Updated on September 19th, 2023
I’ll be honest. I started writing this post as a humorous story about my misadventures in 1995, hiking one of New Zealand’s Great Hikes, the Routeburn Track. However, I then did some research to understand how things have changed & headed down a valuable rabbit hole of all you need to know before you take on this magnificent hike now. As a result, I have decided to merge the two. On one hand this is an essential guide to hiking the Routeburn Track. On the other, it’s a blueprint of what you SHOULD NOT & actually COULD NOT do, now!”
Routeburn & Greenstone Tracks, Fiordland, New Zealand
Back in 1995, I spent 2 months discovering the beauty of New Zealand on a road trip with my friend, Laura. We spent most of our time on the South Island getting into plenty of scrapes & misadventures. During our time we took the opportunity to tackle a few of the iconic multi-day hiking trails that this spectacular country has to offer & had a few mishaps along the way. My favourite of these walks for the spectacular scenery & stories to tell was the Routeburn Track.
I always have fun sharing my stories from my 3 decades of travel & love looking back at the journals I kept all those years ago. It helps me to reconnect with the carefree, irresponsible & mischievous girl I once was (although I’m not sure much has changed since if I’m honest!).”
I hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane & if you do then please head over to my Travel Stories for more.
To give you some context. Back then there was no internet to do research (although I probably wouldn’t have bothered anyway). Digital cameras had not been invented so many of these photos may not be up to the usual standard, for which I make no apology. Some shots are of my time in New Zealand generally, the much clearer ones were taken on my 2020 return to the country. This means that many are not specifically of the track itself. For these throwback posts, I think it is more important to be authentic & share the shots I took then, in all their non-digital, unedited glory! I would always rather use my own photos than stock ones.
The Routeburn Track links two of New Zealand’s most spectacular landscapes, Mount Aspiring National Park & Fiordland National Park.
The walk takes 3 days to cover 32 kilometres. Along the way you are immersed amongst soaring mountain peaks, huge valleys, jewel-coloured lakes, waterfalls & moss draped forests. Generally, the hike is considered intermediate.”
The highest point sits at 1255 metres above sea level, making the views breathtaking. The best time of year to tackle the Routeburn Track is between November & late April, the worst between May & September due to the risk of avalanches. I was there in February & as you will see we had a mixed bag of weather conditions.
Routeburn is not a circular track so can be tackled in either direction. We chose to take it from the Routeburn Shelter (near Queenstown) to Lake Howden & then continue through the forest on the Greenstone Track. The official ending for Routeburn is The Divide (near Te Anau). If you want to hike back out, you could also choose the more challenging Capels Track.
Along the track, you can choose to stay in the huts or campsites. The huts provide mattresses, running water, flushing toilets & fuel for cooking. They are overseen by a conservation ranger (or warden), although if you hike out of season this will not be the case. For both a bed in a hut, or a campsite, these now need to be booked ahead at any of the DOC visitors centres in New Zealand, or online HERE. As you will see, this was not the case when I hiked this trail back in the 90s!
How much does the Routeburn Track cost?
Hiking the Routeburn Track in itself is free, however, paying for huts & campsites has increased significantly since I was there. Nowadays you need to book in advance & for all the Great Walks in New Zealand, bookings open in June for the following season. For a bed in one of the huts, you will need to pay NZ$102 in summertime & NZ$32 per person for a campsite.
How do I get to & from the Routeburn Track?
The drive from Queenstown is 45 minutes or 1 hour from Te Anau. To get to & from the route, the best option is to take the shuttle which is NZ$125 for the return journey with Tracknet or Info & Track offer a number of routes from $25 to $84 one way, depending on your start & finish points. You may also want to check out Easyhike which can help with one or all of your needs to make your Routeburn Track hike seamless. As well as transport & hut bookings, they can also provide food & gear for your trip.
Do you need a guide for the Routeburn Track?
You don’t need a guide for the hike & as you will see, even we made it without one! To have a guided hike over multiple days, Ultimate Hikes are the only company that offers this. If you don’t have the time for 3 full days, you could opt for a one-day guided experience.
Recommended Day 1 – Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut, 9.8 km, 3-4 hours
Or that’s what most people do! We chose to stop at Routeburn Flats for our first night which was an easy 2-hour (7.8 km) hike but were pretty unprepared. We took turns carrying the tent, but Laura’s bag wasn’t big enough to fit it. When it was her turn, she balanced it on her head or held it in her hands.
We were on a tight budget & hated leftovers so actually started the trail carrying noodles & cauliflower in shopping bags (waste not want not!). Hopefully that helps to set the scene about our shambolic approach to hiking!”
After setting up our tent, we went for an extra 3-hour round trip up the North Branch which was well worth the effort. Dinner that night was some soup & the cauliflower we had carried with us, so it was a big relief to not be carrying the shopping anymore. We were told that tomorrow would be a hard day with 6 hours of hiking (as I have said we had done limited research before we started). It was hot, so we made a pact to start early to miss the main heat of the day.
The next morning, our alarm went off promptly at 6.30am. We turned it off & made a decision to scrap the early start & went back to sleep until 9.30. We were surprised when we eventually emerged from our tent to find the campsite empty! By the time we had breakfast, we were leaving at 11 for the initial hard climb through beech forest to Routeburn Falls Hut. A point to note is that most people finish day 1 at Routeburn Falls. We had to add another 2.3 km & an hour’s hike to get there first!
Recommended Day 2 – Routeburn Falls to Lake MacKenzie Hut, 11.3 km, 4 ½ – 6 hours
After our initial hike that morning to Routeburn Falls, we had a short break & then continued to climb steadily up the valley. This was hard work as we had (predictably) arrived at this point in the main heat of the day. Finally, we reached the top of Harris Saddle, the highest point along the track at 1255 metres. Below, we viewed stunning Lake Harris.
The track then descended gradually along the Hollyford Face & the views over the Darran Mountains were spectacular! Below us was the Hollyford Valley, backed by snow-capped mountains & we could even see the Tasman Sea to the right.
At 5pm we finally rounded a corner & saw Lake Mackenzie below us, our goal for the night. The view was stunning but to get there was a zigzagging path of punishing downhill twists which was hard on my knees. Eventually, an hour later we arrived at the hut to discover that there were no campsites left. Laura especially was annoyed as she had carried the tent all the way in her arms.
The warden was helpful & offered us 2 alternatives. We could stay in the hut for NZ$8 each (how times have changed!) or stay in his hut for free! Of course, we chose the freebie but with a bit of trepidation in case he became a little overfriendly.”
I am pleased to say the night was uneventful & I think he was just a bit lonely. We struck a deal where we cooked & shared the main course & he gave us a delicious apricot crumble for dessert. We even got to sample his home brew & he made us both a hot chocolate before bed. That’s the style of camping I like! 😉
The final day hiking the Routeburn Track was a much easier one. It started very pleasantly when the warden cooked us pancakes for breakfast! We began at the decent time (for once) of 9.30am. The weather seemed to always threaten rain & at one point we walked sandwiched between cloud below & above us. The track took us through the ‘Orchard’, an open grassy area dotted with ribbonwood trees. This part leads to impressive Earland Falls at 174 metres.
You can choose to take a side trip to Key Summit on the way to The Divide which climbs to a wetland & panoramic views across the Fiordland mountains. It takes an extra 1 ½ hours. We considered the detour for a second before deciding against it.”
Rather than walk out at The Divide, we had chosen to continue our hike & return via the Greenstone Track. This meant we stayed overnight at Lake Howden. Thankfully on this occasion, we arrived in time to secure our site for the night & put up our tent while battling a constant attack by the sandflies.
After initially setting our alarms for 6.30am, we did a brief weather check & it was not good. Once again, we went back to sleep. After finally rising at 9.30am & having breakfast, we took an hour to get to the first landmark of McKellar Hut. The walk was fairly easy, along the valley by the river, among tussock flats & bush. It was raining for most of the journey. The highlight was Steel Creek where the track crosses a swingbridge above the gorge.
We arrived at our camp, 6 hours after we started. We were just getting ready to settle down for the night when the warden, Steve came to visit & invited us to his hut for some homebrew. It was rare for us to refuse such an offer, so we went to join him.
Staying with him that night was a friend of his, Michael. He was very intense & was on his way back out into the world after spending 40 days alone in the ‘bush’.
Steve’s home brew was very potent & Laura & I got a bit exuberant which must have been quite a rude awakening for poor Michael, just on his way out of solitude!”
Steve tried to persuade us to stay for the day tomorrow but after 4 days hiking, we felt it was time we got back to civilisation…& a shower!
Day 5 – Walking Out, 20 km, 4 – 6 hours
It’s fair to say that we struggled to get going the next morning. We thought that the final day of walking would be an easy 4-hour hike, but that day it rained a lot, making it marshy. Combined with that morning-after homebrew feeling, it just felt long & miserable. When we finally reached the car park for the pick-up to Glenorchy, I felt like kissing the tarmac! The journey back involved a bus, followed by a boat, which promptly broke down & left us stranded in the lake. Thankfully we were not stuck for long before finally reaching the shore.
We decided to treat ourselves to a cabin & were devastated when our long overdue shower turned out to be cold one. It pretty much summed up the day perfectly!”
Practicalities for hiking the Routeburn Track
- Do not be like me! Plan thoroughly. Only walk within your abilities, book your accommodation & transport early. Make sure you have enough time… & extra time.
- Make sure someone knows your plans & when you should be back. Ensure they call the emergency services if you have not returned. Don’t expect to get cellphone service on the track & consider taking a personal locator with you.
- Expect all four seasons in one day & the weather to change in an instant. Take appropriate clothing for all eventualities.
- Follow the track markers & no matter how experienced a hiker you are, do not veer off the path. It could be hazardous.
- Make sure you have the correct gear for the hike & more than enough food. There is nowhere to buy supplies along the route.
Queenstown & Te Anau sit at either end of the Routeburn Track & offer plenty of accommodation options for the start & finish of your hike. Although I didn’t do the hike on my recent visit, in Te Anau I chose the excellent Radfords on the Lake but there are loads of options for all levels of budget. In Queenstown, I stayed at Peppers Beacon which was in a great location with views of Lake Wakatipu & The Remarkables. For your perfect bed for the night, you can search using the box below.
If you are considering taking on one of the Great Hikes in New Zealand, I would thoroughly recommend the Routeburn Track. Just plan effectively & book accordingly. In other words, don’t do it like me! Start the days early, take the right gear, avoid carrying your shopping & stay clear of the homebrew. But most importantly, enjoy the views, you will not be disappointed!
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