Routeburn Track Itinerary & Essential Info
Day 1: Routeburn Shelter – Routeburn Flats Hut
Day 2: Routeburn Flats Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut – The Divide
The Routeburn Track is located in Fiordland in the southwestern corner of the South Island and can be walked in either direction. Almost everybody we met along the track however, walked the same way as us, from Routeburn Shelter to The Divide.
Start: Routeburn Shelter, 68km northwest of Queenstown (30min from Glenchory)
End: The Divide, 85km from Te Anau
We booked transportation with Tracknet and were happy with their service. Please note that they do not have an office in Queenstown where you can stow luggage (only in Te Anau), but Info & Track does, on 37 Shotover St, and will stow luggage for a charge of $5 per item per night.
Includes track notes, elevation profile and map.
Slots for the 4 huts (Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls, Lake Mackenzie, Lake Howden Hut) and 2 campsites (Routeburn Flats, Lake Mackenzie) sell quickly especially in high season. Bookings for the upcoming season open mid-June.
Hiking usually requires self-sufficiency, so it’s great if you have a checklist to make sure your hiking gear is complete.
Careful meal planning is essential for backpackers and as you will carry all your food and burn more calories than usual, you need to consider weight, nutritional value and ease of preparation more than taste.
What’s special about the Routeburn Track?
The 10 Great Walks are considered New Zealand’s crème de la crème of hiking. These world-renowned trails pass through spectacular, diverse scenery and promise marvelous wilderness adventures. The Routeburn Track, located in Fiordland in the southwestern corner of the South Island, is one of them.
In the Great Walk season, from late October to late April, bookings are essential for the four huts and two campsites along the 32-km track. During that time, the huts are equipped with cooking facilities and flushing toilets, but campers need to be completely self-sufficient year-round, as Routeburn Huts and Lake Mackenzie campsites are beautifully located, but basic. The Routeburn traverses two national parks, Fiordland and Mount Aspiring, and usually takes 3 days to complete. It’s graded ‘intermediate difficulty’ – comfortable multi-day tramping – by the DOC (Department of Conservation), in other words, there are no exposed or steep sections to tackle and it’s impossible to get lost on the trail.
Yet while the hike itself is not very challenging and the landscape arguably one of the most spectacular in New Zealand, this is a notoriously wet place. You need to be prepared for rain and cold weather all year round. Tobi hiked the nearby Milford Track, in the Milford Sounds, years ago and recalls four days of non-stop rain. It’s one of the wettest places on earth with 182 rainy days a year on average (milford-sound.co.nz), and we were extremely lucky on the Routeburn with only a little rain one evening and otherwise blue skies.
Outweighing the drawbacks, this much rain feeds magnificent waterfalls, lakes and marshy wetlands, and slowly trickles from thick pillows of moss clinging to the barren rock. We passed through untouched rainforest dripping with moisture, in which lichen and moss dressed the spindly trunks and gnarled branches of mountain beeches like woolen jumpers. Short of the ocean, barren dessert, or volcanic landscapes and eternal ice, the Routeburn boasts every kind of breathtaking scenery.
We walked the Routeburn from north to south, starting at Routeburn Shelter, 68km northwest of Queenstown and hiking to The Divide, 85km from Te Anau. Unlike the Overland Track, the Routeburn can be walked in either direction, but most hikers were headed the same way as us.
The first day was an easy 2-hour hike through red beech forest along the Route Burn river, with views of the Humboldt Mountains speckled with snowfields.
The trail was flat to start with, until we crossed Sugerloaf Stream on a swing bridge and the track climbed steadily until Bridaveil Waterfall, and then more steeply into Routeburn Valley. I was surprised by the water in the streams that was crystal clear and a brilliant turquoise blue. Water this color is home to the Seychelles, but doesn’t usually rush across smooth pebbles in the New Zealand bush. It certainly made this place seem exotic and magical. Then halfway to Routeburn Flats Hut, Tobi suddenly spotted a tiny ball of bright green feathers on twig like legs hopping around the undergrowth. It was New Zealand’s smallest bird, the Rifleman, and hilarious to watch, rolling rather than flying from branch to branch.
When the path suddenly moved out of the woods, we caught a first glimpse of open tussock dotted grassland, known as the Routeburn Flats, and knew we were almost there. The hut was set on the very edge of the plains, half-hidden in the woods, and seemed rather small next to a large roofed verandah. A camp warden in long thermos and flip-flops was waiting outside and pointed us upstream in the direction of the campsite, an area of open grassland fitted with two open cooking shelters and a reeking pit toilet tucked away in the woods. We were among the last to pitch our tent on an oval patch of trampled grass between the river and the forest edge and hurried, for daylight was fading and the sky was full of clouds. Dark and heavy, they almost touched the valley floor and threatened rain at any minute. When we fell asleep hours later, it was to the sound of drops crackling on the tent roof.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I stood outside the tent sipping hot cocoa, that the cloud cover reluctantly tore open and gave way to clouds chasing across the sky. The second day to Lake Mackenzie would be the longest on the trek, and I was in no rush to get started on the two-hour climb to Harris Saddle. We drank in the long views across the plains to Mt Somnus, and watched thin rays of sunshine reflecting from the Routeburn Falls before we eventually set off.
About halfway to the saddle, just when I thought my legs were getting tired, we met a group of four runners who seemed oblivious to the altitude. They did the full Routeburn in one day, running. In tights and T-shirts, they looked like light-footed gazelles playfully bouncing down the trail. I tried to think of an animal to embody myself lumbering uphill, but could think of none. Finally, after climbing through wetlands and subalpine scrublands for a total of 600m in altitude, we arrived at Lake Harris and shortly after at Harris Saddle Shelter (1255m), an emergency shelter at the highest point of the hike. Although the sun was out, we gladly sought shelter from the chilly gusts of wind that whipped across the exposed ridgeline, covered in pale grassy tussock. Just after the pass, along Hollyford Face, when we were taking photos of the Darran Mountains, to the west of Hollyford River and Hollyford Valley running down to Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea, my fingers grew numb after all.
On the zigzagging descent to Lake Mackenzie Hut, the wind finally died and we stopped often for the views: Bluish-turquoise Lake Mackenzie lay directly below us, nestled in a cleft cloaked in green, dense rainforest reaching for the water’s edge to the backdrop of mighty Ocean Peak (1848m). After 5:20 hours, we arrived at the campsite, quickly pitched our tent and rushed back to the lakefront. Lazing on the banks of the lake, the scenery of rugged peaks reflecting on the water, was as beautiful as it had been from a bird’s eye perspective.
Routeburn Track Map & Details Day 2
Route: Routeburn Flats Hut – Lake Harris – Harris Saddle Shelter – Hollyford Face – Lake Mackenzie Hut
Time: 5:30 hours
Elevation gain: 817m / loss: 639m (lowest point: 670m / highest point: 1271m)
Start: Routeburn Flats Hut
End: Lake Mackenzie Hut
On day three, we enthusiastically set off from Lake Mackenzie but didn’t make it far. Keas, cheeky mountain parrots, with an iridescent red and olive-green plumage, were screeching their high-pitched ‘keeaa’-cry in the treetops. These smart daredevils are lovely and entertaining to watch especially when they indulge in their favorite activities, like playing with traffic cones or pulling the windscreen wipers off your car before eating the rubber strip.
The track gradually descended to a high grass plateau and grove of ribbonwood trees, fittingly called ‘The Orchard’, and then further towards Earland Falls, a 174m high waterfall. We watched spectacular amounts of water cascade down a sheer drop and froth to white foam as they hit the rock pool. Spray shot up from the water surface and lingered in a hazy, damp cloud, suspended in mid-air. This was a beautiful spot to rest as was Lake Howden Hut, set right on the lake, 3.3km from the waterfall. We knew we were on the home stretch, when just past Howden Hut, a group of elderly Japanese tourists marched towards us in single file.
This hike was absolutely spectacular and we’d do it again anytime. What we didn’t appreciate however, were the many signs suggesting we’d be held at gunpoint if we tried sneaking into a “Guided Hikers Only!” hut. On the Routeburn, hikers are blatantly divided into first, second and cattle class. We were camping, thus cattle class and rather unwelcome it seemed.
Routeburn Track Map & Details Day 3
Route: Lake Mackenzie Hut – ‘The Orchard’ – Earland Falls – Lake Howden Hut – The Divide
Time: 4 hours
Elevation gain: 305m / loss: 683m (lowest point: 542m / highest point: 1047m)
Start: Lake Mackenzie Hut
End: The Divide