Hiking the great walks in Fiordland, New Zealand

Fiordland National Park in the South West of the south island is New Zealand's largest national park and is dominated by the Southern Alps.

This part of New Zealand, has a very wet climate with an annual average of 200 rainy days and an annual rainfall varying from 1200 mm in Te Anau to 8000 mm in Milford Sound.

So why would you want to go there if it rains more than half of the year?

Well, due to the amount of rain coming down each year, most of Fiordland is covered by - you guessed it - Rainforest. Farns and moss are shining in 50 shades of green. And once above the tree line great alpine views let you forget the rain of the last hours once the clouds give way to blue sky.

What makes it special?

It rains half of the year but the other half offers fantastic alpine panoramas green glowing rainforest.

The great walks in Fiordland

The New Zealand great walks are selected premier multi day walking tracks, allowing everybody to experience its diverse and spectacular scenery.

Besides many smaller trails, Fiordland is home to three of the great walks offering plenty of opportunity to see the green of the rainforest, enjoy the panoramic views from its mountain peaks and experience its beautiful waterfalls.

Below a short description of each great walk in Fiordland.

Kepler Track

Length: 60 km
Duration: 3-4 days, both directions

In contrary to the other great walks which follow ancient Maori paths, the Kepler Track was established solely to let tourists experience all of Fiordland's beauty in a single hike. It passes through rocky mountain ridges, tall mossy forests, lake shores, deep gorges, rare wetlands and rivers. Like the mountains it traverses, the track is named after Johannes Kepler.

It is the only circuit track of the three walks allowing you to walk it in either direction.

You might consider to avoid the track on the first Saturday of December though, unless you want to participate in the Kepler challenge yourself. On that day, more than 400 trail runners will hit the track with the fastest finishing in under five hours. If you are looking for a nice walk in solitude to enjoy nature, this definitely is the wrong day to choose.

Milford Track

Length: 53,5 km
Duration: 4 days, one way

The Milford Track, also named “the finest walk in the world”, was the first walk open to the public. For decades, the Milford Track was a guided-only walk. Since 1966 also self guided walkers can traverse the Milford Track.

The 53.5 km hike starts at Glade Wharf at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishes in Milford Sound at Sandfly Point, traversing rainforests, wetlands, and an alpine pass.

Located in the area exposed to up to 8000 mm rain fall per year, expect to walk at least on day in the rain. As a reward you will see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand, Stirling Falls.

Routeburn Track

Length: 32 km
Duration: 2-4 days, both directions

Despite being the shortest of the great walks in Fiordland, it is one of the most stunning walks. The track spends a long time on the high ridges around Harris Saddle, with great long-distance views in many directions. Routeburn Track offers numerous views over the valleys of Fiordland, alpine lakes and waterfalls.

Your chances of a dry experience are much better than on the Milford track, as this area gets much less rain. As a consequence, the forests are very different, especially on the eastern side of the saddle. It is predominantly made up of New Zealand red beech and mountain beech, with relatively few ferns.

The booking system of the great walks

The department of conservation (DOC) maintaining the great walks, distinguishes between off and on season. During the Great Walks season, from mid October to beginning of May, any overnight stay in a hut or camp sites must be booked with DOC. Either use their website or register in one of their offices.

In addition, for all great walks in Fiordland you need to pick up your tickets in the DOC office in Te Anau before you start the walk. For the Routeburn track you can also pick them up in the DOC office in Queenstown. The resident ranger at the hut/campsite will check your tickets in the late afternoon and give you some information about the local environment. Of course they will also help out should an emergency arise.

Let's talk about money

Prices per night and person are NZ $54 for a bunk bed in the hut and NZ $18 for a camp site. The additional $36 for the hut buy you a lighter backpack, a simple mattress with a waterproof cover so it can be hosed down, flush toilets, running water and gas stoves.

In addition to the overnight stay you need to get transportation to and from the trail head/end when walking Milford track or Routeburn track.

If you have deep pockets ($1375 and up) you can do a guided tour on Routeburn and Milford track. Personally I do not think a guide is needed for any of the great walks in New Zealand, but the extra money will get you a linen bed, hot showers, electricity and food.

How challenging are the great walks

In contrast to the other thousands of kilometers in walking tracks in New Zealand, the great walks are especially well maintained. To overcome major obstacles like rivers and steep slopes, bridges and stairs are installed. Most of the time the tracks are even wide enough for two people to walk beside each other.

Thus hiking a great walk during the season often feels more like walking on a highway. You can literally run the trails. And looking at the Kepler Challenge, that's what people actually do.

Personally we think the great walks in Fiordland are a bit easier than the multi day hikes in the European alps covering 1500 m in altitude uphill and downhill in a single day. In Fiordland it's only about half the altitude and either uphill or downhill in a single day

Fit and moderately experienced people will be able to do the Routeburn Track in one day.

How seriously do you have to take DOCs warning

After reading on how well maintained the walks are, you might be wondering why DOC is posting trail warnings all over their website.

Well, first of all, DOC must not underestimate the ingenuity of people to get in trouble even in the most protected environment. Even on a well maintained track it is plain stupid to start for a longer walk without being prepared for a sudden change in weather.

Secondly, after the walking season, DOC dismounts many of the installation of the tracks to prevent damage during winter.  With those installations gone, the situation completely changes. Nothing protects the hiker from land slides and swelling rivers caused by Fiordland's massive rain falls. During winter frequent avalanches add to the danger. Thus DOC has all the reason to warn hikers about the dangers in the country side.

Our personal perception is: During the summer months, trail running shoes, rain gear and a first aid kid are fully sufficient for day walks. The closer you get to winter, the more of the heavy equipment like hiking boots and warm cloths are needed.

What gear to bring for multiy day hikes

The basics when sleeping in huts are: Tickets, Waterproof shoes, and backpack, first aid kid, rain gear (pants and jacket), some warm cloths, sleeping bag, toiletries, toilet paper, food, water and cooking utensils. And yes, during walking season and with moderately good weather, trail running shoes are sufficient if you don't mind some puddles of mud.

When sleeping on the camp site add a mattress, tent and stove.

See the list on the DOC site for more details.