Mountain lakes, waterfalls, a high enough mountain pass, big tree forests dripping with vegetation. The full views plus experience. And close to Queenstown. You can sense why this track is extraordinarily popular.
The track itself is relatively tame, some climbing on a modest gradient is involved, much of it feels like a road. The Great Walks tracks, DOC’s showpieces, are overly manicured, in the main.
The weather can be a different story. One day not a cloud in the sky, and isn’t that great if it coincides with the day walking above the treeline between Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie, with the huge views of the Hollyford Valley 1200 m below, the string of the Darran Mountains just over there. Then the next day, rain whipping in with a major windchill situation, visibility, not a whole lot, ie, nothing much the memorable view department.
The major problem, there’s so much packed into a relatively short track, it is possible to walk it in a single, long, day, that those with a Destination Imperative, or simply the urge to hurry along, can wander past the highlights without giving them the attention they might deserve. This is one track where it’s good to spend some time on the track not in motion, soaking up some of that grandeur, like climbing Conical Hill and picking out the breakers crashing onto Martins Bay Beach, watching water drop over the Earland Falls you walk almost too close under, or wandering around Lake Mackenzie to the Split Rock.
Yeah, this is one track to savour . . .
Great Walk | Routeburn Track, Fiordland/ Mt Aspiring National Parks
There are three ways to experience the Routeburn Track.
The cheaper summer season option is as an independent, “freedom walker”. You book your place in the huts, or campground, together with transportation, carry your own gear, including food and sleeping bag and look after yourself. You are required to sleep in the hut, or campground, you have booked. Each hut has an official hut warden to check your booking and generally look after the place. Sounds good, although while you have flush toilets there are no showers.
The problem is that each day is limited to the capacity of the huts and as this is a world renowned track places are taken very quickly, the summer season is usually completely booked. Occasionally cancellations do occur but you need to be ready to go.
The cost: This has changed for the 2018—2019 summer on an experimental basis. This is being continued for 2019-2020. You are charged differently depending on whether you are a New Zealand resident, a drivers license will be sufficient proof, or not, in which case you will be charged double the local rate.
New Zealand residents: $65 each adult a night for the huts, $20 to camp. 17 or under are free.
Non-New Zealand residents: $130 a night for the huts, $40 to camp.
The other summer option is with the 40 person guided walk with Ultimate Hikes. This more often has places, at least in the shoulder ends of the season. You stay in different, more upmarket huts with a higher level of servicing, ie, showers, sheets, food is prepared, wine is available, there are hand washing facilities and drying rooms for wet clothes, etc, and you only need to carry your clothes and camera. You walk at your own pace but the trip is organised for you.
The downside is that this option is expensive. The cheapest option in a 4 to 6 person bulk room and sharing a bathroom is around $1400 for most of the season. If you want a single room with ensuite it clocks in at over $2000.
There is also a winter option, ie, outside the summer season, where the huts are $15 a night but it has certain issues. There is a very real avalanche danger, some of the bridges are taken out to avoid damage, thick snow is possible, etc. October and May are the best months for this unless you have considerable alpine experience in NZ conditions.
where | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
You can walk this track from either direction, ie, from the east starting at the Routeburn Shelter, just off the major Dart River valley at the head of Lake Wakatipu, 68 km from Queenstown, or from the west at The Divide, on the Milford Road, 85 km north of Te Anau.
distance | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
time | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
2 or 3 days
when | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
The usual walking season is during the summer months, for the 2019-20 summer the dates are from 28 October 2019 – 30 April 2020. A popular track, there is a capacity for 48 or 50 walkers at each night at the big huts, Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie, booking is required. Hut wardens are in attendance during this time to check you are indeed entitled to a bunk. During the peak holiday season the track is often fully booked some way out unless you strike it lucky with a cancellation. Check the availability of huts.
Bookings are not possible during the Winter Season, from 1 May 2019 to 27 October 2019. During this time avalanche danger is a major, and very real, concern. A few bridges are removed due to avalanche concerns during the period.
maps and GPS | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
On the extremely well marked and signposted track there’s little real requirement for anything more than the map in the free DOC brochure.
It is possible to buy a real map, ie, on old fashioned paper. The Newtopo “Routeburn-Greenstone-Caples Map from www.newtopo.co.nz/routeburn-greenstone-map.html at a scale of 1:40,000, $20, is available from major DoC offices and some outdoor stores, Macpac keep them, or consult this their comprehensive list of retail outlets at newtopo.co.nz/where-to-buy.html.
route description | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
From the Queenstown side the track has some hours in the beech forest before the major climb up to the Routeburn Falls, you then continue climbing above the bushline, passing Lake Harris to the high point of the track at Harris Saddle, 1255 m. From there the track undulates towards Lake Mackenzie where it enters the forest for the remainder of the walk.
There’s two side tracks: near Harris Saddle Shelter to Conical Hill, 1515 m, that, on a clear day, offers spectacular views of the Hollyford Valley, Darran Range, etc; and there’s a similarly big view from the Key Summit, 918 m, closer to The Divide.
huts | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
The Routeburn Track huts are comfortable enough, the mattresses are okay, the fireboxes work, the roof keeps the water out, what’s to complain about?
Here’s the DOC huts you will encounter:
There are also two campsites available, camping is otherwise not permitted.
There’s another campsite which is officially on the Greenstone Track but only 20 minutes from Lake Howden Hut.
There’s three shelters to get, err, shelter when the weather is not so great, ie, raining heavily.
Routeburn roadend shelter and carpark
You will also walk past the guided walkers huts:
Routeburn Falls Lodge
Lake Mackenzie Lodge
tramping times | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
Here’s the DOC stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DOC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to walk faster.
Unfortunately this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, experience the thundering waterfalls, watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to minimise the time racing through this memorable landscape.
Routeburn shelter roadend to Routeburn Flats Hut
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes – 2 hours 30 minutes
Distance: 6.5 km
Routeburn Flats Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut
Time: 1 hour – 1 hour 30 minutes
Distance: 2.3 km
Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut
Time: 4 hour 30 minutes – 6 hours
Distance: 6.5 km
Side trip – Conical Hill
Time: 1 – 2 hours
Lake Mackenzie Hut to Howden Hut
Time: 1 – 2 hours
Distance: 8.6 km
Howden Hut to The Divide shelter
Time: 1 hour – 1 hour 30 minutes
Distance: 3.4 km
Side trip – Key Summit
Time: 1 hour – 1 hour 30 minutes
getting there | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
supplies | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
Te Anau has one major supermarket, Freshchoice, open 7 am to 9 pm seven days, for getting the main supplies. There is also a small 4 Square with similar, but marginally truncated opening hours.
Shellite or Fuelite and gas canisters for your stove can be obtained at Outdoor Sports, Fiordland Frontier Supplies, both open Monday – Friday 9 00 am–5 30 pm and Saturday 9 am-1 pm, or Mitre 10, Monday – Friday 8 am-5 30 pm, Saturday 9 am-4 pm, Sunday 11 am-3 pm, if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it. All these shops are in the main shopping area of Te Anau.
warnings | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
This is a purpose-built track, fully benched and with no significant river crossings, most of the creeks are bridged. You can walk the entire track without getting your feet wet.
And it’s popular, particularly in the summer holiday season, and huts can be full, all 50 bunks taken, it ain’t a track to get away from people.
The major issue is the entirely exposed alpine section from Routeburn Falls Hut to McKenzie Hut.
You’re well above the bushline, walking for significant distances along above the treeline, the wind can be strong, gale force, people have been blown over. In any case it can rain, obviously, and even snow at any time of the year. Yup, even in January or February. The combination of heavy rain and wind at 1400 m means good wet weather gear is useful.
And being New Zealand, this is something overseas visitors are entirely unused to, the weather can change surprisingly speedily, from blue skies to heavy horizontal rain in half an hour.
Remember this is a track in the high mountains of Fiordland, one of the wettest areas in the world. As they say, be prepared.
During the winter months, at least until late October, sometimes November, there is a major avalanche risk. DOC can advise whether the track is considered safe.
other websites | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
DOC has a track guide on the tramp.
a big image slideshow | Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring/Fiordland National Parks
Here’s a 51 image slideshow from the Routeburn Track giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.
Sadly the camera was rinsed on the Milford Track and some of these images are somewhat blurry. Eventually it dried out somewhat.
Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.