I hadn’t really planned to do this hike, but we’re staying in Queenstown and the weather forecast is looking OK, so it’s very hard to resist! The well-known track has a reputation for breathtaking scenery, and was named as one of the top eleven trails in the world by the National Geographic Adventure Magazine in May 2005. the Routeburn Track is also New Zealand’s second-most popular Great Walk (after the Milford Track). I’ve booked transport a week in advance and managed to find campsite availability for me and my 11yo son, Luke, at Routeburn Flats. Routeburn is one of the most spectacular Great Walks, and unlike the Milford Track has the option of camping, making a last-minute booking more feasible. At a pinch, you could even do the Routeburn Track for free.
The Divide to Lake Howden (4.1km)
Having taken the earliest bus we we could get out of Queenstown, we’re at The Divide and on the track by 11am (see bottom for “which direction should you do the Routeburn Track“). We take off in a gap beween the groups who are starting the walk, and head up the very well-constructed trail.
The track ascends gradually from the road, which continues another 100km or so to Milford Sound.
It’s very pleasant walking, despite the fact there are a few people on the track. Not that I can really complain – it’s never really busy, as the numbers are regulated by the capacity of the huts and campsites (which must be pre-booked). A few hikers overtake us, and often we are walking on our own along this first section, though silver beech forest, moss-covered rocks and ferns.
There are no views along this first section, just incredibly green and lush forest which reflects the fact the Routeburn Track gets an average of seven metres of rain a year.
It’s also an extremely well-made track, especially considering how wet it can get. You don’t need hiking boots – in fact, you could probably do the Routeburn in jandals – although I wouldn’t recommend it!
After about 3km there’s a signposted junction to Key Summit, a side-trip to a 919m peak offering views over the Hollyford, Greenstone and Eglinton valleys. The views are supposed to be great, but it’s quite cloudy and we have long day ahead of us. So we skip this, and continue along the Routeburn Track, which now descends to Lake Howden and Lake Howden Hut.
We stop here for a quick lunch; the 28-bunk Great Walk hut has a few picnic tables situated near the lake. It’s quite busy around the hut, which is a popular spot for a lunch break.
Lake Howden to Lake MacKenzie (9.5km)
From Lake Howden the track immediately starts ascending again. Soon after leaving the lake and hut, it crosses Pass Creek.
There’s a number of streams along this section – it’s nice to be able to walk without carrying any water, which is in abundant supply along the track.
At times it feels like I’m in Jurassic Park, with prehistoric ferns lining the track and every rock and tree dripping with moss and lichen…
There’s a view through a gap in the forest across the lower Hollyford Valley to the higher peaks on the other side – the tops of which are shrouded by cloud.
The track is fairly flat for a couple of kilometres, with the occasional view out to the north-west. Sunny Creek is crossed on another sturdy DOC bridge.
Almost out of nowhere, the 174m-high Earland Falls appear – an impressive waterfall that cascades off the cliffs and sends spray across the track. After heavy rain, you may need to take a marked flood detour that avoids the base of the falls.
The track emerges from the forest after the waterfall, which is visible in the distance, seeming as if it’s emerging from a hole in the cliff.
Now that the landscape is more open, there are views again across the Lower Hollyford Valley. The clouds have lifted a bit, and I can see the tops of some of the peaks – I think the one below is Mt Lyttle (1,899m).
We cross another picturesque river, which is a tributary of Sunny Creek.
On the left side of the track is a natural clearing referred to as The Orchard. The grassy clearing is surrounded by ribbonwood trees, New Zealand’s tallest deciduous tree which grows in fertile soils and look very muich like fruit trees planted in neat rows.
From The Orchard looking to the north you can see down the Hollyford Valley, with Gunns Camp visible by the river.
After The Orchard, the track descends for the last 1.5km down to Lake MacKenzie, entering rainforest again and crossing Roaring Creek.
Just before reaching MacKenzie Hut, we pass Lake MacKenzie Lodge – a very luxurious looking hut used by the private trekking companies.
We finally reach Lake MacKenenzie at about 4:30pm, having done slightly less than half of today’s walk to Routeburn Flats. (Lake MacKenenzie is one of the bigger huts, with 50 beds and cooking facilities, and there is also a campsite a few minutes walk away.)
Time for a quick break and a few photos of the lake, before we resume our journey…
Lake MacKenzie to Routeburn Falls (11.1km)
This is the toughest bit of the walk… from here it’s basically up for the next few hours as we head to Harris Saddle. Initially the track goes through rainforest, with the same ferns and moss-covered rocks we’re getting used to seeing. The only difference is that it seems to be a bit drier – there are are no rivers or streams crossing the track. I’m thinking perhaps we should gave filled our waterbottles at Lake MacKenzie.
As the track emerges from the forest and heads up the side of the mountain, there are views up the valley to the snow-covered Emily Peak (1,815m asl), which is part of the Ailsa Mountains. Looking back down the Routeburn Track is Lake MacKenzie, with the hut at it’s southern end. We’re walking through low heath and it’s even drier here – at the same time that I’m admiring the expansive views, I’m also getting concerned I may have a problem finding water…
Fortunately we find a trickle of water a bit further up the track – enough to refill water bottles. So I can go back to focus just on admiring the views – as we climb more of Lake MacKenzie comes into views, nestled undeneath the towering peaks of the Ailsa Mountains. At the northern end of the lake, we can just make out a few hikers exploring the end of the valley.
As we gain altitude, and the clouds clear a bit, the summit of Emily Peak can be seen ahead. (To the left of the square-looking Emily Peak and not visible in the photo below is Emily Pass, which provides an alternate, off-track route across the Ailsa Mountains to Routeburn Flats.)
The entire length of the very picturesque Lake MacKenzie is now visible as we keep climbing up the track.
Around this elevation (1,000m) is the first time I’ve seen the spreading grass tree (dracophyllum menziesii) – also known as a pineapple shrub. They are found in high rainfall areas in upper mountain to subalpine scrubland in New Zealand’s South Island, western Otago, Fiordland, and Stewart Island. A different sub-species of Dracophyllum is also common in Tasmanian alpine areas.
After a very broad switchback across the side of the steep mountain-side, the track goes around a spur and onto the other side of the mountain range. There’s a last look at Lake MacKenzie and the valley that goes up to the Emily Pass.
The track now traverses the more exposed Hollyford Face, high above the Hollyford River and Valley – and below the imposing Darran Mountains on the other side of the valley.
This is a pretty spectacular section of the Routeburn Track – even if some persistent clouds mean we don’t get a full view of the mountain peaks.
It’s also very pleasant walking – the track is fairly level as it follows the side or face of the ridge. It’s now 6:30pm so there is almost no-one else around (I’ve noticed than everyone seems to stop by about 4pm, even though there is still five hours of daylight).
The track crosses a few more rivers, two of them on sturdy bridges – once you reach the Hollyford Face there is plenty of water again!
The evening light and clouds add to the dramatic landscape, as we continue trudging along the track…
I say trudging as it IS pleasant walking… but this section feels like it goes on forever. You can see the track etched into side of the mountain as it stretches through the tussock grass in front of us, and behind us. At one point we get excited as a we see a green tracker marker – but it’s the signpost for Deadmans Track that heads almost directly down the mountain-side to Hollyford Road.
So we’re relieved when, after a set of stairs and a final turn in the track, we reach Harris Saddle and the day-use hut. Behind the Harris Saddle shelter is Conical Hill (1,515m) – a short but steep side-trip that unfortunately we don’t have time for. Or the energy, if I’m being honest! I justify the decision to continue not on my laziness, but the fact it is quite cloudy and the views probably won’t be great…
I did say the last section was spectacular – the next bit raises the bar again. Even Luke starts complaining that I’m stopping too often to take photos. It kind of builds on you… a jagged snow-covered peak comes into view…
Then a view alpine tarns, surrounded by mountain peaks.
Then Harris Lake dominates the scenery – carved by a glacier, the 800m long and 500m wide lake is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. On the right, and partly obscured by cloud, is Mount Xenicus.
Combine this all, and even with the cloudy weather it’s an impressive panorama of alpine scenery!
Visible in the far distance are the snow-covered peaks of what I think is the Barrier Range.
The track follows the lake around a bluff, with great views in all directions.
As we reach the end of the lake, we can see down the broad Route Burn Left Branch river and valley which we are descending to get to Routeburn Falls. (The grassy alpine basin looks like a great “freedom camping” spot – but no camping is allowed between Harris Saddle and Routeburn Falls.)
As the track descends the valley or basin, there are great views of the distant mountains, including Mount Momus directly ahead and the just-visible Routeburn Flats. There are some nice alpine flowers, including the Mount Cook Lilly (which thives throughout Fiordland).
This is about as good as it gets when it comes to hiking… it’s downhill, nice evening light and stunning views in all directions!
Towards the end of the basin Routeburn Flats can be clearly seen below, our destination for today.
Just before the Routeburn Falls Hut is Routeburn Falls, which cascade down a series of rock ledges.
We reach Routeburn Falls Hut just after the falls – there’s both a DOC hut (capacity of 48) and a private hut here, with views of the Humboldt mountains and down the Routeburn valley.
Routeburn Falls to Routeburn Flats (3.6km)
We push on down to the valley, with the track now re-entering the forest on a well-constructed gravel track.
After crossing an rockfall area (a slip occurred in January 1994 when there were massive floods) there’s a great view of Routeburn Flats. Towering above is Mount Xenicus and Mount Erebus.
A few bridges cross mountain streams as we get close to the valley.
Finally we reach Routeburn Flats just before 9pm – I think it’s the most scenic campground my tent has seen! The grassy valley floor is surrounded by mountain peaks, with the Route Burn Left Branch river running through the middle. We pitch our tent and have dinner before it gets dark. The ranger checks us in – he’s very friendly, and lets us know he’ll be leading an informal trip to nearby glow worms at 10pm (which we don’t have the energy for).
Routeburn Flat to Routeburn Shelter (8.8km)
There’s some heavy rain overnight, as forecast, so I’m glad we’ve done the most scenic parts of the Routeburn Track the previous day. As we set out it has stopped raining, but there’s a lot of low cloud. It’s easy walking through light forest, with the rest of our hike now downhill.
A few more swing bridges cross some more fast-flowing streams.
Before the valley narrows, there’s a short side-trip to Forge Flat, a gravel bar along a sharp bend in the Route Burn. This was used as a blacksmith camp during the construction of the bridle track. There’s a deep, turquoise pool that would make a great swimming spot on a hot day – it looks very inviting but it’s way too cold today!
The scenery gets more interesting after Forge Flat, with the track narrowing after Sappers Pass.
The track enters Routeburn Gorge, with filtered views through the forest of deep pools formed by the river carving its way through the rock.
While not as spectacular as yesterday evening, it’s a lush rainforest landscape with the track crossing a number of picturesue streams, including Bridal Veil Falls.
The forest comprises of red, silver and mountain beech, as well as lots of colourful ferns.
Just after crossing Sugar Loaf Stream on a suspension bridge, there’s an option of returning via the Nature Walk or continuing down the Routeburn Track. We take the Nature Walk option, which follows the Route Burn river; across the other side of the river is a shelter that at the end of Routeburn Road. There are lots of interpretative signage that explains the flora and fauna, and some of the impacts from non-native animals on the environment.
The Nature Walk rejoins the main Routeburn Track just before the end, and we’re soon crossing the last bridge (over the Route Burn) and at the Routeburn Shelter. After seeing almost no-one all morning, there’s quite a few hikers about to start a day-walk, and selfie-toting visitors who don’t look like they are hiking anywhere… We’re booked on the 2pm bus back to Queenstown, but we manage to get the 10am back to civilisation…
It’s been a fantastic two day hike – in some ways the cloud and mist made the scenery more photogenic, although I’ve no doubt on a clear day the views would be even more spectacular!
DAY ONE 0.0km The Divide (532m asl) 3.3km Junction with Key Summit track (side-trip) 4.1km Lake Howden & Lake Howden Hut & campground (683m asl) 8.4km Earland Falls 10.6km The Orchard 13.6km Lake MacKenzie & MacKenzie Hut & campground (889m asl) 20.6km Junction with Deadmans Track (to Hollyford Road) 24.1km Harris Saddle (1,255m asl). Conical Hill side-trip starts here. 24.7km Routeburn Falls Hut (972m asl) 28.3km Routeburn Flats Hut and campground (685m asl) DAY TWO 31.8km Forge Flat 32.3km Sappers Pass 33.9km Bridal Veil Falls 35.1km Junction with Nature Walk 37.2km Routeburn Shelter (477m asl)
How do you get to the Routeburn Track?
The start and end of the Routeburn Track are 340km apart by road. The nearest town to The Divide is Te Anau (85km by road); from the Routeburn Shelter the closest town is Glenorchy (25km), and to get back to Te Anau would be 242km. Unless you can find someone who enjoys driving to drop you off and pick you up, the most common transportation options are:
- Bus transport, which can be pre-booked. Info and Track operate multiple daily services in the Great Walks season. (I used them, and they were great.) From Queenstown it was about AUD$130 for an adult to get to The Divide and back from the Routeburn Shelter.
- Car relocation services, such as Easyhike and TrackHopper, who will drive your car from the start point to the end of the hike. Cost in 2020 was around AUS$300 + petrol, so it becomes cost effective for 2 adults and cheaper if you have more than two people. They cater for people doing the Routeburn Track in one day. Make sure if it’s a rental car you let them know, so your insurance is not affected.
How long does it take to do the Routeburn Track?
Traditionally the Routeburn Tracks is done in three days, staying at MacKenzie Lake and Routeburn Falls (or Routeburn Flats). This means three days of similar length, with the “hardest” day being the middle one when you traverse Harris Saddle. Considering the high quality of the track and the distance and the long days in summer, it can be comfortably done in two days. (It also means you’re paying one less night of very expensive hut or camping fees). Staying one night at Lake MacKenzie means one day is 12km and the other 20km (based on official track distances – I would add 15% to this). Start at the Routeburn Shelter so the first day is longer, and there is no risk of missing a transport connection at the other end!
Can you do the Routeburn track in one day? Yes, if you are fit and take advantage of the long mid-summer days. The biggest challenge is transport and getting an early enough start, as both track heads are a fair way from any accommodation. You really need to organise a car shuffle or find two like-minded (crazy?) people and swap car keys in the middle… Or use a car relocation service (they cater for people doing the Routeburn in one day).
Which direction should you do the Routeburn Track?
A lot of Web sites suggest that doing the Routeburn Track from the Routeburn Shelter is the most common direction, but I didn’t see any evidence of this. It can be done in either direction – except if you are doing it one day, starting at The Divide means the last part is all downhill. I think it would be marginally easier from The Divide, but over 2-3 days there is really not much difference.
Unless you book well in advance, the main determinant in the direction of walking may be hut and campsite availability. If, for example, you can only book Routeburn Falls Hut then I would start at The Divide and have a shorter Day 2 (to avoid any risk of missing transport if you have booked a bus). Conversely, if staying at Lake MacKenzie Hut I’d start at Routeburn Shelter and have a shorter second day to The Divide. One last factor is weather – if you have some flexibility, aim to do Harris Saddle (Lake MacKenzie to Routeburn Falls) on the day with the most favourable weather.
Can you do the Routeburn Track for free?
All of the New Zealand “Great Walks” have quite high hut and camping fees, which were introduced as a result of their popularity and demand. There isn’t really any way around avoiding hut fees, other than doing the walk off-season (and not the first weekend after the offiicial Great Walk season, when the huts can be even busier). The downside is the weather – including snow and avalanche risk in winter. But, there are a few ways you can “freedom camp” on the Routeburn Track, without paying anything…
As a general rule, freedom camping is permitted on the Routeburn Track if you are at least 500m from the track (except between Routeburn Falls and Harris Saddle, where no camping is permitted). While 500m doesn’t sound like a lot, there are not many places along the Routenburn Track where you can get this distance from the track… There are three free camping sites you can take advantage of you are determined to avoid the campsite and hut fees:
- Routeburn Flats – take the Route Burn North Branch up the North Branch valley that starts near the Routeburn Flats hut. After crossing the knee-high river and walking about 20min there are some camping spots near two small waterfalls. You can also continue further up this trail.
- Lake Mackenzie – follow the lake around to the far end, where you can camp legally (you can also follow the valley up to Emily Pass, and there are camping spots high up the valley)
- Lake Howden – take the Greenstone Track south past Lake Howden, reaching suitable camping sites after about 20min walking.
It goes without saying that the reason for the hut fees and limitations on camping are to protect the environment – so use the toilets in the camgrounds, carry all human waste out and practice responsible camping!