An internationally renowned and popular alpine crossing between Fiordland and Lake Wakatipu.
Much of the track is exposed to extreme, alpine weather conditions. Heavy, persistent rain is a common feature of Fiordland, and the exceptional views for which this track is renowned are by no means guaranteed.
The Routeburn Track is managed as one of the DOC Great Walks, and as about 7500 trampers visit the Routeburn Track over the Summer Season, it is regulated to control visitor numbers. Bookings are required for both huts and campsites. Camping is allowed at designated campsites only.
There are several side tracks that are well worth exploring if the weather is clear: Key Summit near the Divide and Conical Hill near Harris Saddle. After completing the Routeburn many trampers choose to return to Lake Wakatipu along the Caples Track or Greenstone Track. A guided walk is available.
Outside the Summer Season snowfall and avalanche danger make the track dangerous and impassable. 32 avalanche paths have been identified between Routeburn Falls Hut and the Earland Falls. Avalanche risks from melting snow often delay the Season's start, and ice axes may be required throughout November. However, the sections from Routeburn Shelter to the Routeburn Falls Hut and from the Divide to Earland Falls or perhaps Mackenzie Hut are clear all year. The Routeburn in winter or early spring is a highly worthwhile destination with alpine views that are unmatched by those of the summer months. Check conditions with DOC before departure. At this time, regular hut tickets may be used, and bookings are not required.
Camping is prohibited within 500m of the track except at the two designated campsites. During the Summer Season campsites and huts must be booked before departure. Trampers may walk all or part of the track and book any mix of huts and campsites accordingly, staying up to two nights at any one of these. Bookings for the following Summer Season open in July and are available through the Great Walks Booking Desk. Visitors to New Zealand are advised to book before departure or immediately after arriving in New Zealand. Booking requires payment of accommodation fees. Off-peak discounts apply during October, November and April, and family discounts are also available.
Trampers wishing to avoid the crowds and charges may wish to consider carrying a tent and investigating the numerous side tracks leading off the Routeburn. Land more than 500m from the Routeburn Track is fair game for camping. Outside the Summer Season, bookings are neither necessary nor available. Coal is delivered to huts at the beginning of the Season, so Off-Season visitors may not have any fuel for heating.
Public transport is available from Queenstown around the head of Lake Wakatipu to the beginning of the track. Transport is also available between the Divide and Te Anau or Milford Sound. Check transport details in Te Anau or in Queenstown at the Information and Track Centre before you depart.
The Routeburn Shelter sits on flats at the road end. The track, however, starts a few hundred metres before the shelter at a car park and information shelter on a grassy hillside clearing. This spot is naturally popular with sandflies, and is where transport will normally pick up and drop off.
Routeburn Shelter -- Routeburn Flats Hut: 1½-2 hr
Routeburn Crossing a bridge over the Route Burn immediately, the track follows the river and wanders through a tall, handsome forest of red and silver beech. Beyond the debris-choked Sugar Loaf Stream the track meets up with the wide old bridle trail. It follows this trail in a gentle climb before turning into the Gorge and crossing the deep, breezy gut of Bridal Veil Stream. The track winds comfortably alongside the log jams and boulders of the rough gorge as the cliffs tower high overhead. Where a sign indicates Sapper's Pass the track flattens off, the valley widening into forested flats (1 hr). Forge Flat is nearby, along a brief track to the left. This grassy spot by the river was the site of the blacksmith camp during the construction of the bridle track, and would be ideal for camping -- which is, of course, prohibited.
A bridge soon crosses to the forest on the opposite bank of the Route Burn and the grassy flats open out on the right. The track keeps away from the flats however, providing only intermittent views as the Routeburn Falls appear ahead. As the North Branch valley begins to appear, the track divides, leading straight ahead 5 min to the Routeburn Flats Hut, or branching left onto the hillside to continue on.
The hut and campsite sit on the edge of a very wide clearing of golden grasses marking the confluence of the two branches of the Route Burn. It is crossed by the Left Branch in the foreground, with the inviting valley of the North Branch stretching into the distance.
Side trip: Route Burn North Branch: ½ hr-5 hrs return
An easy but lightly used track leads along the smooth North Branch valley, providing a pleasant escape if you have some spare time. You can walk as long as you like on the grassy track, and camping is free and unrestricted. First though you must cross the Left Branch. This is a wide but smooth crossing right outside the hut in more or less knee-deep water. From there a vague trail cuts through the tall grass plain, sometimes dropping onto the river-bank, sometimes splitting and disappearing, sometimes crossing small side branches.
There is good camping after 20 min by two small waterfalls. A poled route commences, leading through the last of the flats as the ribbonwood, silver beech, and shield ferns close in. After a few minutes the track enters forest and climbs gently on a pleasantly unused, marked trail before emerging in the open space of an old slip. Dropping past a small, weedy tarn, the track wanders onto a long grassy plain that slopes gently to the river on the right. Cairns mark the way, as the track crosses a deep channel washed out of the alluvium and later follows a small creek briefly. Beyond another old slip are a few silver beech trees and some fireplaces left by previous visitors. Soon the track enters forest (1 hr from the waterfalls) on a rough trail. Opening onto the riverbed after a few moments, the track boulder hops over a strand of the river around a massive rock on the river-bank. Scrambling back into the forest, the track quickly emerges onto sloping grasslands that run out in the far distance beneath the white cap of Mount Somnus, where boulders clog the valley floor and the sides close in.
Routeburn Flats Hut -- Routeburn Falls Hut: 1 hr (¾ hr reverse)
Back at the junction the track crosses heaped scree and rubble under the trees before turning along the valley and climbing toward the falls and the Serpentine Range. The trail from here is narrower and rockier. Several small, bridged creeks tumble in stony jumbles down the hillside. Israeli Creek is soon crossed, followed by Emily Creek. This creek marks half-way on the climb to Falls Hut. Zipping under the loose rock of Phoenix Bluff, the track crosses a massive slip dating from January 1994. There are good clear views from here down onto the flats as they bend up the North Branch. The rocky track flattens off before clambering finally to the hut.
Routeburn Falls Hut - Harris Saddle Shelter: 1½ hrs (1¼ hrs reverse)
The hut sits at the bush-line on a rocky saddle where the Route burn commences its drop to the Flats below. The Falls have cut a small gorge at the back of the hut, leaving it balanced on a narrow rock ridge. The track zigzags over the barren landscape by the rumbling Falls and onto the isolated calm of a sub-alpine basin. From here and as far as Lake Mackenzie the trail is marked by red painted iron fencing stakes. The river meanders in long bends through the handsome, open herbfield hemmed in by steep bluffs. Grasses, daisies, gentians, hebes, spaniards and ribbonwoods all grow and flower here. Edging around the boggy basin in a long curve, a second series of falls come into view in the distance, and the track begins to climb on a narrow, rocky trail. This striking silver cascade marks the outlet of Lake Harris. The lake appears suddenly as the track climbs above the level of the lake and its low, natural dam.
The climb persists, leading higher and higher to surmount the tall bluffs that drop directly to the water's edge. The highest point of the track is along this section, with views down onto the beautiful lake and along the secret valley that feeds it. Yellow, white, and cream daisies decorate the landscape, where a gap appears to the left. The track crosses the Harris Saddle with little fuss and drops on a smooth track to the shelter located nearby amongst a few small tarns.
Side trip: Conical Hill Track: 1½ hrs return
A smooth side track is prominent zigzagging easily up Conical Hill behind the shelter. This track is deceptive as it quickly becomes an ill-defined chute when it slips out of sight. If the weather is clear the climb is certainly worthwhile, although the track becomes more and more vague as it mounts the sculpted rock forms of the hill. The summit, at 1515m, provides excellent views out along the Hollyford Valley and inland toward Key Summit. Disappointingly, you still can't see Lake Wilson, the 1434m high lake that feeds Lake Harris.
Harris Saddle Shelter - Mackenzie Hut: 2½ hr
As the gaping expanse of the Hollyford valley opens out to left and right, the track crosses over into Fiordland National Park. 1 000m below, the Hollyford River may be made out winding along the floor of its long north-south valley, with views out to the Tasman Sea in clear weather. The remainder of the track is dominated by this glacial feature. Clouds enshroud the beautiful forms of the mountains opposite more often than not, and the track is exposed to winds blowing along the valley, subject to heavy rain and low visibility. Despite the road winding along the valley floor, this is an isolated and dangerous area. Kea inhabit this environment and may be heard cackling overhead as they whirl on the updrafts.
Losing altitude as it sidles along the Hollyford Face, the track meets the Deadman's Track and levels off. This side track is marked by poles dropping directly down the steep mountainside to the tree-line. This route to the Hollyford Road is steep, dangerous, and slow going.
Eventually (1½ hrs) the track bends abruptly around some rocky outcrops and descends to a series of well-graded zigzags above the handsome form of Lake Mackenzie. Moraine blocks the drainage of the valley, and massive chunks of stone are visible piled roughly at the foot of the lake. The track enters trees and crosses the valley floor at the lake end soon after. The hut looks across the lake to a little island, while the campsite is located a few metres further along the track.
Emily Pass Track to the Head of the Lake: 1½ hrs return, moderate
There is little to indicate the existence of this side trail, but if you look around by the lake edge beyond the warden's hut you will find a series of orange markers entering the bush. The rough sidle next to the water's edge is often little more than the trail of markers, with frequent stops to struggle (if you are carrying a full pack) up and down awkward drops. At a bend in the lake the track crosses a flat promontory, on an easy and pleasant forest path. Hopping over a little creek and passing a massive rock split by a long vertical crack (worth looking into!), the track runs out abruptly at the water's edge. A few minutes wading along the lake edge will bring you to the sandy shore of the head of the lake. The wade is typically over waist-deep, but the rocks and grasses are slippery and total immersion is a distinct possibility. The reward for these efforts is a small grassy space suitable for private and free camping, a valuable luxury on the Routeburn Track. It is, however, a long way back to the hut toilet.
Winds blowing in from the Hollyford Valley are funneled along the lake, and blast the exposed flats. Also, the lake will rise substantially during heavy rain. If the weather forecasts are poor, you would be ill-advised to camp here.
Mackenzie Hut - Howden Hut: 3-4 hr
The campsite and the guided walks hut are situated at opposite ends of a small hebe covered flat. Beyond this the track climbs slightly and eases past numerous small falls on a rock trail. The Orchard is passed after ¾ hr. This is an open area with a tarn and scattered ribbonwood trees, that do resemble the trees of some abandoned orchard. The Earland Falls are not far away (35 min). These are spectacular in wet weather, and may become impassable. Beyond the Falls the track descends gently for 1 hour, soon crossing a small bridge. Another bridge is crossed over Pass Creek before the track turns onto the boardwalk over the fragile valley floor to Howden Hut.
The Greenstone Track begins here, leading south past Lake Howden along the line of the Livingstone Fault. It is 20 min walk along this track to a free camping area, and 45 min to the beginning of the Caples Track, making a worthwhile and easy side trip. Another track runs north from Howden Hut along Pass Creek, exiting after 1½ hours onto the Lower Hollyford Road.
Howden Hut -- Key Summit Junction: ¼ hr
A short climb through mossy beech forest and past outcrops of limestone leads to the Key Summit side track.
Side trip: Key Summit: 1 hr
A 10 min track zigzags through subalpine vegetation onto Key Summit (918m). From here there are excellent views north along the Hollyford Valley and southeast to the Greenstone valley, with McKellar Saddle and Jean Batten Peak visible. Views to the west are of snow-covered, glacier-carved mountains just a few kilometres away. The Milford Road winds through them hidden from view in the dark valleys.
The Key Summit Walking Track is a 30 minute loop track that begins here and wanders past tarns, and over extensive sections of boardwalk. You can collect an information sheet from the stand and read its comments as they correspond to the numbered pegs along the track.
Key Summit Junction - The Divide: 40 min
The track bends south to drop easily into the valley west of the Livingstone Range, occupied by the Hollyford Fault. It passes some steep falls, sidling through a mossy forest of fuchsia, ferns and beech before emerging at the Divide.
Outside the summer season, the track requires snow skills and presents avalanche risk. Grades explained
Bookings are required for huts and campsites during the peak season (October to April).
11 hr 30 min – 17 hr
2 – 4 days
Altitude change 1,850m
|From||Routeburn Shelter, head of Lake Wakatipu|
|To||The Divide, Milford Te Anau Road|