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Lake Howden in the morning
Lake Howden in the morning
Country: New Zealand
Location: South of Fiordland National Park.
Accommodation: Glenorchy village has motels and B&B. Queenstown is more convenient with all sorts of accommodation and an airport. Te Anau also has all types of accommodation.
Transport: There are a number of bus operators that offer transport to and from the ends of the track.
Maps: Topomaps: Eglinton D41, Queenstown E41 (1:50,000)
Trackmap: Routeburn/Greenstone (1:75,000)
Trip Dates: 14-16 March, 2001
Also See These Hiking Pages:
Greenstone Track from the New Zealand Tramper

The Greenstone Valley is a grand, glacial glen in the South Island of New Zealand, extending south from Lake Howden (in the Fiordland National Park) to the shores of Lake Wakatipu. There is a good track along its entire length. The northern access point is The Divide shelter on the Milford Road and the southern access point is the end of the Greenstone Station Road. It can be hiked by itself, as an extension to the Routeburn Track or as a loop walk of 4-5 days including a track along the nearby Caples Valley.

Coaches run frequently during the summer tourist season along the Milford Road from Te Anau and Queenstown past The Divide. It is an hour's walk from here along the Routeburn Track to the beginning of the Greenstone Track at Howden Hut. Public transport is also available between Queenstown and the Lake Wakatipu track end. Check details before you set out in Te Anau or in Queenstown. The Greenstone Station Road leading to the road end from the Dart River is a rough 4WD track and may not be suitable for all private vehicles.

The Greenstone River may contain Giardia, so care should be taken. However the water available in the huts is safe.

The Divide to McKellar Hut

A nice short day (3-4 hours) takes you past a grand viewpoint into the valleys. From there, a well-padded track travels through verdant beech forest and visits 2 scenic lakes. You end up at McKellar Hut at the top of the Greenstone Valley and squeezed between high mountain ranges.

Leave the carpark at The Divide (shelter and toilets) on the Routeburn Track. This climbs steadily for 1.5 kilometres through rainforest as it traverses the last foothill of the Livingston Mountains. A junction is reached at the crest of the ridge with a side-track to Key Summit (919m). The summit is worth the diversion with good views into 3 river catchments - the Greenstone, Eglinton and Hollyford - and their surrounding mountains. It takes 10 minutes up to the summit with its tarns and mountain-finder table, 30 minutes around the nature walk (guides to the walk are in a stand at the start) and 5 minutes back plus however long you take to admire the many views. Please keep to the track to protect the fragile alpine environment.

The main track continues to sidle for another kilometre down to Howden Hut and lake where the Greenstone Track starts. The track runs along the lake shore but well within the forest so that there are few views across the lake. After a kilometre a large grassy clearing at the head of the lake is reached. This is the nearest place for camping and has a toilet. Have a rest and drink in the great view down the Greenstone Valley (crammed between the Ailsa and Livingston mountain ranges).

From the clearing, the track enters the moss-clad beech forest again and crosses the level Greenstone Saddle in another 500 metres. The well padded track continues in the bush and sticks to the higher slopes to avoid a large swamp in the valley floor. A gentle descent then leads to a clear area at the head of Lake McKellar where there is a signposted junction (3 kilometres from Lake Howden). The path to your left heads over the McKellar Saddle to Upper Caples Hut in 5-7 hours. The pass is an obvious notch in the mountain wall as is the steep 300m that the Caples Track climbs to it.

The Greenstone Track sidles along the shores of Lake McKellar aside from a short-cut across a flat peninsular. If you want to sit by the lake then there are some stony beaches about 500 metres from the lake head that give good views back up the valley. After about 2.5 kilometres the track crosses a stream (a faint side-path heads off to a private hut) and then emerges into a large grassy glade containing McKellar Hut. You have now left the Fiordland National Park and are on the edges of the Wakatipu Forest (a recreational hunting area). From now on the track stays in the Wakatipu Forest - note that the valley floor is leasehold grazing land and you are likely to see many cattle there. The huts are also closer to the New Zealand norm when compared to the luxurious Great Walk huts.

McKellar Hut to Mid-Greenstone Hut

The valley is followed for 6 hours between the two huts. The track remains mostly in the verge of the forest on the western side of the valley.

Walk to the bottom of the grassy glade where a long swingbridge takes the track over the Greenstone River and into mature beech forest for a short time. A stream is crossed after about a kilometre. Pause beyond here to look west (upstream) to the fine summit of Jean Batten Peak (2012m), at the back of a couple of nearer tops. Ahead the valley swings slightly west in a kilometre and so its lower reaches are hidden for another 20 minutes. At that point a grand vista opens up with the brown flats extending for 10 kilometres ahead and the green-clad ranges rising to each side.

The track turns west away from the Greenstone River and the flats. It enters the forest to cross a creek and stays resolutely in the forest verge for the next 4 kilometres. This is good, level walking with plenty of excuses for breaks to enjoy the bush. There is one interesting section where the track climbs slightly to cross a scree slope. The bare slopes give a good view back up the valley where the snowy peaks of the Darran Mountains start to poke up above the ridges. A waterfall visible across the valley marks the position of the private Rats Nest Hut. The track then occasionally breaks out into the flats where is it worthwhile diverting into the flats a couple of times to check on the views and your progress.

As you near Steele Creek, the track wanders out into the tussock flats and down into an area of rounded mounds (probably dumped there by the glaciers). The track winds through the scrub on the mounds and meets the river at a cute gorge. A palatial private hut for the guided walkers is prominent on a river terrace across the creek. The track seems to head straight for it but then ducks into the forest and the high swing-bridge across the Steele Creek. The Steele Creek Track departs just before the bridge and gives access to the Caples Valley along a rough route.

The path to the private hut is passed. The track used to climb steeply for 50m followed by a sidle to the site of the Mid-Greenstone Hut. In 2003 this 12-bunk hut was replaced by a larger 20-bed hut at the site of the old Sly Burn Hut an hour further down river. The hut sat prettily at the top of an grassy incursion into the bush with good views back up the Greenstone Valley. In the evening you were likely to be serenaded by bulls out in the river flats roaring to each other.

Mid-Greenstone Hut to the road-end

Today is a similar length to the previous day (about 6 hours) but is slightly tougher since the track has more ups and downs.

Turn left from in front of the hut to join the well-signposted track and traverse a short stretch of beech forest. The track heads gradually downwards for the next kilometre until flats next to the river are reached. These are followed for the next 3 kilometres as the river and valley swing to the left (west). At the end of the grass flats the track climbs up to a small scree slide and follows a worn path through it. The wide and stony cattle track keeps well above the invisible river below in its deep gorge. There are plenty of ups and downs as it sidles along the slopes.

In a little over a kilometre the Mavora Lakes Walkway junction is reached. This is a 3-4 day walk (including 3 huts) but ends up at a road-end with no public transport. The less easy access means that the walkway is much less frequented than the Greenstone. Across the river is the new Greenstone Hut (20 bunks). Previously (before the junction) you may have noticed a small building on the slopes across the river - this is the private Pass Burn Hut.

The track continues to sidle and then descends to the open Slip Flat in 2 kilometres where there is ample room for camping on its hummocky ground. Cross the creek that runs through the flat (there is a bridge upstream if needed) and climb up slightly to meet the track from the bridge. Slip Flats Bivvy is reputed to be hidden at the back of the flat (I did not see it), a tiny hut with room for 2-3 people. Look across the river to the ominous shape of Tooth Peak (2050m) on the skyline.

Crossing the flat, the track drops temporarily back to the river bank and then climbs up again into the bush. After another kilometre of gentle climbing, the junction with the Lake Rere Track is encountered. This crosses the Greenstone River on a bridge, traverses the slopes to Lake Rere and then wanders out to Elfin Bay on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It then follows a dirt road north to the end of the Greenstone Track.

The Greenstone Track descends over the next 1.5 kilometres to meet the riverbank and follow it for another kilometre. Suddenly the track emerges into the wide flats surrounding the confluence of the Greenstone and Caples Rivers. The flats are crossed for half a kilometre to a bridge, allowing plenty of chances to look up into the narrow Caples Valley with a fine set of peaks on either side. The bridge crosses the Caples River and heads downriver. There is a little climb to start with to get over some bluffs. At one point the track swings into a narrow gully containing a cute waterfall. Afterwards it descends to the river, passes a stockbridge and reaches the end of the Greenstone Track.

The road end has a shelter and a carpark. There is access to the river if you want to soak your feet or risk a brisk swim in the cold river water.

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