The Routeburn, Milford or Kepler Track: which is the best Great Walk in Fiordland?

This is the age old question: which Great Walk should you do in Fiordland National Park? Having done all three back-to-back (in fact we did all 9 back to back), we can say that we love all three. But we won't sit on the fence, we will eventually lay down our favourite! Here's our thoughts on Routeburn vs Milford vs Kepler.

 

Availability

Unless you're booking on the day the tracks go on-sale, then you may not have a choice about which to do based on availability. The Milford Track sells out within a day and the Routeburn and Kepler aren't far behind for most dates. 


 

The best for the wow factor: The Kepler Track

The Kepler Track is the walk that wins for wow factor. As soon as you hike above the tree line on day one, you'll be greeted with a panoramic view so spectacular it stopped us in our tracks.

This continues on day two as you hike ridge line after ridge line. You are completely surrounded by mountains and it will truly take your breath away. 

The beautiful ridgeline on day two of the Kepler Track

Is the Kepler Track for you?

The Kepler Track is probably the hardest of the three, primarily because of the very steep climbs and descents, as well as the longer distances. Day two of the track can be very windy, in fact the day after we hiked it they closed this section due to 130 kmph winds. Even when we went over the ridges with 35kmph winds you sometimes had to brace yourself. If you have vertigo this is probably not the track for you, especially on a windy day. 

We loved the whole Kepler Track but some people we met were not so fond of day three and four, as those days are almost entirely in the bush. The forest was beautiful and we very much enjoyed it but it is something to bear in mind. Having said that, The Milford also has a lot of forest walking, as does the Routeburn.

The view just after Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track


If you really aren't a fan, on the Kepler you can shorten some of the forest walking by exiting at Rainbow Reach car park on day four, this lessens your time in the bush by close to 10km. This can also mean you could even walk the track in three days if you don't mind a long final push. 

Overall, if you're looking for a hike that's challenging and a photographer's dream, then you should pick the Kepler out of all three.

Added bonuses:

1. This is the best track for the chance to spot wild kiwi. They are fairly regularly seen on the path between Iris Burn hut and the waterfalls. 

2. You can take a bracing dip in the Iris Burn waterfall. 

3. It has the best hut of the lot in our opinion, Luxmore hut which was our favourite of all the 9 Great Walks, and has the opportunity to watch a spectacular sunset. 


 

Essential Track information about the Kepler Track

Days: Four

Difficulty: Moderate. A very steep climb on day one, undulating on day 2, flat on day three and four.

Distance: 60km (can be shortened by exiting at Rainbow Reach car park). 

The ridge line on day two of the Kepler Track


 

The one for the bucket list: The Milford Track

Let's be honest, the Milford Track is one you have to walk in your lifetime. It's been called the 'Finest Walk in the World', and who are we to argue? It is truly spectacular. Making it to the top of McKinnon Pass on a clear day is something you will remember forever. It also has the most spectacular start and finish, with a cruise on Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound respectively. 

We thought the Milford Track would be beautiful, but we didn't really expect how stunning the track would become in the rain. More on the rain up next. 

The view from the McKinnon Pass

Is the Milford Track for you?

The Milford Track has some surprisingly hard days, especially day three when you can walk well in excess of 20km (it also has some steep climbs and descents). It's also the track that can be prone to the most extreme wet weather.

This track is notorious for rain, and often flooding On our hike we received 200mm of rain in one day. If you can't stand walking in the rain (wet boots inevitable) it might not be the one for you.

Bear in mind though that the rain will bring the valleys to life, with thousands of waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides. There really is nowhere else like it. 

The track up to the McKinnon Pass

One of the best things about the Milford Track is that unlike the others you stay with the same people at each hut as it's a fixed itinerary. This means you get to know people over four days, whereas hikers on the other trails can go in opposite directions or skip huts. It also joins two bucket list places to visit in New Zealand: Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound.

Added bonuses: 

1. On day one after dark you can walk 10 minutes from Clinton hut to view a glow worm dell, talk about magical. 

2. Chance to see the highest waterfall in New Zealand on day three, Sutherland Falls. 

3. You can swim in the Clinton River on day one, there's plenty of time for this as the hike on day one is just 5km.


 

Essential Track information about the Milford Track

Days: Four

Difficulty: Moderate. The hardest day by far is day three where you have a steep climb up the McKinnon Pass, steep climb down and over 20km of hiking if you include the side trail to Sutherland Falls.

Distance: 62km (including side trails, the offical track length is 53.5km). 

The McKinnon Pass


 

The shortest one that has a bit of everything: The Routeburn Track

If you're short on time and you want to see the Greatest Hits of Fiordland, then the Routeburn is calling for you. Within a relatively short distance you get some truly stunning views; valleys, glaciers, electric blue rivers, ridge lines and vegetation that keeps changing as you climb.

We didn't have the greatest of weather for the Routeburn, but it will always have a special place in our hearts as the first Great Walk we ever did.

The path before Earland Falls, Routeburn Track

Is the Routeburn Track for you?

The Routeburn is the easiest of the three tracks, and still completely spectacular. It's relatively short and can be done in two to three days. Although it can be steep in places and the path turns into rubble at points, it iss a hike that most people can do with a medium level of fitness, especially if you do the three day version.

The only difficulty with the Routeburn is the logistics of the huge distance between the start and the end. Car relocation is by far the most convenient option, but can be costly. Otherwise you'll have to rely on a really long bus journey to get back to your car.

  The view from Harris Saddle

The view from Harris Saddle

Added bonuses:

1. You can swim in the gorgeous but freezing cold Lake Mackenzie. 

2. You can take a short (45 minute return) side trail to Key Summit for some of the best views in New Zealand. 

3. Our fave hut ranger is stationed at Lake Mackenzie hut. Evan will give you an incredible talk on native bird conservation. We loved most of the hut rangers during the trails but none of the talks came close to Evan's. 


 

Essential track information on the Routeburn

Days: 2-3

Difficulty: Moderate - Hard (depending on whether you shorten the track to two days or not). There are some steep climbs and sections which are rubbly underfoot.  

Length: 32km

The view from MacKenzie Hut


Which is the best?

If you held a gun to our head and made us choose one to hike again, we'd choose the Kepler. Whilst the other two were stunning, no walk we've ever done was like the ridge lines of the Kepler track. We honestly couldn't get over them. 

However our true answer would be to do them all! They are all unique and spectacular. To use a comparison, it is like picking between a Ferrari, a Lamborghini or a Bugatti: all will impress.

A quick recap:

Easiest and shortest: Routeburn.
Bucket list: Milford.
Most spectacular ridge lines in the world (in our opinion): Kepler. 



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Are you planning a trip to Fiordland? Which Great Walk would you choose to do? Let us know in the comments below!


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