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Hiking the Routeburn Track – a must for New Zealand travelers
The Routeburn Track is being called one of and possibly the most stunning multi day hike in New Zealand. Even though I don’t fully agree on the latter, I do think that the Routeburn Track hike is one of the best that tramping in New Zealand has to offer and a must for every New Zealand traveler who’s into hiking.
I’ve hiked the Routeburn Track twice in my life, once in 2011 with good weather and once in 2018 with poor weather. Very poor weather in fact. I combined both experiences in this ultimate guide to hiking the Routeburn Track New Zealand and added a lot of practical information for you as well, such as a packing list, how to make bookings and more. I hope you’ll enjoy my Routeburn Track blog and will find all you need to know!
About the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track is a three-day hiking trail from The Routeburn Shelter to The Divide and takes you from Mount Aspiring National Park to Fiordland National Park. It is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand – a number of hiking trails maintained by Department of Conservation. The trails are well marked, the sections are never very difficult and you can stay in huts or camp overnight along the way.
You’ll most likely start your Routeburn walk from Queenstown, also called the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. Here you can make the final preparations for your trek and of course visit the Department of Conservation office to pick up your permit. This is compulsory and they can also give you the latest information about the trail conditions here. For example, the first time I heard the first time there was snow on parts of the track (mid December!) and that we may have to turn back. More recently, they offered me an extra drybag for inside my backpack as the weather forecast for the Routeburn Track wasn’t amazing.
Bookings for the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in New Zealand and is usually fully booked well in advance throughout the hiking season (Oct-Mar). Bookings are a must and my advise is the sooner you book it, the better. For my most recent walk, I booked it three months in advance and that turned out to be quite late, as the dates that we wanted were already booked so we had to postpone our plans with two weeks.
The Routeburn Track booking process is super easy. Just go to the DOC website and make your bookings here. Note that you’ll need to make a payment by creditcard at the end and you’ll receive a confirmation by email once the process is completed.
In case the Routeburn Track is fully booked, a great alternative just over in the next valley is the Greenstone Caples Track – it’s not a great walk and receives far less visitors than The Routeburn Track. Reservations are not required and it’s much cheaper as well!
The Routeburn Track from day to day
Before I’ll continue with more practical information such as how to get to/from the track and more about the weather, I’m writing my day to day descriptions below. Note that these are combined notes from my trips in 2011 and 2018, with both sunny and rainy weather descriptions and photos.
Day 1. Routeburn Shelter – Routeburn Falls Hut (4 hours)
The first part of the track is relatively easy, whether it is dry or raining. The first two hours take you along a well-formed and slightly rising trail to the Routeburn Flats. The Routeburn River is pretty in emerald when it is dry but during the rain it’s fierce and grey. A few streams have flooded so we already get wet feet on this first section.
The Routeburn Flats are in a wide valley with a hut at the end: the Routeburn Flats Hut. This is a great alternative when the Routeburn Falls Hut is fully booked and it’s a good place for a lunch break and to take off your backpack for a little while.
From the Routeburn Flats Hut, the trail rises steadily through a forest with occasional views of the Routeburn Flats. After a good two hours rise we reach the Routeburn Falls Hut. With good weather it’s a beautiful area, with rain there is little to see. Every once in a while the skies open up a little, but in general it is wet and cold.
Day 2. Routeburn Falls Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut (6 hours)
Day two of the track is the best. The first time I had sunny weather and I walked through the alpine meadows like a cheerful frolicking lamb. The second time most of the trail was swept away by the water and it was a lot less pleasant to hike here, because there is no shelter once you’re in the alpine area, apart from once small cabin on the top at Harris Saddle.
The first part of day two rises steadily to the Harris Saddle. Just before the ridge you arrive at Lake Harris, the beautiful mountain lake that you can see on the cover photo of this Routeburn Track blog. After crossing the ridge you will arrive from Mount Aspiring National Park into Fiordland National Park: the wettest area of New Zealand. In good weather you have a view over the Darran Mountains on the other side of the valley.
The trail here is not difficult but occasionally we have to cross streams that have turned into rivers due to the rain. That we’re soaked does not matter anymore, we smile and greet the walkers who walk the trail in the opposite direction.
After about an hour and a half you reach the viewpoint on Lake Mackenzie, way down below you. From here it looks like you’re almost there, but nothing could be further from the truth. From here the descent takes another hour, perhaps longer depending on how fast you are. Lake Mackenzie and the same name cabin are, in my opinion, the most beautiful place of the Routeburn Track, you could easily spend days here without hiking, reading and enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
Both times the evening entertainment in the Lake Mackenzie hut is provided by the same warden. He has been doing this work for countless years and comically explains the rules of the hut.
Late in the evening we are awakened by a group of hikers who enter the hut illegally, unfortunately an increasingly common phenomenon on the Great Walks of New Zealand. People who do not have a reservation will wait for the check of the hut warden and then sneak in to find a free bed or to sleep in a corner. Sleeping in a hut illegally is not cool at all!
Below you’ll find a number of photos of good weather, followed by the photos of bad weather. Just look for the differences …
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie – The Divide (5 hours)
It’s our last day on the Routeburn Track unfortunately. Some hikers continue from here on the Caples and Greenstone Tracks, but we have to go down to The Divide where the bus picks us up. From here you can go back to Queenstown but also opt for a day trip to Milford Sound, this bus also stops at The Divide. In the latter case, you have to get up in the dark to be at The Divide in time, so you have to cover the first part of the distance in the twilight. Which is OK, but don’t forget to carry a headlight.
The first part of the walk takes us through a densely overgrown forest. It is no wonder that it looks familiar to us: this area has been used extensively for the recordings of Lord of the Rings movies. Soon we reach the special Earland Falls (one of the highest waterfalls in New Zealand) and we arrive at Lake Howden Hut. Here it’s time to stop for a short break. From here it is a good hour and a half to The Divide. Optionally you can add the hike to Key Summit, a beautiful trip through alpine terrain with a view of Lake Marian. A must if you have enough time!
At The Divide there is a toilet, running water and you can relax in the shelter until the bus arrives. Whether it’s sunny weather or bad weather, the Routeburn Track is a great adventure that should not be missed in your New Zealand trip.
Is the Routeburn Track difficult?
Many questions I’m begin asked are about the Routeburn Track difficulty. For me, as an avid hiker, it’s not a difficult or demanding track. However if you are an unexperienced hiker, you may want to get in shape before setting off. When hiking in the early season there are great chances of snow on the track (always check with DOC in Queenstown!) which may make the trail more difficult.
The hiking times above are those as advised by Department of Conservation in their Routeburn Track Brochure which you can download for free here. The Routeburn Track elevation is generally gradual and if you’re a fit hiker it should absolutely not be difficult for you. Previous tramping experience is required though, walking the Routeburn Track is definitely not just a walk in the park.
Routeburn Track Map
If you are looking for a map of the Routeburn Track, download the brochure I mentioned above. The map that’s inside it is all you need, as the trail is well marked and it’s impossible to go wrong. When you pick up your permit in Queenstown, you’ll also be given the Routeburn Track walking guide that includes a map.
How to get to and from The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track runs from The Routeburn Shelter in Mount Aspiring National Park to The Divide in Fiordland National Park. Both locations are a full day driving from each other. There are a few options for Routeburn Track Transport which I’ll point out below:
– There are various companies that offer a Routeburn Track Shuttle, so they will drop you off at The Routeburn Shelter and pick you up at the Divide. We used InfoTrack in the past.
– Another great option, in case you are not going to Fiordland later on during your New Zealand trip, is to add a Milford Sound Cruise on your way back. Note you’ll have to get up early and you won’t have time to do the Key Summit Walk as well. We booked this package with Go Orange via Kiwi Discovery.
– In case you don’t want to use a bus service, you can have your car relocated. I have never personally used this option but found out that Trackhopper is a reliable operator for Routeburn Track car relocation.
Routeburn Track packing list
For this trail you’ll need to carry your own gear and food. The Routeburn Track huts provide mattresses and cooking stoves and have running water, but that’s about it. This means you’ll need to bring your own food for all days, as well as cooking utensils other than the stove, as well as a headlight, first aid kit and hiking clothes. Make sure to bring good raingear as it’s unlikely you’ll have a completely dry hike. Additionally, don’t forget to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a pocketknife, your sleeping bag and a set of shoes to wear in the hut as you must leave your boots outside.
Routeburn Track weather
Unfortunately, it’ll be quite unlikely that you’ll just have sunshine on your hike. Fiordland National Park is known as the wettest place in New Zealand and receives a lot of rain. Fortunately, it’s not impossible to have good weather but prepare for the worst. You may want to buy an extra liner for inside your pack to keep your stuff dry. Always make sure to check the Routeburn Track weather forecast in advance and check with DOC in Queenstown what the trail conditions are.
Routeburn Track day hike options
In case you don’t have three days to spend or can’t get a hold of a reservation for the huts or campsites (or if it’s out of your New Zealand budget), it’s an option to hike just a section of the Routeburn Track. I’ve also heard people talk of doing the entire track in one day, but that seems a bit much and you’d need to be extremely fit to do so. Also since you’ll be stuck with your car on one end (and companies do not do that early drop offs) I advise you not to do the whole Routeburn Track in one day.
Day hike options vary from the Key Summit Hike (find a video below) or Earland Falls from The Divide to the Routeburn Nature Walk or the Routeburn Flats hike from the Routeburn Shelter. In this post you’ll find a complete hiking guide for other hikes in Fiordland National Park.
Where to stay before and after your Routeburn hike
I strongly recommend to book your overnight places before and after your hike on the Routeburn Track in advance as well, because Queenstown is very popular (and expensive!). In terms of camping, I prefer to be on Queenstown Top 10 (a short drive from the center) and my favorite hostel in Queenstown is the Haka Lodge. Other Queenstown accommodation options can be found here.
Conclusion and disclaimer
I hope you found this Routeburn Track blog useful and that it’ll help you plan your New Zealand trip. If you’d like to read more about hiking New Zealand, then make sure to check this post with the best hikes all over New Zealand and also my complete New Zealand travel guide.
Before you go, also order your Lonely Planet Tramping in New Zealand guidebook and this New Zealand guidebook.
Note that this post contains affiliate links. If you book and/or order something through these links, I may earn a small commission at no extra fee to you.