Caples Valley: Days 4-5
"When it rains, it pours." So says the old Morton Salt slogan, but the saying also applies-literally and figuratively-to this entire part of the South Island. Literally, because the precipitation gets downright Biblical. Figuratively, because the lesser-known, 15-mile Caples Track piles nearly equal scenery and much-improved solitude onto the outrageous drama of your Routeburn and Milford Sound adventures.
Your first day on the Caples starts slowly, with an hour or two of boggy bushwalking. But the hike gets better in a hurry, as the trees give way to hip-high shrubs, alpine tarns, and devastating mountain views midway up the 1,000-foot ascent to McKellar Saddle. From here, it’s all downhill, and it’s all good. The track meanders from hushed red beech forest to open river flats. In the forest, you’ll gape at giant, shaggy trees whose gnarled limbs conjure the wizened ents of Tolkien fame. On the wide river benches, you’ll crane your neck to peer up steep walls on either side of the milky Caples, counting waterfalls until you trip over a tussock or run out of fingers. Farther on, you’ll encounter roaming bands of sheep; far from ruining the scenery, the easily-spooked creatures lend a pastoral charm that’s quintessential New Zealand.
From Howden Hut, head south on the Greenstone Track, then east on the Caples. Start early to make the sidetrip to Key Summit. The descent from McKellar Saddle to Upper Caples Hut completes a 6- to 8-hour day. Next morning, continue east; in moments, you’ll pass Steele Creek Track (see "Add a day," opposite). Four hours of swift walking will get you to the trailhead, but double that if the sun is out-it’s nearly impossible to rush what lies ahead.
The centrally located Upper Caples Hut is the best choice on the Caples. It sleeps 12, has a coal stove, and costs NZ$10 a night per person. Camping here is plentiful and free, but we encountered swarms of sand flies.
Local Beta: Greenstone Lunkers
Trout aren’t native here, but the ones imported to lure fly-fishing tourists are thriving in New Zealand’s chilly rivers. Passing a deep, emerald pool on the greenstone, we mistook four giant brownies for drifting logs. Get outfitted in Te Anau or Queenstown: Catch-and-release is de rigeur.
Don’t Miss: Wild foreigners
New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats, but the forests and ridges above these valleys are home to several introduced species: red deer, elk, and chamois, a mountain goat with long, curved horns.
Bushwhack to the Greenstone
Yearning for a taste of true New Zealand wilderness? Get well off the beaten path by following the forgotten 8.3-mile Steele Creek Track, which was once earmarked for development and top trail status. In one long day or an overnight from Upper Caples Hut, this path leads to the Greenstone Track and several miles of fine walking to the trailhead.
This is no easy stroll. It begins with a 3,000-foot climb to the pass where Steele Creek is born, segues into several hours of belly-deep bushwhacking, and fords at least one hip-high stream. You’ll also enjoy some routefinding on what’s left of the intermittently flagged path. But Steele Creek rewards you with wilder views than any you’ve seen and the thrill of exploring an untamed valley. Strong legs are a must, and novice bushwhackers should allot two days, but this option is an excellent push for anyone with the patience to find the trail. In this narrow valley, you can lose the track, but you can’t really get lost.
From Upper Caples Hut, head east for 2 minutes on the Caples Track to the turnoff for Steele Creek. Pink ribbons mark the route; poles guide you through the often-snowy saddle. When you reach the Greenstone Track, turn east and follow it to the trailhead.
Allow 10-16 hours to complete Steele Creek, plus another 4 to finish the Greenstone. Best bet is to camp beside the Steele Creek Bivvy, a nasty little hut in a stunning location.