Heading out of Queenstown, my first hike was the Routeburn Track. It is one of the 9 New Zealand Great Walks. Along with Milford Track and Kepler Track, is considered one of the most beautiful walks in the South Island of New Zealand. Anyone who has watched Bear Grylls‘ Air New Zealand video shot in the Routeburn Track will agree.
Due to its popularity, getting permits generally gets very hard. And for me getting permits for all three tracks at the same time was a major logistic challenge. I wanted to cover the three tracks relatively fast so I didn’t carry tent or cooking utensils and preferred staying in cabins (vs. campsites). Most popular tracks here, have great infrastructure with cabins/campsites with proper toilets, running water, stoves and utensils. To add, the location is usually right next to some amazing landmark (waterfall, lake, river, viewpoint) making it a great spot to spend night.
The Routeburn Track overlaps Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park. It is not a loop but a trail that cuts across the mountain range. So, even though the trail itself is ~32 KMs, the actual distance between the entry and exit heads is ~325 KMs (7-8 hours). I started at the Routeburn Flats and ended at The Divide.
First day, I planned to cover 7 KMs to get to the cabin at Routeburn Flats. So I had enough time to hitch-hike to the trail-head. I got a ride to the small town of Glenorchy, which lies at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. The road meanders along the lake hugging the sides of the Remarkables Mountains. I had breakfast at a quaint cafe in Glenorchy which is another awesome mountain town!! Then I got a ride (by a ranger) to the trail-head, along with a couple of other hikers.
The hike to the Routeburn Flats cabin is a perfect one in itself. I would highly recommend it as a day hike for anyone who isn’t doing the entire walk. It’s flat, next a river with awesome swimming spots and great views of tall peaks. It can be easily done as a day trip from Queenstown, if you have a car or can rent a shuttle.
This was my longest day of the Routeburn walk. It was a steep climb to the Routeburn falls, followed by another steep climb to Harris Saddle, the highest point of the trail. From there it’s a ~3-4 KMs of walk on top of a ridge (the best part) with great views. Beyond that it was downhill to Lake Mckenzie Hut, where I spent the night.
The day started nice and bright although there was a forecast for thuderstorms later in the day. I wanted to get done with most of the hike before the storm started. Going uphill to the Routeburn Falls was tough but gave me great views of the Routeburn Flats. It felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings (which it was! as parts of the movie were shot here). After a short break at Routeburn Falls, I carried on towards the Harris Saddle, enjoying the amazing views. By the time I got to Harris Saddle, the dark clouds had hid mountain top and high winds were whipping the ridge. But the walk along the ridge was still beautiful.
After an hour, the trail dropped from the ridge and I could see the large McKenzie Lake in the valley. By now, the rain had started and I scampered down to the hut by the lake. I spent the rest of the evening socializing with a large group of Kiwis at the hut . It was the 75th birthday of one person in their group and he had decided to walk the entire length of the New Zealand Alps to celebrate. His friends and family were at the hut to celebrate his birthday. It was great hearing backpacking and mountaineering stories from the 50s-60s. Well fed and drunk, I went to sleep with the pleasant sound of the pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof of my hut.
The rain stopped by next morning and the sun was peeping through clouds. Day 3 hike was mostly flat or downhill, going to Lake Howden and then onto “The Divide” where the trail met the road. I didn’t have a long distance to cover and was supposed to catch a bus in the afternoon, so I could take it slow. The trail went past a few HUGE waterfalls, I was all drenched while trying to photograph. After playing by the waterfalls, I made my way to Howden Lake Hut. It is located at the edge of the beautiful Lake Howden. After drying-up and eating lunch, I made my way to the Divide with a detour to Key Summit on the way.
At the Key Summit, I met a couple, who work on trail building and restoration projects. Both were working for the Department of Conservation for the last 20 years. One of them happened to be a descendant of Tutoko, a Maori chief, after whom Mt. Tutoko, the highest mountain in Fiordland National Park is named. They gave me a lot of information about the conservation work going on in the area and the work involved in maintaining trails. I would recommend the hike to Key Summit and Lake Howden from the Divide as a great day hike. It’s a great overview of the geography in the Fiordland region.
Back at the Divide, I boarded my bus to full of tourists coming from Milford Sound to Te Anau. They were not very pleased sharing bus with a sweaty hiker.
And that brought an end to my hiking adventures of Routeburn Track. My next hike was the Milford Track of the Great Walks!
Quick Links and details:
- Overview of the hike at Routeburn Track
- If you have to choose just one, read through this comparison of the hikes.
- You can also book accommodation for the walks here –>> Book Early!
- Transportation: For shuttles to and from trail-heads, hostels/hotels are the best place to ask. Queenstown, Wanaka and Te Anau have many operator stores on main streets so you can just pop in to book tickets (what I did). If you have limited time or want advance booking, you can use this or this and this for water taxis to Milford Track.
- Equipment Rental: If you don’t have or don’t want to bring your hiking gear to NZ you can rent literally anything in Queenstownyou or Wanaka (not so sure about Te Anau). You can also reserve gear online here.