And we were lucky enough to catch a golden glimpse of the rare mohua (yellowhead) flitting through the trees, a good sign the pest traps and 1080 drops are working in that area.
This is the day where we were glad we chose to go against DOC’s recommendation, and instead go clockwise on the circuit. We had to climb the 945m McKellar saddle. And even though it was incredibly steep, it was well paved and lasted only about half an hour. The views from the top were phenomenal as well, since we could see all the way down the Greenstone valley we had just walked up and it had snowed the night before, powdering the mountaintops. DOC recently built a boardwalk at the top to protect the fragile alpine biome up there (as well as keep you from sinking knee deep in mud) and we were pretty thankful for it as we gazed down at the watery substance below us.
After the summit, it is a steady downhill for the next five hours until the Mid Caples hut comes into view. The trail is gorgeous, long, flat and easy. At 22 kilometers, it is the longest day on the Greenstone-Caples Circuit. We stayed on the top of the saddle for an extra hour waiting for the weather to clear for our photos, making it a five hour day altogether to reach the hut.
The Mid Caples hut is gorgeous and, like the other huts comes with a Ranger and flushing toilets. The views up the Caples valley are unmatched, and if it is a hot day there are even a few swimming holes nearby to cool off in. We didn’t get the chance to try them out though because the weather turned nasty again and it poured for the rest of the day. Right as the sun was starting to go down however, the clouds lifted and revealed fresh snow on the trees and peaks surrounding us, which was a real treat. We all had to get real cozy to stay warm that night, but the fireplace and body heat of 18 other people helped with that.
We broke our pattern (gasp!) of having a recovery day the next morning since the weather had cleared and we were only 2-3 hours and 9km from the carpark. We prefer to leave the easiest day for last, because we are usually tired and ready to get back to the car. The only problem with this is that we mentally write the day off as a cinch, and anything that is requires work becomes increasingly more difficult to overcome. There was one point a mere 15 minutes from the carpark that on any other day, would be considered a minor incline. But because we had experienced nothing but flat on this “easy” day, it became a remarkable feat of strength to reach the top. But once overcome, we knew we had conquered the Greenstone Caples.
Our anxiety of crossing the fords was assuaged when we arrived at the carpark, and found lots of new cars there that had a much shorter clearance than our own. We needn’t have worried, and were glad we had driven all the way in, because it would have been an extra 2 hours to walk to the fords and we just weren’t down with that. Although there was more water on the road, and 3 extra fords to cross, they were all low, even the one that had given us trouble on the way in. We realized that that particular crossing must have been high due to ice melt on the glaciers above us, and had probably been helped by the poor weather.
We felt fulfilled leaving that car park. The slow pace and the gorgeous landscapes alternating with sunlight and rainfall made for a very enjoyable track. Not to mention our wallets felt much fuller knowing that we saved money in these huts and didn’t need to hire transportation to get back to our car.