New Zealand’s Best, Uncomplicated Hut Trek: The Kepler Track
By Michael Lanza
The forecast for New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park looks particularly grim, even for this chronically wet region that receives more than 30 feet of rainfall annually—or about 10 times as much rain as Seattle. A “Southwesterly,” a fierce and not uncommon type of storm that blows in from the Southern Ocean off Antarctica and can offload several inches of rain, will slam into Fiordland’s mountains and fjords over the next couple of days. With that kind of forecast, locals just hunker down indoors and wait it out what they refer to as a “weetha bum” (Kiwi for “weather bomb”). My friend, Jeff, and I, however, are going hiking.
But it’s okay, the local experts assure us, because we’re heading out on the Kepler Track. One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Kepler ranks among the most scenic and varied hut treks in a country blessed with a crazy wealth of gorgeous trails. More than that, though, the Kepler presents a relatively mud-, flood-, and hassle-free, hut-to-hut hiking experience. Its hiker-friendly construction, and the relative ease of securing hut reservations compared with world-famous tracks like the Milford and Routeburn, make it one of the most accessible hut treks in a land where everything from weather to logistics can mess with your adventure plans.
Opened in 1988—making it much newer than many tracks that were historically rougher routes created by native Maori people and Western settlers—the Kepler was laid out to lead hikers on a grand tour of Fiordland’s diverse landscapes, from moss-blanketed beech forest to the tussock-carpeted high country. But in many ways, it’s simply more civilized than other hut-to-hut treks.
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Beginning just minutes from the lovely little town of Te Anau (warning: You may decide to uproot your life and move here), and two hours from Queenstown’s airport (or here), the three- to four-day, approximately 37-mile (60k) loop hike delivers sweeping vistas of Fiordland’s vast mountains that rival any other track, and lush forest that looks like it sprang from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. A gravel or packed-dirt path for much of its length, the Kepler features bridges over most streams, boardwalks spanning boggy areas, and wooden stairways on the steepest sections (although long stretches of stairway can possess their own kind of arduousness). Plus, the huts offer comfortable, spacious shelter and a classic, social hut experience—we met Kiwis, of course, but also Australians, Israelis, Brits, Germans, a woman from Holland, and a couple from Alaska. Not all were highly fit, avid hikers, but all of the people we met finished the Kepler despite some stormy weather and fairly strenuous days.
The path is so well-signed and easy to follow, in fact, that even the employees in the Te Anau office of the Department of Conservation—which manages the Great Walks and other tracks—will tell you that a map isn’t necessary; DOC’s simple brochure-guide will suffice.
Hearing all that, Jeff and I set off into the oncoming “weetha bum” without a care.
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With partly cloudy skies and glorious, long views on our first afternoon, Jeff and I decide after reaching Luxmore Hut, where we’ll spend the night, that we should take advantage of the good weather to hike Mount Luxmore immediately. Luxmore’s summit is usually tagged on the second day of the Kepler—when hikers make the trail’s high, exposed alpine traverse. But with a forecast for rain and low visibility tomorrow, we’re not taking any chances on missing the view from the top of Luxmore.
Less than 90 minutes later, layered and zipped up against strong gusts, we’re standing on Luxmore’s 4,829-foot (1472m) summit, highest point on the Kepler Track. But the classic Fiordland panorama before us makes it easy to ignore the cold wind: row upon row of jagged mountains sprawl out before us, with Lake Te Anau shimmering in the sunshine far below.
That evening, the hut ranger, Pat, gathers the roughly 50 “trampers” staying at Luxmore Hut in the dining room to warn us that tomorrow’s forecast calls for 80 kph (50mph) winds and heavy rain. As he’s talking, there’s a sudden commotion, and then everyone is standing and clamoring to watch two keas, large alpine parrots native to New Zealand’s South Island, that have landed on a picnic table on the deck just outside the common room windows.
Sure enough, when Jeff and I depart the Luxmore Hut just after 8 a.m. on our second day, outfitted in rain jackets and pants, gaiters, hats and gloves, we step into a bone-rattling wind and pounding rain that soon changes to wet snow. But less than two hours from the hut, somewhere in the middle of the Kepler’s alpine traverse, the blasting wind and rain tapers off to occasional showers—and in Fiordland, on-and-off, light rain and partial sunshine qualifies as a nice day.
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As we’re descending toward the emergency shelter in Forest Burn Saddle, the clouds lift to reveal a sea of sharp-edged peaks, the highest wearing a fresh blanket of snow, and lushly green valleys and a deep-blue lake far below us. Several keas circle just overhead, squawking and screeching and landing on the ground near us. Keas are famous among trekkers for inexplicably tearing apart unattended gear or clothing, so we leave nothing unguarded.
The Kepler’s alpine traverse defies easy description. For much of the nine-mile (14.6k) hike from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut—which takes five to six hours at a leisurely pace—the trail follows a system of ridges above the bush line, with endless panoramas (when it’s not socked in by clouds) of rugged peaks and steep-walled valleys. After a long descent to the Iris Burn Hut, at the edge of a valley meadow flanked by tall cliffs, Jeff and I take the 20-minute hike from the hut to see the 50-foot Iris Burn Waterfall, the only falls on the Kepler.
On our last day, we hike down the Iris Burn Valley, through the always fascinating Fiordland forest, with its twisted, thick-trunked beech trees, ferns carpeting the ground, and moss covering everything. We walk along the shore of Lake Manapouri, where mountains that look too steep to possibly hold the dense forest clinging to their slopes rise straight up from the lake’s edge.
Thousands walk the Kepler every year. While not a trail you hike for solitude, the Kepler is a great equalizer: a track that many people can complete.
But of course, it’s much nicer in good weather.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR any reasonably fit hikers, including beginners and families, who are prepared for potentially wet, windy weather and have the stamina for hiking up to 10 to 14 miles (16.2k to 22.2k) per day (depending on your itinerary; see below). The main challenges are the mountainous terrain—including an ascent of nearly 3,000 vertical feet (almost 900 meters) to Luxmore Hut, and the possibility of heavy rain, wind, and low visibility. The trail is well constructed and easy to follow. The hike from the Kepler Track Car Park to Luxmore Hut is mostly protected within forest until the last 45 minutes, when it emerges above the bush line; if the forecast looks bad for the alpine traverse when you’re at Luxmore Hut—where a hut ranger is on duty and receives a daily forecast—you can backtrack the fairly protected route to the trailhead.
Make It Happen
Season The Kepler Track’s prime season is late October through late April, which is late spring through early fall in New Zealand. From late fall through early spring, advanced skills at winter hiking, camping, and evaluating avalanche danger are required.
The Itinerary The approximately 37-mile (60k) loop of the Kepler Track is usually walked counter-clockwise in four days. Day one is 8.6 miles (13.8k) and almost 3,000 vertical feet (900m) to Luxmore Hut; trekkers often make the 10-minute hike from the hut to explore Luxmore Cave. Day two is nine miles (14.6k) to Iris Burn Hut; day three 10 miles (16.2k) to Moturau Hut; and day four 3.7 miles (6k) to Rainbow Reach Car Park (which can be reached on day three) or 9.6 miles (15.5k) to Kepler Track Car Park. The total distance can be shortened to about 31.3 miles (50.5k) by finishing at Rainbow Reach Car Park (where two of us easily hitched a ride from other trekkers back to Te Anau).
Getting There The Kepler Track begins at the Kepler Track Car Park on the south shore of Lake Te Anau, a five-minute drive or roughly 30-minute walk from the town of Te Anau. Shuttle buses are available from the Queenstown airport and other locations in Queenstown to Te Anau, so a rental car isn’t necessary.
Huts Reserve hut spaces at least a couple months in advance for dates during the Great Walks season, from late October through late April. The huts accommodate about 40 to 50 trekkers and provide water (no showers), toilets, cooking stoves, and a hut ranger on duty during the Great Walks season.
Map/Guide Pick up the free Kepler Track Guide brochure at the Department of Conservation (DOC) office in Te Anau, or visit doc.govt.nz/keplertrack.
Contact New Zealand Department of Conservation, doc.govt.nz.