From lush green forests to alpine tarns, from cascading waterfalls to sweeping mountains, the Routeburn Track has it all. It was without a doubt my favourite hike in New Zealand.
So what it’s like? What can you expect to see? And how difficult is it? In this post I’ll be sharing my stories and photos from the track as well as answering all these questions and more.
- Info at a glance
- Day 1: The Divide – Lake Howden Hut (3.4km)
– Key Summit Track
Day 2: Lake Howden Hut – Lake MacKenzie Hut (8.6km, 3.5hrs)
– Lake Mackenzie Hut
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Flats (13.6km, 6 hours)
– Conical Hill Summit
Day 4: Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Shelter (6.5km, 1.5 hours)
– Routeburn Falls Hut or Routeburn Flats Hut?
- The Verdict
- Milford Track/Routeburn Track packing guide
- The Routeburn Track vs the Milford Track [Coming soon. In the mean time read about the Milford Track here]
INFO AT A GLANCE: THE ROUTEBURN TRACK
- DURATION: Flexible. On average hikers complete it in three days.
- DISTANCE: 32km
- START POINT: The track can be hiked in either direction; either from The Divide (85km from Te Anau) or The Routeburn Shelter (25km from Glenorchy).
- SEASON: Late October to late April. It is possible to walk the track outside of this time, but experience hiking in alpine conditions is needed.
- ACCOMMODATION: Basic huts (equipped with stoves and lights on a timer with bunkrooms of various sizes. Separate toilet block with flushing toilets, basins and sometimes mirrors). There are also two campsites.
- PRICE: The huts cost 54 NZD per night. Campsites cost 18 NZD per night.
- ELEVATION: 1255m on the main track, 1515m if you decide to go up Conical Hill (a side trip).
- TERRAIN: Generally a well-formed path with a number of steeper/rocky areas.
- DIFFICULTY: Fairly easy. The track is easy to follow, it’s never very steep or treacherous, though there are exposed areas of rock to pass. Conical Hill is more difficult with a number of bluffs whcih can be very slippery. An average level of fitness is needed with preferably some experience in hiking.
- ACCOMMODATION BEFORE/AFTER THE HIKE: There are a variety of places to stay in Te Anau to suit all budgets before you begin. At Milford Sound the Milford Sound Lodge is essentially your only choice, but by no means a bad one. They have a range of rooms available, including backpacker rooms. There are a number of places to stay in Glenorchy, and others choose to stay in Queenstown before/after the hike. It’s possible to get public/private transport to both starting points.
- WHERE TO BOOK: https://booking.doc.govt.nz
This track fills up quickly so book in advance! If not, you can sometimes take advantage of cancellations.
- MORE INFO: http://www.doc.govt.nz/routeburntrack
ROUTEBURN TRACK DAY 1: THE DIVIDE – LAKE HOWDEN HUT (3.4km)
I’d barely walked a metre for the day before; having just finished the Milford Track I’d lazed in my hostel bed the whole day. This morning my boots had finally dried out, my feet were no longer sore, and my clothes were clean again! I was ready for the next adventure; hiking the Routeburn Track.
I grabbed a bus from Milford Sound which dropped me off at The Divide, a little spot on the side of the road that marked the beginning of the track.
I had a leisurely 3.4km to walk that day so I set off at a ridiculously slow pace. It made a welcome change from my last day on the Milford Track, which sported a 16km hike to the end. The ascent started immediately, taking me through thick tangled forests often shrouded in clouds due to its fairly high elevation. It was murky, cool, and very atmospheric.
Key Summit track
It’s not long before you reach the start of a side track called Key Summit, a short and fairly steep path (about 25 minutes up) that takes you to 1000m elevation. If the weather is clear it’s absolutely worth doing as the views are simply amazing. It’s still worth doing if it’s cloudy, partly because the terrain up the top is awesome anyway, but also because you just never know when the clouds might part. Because this path is close to the start of the track, many people do this as a day hike too. There were a few people kicking around on the grey April morning that I did it, though I can imagine that it gets fairly busy in high summer.
The sun was trying to break through the clouds as I was ascending, and I could just see tiny flashes of the huge surrounding mountains and valley. It was gorgeous and I was just waiting for when the sun would finally push through them.
Unfortunately as I reached the top the clouds closed in and treated me to a drenching instead. After eating some soggy sandwiches (yum!) I gave up and headed back down towards the first hut – Lake Howden Hut – a short distance away.
I really like Howden Hut. It’s small and in a beautiful location. Because it’s only 3.4km from the start of the Routeburn Track a lot of people skip it and stay in Mackenzie hut for their first night, meaning that it’s quieter too. I think there were about 12 people staying there on the same night as me (no snoring in the night!). I decided to stay there so that I could spend more time up the Key Summit Track.
Later in the afternoon the murky drizzle eased off I decided to give the Key Summit another go. I dumped my backpack and set off.
Admittedly for most of the time the weather wasn’t any better, but for about 15 minutes or so the world opened up just enough to get some shots and definitely enough to make my second visit worthwhile.
Day 1 complete! It’s very straightforward with some great scenery for very little effort. The Key Summit is definitely the highlight of the day, but as I’d discover the best was yet to come….
Day 2: Lake Howden Hut – Lake MacKenzie Hut (8.6km, 3.5hrs)
It was pouring with rain when I woke up. In fact it was so heavy I heard it in my sleep. I was kind of expecting it – the Routeburn Track runs through one of the wettest places in the world – New Zealand’s Fiordland. I took my time getting up and getting things packed in the vain hope it would stop.
It was another short hiking day for me so I was in no hurry to leave. But after another hour or so of just chilling out in the hut it was time to bite the bullet; it was probably never going to stop. I pulled out the waterproof gear (absolutely indispensible!) and braved it.
In typical Fiordland fashion, the whole place was saturated with water. It’s soggy but incredibly beautiful.
Luck was on my side, however, and within half an hour the rain eased off. And within an hour the sun started to break through. It wasn’t going to be another washout after all (see my post on the Milford Track Mackinnon Pass for that)!
The track is fairly flat during this section with an easy path to follow, taking you through more atmospheric forests. They’re more tangled and gnarly than in other places, probably because of the higher altitude.
It’s not long before you pass a number of larger waterfalls, of which Earland Falls is by far the most impressive. I got just as wet passing it (and standing near it try to photograph) as I did in the rain. My poor camera looked a little drowned. If it’s sunny you’ll see a rainbow at its base – gorgeous.
Things start to get really impressive from here on; the trees thin out to give you some stunning views across the valley and the mountains. There are lots of photo spots. You’ll pass an interesting area called the orchard, a flat bit of grassland surrounded by mountains. It’s a great spot for lunch.
When you start to descend down a rockier path the next hut is about half an hour away.
Lake Mackenzie Hut
This hut is in the best location of all; beside a crystal clear lake and some seriously impressive mountains. There’s also a campsite here too. Inside the hut is a log fire in the middle with lots of seating circling out. It’s seriously cosy. And perhaps the best thing about it is the ranger.
During the Great Walks season rangers man each hut and take care of them. Clive has been staying at Lake Mackenzie Hut for many years (and sadly soon to retire!). In the evenings rangers all give a talk to the hikers, and this talk was the most hilarious thing. He’ll draw out his stuffed weasel and have a conversation with it whilst you’re there. That man is truly crazy in the best possible way!
I had one problem at Lake Mackenzie Hut; the temperature. I slept in a little out building away from the main hut and damn did it get cold (it was the beginning of April and went below zero degrees celsius). And cleverly I only had a summer sleeping bag – the comfort rating of which was 16 C. I slept in nearly all my clothes and still froze. Very early in the morning I gave up and took my sleeping bag to the main building next to the fire. I tried – and failed – to get it properly going again, but warmed myself up enough in the process that all was good. Lesson learnt; if you’re doing the Routeburn Track in the shoulder seasons, especially, bring a thick sleeping bag!
This section of the Routeburn Track gives you a little bit of everything; waterfalls, forests, mountains, and is a great taster of things to come. Plus it’s pretty easy to do too! It’s my second favourite part of the track – I love it, but the next section is just epic…
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Flats (13.6km, 6 hours)
The sun had started to hit the mountain tops and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The lake was so calm I couldn’t see where the water’s edge began. Inside the log fire was burning and the other hikers were milling around eating breakfast. I was a little sad to leave Lake Mackenzie Hut this morning – it felt more like a retreat than a hut on a hiking track. The Routeburn Track had been spoiling me so far.
But today was the big one – the longest distance with the most elevation gain, not to mention the most iconic scenery. And from the word go this section of the track is stunning. The forests here are particularly magical (and by this point I had walked through a LOT of Fiordland forests), made even better by the cool light of dawn. I had planned to sail through this part but couldn’t resist setting my tripod down for some photos.
The track zigzags up the side of the mountain that overlooks Lake Mackenzie. It’s never particularly steep and well within an hour you’ll have reached the top. And at the top there are some treats waiting for you:
Not long after this point you’ll reach some rocks and turn a corner; here you can see the Hollyford Valley as well (which you’ll be walking along for the best part of the day). Possibly even more stunning than the last spot?! And it doesn’t end there…
Now the path flattens out somewhat, and though it gets a little rocky in places it’s straightforward. It carries on like this for quite some time and you can make quick progress here. The sun beat down on me the whole time and I couldn’t believe my luck.
After about two hours the path swings to the right and there it is – Harris Saddle/Tarahaka Whakatipu and shelter, the highest part of the main track at 1255m. It was so warm that people were sunbathing outside, but I can easily imagine just how cold and windy it could be there on a bad day. Just a few days ago I had experienced what it was like to be on the Milford Track’s summit Mackinnon Pass in the depths of bad weather – it was a challenge! But today I was able to put my feet up and have lunch in the sun.
Conical Hill Summit
From Harris Saddle you have the opportunity to do the Conical Hill side track. It’s the hardest section of the Routeburn Track with a lot of exposed bluffs and loose rocks combined with some steep sections. It’s not particularly long but it does take a while to get to the top. So is it worth the time and energy? Oh yes!
1515m up, the views from Conical Hill are some of the best on the Routeburn Track, and wow does it feel high. The whole valley spreads below you and in the distance you can even see the ocean on a clear day.
Understandably some people decide not to do this side track due to the challenging terrain (I wouldn’t dream of doing it in bad weather). The views are amazing, but there are so many stunning spots all across the track that you don’t need to feel like you’ve missed out if you don’t do it.
I made a seriously bad judgement when going up Conical Hill. Not realising quite how difficult it was going to be I had left my backpack in the shelter but had carried my tripod and a spare lens in a bag. Bad move. Towards the end, where it gets steeper and you need to scramble up, I had to keep on putting my lens down in precarious places in order to free up a hand. I had visions of it rolling down and smashing up on a rock (it’s a chunky 70-200mm). Then of course I still had my tripod in the other and my camera around my neck – one very expensive balancing act! Going down might even have been worse.
By some miracle nothing happened but damn did it take me a long time – it was not enjoyable. Lesson to be learnt today: try to have both hands free to help you get up Conical Hill, but definitely one!
Back on track
Having spent the best part of two hours up Conical Hill I pressed on with the main track. It’s a striking landscape, wide open and full of alpine flora. From here the gentle descent starts.
It takes a deceptively long time to get through this massive landscape. Beautiful as it was, I started to get tired and was looking forward to reaching the next hut. Routeburn Falls Hut isn’t far from Harris Saddle (about 1.5 hours) but I had further to go; I was staying at Routeburn Flats Hut.
I had wanted to stay in Routeburn Falls but it had been fully booked. Passing by it I wasn’t particularly happy – it’s in a gorgeous spot, set high on stilts close the waterfall. It was very busy, though – a little too busy, perhaps.
But it was an easy 2km extra. The gentle descent helps to keep your pace up and the path is wide and well-formed. There are lots of pretty waterfalls to pass, and some stunning views across the valley.
After accidentally walking past the turn off for a good 15mins I reached Routeburn Flats in the early evening. It was love at first sight. It’s a lot smaller and quieter than Routeburn Falls (there were about 10 of us staying there for the night) but with equally as beautiful views. And at the front of the hut are big glass windows lined with seats to marvel at it from. Perfect. It’s one of my favourite huts on all the tracks I’ve done and I was happy to have done those extra few kilometres.
Day 4: Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Shelter (6.5km, 1.5 hours)
After an amazing night’s sleep (no snoring!), I was woken at dawn by a strange noise. I ignored it at first – given I only had 6.5km to walk this day I had planned to have a seriously lazy morning. But it continued and curiousity got the better of me…
Outside I was met with a mob of keas! I can’t tell you how much I love these guys and how much I had hoped to see them. They’re only found in New Zealand and are super curious. A group of four juveniles were picking at every nook and cranny of the hut, getting themselves into all sorts of mischief. They stole someone’s socks and had put a few holes in our boots (mine included). They’re so entertaining to watch.
In the meantime the sun had started to hit the mountains and it was another beautiful morning. Between that and the unruly keas it couldn’t have been more perfect.
I spent hours at Routeburn Flats watching the sun rise and photographing kea – I got my lazy morning after all. It was my favourite morning on the Routeburn Track.
Routeburn Falls Hut or Routeburn Flats?
In terms of the huts themselves I definitely preferred Routeburn Flats – it’s quieter, has amazing scenery and a really lovely dining area. However, staying there makes your days of hiking a little unbalanced – your day going across Harris Saddle becomes a little longer and the day after is very short. Given the choice I’d choose Routeburn Flats again, though – for me it was worth the extra distance and I’d never turn down a chance to meet some kea (who are frequent visitors there).
On the track
I really had to force myself to leave – once again I could have easily spent another few days there. Also, having hiked for 8 days straight (I did the Milford Track immediately before), my feet were pretty tired. On the plus side my backpack weighed considerably less than what it had 8 days ago – it had started at about 18kg.
The section from Routeburn Flats to the end of the hike is the least impressive part. That’s not to say it’s bad, but comparatively it feels a little more average. The path is very wide and flat and it’s an easy walk – fine by me! There are some beautiful rivers, swimming spots, waterfalls, and a lot of bird life to keep you entertained, though.
I had one little drama on this very easy section; whilst setting up for a photo I’d forgotten to tighten one of my tripod’s leg joints. The whole thing toppled down the side of the rock face and my heart sunk.
When I looked over the edge I could see that it had got stuck in a bush below. It wasn’t so far away but it was near vertical and the ground was loose. Another 10m down or so was the river. I had to try get it.
As I lowered myself down I realised that it was almost in reach. Rapture! I held on to a tree trunk and hung my legs down. I just got my foot around the tip of the tripod’s leg and gently tried to lift it up. The whole thing fell. I have absolutely how the next few seconds were physically possible but somehow I managed to catch and scoop it up with my foot and get a hand to it whilst holding on to a tree! If only someone had seen me.
After another hour or so of walking (and holding dearly onto my tripod), the Routeburn Shelter emerged from the trees. The end! The first thing I did was take off my nasty smelly boots and slip on some flip flops – I can’t tell you how grateful my feet were.
I’ll be blunt: I LOVE the Routeburn Track. The huts are lovely and the scenery is beautiful and varied. It’s not a technically difficult hike, either, meaning that hikers of all levels can experience this beautiful wild landscape.
The section from Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls is definitely the best – you couldn’t really get much more out of a day’s hike in New Zealand, apart from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. But every day has something different to offer – this track truly spoils you and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I’d even go as far to say that I prefer it to the Milford Track. I maxed out on my luck for the weather when I did the Routeburn Track, and whilst hiking the alpine section from Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Falls would be a long and cold affair in bad weather, I still think I’d love it as much. I’ll be writing a comparison of the two next…
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