Finally, after all the planning and waiting, the first of our 9 Great Walks finally came around, which was exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. We started with the world famous Routeburn Track. It’s a hike we’ve both wanted to do for years and we couldn’t think of a better way to start our big challenge.
The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn is 32km long, a one way track that can be done in either direction. We chose to start at the Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy (1 hour 15 minutes from Queenstown), but you can choose to start at the Divide which is about an hour and a half from Te Anau.
It’s set in the stunning Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National Park, the only Great Walk which spans two national parks. The scenery is varied and you’ll see stunning azure blue rivers, alpine forest, huge mountains, glaciers, stunningly clear lakes and precarious ridge lines. It’s safe to say, you’ll never get bored with the views on this hike!
The track is usually walked in three days, with overnight stays at Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie DOC huts. If you want to extend your time on the track you could also stay at Routeburn flats or Howden huts too. If you are time poor or like a challenge you can walk the track in two days and spend the night at Lake Mackenzie hut, as we did. To be honest this does make for a very long first day as we outline below. For lots more detail on the nitty gritty of planning your hike check out our blog on the Routeburn track logistics.
Day 1: Routeburn Shelter – Lake McKenzie Hut
1,079 metres elevation
Apple Watch says
Apple Watch struggled on day one, cutting out during the poor weather and repeatedly running out of battery but above is the data we managed to capture!
Routeburn Shelter – Routeburn Flats (1 hour 30)
The weather forecast wasn’t looking great. After four days of glorious blue skies, the weatherman was predicting 20mm of rain and cloud all day. Typical..
We left early after a big breakfast at our hotel in Queenstown and drove the hour and a bit journey to the Routeburn Shelter in Glenorchy. True to their word, as soon as we left the car the heavens opened and only stopped briefly all day!
The track starts along the Route burn (burn is a river in NZ), a beautiful river the colour of which astounded us. If you have time on the track and the weather plays ball this would be one of the most magical swimming spots we could possibly imagine.
Soon after crossing the river on the first of many swing bridges, the track heads into a very beautiful forest and the path begins to slowly wind uphill. The gradient at this point isn’t too steep and all the time you’ll get small glimpses of the valley below and that stunning river.
These shots were taken in very grey, overcast weather, so you can see how stunningly blue this water is.
The track levels out, winding through more Lord of the Rings-esque forest before you arrive at Routeburn Flats, a stunning area (the hut itself is a short two minute detour from the track) that opens up to reveal your first view of the mountains.
This would make an incredible picnic spot. You can choose to camp or stay at the DOC hut (bookings compulsory during the great Walks season) at this location if you want to extend your time on the trail.
Most people seemed to use this as a lunch spot and we didn't meet anyone spending the night here so maybe you would even have it to yourself! We used it as a place to fill up our water bladder - the great thing about this track is water is plentiful so you don't need to carry much with you at any one time, great for lightening the load of your pack a little bit.
Routeburn Flats – Routeburn Falls ( 1 hour)
Once back on the track, the path starts getting quite a bit steeper and for us this was when we started walking straight into a cloud. Yep, we could see little further than 10 metres ahead of us! This made for some mysterious looking photos, but we don’t quite know what was beyond the trees.
We do know the path passes some stunning waterfalls that are bright blue and look great after heavy rain, so that was a plus to the downpour! You meander along the cliff face, still climbing but not too steeply, I imagine the views here would be beautiful if the cloud had cleared. Around an hour after leaving the Flats you’ll arrive at Routeburn Falls, 250m higher up than where you started.
The hut at Routeburn Falls is a great place for some lunch (if you’ve started early) and we know it has a stunning view from other people's accounts. Sadly, we couldn’t see it….
We were pretty freezing cold by this point and were glad of the chance to make a cup of tea at the hut and try and warm up for a bit.
Routeburn Falls – Harris Saddle (1 hour 15)
This is where the track gets a bit more interesting and a little tougher. From Routeburn Falls until Harris Saddle, the trail is almost entirely ascending with few flat sections. The path begins to get trickier underfoot too, as it turns into loose rubble and a lot of rocky patches.
It’s not too hard, but it does mean you go at a slower pace and spend a lot more time looking at your feet.
After the falls you’ll go above the bushline and enter a stunning plateau, full of lakes, heath and surrounded by beautiful mountains. We were thrilled that after an hour or so of climbing we got a break in the cloud and the views were nothing short of spectacular.
Our favourite part was hiking up towards the top of Harris Saddle where we could look down on the river below and see Lake Harris up ahead. This section of trail will take you a while as your camera will be out constantly, it is as breathtaking looking behind you as looking ahead. We lost count of the amount of times we said 'wow'!.
At the top of this section you’ll reach Harris Saddle which is the high point of the track at 1277m where you’ll find the emergency shelter. If you're here in bad weather this would be a great place to take a break. It's a good spot to look out for Kea (a sadly endangered alpine parrot) and we were lucky enough to see two.
It was an unexpected joy and we watched them swoop around for five minutes before pressing on. The sign said Lake Mackenzie hut was still four hours away and we were a bit behind schedule.
Harris Saddle – Lake MacKenzie Hut (3 hours 15)
For most trekkers, this could be the highlight of the trail: hiking alongside a massive ridge looking out towards the mountains and stunning Lake MacKenzie below. Sadly, we were walking in the middle of a cloud and could only see a metre or so ahead of us.
The trail is well marked by orange posts for this section, ensuring you won’t get lost. The rubble continues for this section as it undulates along the ridge, usually to have hiking poles if you are unsteady on your feet or have any knee issues.
Soon the path starts heading downwards and into the forest again. It’s a beautiful area as the trees here are covered in moss, and the forest is dripping in green. Mix in the mist and you get a very atmospheric stretch of path.
You will definitely feel like you are entering a very special place. The whole area has a unique feel to it and could come directly out the pages of a novel. By this point we were shattered as we hadn't expected the track to take as long as it did and we were looking for any sign of the hut!
Eventually the track opens out onto the striking Lake MacKenzie, a crystal clear emerald coloured lake, set in a valley surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The sky cleared and we saw what we couldn’t from the ridgeline.
There’s no better place to put your head down for the night. If you're very brave you could go for a swim in the lake, we went for a paddle and it was ice cold but very invigorating. It's possibly one of the most stunning settings we could ever imagine staying in.
We've included more details about the hut itself in our Routeburn Track logistics post. Watch out for sandflies at the lake, they went after any piece of exposed skin with alarming ferocity.
We arrived at around 6.30pm so just in time to cook some dinner before the hut warden talk at 7.30pm. The ranger here, Evan Smith, is a bit of a legend and we would definitely advise you to go to his talk if you have the chance.
I think it lasted for about an hour which is around 50 minutes longer than any other hut talk we've been to but we were all completely engrossed. His work in native bird conservation was completely inspiring. You can't fail to notice as you walk the Routeburn that the track is lined with traps, to help control the introduced predators such as stoats and possums.
These animals have decimated the native bird population, lots of which are ground dwelling and threatened with extinction. Thanks to support from Air New Zealand, Evan has been able to slowly see more birds bringing this forest to life again.
There's a long way to go but every time we heard a bird chirping we were thrilled, the birds of New Zealand really are enchanting and it's a delight when you do spot one on the trail.
Day 2 McKenzie Hut – The Divide
300 metres of elevation
Apple Watch Says
Lake McKenzie – Earland Falls (2 hours 30)
After a sleepless night (32 people after a long day’s hike in one bunk hut = a lot of snoring), we went outside to see a beautiful clear day and panoramic views. These few hours of sunlight and clear skies made the fog and rain of the previous day worth it!
We set off fairly early as people began leaving the hut from around 5.30am onwards, and let's just say they hadn't decided to pack the night before.
The trail starts by wickedly walking past the guided walkers lodge, equipped with ensuite rooms, cooked meals and wine. Once you take your eyes off what could have been, you enter back into the forest and begin climbing.
At first our legs were not too happy with being made to climb again so soon, but it wasn’t too steep and we quickly got into the swing of it.
Not too long after the first climb the path flattens and you begin to see stunning views of the valley and the mountains. These views keep going as you make it to an open area known as the Orchard.
The path follows the ridge line with continuous epic views, before returning to the bush. For most of the way, the track under foot continues to be rubble and there are parts where you have to take your time descending on rocks.
After 2 hours 30 you’ll arrive at Earland Falls, the huge waterfall you will have seen in the distance for a while. The water is crystal clear and the setting is beautiful, however there was heavy spray which made it quite cold. It is clearly a favourite lunch spot so was quite crowded, and we decided to move straight on.
Earland Falls – Howden Hut – The Divide (1 hour 30)
The path from here undulates but with much more descent than ascent. You’ll be almost entirely in the forest from now, passing small streams and beautiful fern gullies.
You will still have glimpses of the mountains, but they are mostly covered by trees. it's an extremely beautiful forest and so quiet.
We often stopped and all we could hear was the sound of the wind in the trees and running streams in the distance. It's the kind of place that when you stop for a while you start to notice all the small things, the different shades of green and the water dripping from leaves, an extraordinarily beautiful place to walk.
After around an hour after leaving Earland Falls you will reach Howden Hut. Despite being such a short distance from the end it is a good place to stop for lunch and take in the view. Lake Howden is very pretty and it's a peaceful spot to take a rest.
You can stay at the hut if you have pre-booked but with it being so close to the end of the trail I doubt many people do. Make sure you have repellent or are covered up when taking a break here as the sand flies are vicious.
After lunch, the trail has its last laugh as you have one final climb. It only takes around 15 minutes though so it is over very quickly. Once at the top you have the option to go to Key Summit, which is around 40 minutes return.
We've heard the view from here is the best on the trail but we had thick cloud so decided it wasn't worth venturing up. After this junction you’ll hear the road and know the Divide is not far away.
The paths then downhill for the rest of the way on easy switch backs. Then before you know it the track changes from bush to car park and you’re at The Divide.
The Routeburn Overview
When walked as a two day hike, the Routeburn is quite a tough walk. This version has a very long. first day with quite a bit of climbing in one go. Add in the pack on your back and its tiring day. As a three day hike we’d say it would be a moderate hike.
The climbs are never too steep or continuous and there’s plenty of flat sections, but you do climb over 1,300m across three days. It’s worth doing a little training before embarking on the track. If you do walk the track in two days, we would recommend booking early to stay in Glenorchy rather than Queenstown.
It will mean you can start the trail a bit earlier, all rooms in Glenorchy were booked around our dates but with hindsight we would have booked much further in advance.
It’s a track we’d definitely recommend and well worthy of its 'Great Walk' title, with stunning views and beautiful changing landscapes.
As with all the alpine Great Walks it is best to walk them in season as there is severe avalanche risk out of season and the hut facilities are greatly reduced.
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Have you hiked any of the Great Walks of New Zealand? Would you hike The Routeburn? Let us know in the comments below.