The Caples and Greenstone Valleys are linked by McKellar Saddle, a sub-alpine pass, to make a moderate 4- day round trip. It is a moderately demanding tramp with some days averaging 6-7 hours of walking. A reasonable degree of fitness is required.
The Greenstone Valley is a wide, open valley with tussock flats and beech forest. In comparison, the Caples Valley is a narrower valley filled with forest interspersed with grassy clearings. Either of these tracks can be linked with the Routeburn Track, or they can be walked as a one way track starting or finishing either at the Divide or the Greenstone Shelter.
The superb diversity of natural features in this area is recognised internationally with the establishment of the Te Wāhipounamu-South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
These tracks can be walked in either direction. This description details the Caples then the Greenstone Track.
The Caples Track and the Greenstone Track can both be combined with the Routeburn Track.
DOC huts on the track are serviced with coal fires for heating only. All huts have mattresses. There is running water in summer months at all huts. Trampers should carry their own cookers as gas stoves are not provided.
Hut wardens are present on the tracks from late October until mid-April. A Backcountry Hut Pass or Backcountry Tickets must be purchased in advance from a DOC office or approved outlet. Trampers are expected to leave the huts clean and tidy, and to pack out what they pack in, as there are no rubbish disposal facilities on the tracks.
Mid Greenstone Hut and Upper Caples Hut are managed by the NZ Deerstalkers' Association.
Camping is permitted along the bush edge, 50 m from the track. You can't camp on McKellar Saddle or on the open valley floors of the Caples or Greenstone Valleys as this is private land.
Fires are only to be lit in recognised fireplaces. Do not cut down or use live vegetation. Make sure the fire is out before leaving the area. Keep fires small and have billies of water nearby.
To camp by any of the three huts, there is a fee.
If camping here use the hut toilet. If camping elsewhere bury all human waste carefully.
Time: 2 to 3 hr, 9 km
Follow the Greenstone/Caples Track from the car park. After 2–3 minutes, a stock bridge gives access to the Lake Rere Track. Don’t cross the bridge but keep to the true left—the river’s left bank, looking downstream. The track continues past the confluence of the Caples and Greenstone rivers.
Another swing bridge provides access to the Greenstone Track. The Caples Track continues on the true left of the Caples River. There are several slips between the Caples/Greenstone confluence and Mid Caples Hut – navigate with care during periods of poor weather.
Along the valley floor the track mainly follows the bush edge, but crosses the occasional grassy clearing. Just before the 24-bunk Mid Caples Hut, the track crosses a spectacular gorge.
Time: 6–7 hr, 22 km
Travel up the valley through bush and grassy clearings is easy—beware however of side streams on this section after heavy rain. About two hours from Mid Caples Hut, after entering the beech forest at the end of Top Flat, the recently upgraded track passes junctions with Steele Creek and Fraser/Kay Tracks before sidling steadily up towards the bush edge. The track across McKellar Saddle (945 m) gives great views and has been boardwalked to protect the fragile subalpine vegetation.
West of the saddle, the track again enters the bush and zigzags downwards for one hour to the open valley floor where a track junction is reached upstream from Lake McKellar.
The 24-bunk McKellar Hut lies to the left and Routeburn Track junction/Lake Howden outlet to the right. Both are about one hour from the junction.
Note: Upper Caples Hut is managed by the NZ Deerstalkers' Association. Book the hut.
Time: 4 hr 30 min - 6 hr 30 min, 18 km
Cross the bridge in front of the hut and follow the track down river on the true left. It is a relatively easy valley walk alternating between tussock flats and bush, until the track reaches a gorge through an old land slide. Steele Creek is crossed by a swingbridge and the track veers to the right passing close to a private hut (Steele Creek Lodge) and the local Deerstalker's association Mid Greenstone Hut. The Greenstone Hut is approximately 1-2 hours away from this location.
The track then meanders down the valley past a large white terrace bank, still keeping on the true left of the river all the way down a wide open valley before entering the bush again. A junction in the track is reached shortly after this. A right turn leads across a bridge over a gorge to the Greenstone Hut (20 bunks) and the Mavora Walkway.
Time: 3–5 hr, 12 km
To continue down the Greenstone Valley to the Greenstone Carpark return to the junction via the bridge over the gorge
On the Greenstone Track the valley begins to narrow sharply as the river enters a long gorge section. In winter this section of track may be prone to avalanches. Slip Flat is a large open area about halfway down the gorge. There is an emergency bridge upstream if the creek across Slip Flat is in flood.
Beyond Slip Flat the track enters the bush again and follows the river down to its junction with the Caples River. Several deep pools next to the track offer good swimming on hot days. Parts of the track cross private land and stock may be present. Continue to the confluence with the Caples River. Near the confluence is a swing bridge crossing the Caples to the true left bank. Here you join the Caples Track. Trampers wishing to walk out to the car park should follow the track downstream for 30 minutes.
Time: 1.5–2.5 hours
From McKellar Hut the track skirts to the left of Lake McKellar. It then goes through forest to the Routeburn Track junction/Lake Howden outlet.
Time: 10–12 hours
This route is suitable for experienced trampers only.
Time: 2–3 days
From Greenstone Hut it is a 2-3 day walk along the Mavora-Greenstone Walkway to Mavora Lakes. The track is part of Te Araroa/The Long Pathway, and passes through open tussock country and beech forest. The terrain is gentle, and the highest point on the walk, Pass Burn, is only 200m above the level of Lake Wakatipu. There are two other huts on the walk.
The Caples and Greenstone tracks start from the car-park at the end of Greenstone Road, 86 kmfrom Queenstown, via Glenorchy.
Alternatively, they can be started from Lake Howden outlet on the Routeburn Track, which is one hour's walk from the Divide on State Highway 94, 80 km from Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound.
In summer, both ends of the tracks are serviced daily by various transport companies. Contact the operators for schedules.
Topographical map references are NZTopo50 - sheets CB9 Hollyford, CB10 Glenorchy and CC9 North Mavora Lake.
View DOC-approved businesses that provide transport options in the conservation area.
Destination Queenstown also has information about transport providers.
The grassy river flats of the Caples and Greenstone Valleys are private farmland. Respect this, and stay on the tracks which follow the forest edge. Do not disturb stock.
The forest is a Stewardship Area managed by DOC. Fiordland National Park begins at the southern end of Lake McKellar.
Side streams on these track systems may flood due to heavy or prolonged rain - in particular the Caples River and side streams above Upper Caples Hut, and Jean Batten Creek south of McKellar Hut. Care is required.
Plan properly for your trip and make sure your group has a capable leader. All trampers need to carry a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, sufficient food, basic first aid kit and adequate waterproof / warm clothing including gloves and hat.
Physical fitness and good equipment will make all the difference to your enjoyment of the trip.
If you become lost, find shelter and stay calm.
Although the tracks are not closed in winter, avalanche danger may be present below Slip Flat in the lower Greenstone, and snow may make travel very difficult, even on the valley floors. Check with the Queenstown Visitor Centre for information on snow conditions.
Always check the weather forecast before entering the area. McKellar Saddle is exposed, there is no shelter in adverse weather.
Before you go into the outdoors, tell someone your plans and leave a date and time to raise the alarm if you haven't returned. To do this, use the New Zealand Outdoors Intentions process on the AdventureSmart website. It is endorsed by New Zealand's search and rescue agencies and provides three simple options to tell someone you trust the details about your trip.
Cattle is present on the grassy lower flats, so water taken from the streams should be boiled or sterilised. In huts and the higher regions of the tracks, water is generally safe to drink but trampers may wish to treat it for their own protection.
In areas without toilet facilities bury your toilet waste. Choose a place at least 50 m from tracks, huts, camping sites, popular areas and water sources. Dig a shallow hole 150 mm deep and bury all toilet waste and paper. This will stop the waste contaminating water sources.
The Greenstone Valley and the Hollyford Valley were the easiest access routes between the West Coast and Central Otago. They were discovered and widely used by the Waitaha, one of the earliest groups of settlers in the region. They were followed by Kati Mamoe and Kāi Tahu in succession, travelling from Lake Wakatipu to the West Coast in search of pounamu, or greenstone.
Early West Coast Ngati Wairangi also used the route as they sought pounamu from the Dart Valley. Pounamu was highly valued as a material for tools, weapons and ornaments. The Otago pounamu was the especially valued pearly grey-green variety, and was made into tools and weapons of great mana (status).
No Māori archaeological sites have been found within the Greenstone and Caples Valleys, but about 20 sites have been identified beside the Dart/Te Awa Whakatipu and Rees/Puahere Rivers, and on Pigeon Island/Wāwāhi Waka, opposite the mouth of the Greenstone Valley.
The first Europeans to view the area, in 1862, were Southland runholders David McKellar and George Gunn. In 1863 gold prospector Patrick Caples was the first European to cross from Lake Wakatipu to the West Coast. For a long time the pack route up the Greenstone Valley was the only land route to the West Coast and the settlement at Martins Bay. The first runholder began farming the Caples Valley in 1880, and the original homestead of Birchdale Station still stands.
During the 1880s both valleys were plagued by rabbits, as was much of New Zealand at that time. The Greenstone Valley and the Pass Burn, which joins the Greenstone Valley above the Greenstone Hut, were used as stock trails for early runholders at the head of Lake Wakatipu. In the late 1800s Lake Rere was a popular destination for steamer excursions, and the steamer would stop at the Elfin Bay wharf while the tourists walked to the lake.
As part of the Crown’s settlement of Ngāi Tahu’s historic land claims, three high country stations at the head of Lake Wakatipu are to be transferred to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Te Runanga are to transfer 4100 hectares of mountain land in the southern Ailsa Mountains and the southern Humboldt Mountains back to the Crown by way of gift to the people of New Zealand. This land is now known as Kā Whenua Roimata, which translates as “the lands of tears”.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu are also to lease back to the Crown in perpetuity, as conservation areas, other significant portions of the stations, mainly in the Mararoa catchment. In addition, public foot access by means of covenants is available around Lake Rere, to Scott Basin, and through the freehold portions of the properties in the Greenstone and Caples Valleys.
The dominant rock of the Caples and Greenstone Valleys and the surrounding mountains is Caples Sandstone. This was deposited on the sea floor as layers of mud and sand on top of volcanic rocks about 220-270 million years ago. The sandstone is tough, erosion resistant rock which has been tilted and now stands more or less on end.
A band of blackish serpentine, known as the Greenstone Melange, is wedged between the sandstone and crosses the lower Caples and Slip Flat area of the lower Greenstone.
The river terraces and flats are made of local glacial and river gravels and outwash.
During the Ice Ages the enormous Hollyford Glacier reached as far as Martins Bay on the west coast, and flowed over Key Summit on the main divide where it branched into the Eglinton Valley and the Greenstone Valley. The Greenstone Valley glacier split into two at the Sly Burn and reached as far as Mavora Lakes in the south and Lake Wakatipu in the east.
The forests in the Caples and Greenstone Valleys are southern beech, or Nothofagus spp. Large leaved red beech trees prefer richer soils of alluvial fans at low altitude, while the small smooth leaved mountain beech predominates at higher altitudes. Silver beech occurs throughout the valleys. In some summers the bands of different beech trees across the valley sides can be clearly seen.
The forest under storey is characterised by ferns and small shrubs and trees such as the peppery tasting horopito.
The open grassy river flats have always been clear of forest, as frequent frosts in winter stop the forest encroaching onto them. Since the flats have been farmed the original grasses and tussocks have mostly been replaced by introduced grasses, although there are still some extensive areas of tussock remaining in the mid and upper Greenstone Valley.
Prominent patches of scrubby celery pine and bog pine occur in places on the river flats. Inaka or Dracophyllum, tussocks and stunted beech trees are found on McKellar Saddle.
Insect-eating birds such as tomtits/miromiro, fantails/pīwakawaka, rifleman/tītipounamu, brown creeper/pipipi and South Island robin/kakaruai thrive in the beech forests, which are rich in invertebrate life. Kākāriki, or parakeet, the rare mōhua, or yellowhead, and kākā can be heard in the forest throughout the Greenstone Valley. Kea are sometimes seen at the upper end of the Caples track, and falcon/käreärea hunt the flats and forest edges.
Whio, or blue duck, are found in fast flowing streams and rivers in the valleys, and the noisy paradise ducks/pūtakitaki are conspicuous inhabitants of the river flats.
South Island kōkako, which are considered extinct, kiwi and native bats have been reported from the Caples and Greenstone Valleys, but there have been no recent confirmed sightings.