The Routeburn Track is arguably the best backpacking trip in the world. With a diversity of glacial peaks, lime green hillsides, teal rivers, tall waterfalls, alpine lakes, steep mountain faces and deep green forest, the Routeburn Track delivers everything you could want from a hike.
The hike is a mere 20 miles which keeps your load light and your days enjoyable.
One great thing about the Routeburn Track is the facilities. There are sinks and toilets at every hut and campground. The huts even have full camp kitchens.
On a similar note, you will have to carry out ALL trash. Take note of this when packing and bring ziploc baggies for your trash. The distances and times I’ve included for each section are the times it took us. Note that if you are reasonably fit or walk at a moderately fast pace then you probably be walking at the lowest end of estimated times. We almost always hiked at the fastest estimated pace that the signs showed.
We camped at Sylvan Campsite the night before which is beautiful and is very close to the trailhead.
Related: Tips For Tent Camping In New Zealand
Part 1: Glenorchy to Routeburn Flats Hut
Distance and time: 6.5 km, 1.5 hours
There aren’t many better starts to a hike than this one. The first 1-2 hours are a low incline ascent to Routeburn Flats Hut. The trail starts in a lime green forest but soon the valley becomes narrower and you will be heading upriver, parallel to a perfectly teal blue river (is there any other color to New Zealand water).
While the trail may seem steep with your heavy backpack just think, it’s only gonna get steeper😊 When you reach all the signposts, make the 5-minute detour to see the beautiful views from the Flats Hut. It’s a great spot to grab some water or a small snack because the next part is the steepest of the whole track.
Part 2: Routeburn Flats Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut
Distance and time: 2.3 km, 1 hour
This section is the hardest part of the whole hike. It’s only a little more than a mile and takes an hour to ascend. I blame this partially on the heavy backpacks we were all carrying. The trail crosses many pretty swing bridges, some more trustworthy than others.
When you reach Routeburn Falls Hut, I recommend taking another water/snack break at the hut just to the side of the trail. The Hut doesn’t deliver the best views of the whole hike, however, there is a nice spot with benches next to the hut’s camp kitchen overlooking the canopy of the forest.
If I had hiked this in 2 nights, this is where I would’ve spent my 1st night. The benefit of this would be that you could take your time on the next two sections of hiking to Lake Mackenzie which is the most beautiful section of the Track. There is no campground here so if you are looking to do two nights on the track in a tent, you would want to camp at Routeburn Flats, which looked gorgeous.
Part 3: Routeburn Falls Hut to Harris Saddle
Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
Instantly the hike changes. You will start by immediately passing Routeburn Falls and as you crest the hill prepare to be mind blown.
You will have panoramic views of Routeburn Valley as well as the upper tier of mountains that you are about to hike through. This section truly feels like a fairytale, a real life Middle Earth.
For the next hour you will walk along a boardwalk, with a subtle incline, alongside lime green vegetation. Dramatic, steel colored mountains jut out of the lime green hillsides all around you and rivers wind through the plateau. This part reminded us a lot of hiking in the magical Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Related Blog: Hiking Isle of Skye
As you reach the river’s source, Harris Lake, the trail begins to climb over the final crest to Harris Saddle. When we hiked it, fog had rolled in which made the overlooks very dramatic however I wish we had been able to see the panoramic views of Harris Lake and the magical valley we’d just hiked through.
Now if you thought that part was beautiful, prepare yourself because the views are about to get even better. As you leave Harris Lake, the most incredible range of mountain peaks, the Darren Mountains, will come into view as well as Harris Saddle shelter. We took a nice long rest here to enjoy the completely mind blowing views.
Part 4: Harris Saddle to Lake Mackenzie
Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
Soak up that view at Harris Saddle as long as you can then begin the long descent down the Hollyford Face toward Lake Mackenzie. Still loving those views? Good, because you get to see the incredible views of the Darren range for the next 2 hours.
The section of the trail sidles along the mountainsides the whole way to Mackenzie. The trail weaves in and out of the mountain’s nooks and crannies, across bridges, next to beautiful waterfalls, and all with omnipresent views of epic glacier-covered peaks across the valley.
Though the descent is long, it is extremely steady. In fact, it’s such a slight incline, you’ll barely be able to tell you are descending, which is why I’d highly recommend hiking it this way.
When you reach a col and head up and over one last hill, you will be greeted with once again awe-inspiring views. Straight below you lies the vivid green, teal, and turquoise colors of Lake Mackenzie.
Lake Mackenzie is almost perfectly symmetric and is surrounded by deep green forest, steep jagged mountains, and a bright green estuary from glacier runoff. Personally, I think this viewpoint of Mackenzie is the greatest combination of waterfalls, mountains, forest, and lake I’ve ever seen (but ya know I’m just a mountain obsessed weirdo).
If you are doing this as a 1-nighter, this is the absolute best place to camp.
Lake Mackenzie campground is the most scenic as it sits right on the lake in the forest and there are sinks, picnic tables, and toilets. Lake Mackenzie is a really nice campground however it’s not next to the hut so you will not have the facilities that the huts do. On a clear night, you will be able to do some incredible stargazing.
Part 5: Lake Mackenzie to The Divide
Distance and time: 11.7 km, 3.5-4 hours
Finally, you will descend the easy trail to The Divide. You will get to see the Darren range in all its glory one last time and you’ll even have views all the way out to the sea.
When you reach the waterfall it’s only about 30 minutes to Howden Hut where you can rest.
Then, the final stretch is a quick hour or less. This part is kind of annoying because it gets really crowded really fast and you are transported away from your dreamland paradise back to the real world.
Soon enough you will reach the bottom and wish it hadn’t gone by so fast and also glad it’s over.
Things to know when planning:
Be sure to book tickets at a hut or campground early, these tickets sell out really fast. We had to book ours 4 months in advance.
You must pick up your tickets at a visitor center up to 48 hours in advance to the start of your trip. They can be picked up at the Queenstown or Te Anau DOC visitor center.
Plan your transportation. This is a through hike and it takes 4 hours to drive from one trailhead to the other (crazy right?!).
- Option 1) If you have 2 cars you can leave one car at one end but that’s a lot of driving.
- Option 2) If a member of your group doesn’t want to do the hike then they can just drop you off and pick you up at each trailhead.
- Option 3) is to schedule a shuttle to pick you up. There are a lot of these available.
- Option 4) just hitchhike to your accommodation if you’re comfortable with it (note: hitchhiking is very common in New Zealand).
Never backpacked before? Click here to see our pack list for backpacking the Routeburn Track
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Have you hiked this Great Walk, let us know in the comments below!