Photo: Naruedom Yaempongsa/Shutterstock

New Zealand’s Routeburn Track Is the Perfect Three-Day Great Walk

New Zealand National Parks Hiking Backpacking
by Mellisa Pascale Jan 27, 2020

The Great Walks are hiking trails preserved by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) that traverse some of the country’s most significant natural terrain. Winding through national parks, housing native wildlife, and hugging both sea and mountain, New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks are all multi-day adventures whisking hikers of all levels away into the wilderness.

As one of the shorter and more accessible of the Great Walks, the Routeburn Track is ideal for travelers with limited time or limited outdoor experience. I fell into this latter category when doing my working holiday in New Zealand, and Routeburn turned out to be a natural initiation to the backcountry. Bridging Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks northwest of Queenstown on the South Island, this trail’s 20 miles take you through hanging valleys, glimmering streams, and soaring ranges.

Night 1: Routeburn Falls

My first day on Routeburn Track is April 25, Anzac Day. Anzac Day memorializes New Zealanders and Australians who died in war, and that morning, as the track shuttle stops over in Glenorchy, there’s a ceremony being held outside. The sole other passenger disembarks and joins the service, and I carry on to the beginning of the track at Routeburn Shelter.

I’m here at the very end of the Great Walks season, which lasts from October to the last day of April, which is autumn in New Zealand. Clouds take turns blocking the sun, though I hardly notice these antics as the track’s start has me shielded under tree cover. Before long, the level ground meets an incline, and I’m on my way to leaving the forest canopy behind for much of the trek. Around 1:00 PM, I find Routeburn Falls Hut overlooking a valley, the flats at the base of the mountains golden in the now freed sun. Altogether, it took three hours of walking, which is about what DoC estimates for this stretch of the trail.

How did I get here?

During the Great Walks season, all hikers are required to have hut or campsite tickets to stay overnight on the tracks. These can be booked online or in person at a DoC information center. I acquired my tickets two months in advance, and availability was already tight. Give yourself even more time than if you have a specific time frame in mind.

To begin the track at Routeburn Shelter, I spent the night before in Queenstown and booked a Tracknet shuttle to the trailhead. You can also start on the other side of the trail at The Divide, in which case you would probably catch a ride from Te Anau. You can choose from a number of shuttle services during the season; or, if you rent a car, you can also arrange to have someone move your vehicle for you so it’s waiting at the other end. Easyhike is one of the companies that provides this service.

Night 2: Lake Mackenzie

At 7:30 AM on my second day, I wave goodbye to Routeburn Falls and begin the ascent to Harris Saddle, the track’s 4,300-foot pinnacle. This is easily my favorite part of the whole trail. The overcast sky lends an air of snowglobe-esque comfort at Lake Harris, whose steel waters sit undisturbed in a hanging valley. Much of the terrain is blanketed in tussock grasses, evoking shades of rust and gold. I attempt a side trip to Conical Hill, but the heavy cloud cover doesn’t indicate I’ll see much from the top, so I turn around.

On the descent from Harris Saddle, a steady patter gathers on my hood and pack cover, and I think I can make out some snow-capped tops peering back at me from the other side of the veiled valley. I arrive at Lake Mackenzie Hut in the early afternoon, claim a bunk, and take a short side trip to nearby Split Rock. Back at the hut, a few trampers are submerging themselves in the lake waters, a task that seems crazy given the fact that this side of Harris Saddle is not only more overcast but also much more frigid. I dig to the bottom of my backpack to get to a book and settle in for a relaxing afternoon at Lake Mackenzie.

What’s in a hut?

I stayed in the huts on Routeburn Track, though the Great Walks also have campsites available. Outside the hut, you’ll find stacks of muddy boots waiting for their owners by the door. Nearby, toilets are fed by running water during the Great Walks season. Upon entering the hut, there will be a kitchen/living area with gas stoves, sinks, tables, and a fireplace, as well as a separate bunk room.

You’ll need to bring a lighter and cooking utensils to use the kitchen stoves, plus your own eating implements, washing supplies, and a trash bag to clean up and carry out. Some oddball items that won’t see much use off of the trail, like pots and pans or a sleeping bag, can be rented from companies in Queenstown or Te Anau. For a comprehensive packing list, this DoC checklist is helpful.

Night 3: Lake Howden

On the way to Lake Howden, the track passes close by Earland Falls, whose mist joins with the already dripping skies. Fortunately, the walk is much quicker than expected, and I’m out of the rain and at the next hut by mid-morning. Here, a few trampers who started from The Divide have already beaten me, everyone shivering. I pass the afternoon meeting an assortment of walkers: a couple linking up Routeburn Track with Caples Track, a grandmother and young grandson spending time together before he goes back to school, and a family who ingeniously hauled a whole pizza with them.

Every night, the DoC ranger on site gives a hut talk, going over track etiquette and answering questions. Tonight, the ranger gives us a heads up to look out for a pack of runners tomorrow morning. The annual Routeburn Classic, a race from The Divide to Routeburn Shelter, is set to take place. She divulges that the record time of completion is two hours and 37 minutes, making what will ultimately be my 13 hours of walking seem pretty unimpressive.

What’s next?

In the end, the Routeburn Classic gets postponed due to inclement weather. Actually, the track has been closed between Routeburn Falls Hut and Lake Mackenzie Hut due to heavy snowfall and avalanche risk, so I’m lucky that it’s my last day. When I leave Lake Howden Hut, slush is falling from the sky, but when I gain elevation walking up Key Summit, a side trail, I find inches of white powder on the ground. Harris Saddle must be practically buried.

I take a short loop around the top before descending to The Divide, where I stamp my cold feet in a shelter and wait for the shuttle to take me back to Queenstown. The Great Walks season ends in two days. I’m wary of attempting a full track outside of the season — when it’s recommended that only hikers who are expert in navigating the backcountry take part. I thus content myself with day walks on Kepler Track and other trails until the end of my days in New Zealand. And, of course, I can’t wait to go back and add a few more layers of Great Walk mud to my boots.

Discover Matador