For the longest time I’ve been wanting to get stuck in to completing some of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’. But alas! In recent years, Europe has had me under its spell and I haven’t made time to explore my own ‘backyard’. Thankfully however, while I was home in NZ for Christmas, my family and I managed to sneak in a trip to the deep south to tick off one of New Zealand’s most famous hikes – the Routeburn Track.
There are plenty of ways that you can go about hiking the Routeburn Track, no one way is correct and each has its pros and cons. Some people like to hike it in three or four days, some in two days, heck – some people even like to run it in ONE day! Thankfully, my family – though arguably mad – did not choose to run it in a single day, instead we took two nights and three days to complete the hike (which also happens to be the most popular time option).
I’ve divided this post into three sections; a ‘quick facts’ section to set the scene, a short day-by-day description of hiking the Routeburn Track, and finally some tips, tricks and logistics for those actually planning to do it. Any questions please do let me know!
Quick facts about hiking the Routeburn Track
- 32km long in total
- It is one of the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand
- The track passes through two of New Zealand’s national parks in the South Island: Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National park
- There are four DOC huts that you can stay in: Routeburn Flats Hut, Routeburn Falls Hut, Lake Mackenzie Hut, Lake Howden Hut
- Most people start at the Glenorchy end/RTB Road End and finish at The Divide, only because most guides are written in this direction
Hiking the Routeburn Track
Day One: The Divide to Lake Mackenzie
Time it took us: approx 6 hours including optional loop and tea and lunch breaks
Length: approx 12km
We began our Routeburn adventure at around midday starting from The Divide. Day one of the Routeburn Track sees you steadily winding along a well-cut path deep into the forest of Fiordland National Park. I’ve never seen forest quite like it! Towering Beech trees, a forest floor carpeted in feathery native ferns, moss and lichen draping from nobbled branches in every direction. It’s quite the fairy wonderland. You’ll pass small tumbling waterfalls, crystal clear creeks and cross a handful of small wooden bridges. About two hours in you’ll reach a turnoff for the Key Summit Loop – an optional extra walk that takes under an hour to complete. To speed things up you can leave your pack at the turn off while you do it – perfectly safe… this is New Zealand after-all! The Key Summit loop takes you through tussocky meadows dotted with alpine lakes, there are spectacular mountain views beyond.
Back on the main track the path teeters on the tree line, occasionally giving way to magnificent glimpses of the valley below. Before long you’ll reach Lake Howden. Surrounded by flax, ferns and grassy banks it is the perfect stop for a spot of late lunch. We boiled our billy, layered biscuits with cheese and tomatoes and lay in the dappled sunlight sipping tea and nibbling on scorched almonds. Far from the hustle of any town or village, the only sound you’ll hear is the lapping of the lake and birdsong. Paradise.
From here the track is a bit more of a climb – but let me tell you it is worth it! After an hour or so (depending on how distracting you find the views!) you’ll come across the magnificent Earland Falls. An enormous 174m tall waterfall thundering into deep, rocky pools… it makes for a superb afternoon tea stop. We brewed tea, snacked on nuts and tucked into coconut oat slice. After plunging into the cool, crisp pools and showering beneath the freezing cascades we perched our frozen bottoms on the rocks and soaked up the sun.
Refreshed and refuelled we continued for another two-or-so hours. After jumping over nobbly paths and hiking through mystical woodlands you’ll eventually make it to Lake Mackenzie. This is where you’ll spend your first night. Lake Mackenzie is a beautiful deep blue colour, fringed with turquoise shallows. It’s icy cold but definitely worth a swim if you can bear it. Especially good after a long hot day of hiking when you know you can get in to clean clothes!
The DOC huts are a short walk from the lake and have with plenty of gas cookers and bench spaces for cooking. We sipped on whisky, heated our dehydrated thai curries and reminisced on an epic first day. It literally felt like we had been out in the wilderness for days on end at this point – not just one day!
Day two: Lake Mckenzie to Routeburn Falls
Time it took us: 7 hours including extra optional loop and tea and lunch breaks
Length: approx 11.5km
Awoken by the hustle of other hikers heading on their way, we packed up our kit and prepared for the day. After yet another freezing lake swim (will we ever learn?), a bowl of hot creamy porridge and coffee, we were set for day two. On day two, you’ll begin by skirting around Lake Mackenzie before quickly climbing high above it. From here the hike is mostly all above the tree-line and traverses along the Hollyford mountain face. You’ll weave between golden tussocks and alpine flowers, and gaze out to the snow-capped Darren Mountains in the distance. The Hollyford Valley sits below – coated in Beech Forest with the Hollyford River weaving methodically through it. These are views that you’ll have a hard time forgetting.
It feels like quite a long traverse as the scenery doesn’t change all that much – it’s a good chance to play some memory games or eye-spy! Eventually you’ll get to Harris Saddle which is a lovely spot for lunch and roughly marks the halfway point for the day. After lunch, nestle into the tussocks, put your feet up and nap in the afternoon sun… is there anything that beats this?
At this point there is another optional loop – Conicle Hill. If you have the energy, this extra loop (about an hour round trip) is so worth doing. You can leave your pack in the Harris Saddle Shelter while you’re doing it to make the hike easier. Panoramic views of the surrounding peaks will greet you at the top, and the views down to Lake Harris are spectacular.
Back on the main track the walk from Harris Saddle down to the Routeburn Falls Hut is a steady downhill trek. You’ll walk around Lake Harris to begin with, before following some well constructed steps and path down into the upper basin of the Routeburn Valley. I have to say, the views on this section of the track are my absolute favourite. The valley flats are lush and golden and the Routeburn River weaves majestically through it’s meadows. With the surrounding Humboldt Mountains as a backdrop, this place is picture perfect.
Just as weariness got to us, we reached the Routeburn Falls Hut – and I can assure you it’s not called this for nothing! Surrounding the hut are a series of cascading waterfalls – in a variety of of shapes and sizes. A spectacular spot! Again, if you’re game, this place is magnificent for a refreshing swim and shower beneath the cascades.
Once ‘showered’ and into new clothes, we proceeded to polish off our remaining whiskey. The menu that night was cheese and crackers, followed by a dehydrated stew. We’d packed fresh herbs (super light to carry!) and cherry tomatoes to add to it which made all the difference. Life is too short for hard rations!
There’s nothing quite like that warm, fuzzy feeling after a long, challenging day outdoors is there? Bliss.
Day Three: Routeburn Falls to Routeburn Road End
Time it took us: approx 3.5hours including one tea/swim stop
Length: 8.8km total
The final day! Rested and refueled we hit the track for the final few kilometers. We were flying out of Queenstown late that afternoon so needed keep to a schedule. From the Falls Hut you wind down to the valley floor through thick Beech forest and over a magnificent swing bridge. The track quickly begins to follow the Routeburn River – a river like no other. It’s the most amazing shade of aquamarine blue that you’ll ever see, I promise! Sparkling, clear and fast flowing. This, paired with mossy rocks, mystical trees and the chatter of wood pigeons and bellbirds makes for a special last few hours.
We stopped for one last swim (!) and a cup of hot tea on the sandy banks of the river before continuing. The last hours took a surprisingly long time, but we did eventually reach the Routeburn Road End Shelter. Our car was luckily waiting there as planned (details on these logistics to follow) and we hit the road. The drive from the Routeburn Road End to Queenstown is around an hour – very easy after a big hike. The drive is nothing short of spectacular either – definitely an area I need to spend more time in.
There you have it – 32km total. Two and a half days of hiking, swimming, talking, eating, laughing. Two and a half utterly magnificent, incredibly special days with my fam. The weather held out (which it wasn’t forecast to do!), my Dad’s knee even held out!! Phew. Routeburn Track, I’ll be back.
Tips, tricks and logistics for hiking the Routeburn Track…
Which end should I start hiking the Routeburn Track?
It doesn’t really matter in all honesty… Most guidebooks are written with the RTB Road End/Glenorchy side as the start point, however I would recommend beginning at the Divide. Two reasons why:
- Overall there is less uphill hiking when starting at this end (which in my books is always a good thing!)
- When you finish at the RTB Road End there is a much shorter drive to get back to Queenstown (presuming this is where you are headed). After a few tiring days of hiking this is always a plus! RTB Road End to Queenstown is only 1h 15 min drive, as opposed to the Divide back to Queenstown is a much longer 3.5hours drive.
- The Divide is only a short drive from the beautiful Milford Sound. Spending a night or two here before hiking the Routeburn is a great way to kick off the adventure.
When should I book the Routeburn Track?
New Zealand’s Great Walks are hugely well known and incredibly popular. Thus, the DOC huts can get booked out especially fast – usually within a couple of days, if not hours after the bookings open. Information on when the bookings open for the 2018/2019 season will be displayed on the DOC website in early May 2018. Check regularly to avoid missing out.
The Routeburn Falls Hut and Mackenzie Hut are the most popular and tend to get fully booked first. If you miss out on one hut, have a backup route planned before booking… I recommend the Routeburn Flats Hut if you miss out on the Routeburn Falls Hut. Choosing this only adds an extra 1.5h walking to the middle day. You can book here.
What are the prices?
All four DOC huts (Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls, Lake Mackenzie and Lake Howden), are NZD$65 per adult per night during the Great Walk season (end of October – end of April). Children (15-17yrs) can stay for free but you must book. Outside the Great Walk Season the price for adults is only NZD$15 per adult per night, though facilities during this time are reduced (no gas) and conditions can be risky.
Is there camping?
There are campsites at Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Flats Huts. The campsites have basic facilities including toilets, sinks, a fresh water supply, cooking shelters and picnic tables. Bookings are still required and the cost is NZD$20 per adult per night- children stay for free. Lake Mackenzie only has 9 camping sites, so if you are planning on camping book this first as it may sell out.
No freedom camping is permitted on any of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
What are the Hut facilities like?
All of the huts have communal bunk rooms with mattresses – beds are chosen on a first come first served basis. There is a fresh water supply, flushing toilets, wash basins and mirrors. Inside the main hut are gas cooking facilities (but no utensils), tables, seating, lighting and heating. During the Great Walks season a DOC ranger lives at each of the huts and can provide info about the weather, hiking routes and the environment.
We found that the two huts we stayed in – Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls, were both in great condition; well equipped, comfortable and fairly new… a welcome relief after a good day of hiking!
What transport options are available?
Because the Routeburn Track is a one way hike, car logistics can be a little more tricky! The two trail ends are not exactly close either – 350 km by road. Luckily there are a number of transport providers that can help with getting you where you need to be. DOC has a list of transport providers just here… Options include shuttles and buses which collect and drop you off from Queenstown/between the two trail ends. While these are a good option, they don’t offer a lot of flexibility. You’ll need to finish hiking in time to board your pre-booked shuttle. Most only leave a couple of times per day max… you wouldn’t want to miss it!
However, if you have a car already, I would recommend using a car relocation service. We used EasyHike and it was fantastic – easy and efficient. EasyHike take care of getting your car from one end of the track to the other whilst you are completing the hike. That way you can start and finish at any time of the day. No rushing to get back to meet your bus and no waiting for communal transport. Just the freedom of your own set of wheels! Bookings open as soon as the Great Walk booking season opens, get on to it fast!
When should I be hiking the Routeburn Track?
The Great Walks season generally runs from the end of October to the end of April. You can check the DOC website for exact dates, year on year. If you choose to walk outside the season, check the weather vigilantly and be prepared – the area is prone to snow and dangerous avalanches in the winter.
Oct, Nov, Dec – is spring time and this is when the best hiking begins. While the weather is getting better everyday, there is still a high chance of cold, wet and windy periods. During this time the temperature averages range from 9°C – 17°C. This is the best time to go if you’re wanting to see the beautiful Mount Cook Lily in full bloom.
Jan, Feb, March – are the warmest and driest months to hike with temperature averages ranging between 10°C – 18°C and sometimes as high as 28°C. That said, cold snaps can whip through at any time. We hiked in early January and while a little overcast, we had dry and warm weather.
April, May – cooler temperatures begin to creep in and the first snow tends to fall during this time.
Hiking the Routeburn Track – have you done it? Do you have any tips to add? Comment below!
All opinions are my own, please use this post purely as a guide only.