The Routeburn Track is a point-to-point trek that begins near Glenorchy and finishes at the Divide along the scenic byway to Milford Sound. There is a diverse variety of scenery along this track, and hikers will enjoy fantastic views into both Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordlands National Park. This 32-kilometer trek is shorter than the two other nearby Great Walks, Milford and Kepler, and it can therefore be finished in less time, typically three days. The description below covers the standard east-to-west route in three days while staying in the two main huts along the trek.
This hike is one of the ultimate alpine experiences in New Zealand. The Routeburn Track leads up through expansive meadows and past jewel tarns, open vistas, and waterfalls. The spectacular views of the Southern Alps on the far side of Harris Saddle are some of the best in Fiordlands. Any traveler touring the South Island would be missing quite a lot without touring this Great Walk. Note that the logistics involved in planning this trip can be more difficult than the trip itself, so becoming familiar with reservations, transportation, lodging and packing is strongly recommended; you can read more about Great Walks logistics here.
There are a variety of ways to deal with the logistics of this one-way trek, but the recommended solution would be to leave your car at the Divide at the end of the trek the day before you start and take a bus to Queenstown to spend the night. The following morning, take a different bus from Queenstown through Glenorchy and to the trailhead to begin your journey. It is also possible to arrange transportation by taking the bus at the end of your trek, but this severely limits your freedom to go at your own pace.
Stepping off the bus at Routeburn Shelter, the first 6.5 kilometers proceeds toward Routeburn Flats Hut. Take the gently undulating path along the clear blue Routeburn River up through a steep gorge. Pass Bridal Veil waterfall, proceed over a swing bridge, and walk through grassy meadows to get to Routeburn Flats Hut. After a short break, continue up the steep 2.3 kilometer stretch that leads through beech forests toward Routeburn Falls Hut, and look for occasional views of the Humboldt Mountains.
The Routeburn Falls Hut has an excellent view of the valley right at bushline next to the impressive Routeburn Falls. As opposed to the Routeburn Flats Hut, the Routeburn Falls Hut makes for an excellent launching point to attack the climb to Harris Saddle the following day.
The walk from Routeburn Falls Hut to your next stay for the night, Lake Mackenzie Hut, takes 11.3 kilometers and involves the Harris Saddle crossing and a long, steady descent along the Hollyford Face. Start your day by climbing out of the bushline through wetlands and alpine tussock, and keep an eye out for the alpine kea that love to frequent this area. After a short climb the trail hugs a bluff alongside Lake Harris, which may prove challenging for anyone afraid of heights.
Harris Saddle sits at 1,255 meters and offers incredible views of the Darren Mountains, which are covered in glaciers and snow year round. If you have the energy, the extra walk up to the top of Conical Hill takes around two hours and is quite steep, but it offers views of the entire Darren Range and up the valley to the Tasman Sea.
The descent from Harris Saddle is long and gentle and proceeds along the Hollyford Face the whole way. Lake Mackenzie, nestled between mountains and rainforest in spectacular fashion, presents herself rather suddenly as the route rounds a corner.
Lake Mackenzie to the Divide is approximately 12 kilometers, but make sure to save energy for the final side trip of the Routeburn Track near the end of your day. Start by climbing back to bushline after crossing a small grassy plain. Once at bushline, the trail gradually descends toward "the Orchard," which is an open grassy area nestled in the trees that makes for an excellent picnic. The trail continues on to Earland Falls, which drops 174 meters from snowmelt higher on the mountain. From Earland Falls, the trail drops toward Howden Hut, which is 8.6 kilometers from where you started at Lake Mackenzie.
After Howden Hut, the Divide awaits only 3.4 kilometers away; After climbing about 15 minutes, however, you'll have the option for the 1.5-hour side trip to Key Summit, which is highly recommended for the alpine tarns, informative signs, and open views of the surrounding peaks. The trek finishes gently downhill from here through silver beech forest. The Divide sits at 532 meters, making it the lowest crossing in the Southern Alps.