Key information: Routeburn
- One of New Zealands designated Great Walks, the famous Routeburn track is a traverse of the Southern Alps, connecting two national parks: Mt Aspiring and Fiordland.
- Scenic Alpine crossing (3-4 days) from rainforest to alpine pass and down into a more southern valley.
- The Routeburn tops 1,250m at high Harris Saddle, surrounded by South Islands sprawling mountain ranges, valley networks, ribbon lakes and glacial wilderness.
- Link your trek to the Greenstone and Caples tracks to create a circular route; otherwise its 300-odd kilometres by road to return to your chosen trailhead, although there are plenty of transport services.
- Enjoy David Brieses vivid rendition of the walks thrills and spills. See his website, here.
- Walkopedia rating83
- Natural interest15
- Human interest2
- Negative points0
- Total rating83
- Length: 34km
- 3-4 days
- Maximum Altitude: Over 1,250m
- Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
First, a few nods, in every which direction
New Zealand: as you will know, famous for walking. The crucible of enormous forces, formed by earthquake, volcano and glacier, and still changing today. The beauty of this country changes abruptly and often, from Pacific coast, say, to inland plains. Volcano, anyone?
The Great Eight: grouped for their popularity, but mostly for their transcendent landscapes and personality, these eight walks are a relentless dripfeed of scenery, view, scenery. And Routeburn is not the least of them.
Routeburns Fiordland: the epicentre of the South West New Zealand World Heritage area Te Wahipounamu. The region is stunning, and rugged, and the Routeburn trail passes right through it.
David Briese: Walkopedia would like to thank tramper David Briese, based in Oz, for access to his personal account of this magnificent trek, walked with a friend. See the full blow-by-blow description and more in his fantastic website www.gang-gang.net/nomad/NZ/NZ26 We love it!
Extract from David Brieses account:
Day 1: Routeburn Car Park to Routeburn Falls Hut - following the burn*
(*Many of the mountain streams in this part of New Zealand are called burns, reflecting the Scottish heritage of the early settlers in the South Island)
Following the tradition of virtually all New Zealand walks, we were immediately under the canopy of a dense beech forest and winding our way westward and upward into the heart of the Humboldt Mountains. The track kept close to the northern edge of the Route Burn, crossing several side streams and cascades as it climbed steadily into a narrowing valley, the sound of the rushing waters rising and falling as we passed nearer or further from the stream banks.
Periodically, views of the stream appeared below through the trees, foaming white at times, and subtly different shades of blue to green at others, as the glacial meltwaters tumbled across shallow stony beds or flowed quietly in deep pools. The Route is an exquisite burn.
After a period of climbing the track flattened out onto a wider terrace, crossed the Route Burn via a swingbridge and started to follow the edge of a grassy flat, which widened as we progressed. With no steep fall, the burn meandered gently through these straw-coloured flats, enclosed by steep-walled mountains.
Then, a steep 300m climb following the left branch of the burn up to the high valley beyond the Routeburn Falls. The rewards came in the way of magnificent views as we crossed the clearings created by a rock fall from Phoenix Bluff and a large slip a few hundred metres further on; back down along the crescent shape of the Routeburn Flats with the silvery thread of the burn meandering through it and the steep sided razor-ridged mountains rising steeply up from it.
A couple of bridges over sidestreams cascading down to the flats below and we arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut. A little distance further up, the private hut for guided walkers.
Day 2: Routeburn Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut - the alpine crossing
We headed up the rocky ridge behind the hut past the upper falls of the cataract and commenced a slow climb along a broad grassy valley. Reaching the next terrace, we followed a sweeping arc which climbed steadily around the southern rim of the upper valley. Across this valley we could see our path wending its way higher above a second cataract, as the Route Burn flowed out of the unseen Lake Harris.
The track then flattened out as it sidled across a steep slope high above the dark glacial waters of Lake Harris, with 1900m Mt Xenicus behind. Finally, turning west again, the track took us over 1255m Harris Saddle and down through a tarn-dotted grassy landscape to Harris Shelter, revealing more and more of the long spine of the Darran Mountains and their glaciers.
Dont miss the steep rocky ascent of Conical Hill: gain a glorious panorama of the snow-capped Darran Range on the opposite side of the Hollyford Valley. The views extended both up and down the valley, where low cloud spilled in from the Tasman Sea. Behind us, more views extended back over Lake Harris, now far below, and the route that we had taken this morning.
We now headed down off the saddle and its collection of picturesque tarns, dropping quickly to commence a long, undulating traverse across the Hollyford face of the Ailsa Mountains; an alpine floral wonderland, with daisies, button plants, bluebells, flax, hebes, gentians and many other unrecognised alpine flowers dotting the steep slopes, criss-crossed by small streams pouring off the mountain in series of cascades and mini-waterfalls.
Soon after crossing the Potter Creek Falls the track climbed up again through a predominantly tussock grass and flax vegetation before crossing a ridgeline from where the tiny shape of Lake Mackenzie Hut, 300m below, could be seen. One last short climb followed and then a long descent, traversing the steep rocky slopes of Ocean Peak, all the time providing a superb view over the emerald green waters of glacial Lake Mackenzie. Eventually, the track dropped below the timberline and entered the cool dark shade of a beech forest.
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut to Howden Hut
Leaving the hut, we quickly crossed a hebarium (i.e. monoculture of low flowering hebe) and past the guided walkers hut. We re-entered the beech forest and climbed up steadily to reach the level of traverse, at intervals the silhouettes of the trees framing the various peaks of the Darran Mountains across the valley.
We crossed another series of cascades and small waterfalls, before eventually rounding a corner to see the majestic sight of the 80m high Earland Falls plunging out from a gap in the rockface above into a boulder-filled pool.
A slow descent now started, winding through the beech forest to emerge at Howden Hut, situated at the head of beautiful Lake Howden.
The one problem with the Routeburn is that, while it is a 33km walk, it is 270km and 6 hours by road back to its beginning near the upper reaches Lake Wakatipu from its end at the Divide near Milford Sound. At Howden Hut we had a choice; ahead lay the last few kilometres of the Routeburn Track and 6 hour bus trip, to the left lay the Greenstone Track and a 2 day tramp back to 12km from where we had left the car.
We turned left.
© David Briese. See his full account and much more in his fantastic website www.gang-gang.net/nomad.
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Fodor’s New Zealand - Fodor
Tramping in New Zealand: 52 Great Walks - Lonely Planet Walking Guide
New Zealand: The Great Walks – Trailblazer
New Zealand South Island - Lonely Planet
New Zealand – Rough Guides
Chapter in Trekking Atlas of the World – Jack Jackson
The Routeburn Department of Conservation (DOC) map can be picked up locally from tourist information offices, or you can print it out beforehand.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
Off-season runs from May to mid-October; expect much fewer people, but capricious weather. On parts of the walk (e.g. Harris Saddle) there is a high avalanche risk during winter, the early part of the walking season, and after snow falls.
High season is more or less November through to April (summer). Slightly more consistent weather, and highs hitting a much happier 30 degrees. Although this attracts more walkers, set against the scale of the landscape they neither intrude nor signify.
Because of the necessities of pre-booking the walk (see Getting There/Transport/Permits/Fees), this can be a bit of a lottery!
Predominately western winds usher in high rainfall and changeable weather. Cold temperatures and mountainous weather (strong winds, heavy rain, snow) can occur at any time of year.
The New Zealand DOC advises to expect at least one wet day on your trip.
To New Zealand, South Island
Most major airlines (e.g. BA, Qantas, etc) run flights to Christchurch (South Island). From there, Queenstown is around 6 hours by road. Hire or stock up on equipment here.
- Queenstown to Routeburn Shelter (trailhead): over 1 hour.
- Queenstown to The Divide (trailhead): around 3.5 hours.
- Routeburn Shelter to The Divide: over 300km, probably around 6 hours.
Those on guided expeditions will be transported to and from the respective trailheads. If you are doing the walk independently, you must arrange this yourself. Either sidestep the problem by walking a circular route back to your start point (adding in Caples / Greenstone track), or use one of the countless transport services based mostly in Queenstown:
- www.routeburntrack.info (Slightly novel: they transport your vehicle to the other end of the track, so that it’s there waiting for you)
- www.trackhopper.co.nz (Same!)
While there are no fees for entry to the National Parks, permits are needed to do the walk (your Great Walk Ticket). These are permission to use the DOC maintained huts, shelters and campsites en route.
Permits can be obtained from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and are charged per person, per night. Lower fees apply in off-season. Know your itinerary beforehand, so that you can book the right number of days and not overpay!
Expedition organisers use their own huts; the above (DOC) fees don’t apply.
See Walk Summary above.
The route can be done east to west, or west to east. Also, day walks are possible (no permit/booking needed as you won’t be using the campsites or huts): Key Summit (918m), or the out and back to the Routeburn Flats hut (at the opposite end of the trail) are both regularly walked in a day.
The Routeburn’s most common stages are:
- The Divide (Shelter) to Lake Howden Hut
- Lake Howden to Lake Mackenzie (Hut / Campsites)
- Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Falls Hut
- Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter (can be broken by stopping at Routeburn Flats Hut halfway down)
- (Or vice versa.)
To create a circular walk: depending on your Routeburn start / finish points, follow wide Greenstone Valley up to and over a sub-alpine pass and into narrower, forest-filled Caples Valley, or the other way round.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. The steep rock of the hand-hewn, century-old rock can get very slippery when wet. Come prepared.
- Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
- Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
- Sandflies at The Divide end of the trail. VERY irritating. Take all appropriate precautions.
- This is remote country: you will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help may be hard to get if things go wrong, particularly during off-season.
- Avalanches can be a real danger in winter, in early walking season, and after heavy snowfall.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do this walk independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.
www.ultimatehikes.co.nz run guided expeditions for this walk. They will also arrange for permits to be obtained.
The huts and campsites provided are the only option for independent walkers. These must be pre-booked via the DOC.
Guided tours are all-hut (run by UltimateHikes.co.nz).
Other information and tips
Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre: firstname.lastname@example.org
Queenstown Regional Visitor Centre Phone: email@example.com
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- www.gang-gang.net/nomad and www.gang-gang.net/nomad/NZ/NZ26 (Routeburn specific)
- www.wikipedia.org - As usual, a good starting place.
- Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
New Zealand has a huge variety of great walks. There is likely to be a good walk within range wherever you may be. In Fiordland alone there are two further Great Walks:
Queenstown (nearby) is the self-styled adventure capital of the world: endless.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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