The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s best-known tracks, taking trampers over the Southern Alps’ Main Divide as it links Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. Much of it is through thick rainforest, where red, mountain and silver beech form the canopy, and ferns, mosses and fungi cover everything below like wall-to-wall shagpile carpet. It’s the alpine sections, however, that appeal most to trampers. Views from Harris Saddle (1255m) and the top of nearby Conical Hill take in waves breaking far below in Martins Bay, while from Key Summit there are expansive views of the Hollyford, Eglinton and Greenstone Valleys.

The tranquillity of the forest and meadows and the dramatic views of entire valleys and mountain ranges provide ample reward for the steep climbs and frequent encounters with other trampers. Indeed, the track’s overwhelming popularity resulted in the introduction of one of the first booking systems in New Zealand, in 1995. Independent walkers need to reserve their spot on the track before setting out – do so through Great Walks Bookings, or in person at DOC visitors centres nationwide. You must pick up your tickets at the Queenstown or Te Anau DOC visitors centres before heading out on the track.

In summer be prepared for huts that are full, a constant flow of foot traffic and a small gathering of people admiring the views at Harris Saddle. The large number of people is more than offset by the mountain scenery, which is truly exceptional.

The considerable amount of climbing is tempered by the well-benched and graded track. A strong tramper could walk the track in less than three days, but considering the beauty of everything around you, why would you want to?

The track can be hiked in either direction, but most trampers begin on the Glenorchy side and end at the Divide. The trip can be made into a virtual circuit by turning at Lake Howden and joining either the Greenstone or Caples Tracks.

Quick Facts

Duration 3 days

Distance 32km (19.9 miles)

Difficulty Moderate

Start Routeburn Shelter

End The Divide

Gateways Queenstown, Glenorchy, Te Anau

Transport Shuttle bus

Summary This most famous of alpine crossings is a best-of mountain compilation, and includes a breathtaking day above the bushline as you cross Harris Saddle.

Planning

When to Tramp

The four huts on the Routeburn Track are well serviced from late October to late April. Outside this period the track is a winter crossing that should only be attempted by experienced trampers.

Maps & Brochures

There are many maps for the Routeburn, but the best is the NZTopo50 CB09 (Hollyford). The track is also covered by NewTopo's 1:40,000 Routeburn, Greenstone & Caples Tracks map. DOC’s Routeburn Track brochure includes a useful directory of transport operators and local businesses.

Huts & Camping

All accommodation at huts and campsites must be booked in advance for any tramp from late October to late April. You must then stay on the nights booked, with rangers on duty to check that you’ve done so.

There are four huts on the Routeburn Track – Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls, Lake Mackenzie and Lake Howden – the most popular of which are Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie, both near the bushline. All have gas rings for cooking.

During the Great Walks season, a night in a hut costs $65. Outside of the season, bookings are not required and the huts ($15) have limited facilities.

Camping ($20) is permitted at Routeburn Flats and Lake Mackenzie, and at Greenstone Saddle (20 minutes from Lake Howden Hut), where it’s free.

Overnight use of Harris Shelter and the track-end shelters is not permitted.

Information Sources

The DOC Visitor Centre in Queenstown is the place to arrange logistics, obtain maps, passes and track updates and hire personal locator beacons. The Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre is close to the shores of Lake Te Anau and has friendly staff who can help with tramping arrangements, weather forecasts and info on track conditions. If you've booked online, you can pick up your hut or camping tickets at either office.

Guided Tramps

Ultimate Hikes runs guided tramps on the Routeburn Track. Its three-day tramp features comfortable lodge accommodation, meals and expert interpretation. The trip starts from $1520 in high season (December to March) and $1375 in the low season (November and the first three weeks of April).

It also runs ‘Grand Traverse’ trips, a six-day combination of the Greenstone and Routeburn Tracks (high/low season from $2049/1810), with smaller groups and more rustic accommodation, but including a welcome rest day at Lake McKellar to soak up the wilderness atmosphere.

If you want an informed opinion for the great Milford-versus-Routeburn debate, Ultimate Hikes also operates 'The Classic' (high/low season from $3815/3505), tramping both tracks with a rest day between in Te Anau.

Getting There & Away

Transport options are plentiful and varied for the Routeburn.

Glenorchy Journeys runs shuttles to the Routeburn Shelter from Queenstown ($45) and Glenorchy ($25). Buses leave Queenstown at 8.15am, 11.30am and 1.45pm, returning from the Routeburn Shelter at 10am, noon and 4pm. Bookings required.

Info & Track has three daily shuttles to the Routeburn Shelter from Queenstown ($49) and Glenorchy ($22). Its shuttle from the Divide to Queenstown ($81) departs at 10.10am and 3.15pm – you can throw in a Milford Sound cruise for an extra $78.

Buckley Track Transport has an 8am and 11am shuttle from Queenstown to the Routeburn Shelter ($45). A return shuttle from the Divide ($80) leaves for Queenstown at 2pm.

Tracknet, based in Te Anau, runs frequent services from the Divide to Te Anau ($41), continuing on to Queenstown ($81).

Trackhopper provides a handy car-relocation service, driving you to the Routeburn Shelter and then shifting your car to the Divide ($270 plus fuel).

EasyHike also offers a car-relocation service (from $225). It can also kit you out for the tramp, offering a range of packages up to a 'Premium' service ($935) that includes booking your hut tickets, track transport, backpack, food, rain gear, cooking pots and first-aid kit.

Kiwi Discovery services the Routeburn Track and has a range of options starting from $47 out of Queenstown. It also offers a five-night package (from $720) that includes transport to the track, hut booking, pre-tramp briefing, a cruise on Milford Sound at the end and accommodation in Queenstown the night before and after your hike.

Other Features

Routeburn Classic

If you're short on time but not fitness, you could always consider the annual Routeburn Classic (race details are at http://goodtimesevents.net). Run (literally) in late April, the event sees the Routeburn Track turn into a running track, with athletes racing from the Divide to the Routeburn Shelter. The race has been held every year since 2001, and entries are limited to 350. As you set out walking on your third day along the Routeburn Track, consider this…the race record over the 32km is just a bit over 2½ hours.

Day 1: Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut

The track begins with a crossing of Route Burn on a swing bridge to its true left (north) bank, before winding for 1km through a forest of red, silver and mountain beech to a footbridge over Sugar Loaf Stream. The forest here is magnificent, with red beech trees towering overhead. Once across the stream the track climbs gently for 20 minutes until it reaches a swing bridge over the small gorge carved by Bridal Veil Falls. More impressive rock scenery follows as the track sidles Routeburn Gorge, providing ample opportunities to peer into the deep pools at the bottom. The dramatic views end at Forge Flats, a gravel bar along a sharp bend in the Route Burn and a popular place to linger in the sun.

Just beyond the flats, the track uses a long swing bridge to cross to the true right (south) side of the Route Burn and heads back into bush, where it skirts the grassy flats. It’s an easy 30-minute stroll along a level track through the bush to a signposted junction, where the right fork leads to Routeburn Flats Hut (20 bunks), five minutes away. The hut overlooks the river, the wide grassy flats and the mountains to the north. Around 200m on is Routeburn Flats campsite.

The main track (left fork) begins a steady ascent towards Routeburn Falls Hut. The track climbs 270m over 3km (about 1½ hours) before reaching the hut above the bushline. Emily Creek footbridge is the halfway point of the climb, and just beyond it the track sidles a steep rock face called Phoenix Bluff. The track soon crosses a huge slip, where a massive 1994 flood sent trees crashing towards the flats below. The resultant forest clearing affords magnificent views of the valley and surrounding peaks.

From the slip you resume the steady but rocky climb to Routeburn Falls Hut (48 bunks), the scene of many comings and goings. The hut is right at the tree line (1005m) and its long veranda offers views of the flats and the surrounding Humboldt Mountains. Right behind the hut is a private lodge for guided trampers. There's no camping around this hut and wardens are strict about enforcing this rule.

Stats

4 hours / 8.8km / 560m ascent

Day 2: Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie

From the hut it’s a short climb to the impressive Routeburn Falls, which tumble down a series of rock ledges. Once on top of the falls the track cuts across an alpine basin towards the outlet of Lake Harris. The walk is fairly level at first, crossing a couple of bridges and then beginning a steady climb. You pass beneath a pair of leaning boulders, ascend more sharply and then arrive at Lake Harris. Sore legs and aching muscles are quickly forgotten as the stunning view of the lake materialises, especially on a clear day, when the water reflects everything around it. Carved by a glacier, Lake Harris is 800m long and 500m wide. In winter it freezes over and chunks of ice are often seen floating on the lake when the Routeburn Track opens for the season in October.

The track works its way around the lake along bluffs and moraines. You get a second jolt 1½ to two hours from the hut, when entering the grassy meadows of Harris Saddle. From this 1255m vantage point, part of the Hollyford Valley comes into view, almost to Martins Bay if the weather is clear. If you are blessed with such weather, drop your packs and climb the steep side track to Conical Hill (1½ hours return). The 360-degree view from the 1515m peak includes the Darran Mountains, Richardson Range (in Otago) and the entire Hollyford Valley.

Positioned on the boundary between Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, the Harris Saddle emergency shelter is a popular stopping place. The track begins its descent towards the Hollyford Valley on wooden steps and then turns sharply south. For the most part the track here is narrow but level, clinging to the Hollyford face of the ridge, high above the bushline. A strong tramper could probably walk from the saddle to Lake Mackenzie in less than two hours, but why rush? This is the best part of the trip, a stretch where you need to stop often and soak up the incredible alpine scenery.

After 30 minutes the track arrives at a signposted junction with Deadman’s Track, an extremely steep route to the floor of the Hollyford Valley (five hours). The immense views continue, and 2km from the junction with Deadman’s Track the route crosses a swing bridge over Potters Creek. In another 30 minutes you can see the cabins of Gunn’s Camp at the bottom of the Hollyford Valley, directly below you.

Two hours from the saddle the track rounds a spur to the east side of the ridge and Lake Mackenzie comes into sight. The lake is a jewel set in a small, green mountain valley, and the hut is clearly visible on the far shore. The track zigzags down to the lake, dropping sharply for the final 300m. It then skirts the bush and arrives at Lake Mackenzie Hut (50 bunks), a two-storey building overlooking the southern end of the lake. There are bunks on the 2nd floor of the hut, and additional beds in a separate bunk room. Because of the fragile nature of the lakeshore and the alpine plants, the Lake Mackenzie campsite is a small facility, but it does have toilets, a water supply and a cooking shelter. The lake doesn’t have a conventional outlet, so don’t wash or bathe in it.

Stats

4–6 hours / 11.3km / 215m ascent, 355m descent

Day 3: Lake Mackenzie to the Divide

The track begins in front of the hut, passes the lodge for guided trampers and enters the bush. You begin with a level walk, crossing several swing bridges over branches of Roaring Creek, and within 15 minutes begin climbing. The climb regains the height lost in the descent to Lake Mackenzie, and is steady but not steep.

About 40 minutes to one hour from the hut, the track breaks out at a natural clearing, known as the Orchard, where a handful of ribbonwoods resemble fruit trees. The view of the Darran Mountains is excellent.

More alpine views are enjoyed for the next hour or so, as the track passes through several avalanche clearings in the forest. Eventually you descend to Earland Falls, a thundering cascade that leaps 174m out of the mountains. On a hot day this is an ideal spot for an extended break, as the spray will quickly cool you off. If it’s raining the falls will be twice as powerful and you might have to use the flood route, which is signposted along the main track.

The track steadily descends and after 3km emerges at Lake Howden. This is a major track junction and during the peak season it resembles Piccadilly Circus, with trampers and guided walkers going every which way: the Routeburn Track is the right fork (west); the Greenstone Track is the left fork (south). If you’re planning to spend an extra night on the track, you can either stay at Lake Howden Hut (28 bunks) on the shores of the beautiful lake, or camp near the south end of the lake by following the Greenstone Track for 20 minutes to Greenstone Saddle.

The Routeburn Track swings past the flanks of Key Summit and in 15 minutes comes to a junction. If you’re not racing to catch a bus, the 30-minute side trip (left fork) to the top is worth it on a clear day – from the 919m summit you can see the Hollyford, Greenstone and Eglinton Valleys, and there are some crazy stunted beech trees and sphagnum bogs to marvel at.

From the junction the Routeburn Track descends steadily to the bushline, where thick rainforest resumes, before reaching the Divide, the lowest east–west crossing in the Southern Alps. It’s 3km (one hour) from Lake Howden to the Divide, where there is a huge shelter with toilets and a car park. Buses and vans are constantly pulling in here on their way to either Milford Sound or Te Anau. Welcome back to civilisation.

Stats

4–5 hours / 12km / 380m descent