The Great Walks: Kepler Track

When you label anything the great something, it better be good. To me, labeling a series of hiking trails “The Great Walks” is downright risky with just a touch of grandiosity. As a result, I had super high expectations heading into the Kepler Track. Was this multi-day hiking trail as amazing as the internet claimed?

To clarify, New Zealand has a series of nine Great Walks scattered throughout the country. These nine trails are said to cover the premiere landscape of the small island and are considered the highlight for any trekking holiday. Arguably the most famous, the Milford Track is allegedly stunning and was our first attempt. Alas, that trail was booked out for many months. We then turned our sights to the Routeburn Track, another Great Walk that our editor at Backpacker claimed was stunning. Once again, foiled; Routeburn was also booked solid.

Kepler Track

Will and I finally got smart and started looking at all of the Great Walks to see if *any* of them were available during our chosen dates {December 23 and 24}. After all, if you are going to spend your holiday on the trail, it should be a gorgeous trail!

We stumbled upon the Kepler Track, one of the lesser known Great Walks. Initially, lodging was only available on the first night but by some holiday miracle, a few spots opened up for a second night. We were in!

Kepler Track

PC: Will Rochfort

One of the unique aspects of the Great Walks in New Zealand is the lodging! Every tramper has designated stops every night and you can choose to book either a bed in the hut or a tent site. Most trekkers opt for the hut, especially considering the cost difference is minimal. Not only do you not have to carry a tent or other backpacking gear, but you get to enjoy a warm fire, cook stoves, a mattress, bathrooms, and the pleasure of conversation with the other trampers.

The Kepler Track, located down in Fiordland of the South Island, is a 60 kilometer loop that begins and ends outside of Te Anau. There are three huts along the way: the Luxmore Hut, Iris Burn Hut, and Moturau Hut. Will and I booked the first two huts with a plan to skip the Moturau in favor of a long-ish hike {17-18 miles} to the finish on our third day.

Kepler Track

The first day of the Kepler was beautiful, but I’ll admit that it was not what I expected. Fresh off our Mueller Hut trek, I was hoping for more high alpine scenery. Instead, Will and trekked 9 miles through jungle-type forest, completely shrouded in thick trees and solid walls of greenery. Coming from Colorado, this type of environment is always a shock to my system and I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t my favorite. Some people love rainforests and dense woods and I absolutely understand the appeal. That said, I’m a lover of the high alpine with scenic vistas and exposed ridge lines; those geologic features will always have my heart.

Of course, it didn’t help that I managed to wander off the well-groomed and very obvious flat trail while yapping and fall in a ditch within the first ten minutes! I cracked my knee on a rock so I spent the remainder of the first day hobbling along the trail while kvetching to Will about his wife’s absurd clumsiness. Yes, this is his life, my friends!

Kepler Track

Kepler Track

But as we neared the Luxmore Hut, I realized the trees were thinning and the air was growing less sticky. We were nearing New Zealand’s tree line and thus, entering the high alpine. As we hiked out of the trees, I caught my first glimpse of the scenery we’d be enjoying on the second day. I was psyched! A windswept meadow of grass spilled out before us with a small boardwalk to lead hikers to the Luxmore. Mountains upon mountains filled the horizon and the sky turned a slight shade of purple in preparation for the sunset.

Oh yes. The second day was going to be good.

The Luxmore Hut itself was a pleasant surprise, again coming from someone who isn’t quite used to sharing a hut with 50 of my closest friends. The kitchen area was beautiful and the warden {the park employee who lives at the hut} was a hoot! His personal vendetta in life is a stoat, a ferret-like animal that was first introduced to the country in an effort to control rabbits. As all good plans tend to do, this went awry when the sassy stoats began decimating NZ’s native bird population. These days, stoat traps line the trails in plain sight, almost flaunting the local’s disgust for this wiry critter. Our warden regaled us with tales of trapping stoats, all while *literally* having a dead stoat in his pocket….as evidenced by the tail trailing out of the side. I like to think he carried it as a warning to any other stoats that dared venture near his hut!

Kepler Track

The Luxmore Hut

The second morning of the Kepler dawned slow and late as Will and I snoozed in bed while everyone else got up and started packing. We knew we had a bed at the next hut–Iris Burn– so what was the rush?! We eventually sauntered downstairs, packed, and ate our breakfast. We officially became the last two to leave the hut in the morning, but I was filled with the excitement. The sun was shining, there was a cool breeze blowing, and the scenery was immediately spectacular!

Kepler Track

Checking out one of the small emergency shelters.

Hands down, the second day of the Kepler Track is the most beautiful of the entire route. Almost the whole section is above tree line so you ogle towering peaks and crystal-blue lakes in the distance. We found ourselves steadily climbing but it was easy to ignore the persistent quad burn while admiring the view. We eventually popped around a corner and I couldn’t contain myself; our tiny trail followed along a sharp ridge line for miles, dancing along the sharp edge while flirting with exposure on both sides. It continued like this for miles, and Will and I could see the tiny brown line trail off into the distance. Was this real life?!

Kepler Track

Kepler Track

We scampered along the ridge for at least an hour, almost feeling like a scene out of Sound of Music. Green hillsides plummeted down towards the valley and the wind continued to pull through my hair. I felt so alive and content; Will and I kept looking at each other and smiling big grins of happiness. Maybe the first day hadn’t been my favorite but the second day of the Kepler more than made up for it.

Kepler Track

Eventually the ridge ended and a steep staircase descended back toward the valley and the Iris Burn hut. Comfortable with the exposure and the over quad-destruction from the downhill, Will and I managed to unintentionally catch almost everyone on the trail. This made for a pleasant surprise when we finally arrived at Iris Burn. First come, first served; we got first choice for beds!

Kepler Track

Iris Burn Hut

Iris Burn will always have a soft spot in my mind since this cozy hut was where we spent Christmas Eve. We spent our Christmas Eve dinner eating dehydrated meals from a bag while chatting with our new Kiwi friend. The warden came out with a bag of candy and a Santa hat to liven up the festivities, and Will surprised me by unveiling a {dehydrated} apple pie for dessert. It’s really the little things, you know?! We fell asleep that night with soft smiles on our faces as we listened to the birds in the trees say goodnight.

Kepler Track

We awoke early on Christmas morning, knowing that we had an almost-20 mile day to complete before noon {when we needed to meet our friends at the car park.} No one else was awake so we tiptoed down to the kitchen to quietly pack away from everyone else still snoozing in their beds. I was sitting outside on the porch, enjoying the last moments of silence in the morning when Will came out: he had trekked a beautiful ring across the world, throughout New Zealand, and along the Kepler Track just to surprise me on Christmas morning with a gift!

I’m a lucky girl.

Kepler Track

The rest of our Kepler Track experience passed in a blur as the trail flattened out and we focused on putting one foot in front of the other. The third day was similar to the first in that we hiked through dense greenery and thick jungle-like canopies. I kept thinking to myself how different this was than all of my previous Christmas experiences: we were by ourselves, without family or Christmas carols, a tree, or even Tally. And while I found myself missing my family and pup, I realized that I would always remember the experience. I’m sure that one day, in the future, Will and I will reminisce on the time we tramped throughout New Zealand on Christmas Day.

Not too shabby.

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9 Comments

  • Reply Claude April 13, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    I love high alpine, rainforest, jungle equally. I love blue skies, rain, snow and sleet, desert, heat, ocean and lakes. Most of all, I like the ‘quad burn’ and then relax after a hardcore day in nature. But you truly are brave to share a cabin with ’50 of my closest friends’ as you put it.

    I would opt for the tent version or book the hut when no one is around. I get you didn’t have that option on the time frame you had. I’m an extremely light sleeper, someone else 10 feet away or outside in the hall just moving around will wake me up. It’s almost like I feel sound vibrations around me. Any snoring will keep me up all night.

    The only thing worse than waking up is the length of time it takes me to fall back asleep, if I ever do!

    Did you sleep well at the hut? was it an issue?

    • Reply Heather April 13, 2017 at 6:01 pm

      Haha, with the Great Walks I’m pretty sure you *never* get the option to have the huts to yourself 🙂 They may not be packed to capacity but I got the impression that they are always pretty full. It doesn’t phase me. I always pack my iPhone and earbuds to sleep with, though—turn on a white noise app and that way I don’t hear any of the nighttime movement. Otherwise, it’s kinda fun to meet new people!

  • Reply Logan April 13, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    This looks so stunning! I’m like you, in that I prefer ridge lines and high alpine views for days over trees and lush jungles. But they both have their beauty 🙂

    • Reply Heather April 13, 2017 at 6:02 pm

      Absolutely. I enjoy both but I tire of jungle hiking quickly. I find myself yearning to get to the summit so i can SEEEEEEEE things!

  • Reply Anne April 17, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Wow that looks amazing! A lot of your backcountry skiing and stuff are activities I don’t think I could ever do, but I feel like I could handle a walk in New Zealand 🙂 Could you tell us how you packed for this trip? Was your backpack your checked item, and did you carry everything with you, every day? Or did you leave a bag behind at someone’s house or hotel and take smaller backpacks for excursions like this one?

  • Reply Patrice La Vigne April 17, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    So glad you had a good weather window for the Keplar Track! We planned to do it post-TA, but we woke up to SNOW! We will save it for when we return to NZ 🙂

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog April 18, 2017 at 6:30 am

    I cannot believe that scenery! So gorgeous!

  • Reply Charlie Alf April 25, 2017 at 6:59 am

    My initial thoughts: I’m INSANELY jealous that you got to see that! Those photographs are simply incredible! The greenery is completely unique to NZ. The hike doesn’t seem like a big deal when you’re looking at that sky! On a side note; 20 miles on Christmas?! That’s incredible and must have taken an immense amount of will power and determination to even get out of the house! I am so impressed and eager to visit New Zealand, thanks for this stunning account of your “Great Walk”!

    • Reply Heather April 25, 2017 at 6:57 pm

      Haha it was a Christmas to remember! 🙂

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