New Zealand Backpacking
It's better than you've heard, and closer than you think. Here's how to see it all in 10 perfect days.
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You’ve heard the tales of wild Kiwi adventure, seen the photos of outrageous mountains and fjords, and suspect that life in New Zealand is, well, better. It’s true. And here’s how you can join the party. Use our exclusive guide to create a custom vacation that combines classic hut-to-hut trekking with undiscovered trails and high-adrenaline fun-the whole thing so easy to pull off you won’t even need a rental car. Our reconnaissance team designed a 5-day base route that combines two of New Zealand’s most dramatic tracks. Alone, this hike is magnificent, but we also scoped out must-see detours-sea kayaking with dolphins in Milford Sound, bushwhacking a forgotten rainforest trail, and more-that let you tack on up to 4 days. And that’s not all. Since no Kiwi tour is complete without a dose of highwire adventure, we’ve bonused you with four memorable multisport trips: climbing on Mount Cook, canyoneering off the Routeburn River, and paddling through glacial icebergs or to a secluded bird sanctuary.
Routeburn: Day 1
The Trail New Zealand is so riddled with amazing hikes that choosing just one would seem impossible. Thankfully, the Routeburn Track simplifies the task. Of the South Island’s six Great Walks-the must-see stars of Kiwi trekking-only the Routeburn blends life-list alpine scenery with Lord of the Rings rainforests, classic hut hiking, secret pockets of solitude, and the opportunity to customize a route up to 9 days long.
Link the 20-mile Routeburn with the 15-mile Caples, creating a loop that begins and ends just a short shuttle ride from Queenstown. Want the complete package? Add up to three detours, and enjoy the best of Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks in one unforgettable trip.
The Routeburn starts with a gentle 4-mile climb through a tangled beech forest. The wide, well-tended track tempts you to speed up. Don’t. Every step of this trail is foot-draggingly beautiful. Rainforest ferns and mosses drip primordial green just beyond your elbows. The weirdly Caribbean-blue Routeburn River pools and drops in the canyon bottom, and you’ll cross and recross the water on swinging bridges (memo to fly fishermen: rainbow trout can be caught in the lower Routeburn). After 4 miles you’ll reach Routeburn Flats, a broad meadow where you have the option of exploring the North Branch (at right), or ascending 1.5 miles to the Routeburn Falls Hut.
New Zealand has an extensive backcountry hut system. Some are little more than dirt-floor shacks (free), others, like the four on the Routeburn, are spiffy cabins with mattresses, stoves, and toilets (NZ$40 per night per person). The Routeburn Falls Hut (48 bunks), located next to its namesake cascades, is perched at the edge of treeline, with a glorious deck overlooking Routeburn Canyon. The quiet, valley-bottom Routeburn Flats Hut, with only 20 bunks, is a great base for exploring the overlooked North Branch. Less than 2 miles separates the two huts, but a night at each is a great plan, if your schedule allows. (For reservations, see our Trip Planner on the last page).
Don’t Miss: A cold shower
One of the Routeburn’s great attractions is the concentrated amount of world-class scenery in just a few short miles. Don’t plan a hurried schedule. In warm weather, the falls–a series of cascades hanging at the lip of Routeburn canyon and descending to the valley below–offer one of the world’s most astounding, if chilly, showers. Of course, that’s after you wander the tussock- and flower-filled meadows above the falls. Best plan: arrive at routeburn falls hut by noon, allowing half a day to explore the area before moving on.
Local Beta: The Maori trail
The Routeburn track was pioneered by New Zealand’s original settlers, the Maori. They crossed the southern Alps in search of pounamo, or greenstone, which they used for tools and jewelry.
The Land of Ferns (and Frodo)
What: Yes, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Yes, there are numerous Middle Earth tours on which diehard fans spend an entire vacation visiting shooting locations. But no, you won’t find hordes of movie buffs lurking in the secluded North Branch of the Routeburn, where an otherworldly forest of giant ferns sprouts from ground so sponge-soft it feels alive. Waterfalls pour down the lush canyon walls, crystalline ponds reflect the overhanging peaks, and every moss-shrouded boulder could hide a hobbit.
Where: The North Branch is a tributary of the Routeburn that joins the main river at Routeburn Flats. Ford the river at the Flats Hut, then follow the flagged path up the west side of the North Branch. The trail becomes indistinct in places, but it’s not difficult to stay on track in the narrow valley. Explore all the way to the head of the valley (4.5 miles), where experienced mountaineers can tackle 7,521-foot Mt. Somnus.
How: There are two ways to see the North Branch. Stay a night at Routeburn Flats Hut, at the mouth of the valley, and make that your basecamp. Or bring camping gear and enjoy solitude and surreal scenery on an overnight trip. You can avoid the weight of a tent by bedding down in one of two rock bivvies (overhanging boulders, used frequently by Kiwis and often marked on maps). The first rock bivvy is just a quarter-mile in, on the east side.
Harris Saddle: Days 2-3
The first half of this section of the Routeburn is arguably New Zealand’s single most spectacular day of hiking. In the 1880s, just a decade after European settlers tried–and failed-to establish a track here to link communities on either side of the Southern Alps, tourists discovered the route and immediately recognized a world-class trail. Today you’ll see why. Above Routeburn Falls, the track enters a subalpine zone of slick snowgrass, brilliant lichens, delicate mountain buttercups, and wait-a-while views in every direction. After ascending to Harris Saddle, the path crosses the Hollyford Face, an exposed traverse that’s exhilarating on a fine day. Eventually the track descends below treeline again, then drops down to a large hut at the edge of Lake Mackenzie.
The high-traffic trail is well marked and easy to follow, first climbing from the Falls Hut to Harris Saddle (1 to 2 hours), where there’s a good sidetrip up Conical Hill. From there it’s another 3 hours or so to Mackenzie Hut, then 4 hours out to Howden Hut and on to the western trailhead on Highway 94. Here you’ll either catch a ride to Milford Sound (see “Add a day,” opposite), or return to Queenstown via the Caples Track (page 70). You can get water from creeks and lakes between the huts, but plan on treating it. Help preserve the area by using toilets at the huts and on Harris Saddle, and by not trampling fragile cushion plants in the alpine areas. Traversing the Hollyford Face can be difficult or even dangerous if avalanches or bad weather threaten. Staffers at the huts post daily beta on route conditions.
End the day at Mackenzie Hut (where camping is also available) or Howden Hut. Mackenzie shortens the day’s hike by 5 miles, but it’s also a larger, more crowded hut (50 bunks compared to 28). Choose Howden if you’re going to catch a ride to Milford.
Local Beta: Mountain parrots Watch out for New Zealand’s exotic, green-feathered, and thieving keas. The alpine parrots are a thrill to see and hear (they sound like cats), but they’ll steal unguarded food and shiny objects.
Don’t Miss: The best views
Make two easy sidetrips to see the best views on the route. At Harris Saddle, follow the obvious path up conical hill to get a vista that stretches all the way down the Hollyford Valley to the Tasman Sea. The side trip takes an hour, longer if you take time out for a leisurely lunch on top. Get equally good views of the Darran Mountains from Key summit, near howden hut. If you arrive at howden with a couple hours of daylight left, continue 15 minutes toward the divide, then take the marked trail to key summit, less than half an hour uphill.
Kayak Milford Sound
What: In the race to cram in the most thrils and scenery per mile, as every New Zealand adventure seems to manage, Milford Sound stands alone at the top. The famed fjord is crowded on all sides by granite peaks, waterfalls, and glaciers, and is home to dolphins, fur seals, and penguins.
Why: A day of sea kayaking on Milford Sound puts you up close and personal with the dolphins. Time permitting, you can also beach your boat at Sandfly Point and hike part of the spectacular Milford Track.
Where: State Highway 94 dead-ends at Milford Sound, where there’s a small town and harbor. You can start paddling directly from the dock, or, even better, get a ride on a boat far out into the Sound, then kayak back.
How: Arrange to have an outfitter pick you up at The Divide on State Highway 94, spend the day on Milford Sound, then get dropped off at The Divide afterward. Before and after you’ll spend the night at Howden Hut, 2 miles from the trailhead. If you want more time on the water, you can spend the night at a hotel in Milford.
Cost: Approximately NZ$120, depending on options.
Contact: www.kayakmilford.co.nz or www.fiordlandseakayak.co.nz
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.
New Zealand Trip Planner
Getting There: Air New Zealand now flies direct from L.A. to Christchurch. The flights arrive early in the morning, so there’s time to stop in Christchurch for maps and still be in Queenstown by dinner. Roundtrips range from $1,000 to $1,800. (800) 369-6867; www.airnewzealand.com/usa
Getting Around: The South Island’s extensive bus and shuttle services make it easy to skip a rental car. For details on buses, go to www.newzealand.com. For trailhead shuttles, go to www.infotrack.co.nz; a Queenstown/Routeburn roundtrip costs NZ$60.
Season: October through April, with summer in the middle and fewer crowds on the ends.
Weather: Be prepared for fantastic amounts of rain, but pack lots of sunscreen, too, as the UV index is fearsome.
Gear: Pack quality raingear, waterproof boots and gaiters, and a storm-worthy tent (if you plan to camp). Pick up fuel canisters in Queenstown or Christchurch. Before leaving home, clean all your gear, especially boot soles. New Zealand strictly enforces customs rules to keep out exotic pests.
Huts: Amenities vary greatly, so ask the Department of Conservation what to expect. Routeburn huts cost NZ$40 per night; reserve well in advance in high season (below). Caples huts cost NZ$10 per night (no reservations required).
Department of Conservation: These one-stop shops for hikers are refreshingly unbureaucratic affairs where you can pick up maps, hut tickets, and current trail beta. They’re everywhere, but you’ll want the DOC offices in Queenstown and Glenorchy. Before you go, surf www.doc.govt.nz, which has answers to every question.
Fishing Permits: Get yours from the Fish and Game Department at https://fishandgame.eyede.com/public/; a day costs NZ$18, a season is NZ$88. Or go through a local outfitter like Queenstown Fishing Guides (www.wakatipu.co.nz).
Helicopters: Kiwis use helis like New Yorkers use taxis-all the time. Consider adding a heli-hike or heli-bike experience to your vacation just for the thrill of it. A 3-hour heli-mountain biking tour with great views of Mt. Cook and a stop at a traditional sheep station costs NZ$170 (www.discoverytours.co.nz/).
MapWorld: Do not leave Christchurch without visiting this topographic paradise, located on the corner of Manchester and Gloucester streets (www.mapworld.co.nz).
Accommodations: Queenstown: Shack up in down-home comfort at Skyview, a sprawling lodge set on 168 acres with a hiking track, heated pool, and full kitchen. The house is best for groups (NZ$400/night for two, $75 per adult after that; www.skyview.co.nz).
Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park: Camp at the trailhead for NZ$5/night, or splurge on a room at the historic Hermitage. A four-person chalet costs NZ$55 per person and includes breakfast. A deluxe room with huge views starts at NZ$590/night for two, and includes a lavish dinner and breakfast (www.mount-cook.com).
Lake Tekapo: If you’re doing Ball Pass (p. 74), stay at the Lake Tekapo Scenic Resort (NZ$150/night for two; www.laketekapo.com).