Hike the Routeburn Track in New Zealand
The Routeburn track traverses 33km of Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks which are part of the Te Wahi Pounamu, South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The Routeburn Track is located in the south-west of the South Island and runs between the head of Lake Wakatipu and S.H.94 the Te Anau /Milford Road. Drive times to Queenstown or Te Anau are: 1 hour 45 minutes from Invercargill; 3 hours 30 minutes from Dunedin and 6 to 8 hours from Christchurch.
One start/finish point of the track is the Routeburn Shelter, at the Mount Aspiring National Park end of the track. It is 72km (1 hour 10 minute drive) from Queenstown via Glenorchy. The Divide, at the Fiordland National Park end of the track is the other start/finish point. It is 85 km (1 hour 20 minute drive) from Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound S.H 94 or 36km (30 minute drive) from Milford Sound. It is two hours by road between Queenstown and Te Anau.
Queenstown, Glenorchy and Te Anau have a full range of accommodation available. Queenstown and Te Anau have shopping and hire services to cater for all walkers' needs.
In pre-European times, Maori people frequently used this route during journeys searching for pounamu, or greenstone - which was much valued as a material for tools, weapons and ornaments.
The first Europeans to view the Hollyford Valley were Southland runholders David McKellar and George Gunn, who on June 9, 1861 climbed to the top of Key Summit via the Routeburn.
Early European surveyors, prospectors and explorers travelling from Lake Wakatipu to the Hollyford River and western valleys subsequently used the route.
In 1870 a bridle track was started to link Kinloch and Routeburn with the new Martins Bay settlement. However, failure of the isolated settlement and incorrect routing of the road meant construction ceased after four years. Tourism began in the 1880s, with visitors being taken into Routeburn Flats by horse and then guided on foot to the Harris Saddle.
The track follows close to a major fault zone which has thrown together both metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
During the Ice Ages, the last of which ended some 10,000 years ago, huge glaciers carved out the rock. The Hollyford glacier was so large it curved around the southern end of the Darran Mountains and flowed 50 kilometres north to Martins Bay. It overtopped the main divide at Key Summit and two lobes flowed to the south - one to Lake Wakatipu via the Greenstone Valley and the other to Lake Te Anau via the Eglinton Valley. When the glaciers retreated they left the distinctive U-shape main valleys, smaller hanging valleys, cirque basins and residual glaciers like Donne Glacier on the eastern face of Mt. Tutoko.
Beech is the dominant forest tree, with red beech around the start of the Routeburn Valley on sunny, frost-free sites. Mountain beech occurs at higher altitudes within the Routeburn Valley. Silver beech competes best on the wetter Hollyford faces along with broadleaf and fuchsia. A feature of the beech forest is the abundance of ferns, mosses, lichens and perching plants.
The track passes through several avalanche paths colonised by ribbonwood; one of New Zealand's few deciduous trees.
Above the bushline between Lake Mackenzie and the Routeburn Falls are snow tussock grasslands, and herb fields with mountain buttercups, daisies, and ourisias. Bog communities with sundews, bladderworts(Utricularia, commonly and collectively called the bladderworts, is a genus of carnivorous plants consisting of approximately 233 species), orchids, daisies and bog pine occur around tarns on Key Summit.
Riflemen, bellbirds, robins, yellow crowned parakeets, yellowheads, tomtits, fantails, kaka and wood pigeons are common bush birds. Towards evening, native bats and moreporks (small owls) may be seen and heard. Blue ducks and paradise ducks live in the valley. In the sub-alpine zone look out for rock wrens, New Zealand falcons and the mischievous mountain parrot, the kea.
Introduced animals include whitetail deer in the lower Routeburn valley, red deer throughout the forested areas and chamois about the mountaintops. Possums, hares, rats and stoats are widespread. Hunters require a permit before entering the parks.
Introduced brown and rainbow trout are found in the lower Route Burn and brown trout are present in Lake Howden. Anglers must hold a current fishing licence.
The rewards of walking the Routeburn Track are many. It is one of New Zealand's most popular tracks with approximately 13000 walkers completing the track each year.
Maori frequently used this route during journeys to collect pounamu/greenstone. The first Europeans viewed the track in 1861 and by 1870 a bridle track was commenced but never completed to link Kinloch and Martins Bay on the Fiordland Coast. By the 1880s the first tourist operations began on the track, taking visitors by horse to Routeburn Flats and then on foot to Harris Saddle / Tarahaka Whakatipu.
Today most walkers take 3 days (2 nights) to complete the whole track but longer or shorter options are available. A wide variety of native birds may be seen or heard along the track. Tussock grasslands, herb fields, beech forest and bog plant communities are all passed through on the track. Spectacular views of U-shaped and hanging valleys dominate the landscape as you pass numerous waterfalls and alpine lakes.
Any fit person can walk the Routeburn Track. You will need to be able to carry all your own gear over rough rocky uneven surfaces, climbing and descending for up to 12kms a day. It is an ideal trip for groups or individuals. It is suggested you start a regular walking programme 1- 2 months before your departure on the track. This programme should include some practice at carrying your pack on hills or stairs. The track can be walked in either direction and in conjunction with the Greenstone and Caples Tracks. You can walk the whole track or walk into one of the huts and return the same way, spend a single night at one of the huts; or stay up to two nights at each of the four huts or two campsites. The choice is yours. Booking is essential to guarantee your hut or campsite between November and late April. Outside this time during the winter season no bookings can be made and tickets for huts can be purchased from the Department of Conservation Visitor Centres just prior to departure.
It is recommended that children under the age of ten do not attempt the alpine section. Please discuss your intentions with our staff.
Make sure all of your party is capable of undertaking the planned trip, are fully equipped and prepared for all weather conditions.
For those not wishing to walk the whole track, Lake Howden and Routeburn Flats huts are ideal for a one-night Routeburn experience.
Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Parks have high rainfall and changeable weather. Unpredictable weather patterns mean that cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain, which can cause temporary surface flooding on the track, can occur at any time of the year. Be prepared for at least one wet day on your trip. Remember, exposure / hypothermia can affect anyone when the weather is wet, cold and windy. Be prepared with suitable clothing. Hypothermia can kill.
During the winter season (late April to late October) snow and avalanche danger can make the track impassable. Please check current track and weather conditions at the Glenorchy or Fiordland National Park Visitor Centres before departing on the track.
For your own safety it is essential to carry the equipment listed below, no matter how warm it is on the day of departure:
Most equipment is available for hire or purchase in Queenstown and Te Anau. A full range of food is available in Queenstown and Te Anau. Basic stores are available in Glenorchy and Milford Sound.
- You will need at least one set of clothes to walk in, and another dry set to change into at night. It is not possible to dry clothes overnight in the huts.
- Boots: need to be comfortable and well broken in.
- Socks: (wool/polypropylene) 2 pairs
- Shorts: (cotton/ nylon)
- Shirt: (wool/polypropylene)
- Longjohns or trousers: (wool/polypropylene)
- Jersey or Jacket: wool/polypropylene)
- Undershirts/ T-shirt: (wool/polypropylene)
- Mittens/Gloves: (wool/polypropylene)
- Woollen hat /balaclava & sun-hat
- Raincoat: (waterproof, windproof with hood)
- Extra socks, underwear, shirt or lightweight jersey.
- Warning - synthetic clothing is flammable.
- It is essential that this clothing is carried as your safety and the safety of others could depend on it.
- NB: cotton clothing such as jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts are NOT suitable.
- Pack: with large waterproof liner
- Sleeping Bag: good quality down or hollofil
- Matches/ Lighter: in waterproof container
- Torch: spare batteries
- Eating utensils: Knife, fork, spoon, plate, and cup
- Cooking utensils: pot/pan/billy, pot scrubber
- Toilet gear: soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, small towel (remember do not wash in lakes or streams)
- First Aid Kit: insect repellent, sunscreen, blister kits, pain relief, and assorted bandages
- Survival Kit: Survival blanket, whistle, paper, pencil and spare days food.
- Drink bottle: you need to drink regularly during day
- Optional extras: sunglasses, camera, and lightweight shoes for in hut, earplugs for communal bunkrooms
- Campers need to carry gas cookers, tents and bedrolls. Campers are not permitted to use the hut facilities.
- Outside the booked walking season walkers will also need to carry gas cookers and mountain radios.
- Is not available for purchase on the track.
- Food should be lightweight, fast cooking and high in energy value e.g.
- Breakfast: cereal, firm bread, honey or other spreads
- Lunch: cracker biscuits, cheese, salami, margarine, jam/jelly, powdered fruit drink, fruit
- Dinner: instant soup, pasta/rice, dried vegetables/fruit, cheese or dehydrated (freeze dry) meals.
- You will also need: snacks, biscuits, muesli bars, tea/coffee, powdered drink, emergency food in case of any delays on the track.
You will need to drink regularly while walking, even on cooler days, to avoid dehydration. You need to carry some water, as you may not be able to find any enroute. Giardia may be present in some areas. Regular testing is not carried out. If you wish to treat the water you can boil water for 5 minutes, use a filter, or chemically treat it. Drinking water at the huts and shelters comes from the rivers and lakes.
Please use toilets at huts and shelters. If this is not possible bury toilet waste well away from watercourses. Remember drinking water at huts and shelters comes from rivers and lakes.
Walkers are expected to leave the accommodation clean and tidy, and take their rubbish out with them.
There are four Department of Conservation huts on the track Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls, Lake Mackenzie and Howden Huts.
In the winter season huts are supplied with tables and benches, water supply, stove for heating in main hut and pit toilets.
In the booked walking season tables, benches, lighting, heating, cold running water and gas cooking rings are supplied in the main hut. Ablution blocks have flush toilets and wash basins.
In both seasons walkers sleep in communal bunkrooms, mattresses provided - no lighting or heating.
Conservation staff are in residence over the booked walking season. They are equipped with radios for use in emergencies and for weather forecasts.
Staying overnight in the shelters is not permitted on the Routeburn Track.
Facilities for guided walkers are not available to independent walkers.
There are only two sites on the track where camping is permitted Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Flats. The campsites have a cooking shelter, water supply and pit toilet. Campers are not permitted to use the hut facilities.
As this track is not a circuit track, plan your return transport options. Bus companies departing daily from both Te Anau, Queenstown and Glenorchy service both ends of the track. A list of these operators appears with the application form.
During the winter season there is no regular transport services to and from the track and walkers must organise all transport prior to departure for the track.
This Guide describes the track from east to west but it can just as easily be walked in the opposite direction from the Divide to the Routeburn Shelter.
During the winter and spring the alpine section is recommended for parties with alpine experience only. Snow can make the alpine section impassable and at times there is high avalanche danger. It may still be possible to take day-walks into either ends of the track.
The Routeburn Track can also be linked with the Greenstone or Caples Tracks. No bookings are required for either of these tracks. Bookings can not be made for the Greenstone or Caples Tracks - tickets need to be purchased from a department of Conservation visitor centre just prior to departure and walkers will need to carry a gas cooker.
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats Hut - 6.5km, 2 to 3 hours.
From the car park at the Routeburn shelter (458m) cross the swing bridge onto the well formed, easily graded track as it rises though red, silver and mountain beech forest. Past Sugarloaf Stream the track is a remnant of the old bridle path built in the 1870s and climbs directly to Bridal Veil Stream. The track then sidles above the Routeburn Gorge. A second swing bridge takes you back across the Routeburn River to the open grassed flats around Routeburn Flats Hut. Routeburn Flats Hut has 20 bunks and a camping area 5 minutes from hut.
Routeburn Flats Huts to Routeburn Falls Hut - 2.3km, 1 to 1.5 hours
This is a steady climb through beech forest crossing two swing bridges. The Emily Creek bridge is considered to be the halfway mark. Beware at this point as early and late season avalanches can fall as far as the bridge. Routeburn Falls Hut has 48 bunks.
Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut - 11.3km, 4 1/2 to 6 hours.
This sub-alpine section of track is very exposed and can be extremely hazardous in adverse weather conditions - be sure that you heed the advice of conservation staff in such conditions.
The track climbs steadily, following the Route Burn to its outlet from Lake Harris. A steep sidle through moraine and the bluffs above Lake Harris finally leads to the Harris Saddle/ Tarahaka Whakatipu (1255m) and the shelter. The shelter is available for day use only. Allow one or two hours for the climb. Sub-alpine herbs and cushion plants are a feature of the vegetation. These areas are very fragile so please keep to the track. A short climb from the Harris Saddle up Conical Hill gives superb view of the Hollyford Valley through to Lake McKerrow, Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea. Allow 1 to 2 hours for the return trip. From the saddle the track drops steeply down a gully and traverses along the exposed Hollyford face before descending onto a series of zigzags leading down to Lake Mackenzie Hut. Allow 3 to 4 hours for the descent from the saddle. Lake Mackenzie Hut has 48 bunks and 9 campsites 5 minutes from the hut.
No camping is permitted between Routeburn Flats and Lake Mackenzie.
Lake Mackenzie Hut to Lake Howden - 8.6km, 3 to 4 hours
The track crosses a small flat before climbing steeply at first until the bushline is reached. The track gradually descends past the 'Orchard', an open grassy area dotted with ribbonwood trees, to the Earland Falls. An emergency bridge is situated down stream should the falls be in flood. The track continues its gradual descent to Howden Hut, situated at the junction of Routeburn and Greenstone/Caples tracks. A campsite is situated at the Greenstone saddle 20 minutes down the Greenstone Track. Lake Howden Hut has 28 bunks.
Lake Howden Hut to The Divide - 3.4km, 1 to 1.5 hours.
The track climbs for about 15 minutes to the Key Summit turn-off. From the turn-off the gradual downhill walk to The Divide is through silver beech forest. The Divide (532m) is the lowest East/West crossing in the Southern Alps.
Overnight use of the Harris Saddle Shelter and track-end shelters is not permitted.
Day Walks/ Side Trips.
North Branch Routeburn 4 - 5 hours return. From the Routeburn Flats Hut cross the Routeburn River and follow The North Branch of the Routeburn through beech forest and tussock clearings. Good views of Mt Somnus, North Col and Mt Nereus can be had at the head of the valley.
Conical Hill: 1 - 2 hours. Follow the track from behind the Harris saddle shelter to the summit. Superb 360-degree views - Martins Bay and Tasman Sea to the west, Routeburn valley and Richardson Mountains to the east. For your own safety and to protect this fragile alpine area please remain on the track and marked route.
Key Summit: 30 minutes. From the turnoff between the Divide and Howden Hut a short climb rewards you with magnificent views of all the surrounding mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Please remain on the track, as this is a fragile alpine area.
For your own safety please sign hut books when you arrive. Know the symptoms of exposure. React quickly by finding shelter and providing warmth. If you become lost, stop, find shelter, stay calm and try to assist searchers.
- All native wildlife in the parks is protected. To protect ground dwelling birds no dogs or other domestic animals are permitted on the track or in the parks. All rubbish must be carried out of the parks.
- Fire is a major threat and open fires are prohibited - please use portable stoves for cooking.
- Smoking is not permitted in the huts and shelters.
- A permit is required before a firearm can be carried into a National Parks.
If you're hiking the Routeburn track unguided and under your own steam, you can book your accommodation on the Routeburn Track by visiting the Department of Conservation (DoC) website. Click here to go through to the DoC booking form.
Join a Routeburn Track guided tour
If you find the accommodation for the Routeburn Track is sold out due to high season popularity, dont' worry, it's not the end of the road. You can still join a Great Walks guided tour. See our adventure tours below that include the Routeburn Track, simply request a free New Zealand brochure or contact us now to chat about your trip options!
Active New Zealand trips that include the Routeburn Track:
Rimu Ultimate South Island Adventure
- 14 Days
- US$5,299 + tax
This is our signature adventure and a great, outdoorsy way to see New Zealand. We’ve been fine-tuning this perennial favourite since 1996 and it’s simply an awesome trip. You’ll explore the most beautiful, famous and little-known places in the South Island – up close and personal – with legendary hospitality and our unsurpassed attention to detail. For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5-day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Rimu’ is one of our more adventurous trips, but has options to suit a wide range of ages and outdoor experience. Typically, hikes on the ‘Rimu’ trip range between two and five hours to complete, with longer hikes available on the multi-day option. If you think you’d prefer a more relaxed pace and shorter one to three hour hikes, we recommend checking out our ‘Kiwi’ trip. Please get in touch with us if you’d like to chat about the various options.
Manuka Milford Hiking Adventure
- 14 Days
- US$6,199 + tax
If you wish to concentrate on hiking the iconic tracks of New Zealand and like your creature comforts, we’ve crafted this trip just for you. It has a strong focus on New Zealand’s natural history. Our guides have plenty of time to interpret the flora and fauna and explain the geological and social history of the areas you’ll visit. You also have the choice of a selection of the best day hikes Fiordland National Park has to offer, along with an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, or hiking the famous Milford Track in its entirety. The ‘Manuka’ really is hiking New Zealand in style!
Activity level: The 'Manuka' is an active hiking trip, but has options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Manuka' trip range between three and six hours to complete, with longer hikes on the Milford Track Guided Walk option.
Kiwi South Island Explorer
- 14 Days
- US$5,599 + tax
New to adventure vacations or not quite ready to hang up your hiking boots just yet? On this South Island walking tour you'll experience beautiful, famous and little-known places – taking plenty of time to explore along the way! For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5 day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Kiwi’ suits anyone who enjoys walking and likes to give things a go. The pace is flexible and relaxed with most hikes taking one to three hours to complete on well-formed tracks with some undulations.
Tui Essence of the South Island
- 8 Days
- US$3,999 + tax
This is an action-packed adventure where you’ll explore some of New Zealand’s most iconic and remote wilderness. It works well if your vacation time is limited, since you can fly from North America on a Friday evening, sleep on the plane, and be back at work ten days later to share your photos and stories on Monday morning. For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5-day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Tui’ suits people of a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience, particularly if you enjoy a variety of activities. Typically hikes on the ‘Tui’ trip range between two and six hours to complete.
Takahe Great Walks Discovery
- 5 Days
- US$2,999 + tax
Over five days you'll hike on three of New Zealand's nine 'Great Walks', all located in the Fiordland National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage area with mystical coves and dense temperate rainforest. This is a bucket list hiking trip where you need not forgo any creature comforts.
Activity level: The 'Takahe' is a hiking-focused trip, with options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Takahe' trip range between three and six hours to complete.