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Friday, May 24, 2013

     The Routeburn Track is an epic alpine walk taking you through two national parks, Fiordland and Mount Aspiring, within South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. It is a moderate 32 km, 3-4 day track weaving through astounding amount of breathtaking landscapes. Emerging from pristine rain forest, it climbs alongside reflective lakes and alpine gardens above the bush line to the mountain pass and all the way to the Harris Saddle, the highest point on the track. As you traverse The Southern Alps, the track offers stunning views of the valleys, rivers and fjords below opening up to the ocean on the horizon. It then descends back to picturesque valleys and meadows along the turquoise Route Burn River before it comes to Routeburn shelter where it finishes. The first people in the Routeburn area are believed to have been ancient Maori who were travelling between the Dart Valley and the Arahura River on the West Coast on the pursuit of the precious New Zealand Greenstone. Construction of the track, however, wasn't completed until the late 1930s.


     The Routeburn track, 32 km, 3-4 day track between the Routeburn shelter on the east and The Divide on the west can be walked in either direction. The Routeburn Track is located in the southwest of the South Island where it traverses Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. The trip can be extended by also staying at the other huts and made into a circuit by linking with the Greenstone and Caples Tracks, which starts and finishes near the Routeburn Shelter. Access to the Routeburn Track is by road, however, the road distance between each end of the track is 350 km, so transport will have to be arranged from both ends. Tracknet provides excellent Routeburn track transport options. Between Te Anau and the Divide they travel up to 4 times a day (twice a day from Queenstown), and between Queenstown and Routeburn shelter twice a day. You can even access the Divide from the Milford Sound and Hollyford track, and join all these walks into multi-day adventure. Other private shuttle companies offering transport to and from Routeburn track include Buckley Transport and Kiwi Discovery, or you can use Trackhopper, the original car relocation company. 


     On the Routeburn Track there are four huts (from west to east: Lake Howden Hut, Lake Mackenzie Hut, Routeburn Falls Hut and Routeburn Flats Hut) and two campsites (Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Flats). Camping outside the designated campsites is not permitted. The Routeburn Track huts and campsites are very basic and only offer the facilities you really need: campsites include toilets, a water supply, picnic tables and cooking shelters. The huts have bunks, mattresses, heating, toilets, basic cooking facilities, solar powered lighting and cold running water. A DOC ranger is in residence from November to April. Bookings are essential during the Great Walks season. Routeburn track huts and campsites can be booked in advance via DOC website. If you start walking before 12pm, usually booking two nights is sufficient, however if you want to enjoy the scenery and longer stay especially near Lake Mackenzie or Routeburn Falls area, 3 nights are recommended:
  • Lake Howden HutThis is the first hut on the track if you walk west to east. It is located in a beautiful settting near Lake Howden at the junction of Routeburn and Greenstone/Caples Tracks, which is about 15mins walk from the Key Summit turn-off and about 1.5 hours walk from the start of the track at the Divide on Milford Road.
  • Lake Mackenzie Hut and Campsite: The second hut and the first campsite (capacity 9 tents, 20 campers) near spectacular Mackenzie Lake, about 6 hours walk from the Divide.
  • Routeburn Falls HutThis is the third hut on the track, or the second hut (4 hours walk) if you walk from the Routeburn Shelter, offering fabulous views over the Route Burn valley and Humboldt Mountains.
  • Routeburn Flats Hut and CampsiteThis hut is the first hut (2 hours walk) on the Routeburn Track from the Routeburn Shelter, Mt Aspiring National Park. It offers lovely views across the Route Burn valley floor, and makes a great day walk or easy first night stay on the Routeburn Track.


     The Routeburn track is one of the most popular and the most easily accessible Great Walk, so walking outside of the main season is recommended for experienced walkers, with the best months being April-May and October-November. It does get colder during these months with the average day temperature around 12 degrees and the  night temperatures falling to zero, and you have to be prepared for all types of weather. Always check the latest weather forecast for the Fiorland and Aspiring National Park. The Routeburn track stays open during the winter months and if you have the right gear and winter alpine hiking experience including the experience with understanding avalanche conditions, it would be a trip to remember.

Track Notes

DAY 1: The Divide to Lake Mackenzie (12km, 7 hours)

     We arrived at the Divide at about 10am after taking the morning shuttle from Te Anau with Tracknet company. After 3 days of torrential rain on Milford Track, the weather forecast was promising three clear sunny days and we couldn't wait to spend them above the bush line on one of the finest alpine walks in New Zealand. We had a long day in front of us walking up all the way to Lake Mackenzie. From the Divide on the Milford Highway, which is the lowest crossing of the Southern Alps in New Zealand at about 530m, the tracks climbs steadily through very pleasant silver beech forest to the Key Summit Track turn-off. This part of the track really shows the Fiordland rain forest at its very best. 

     From the Key Summit turn-off after about 2 hours we descended to the Lake Howden and the first hut on the track. Lake Howden sits at the junction of the Routeburn and Greenstone/Caples Tracks which offer wonderful side trips or circuit walk after linking with Routeburn track. After enjoying a well deserved lunch we continued up until we arrived to the magnificent Earland Falls (174 m). From the falls we ascended to the ‘Orchard Garden’, an open grassy area dotted with ribbon wood trees. 

     The sun on a clear day and during the summer months can be quite strong even in Fiorland and fairly exhausted after 7 hours of mostly uphill walk we finally arrived to spectacular Lake Mackenzie campsite, our first overnight stop.

DAY 2: Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Flats (11.3km, 7 hours)

         The next morning we were quite excited to see a clear sky and couldn't wait to ascend above the tree line and start the alpine traverse to the Harris Saddle. From the campsite a zigzag climb led us high above Lake Mackenzie to the top of the ridge from where we started the traverse of the exposed Hollyford Valley face. 

     This section of the Routeburn track taking up to 5 hours to reach the Harris Saddle is very exposed and can become pretty unpleasant during adverse weather conditions since. Since we were blessed with the finest weather you could possibly imagine in Fiordland, the alpine views from this side of the mountain were just breathtaking - we could see the river and the valleys below all the way to the fjords opening up to the ocean on the horizon.

     At about 1pm we reached the Harris Saddle (1255m), the highest point of the track and the boundary between Mt. Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park. We continued to the Lake Harris and started our steep descent via moraine near the outlet of the river down to the Routeburn Valley. The views that were unfolding in front of us were simply stunning. It took us about two hours to descent to the Routeburn Falls Hut, and another hour and a half to Routeburn Flats campsite. The track between Routeburn Falls Hut and Routeburn Flats campsite is mostly downhill through beech forest crossing two Swing bridges and a recent massive land slide.

DAY 3: Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Shelter (6.5km, 2 hours)

Descent to the Routeburn Valley
   The next morning we returned from the camping area back to the junction with Routeburn Flats Hut track and continued left across open grassed flats to the first swing bridge across the Route Burn River. Even though during the last two days we've passed through some of the best alpine scenery we've ever seen, this last part of the track stayed most in our memory. There was something very magic about this narrow path meandering through beautiful beech forest along the dramatic turquoise stream and above the Routeburn Gorge. After about 2 hours of quick mostly downhill hike we arrived at the Routeburn shelter just in time to catch the pre-arranged 10am shuttle to Queenstown. Even though it was the busiest track we've done having to pass a few guided tours, the clear weather, incredible alpine scenery and quiet nights at Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Flats, as well as walking from the west rather than from the Routeburn shelter and not staying in the huts with most of the people, made this our favourite track in Fiordland.


Useful Links

Further information and bookings visit the Great Walks website or contact your nearest DOC Visitor Centre for further information and bookings.

P: 0800 NZ GREATWALKS (0800 694 732)

E: greatwalks@doc.govt.nz
W: greatwalks.co.nz


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