Upper Caples, Fraser Valley, Routeburn Circuit


Fraser Valley viewed from just below Fraser Col.

We just got back from a fabulous tramp, which we think is our favourite to date. Now that we’ve done all three “Great Walks” around Fiordland, Routeburn, to us, is the most stunning. To spice things up (and avoid having to arrange pricy transport), we drove to the Divide, walked into Fraser Valley via Upper Caples, then crossed Fraser Col to join Routeburn track.


McKellar Saddle

On our first day, we started at 8am from the Divide, and reached McKellar Saddle in 2.5 hrs, and Upper Caples hut in another 2 hrs. We had a quick lunch at the hut, then went north west into the bush (where the old track was) to find the bridge that leads to Fraser and Kay Valleys. It took us another 4 hrs to reach the end of the marked track in Fraser Valley, where we camped for the night, with Emily Peak and Fraser Col towering in the distance.


Fraser Valley with Emily Peak and Fraser Col towering in the distance.

The second morning, we followed Fraser Creek upstream, spending a lot of time walking in the stream for the vegetation is so thick on the banks. Eventually, the boulders in the stream grew larger and harder to climb, so we started climbing up a scree slope on the true right towards Fraser Col. This was a good decision, for we ascended quickly without having to bash our way through vegetation, or clambering over big rocks. Fraser Valley is really quiet and peaceful, and being far off the beaten track, is home to an abundance of wild animals. We saw many red deers roaming above the bushline while we traveled.


Looking north west into the head basin of Fraser Creek.


Scrambling towards Fraser Col.

It didn’t take long before we were in the scree chute that leads to Fraser Col.


Fraser Valley from Fraser Col.

It never fails to delight me to find delicate blooms in the harshest places.


Emily Peak (1815m) from Fraser Col (1544m).

It took us just under 3.5 hrs to reach Fraser Col from end of the marked track in Fraser Valley. All morning, we could see a front coming over Fraser Col from the north. At one stage, we even saw a big rainbow across the sky above Fraser Valley. After a quick bite against the shelter of some big boulders at the Col, we started our descent. It would be nice to linger and marvel the view, but the north-westerly was strong and cold.


Looking down Emily Basin towards Route Burn North Branch.

We made pretty fast descent down the snow grass basin, thinking it won’t be long for us to reach Routeburn track.


Following upper Emily Creak down.

Soon enough, the vegetation became thick, and we were forced to hop into the creek to follow it downstream. Not long after doing so, the creek turned into a series of cascading waterfalls near the bushline, so we had to go into the bush and bash our way through dense vegetation on very steep slopes. That’s when our going became very slow and energy sapping. A few instances where we found ourselves on top of a cliff, we had to fight our way up and over. We were very thankful for the handy flax growing around steep drops, for we could hang on to it to climb down. (New Zealand flax is one of the strongest natural fibre. It’s so strong, it cannot be composted.) Huge ferns were pretty good too. On one stretch, we had to travel through metre-tall ferns, and their seeds greedily latched themselves to our clothing, which took a good while for us to pluck off after we got to the hut.

Even though the track lies only 500 horizontal metres from the bushline, it took us well over 1.5 hrs to bash our way down (around 300m drop). All together, it took us 3 hrs from the Col to join Routeburn Track. Was I wrong about getting to the track quickly! When I was planning the trip, I read J. S. Milne’s article on the area, as well as Moir’s Guide North (2000). My mind was completely set on reaching the Col, I did not pay sufficient attention to the descriptions on descending Emily Creek. If I had paid more attention, I’d have known what was coming.

Thankfully, we managed to bash our way through without too much drama. Once we saw the creek’s cascading drops had decreased in size enough to get back, we got out of the bush and went back into the creek. Soon, we spotted Routeburn Track’s bridge downstream. That was a pretty sight! We were to join our brother and sister in law visiting from UK at Routeburn Falls hut that night. Our timing was perfect, for I saw our sister in law crossing the bridge (and the rain had just begun). They didn’t recognise us, but were wondering who were those mad people coming down the cascading drops in the creek.


Falls near Routeburn Falls Hut

Overnight, rain poured out of the sky with a thundering noise. We woke to find lots of waterfalls hanging from the cliffs surrounding the hut. The forecast was for the rain to ease in the afternoon, so we lazed around the hut in the morning, and finally set off at noon.


Lake Harris and Route Burn Left Branch.

We did get rained on for a little stretch, but, hey, Fiordland has the 3rd highest rainfall in the world. A bit of rain is just part of the package. We were glad the rain did not come earlier, or else we would not able to negotiate Emily Creek or Fraser Creek if they were torrents.


Lake Harris

The mist that day gave the mountains a mystic vibe, and the colours were just marvellous. One moment, everything was hidden in a white out, the next minute, magical glaciated mountains stretched out right in front of us.


Magnificent Darran Mountains – the playground of serious climbers and mountaineers.


Looking back at our trek before descending towards Lake MacKenzie. Martins Bay is on the horizon.

The weather kept improving through the afternoon, and we were even able to see Martins Bay, where Hollyford River meets the sea. We lingered along the track all afternoon, marvelling at the grand scenery, not wanting to drop down to Lake MacKenzie Hut in any hurry.


Lake MacKenzie Upper Basin, with Ocean Peak on the left and Emily Pass in the centre. Emily Peak is at the right of the pass.


Morning clouds at Lake MacKenzie, with overnight snow on the peaks.

After tales from the warden and a cozy night at Lake MacKenzie Hut, we woke to find a light dusting of snow all around the hut and the higher mountains. The forecast had more showers through the day, but we had a gloriously sunny day.


Walking through bush and tussock with fresh snow.


View towards Routeburn Track from Key Summit. Can you spot Emily Pass and Emily Peak?

The descend was quick, taking us down to Lake Howden , where we had lunch in front of the pretty lake. On the way out, we took a side trip to Key Summit, which was a short but well worthwhile climb.


Pretty tarn on Key Summit with Lake Marian Basin across the Hollyford Valley.

I definitely recommend Routeburn Track as one of the finest track in New Zealand. Routeburn Track itself is pretty easy going and well graded, and you can read up on it on DOC’s website. If you are thinking about doing a similar circuit as us, read up on J. S. Milne’s article about this area, and pay good attention to the description on the Emily Creek stretch. Make sure you have adequate backcountry experience, and also a bail out plan in case the weather does not play nice.


5 thoughts on “Upper Caples, Fraser Valley, Routeburn Circuit

  1. awesome ! sounds fantastic what beautiful photos and a very vivid description . I can almost see the places from your writing. Daphne

  2. Our favourite tramp too! Isn’t that warden at Mackensie a laugh. We bathed in those waterfalls as it was middle of summer. Makes me homesick for lush greenery and mountain peaks!

    • Hi, yes we had such a good laugh that night. He also told us how one day he saw a moa when arriving at the hut, and having a cuppa with Bear Grylls – stories from the recent filming of the new air NZ safety video 😉
      Wishing summer warmth upon you soon!

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