Routeburn Track of New Zealand: Picture Perfect Scenery

Routeburn Track is one of the most popular Great Walks of New Zealand. The track, located on South Island, goes through two national parks, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland. Usually finished in 2 nights/3 days, the 32-kilometre-long track is famous for the Harris Saddle section that offers magnificient views of Harris Lake guarded by rocky mountains.

Booking Routeburn Track

As also briefly discussed in my Great Walks overview post, Routeburn Track requires advance booking during the Great Walks season. The walking season starts at the end of  October and lasts until the end of April. Due to the limit on the number of hikers allowed to start the track each day (around 40), the huts along the trail get fully booked very quickly. However, even if you cannot get a place right after the opening of the seasonal bookings, usually in May, it is still worth checking the booking site periodically. Cancellations are fortunately not rare. I could get my booking for an early March hike in January. The bookings can be done online using the Department of Conservations Great Walks reservation website.

Hikers walking in Routeburn Track in New Zealand, one of Great Walks

There is no penalty and you get full refund if you cancel your booking within 24 hours. Beyond that short time frame, the cancellation fee is set as 10% of the total cost of reservation – up to 15 days before the hike, 50% – between 4 to 14 days before the hike, and 75% – between 1 to 3 days before the hike. You can check the terms and conditions on the DOC website.

I hiked Routeburn Track at the beginning of March, right after I finished Kepler Track. In terms of the availability of the huts, I had no other option if I wanted to both walks during the same trip.

While I was initially worried that it was an ambitious plan, I can now say that hiking Kepler and Routeburn Tracks back-to-back is perfectly possible. Both tracks involve some relatively short sections with many ups and downs but there are not any truly strenuous sections. If you are someone who regularly walks (not even hikes), you would probably not have any difficulties in doing the two walks back to back.

To minimize the challenge, I was very careful in terms of the weight of my backpack. Since I always carry a full frame camera and a lens (and a book, yes unfortunate but could never get used to Kindle), I never have enough room for other luxuries.

In addition to a lightweight cooking pot and sleeping bag, I packed food barely enough for two and half days (not recommended as adverse weather conditions may extend your hike), hut clothes (that you might need in case of rain), and an extra hiking shirt and socks. My multi-day hiking backpack is also very light, around 800 grams (though not super durable). I usually buy my hiking gear from Montbell, which can best be described as the North Face of Japan. Although I did not weigh my pack, it felt light enough (also confirmed by my trail buddies), and I felt very comfortable right until the end of the hike.

Where is Routeburn Track?

Routeburn Track is locatedon the South Island of New Zealand. The track can be walked in either direction. The eastern trailhead is next to Routeburn Shelter, an hour`s drive from Queenstown. On the western side, the trail starts at the Divide, which is closer to Te Anau (1 hour 15 minute drive).

While most people start at Routeburn Shelter and end the hike at Divide, both options require equally moderate level of endurance and are suitable for most hikers, including beginners.

Hiker looking out from a cliff in one of Great Walks of New Zealand

During my trip to New Zealand, I arranged all my track transportation with TrackNet. They are very experienced in Great Walks track transport, and their services, in addition to Routeburn, also cover Kepler and Milford Tracks. I particularly appreciated their responsiveness to emails and flexibility with last-minute schedule changes. 

Huts along Routeburn Track: Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls and Lake McKenzie

There are three huts and two camping sites along Routeburn Track. There used to be a fourth hut, Lake Howden, which was closed in 2020 due to a landslide that gravely hit the hut. DOC decided that it was not safe to rebuild it and closed it permanently.

While there are three huts, all open to booking (Routeburn Flats (also a campsite), Routeburn Falls (no campsite), and Lake McKenzie (campsite with limited capacity, nine tents)), most hikers stay at only two of the huts. Routeburn Track and Routeburn Flats, the first days night stop for hikers starting at Routeburn Shelter, are merely one hour away from each other. As a result, most people will stay at whichever one is available. As the name suggests, Routeburn Flats Hut sits on flat land in the valley with majestic views of the surrounding mountains. The more popular Routeburn Falls Hut, with a mid-size waterfall hiding behind, overlooks that same valley. I stayed at Routeburn Falls Hut but I would be equally happy staying at Flats Hut that I checked out on my way to Routeburn Falls Hut.

While Routeburn Falls Hut is highly praised for its hilltop location, the real prize of the track is the Lake McKenzie Hut. The hut, positioned by beautiful Lake McKenzie and a small pebble beach – is a perfect place to relax and even sun-bath on a sunny day. It gave me the feeling of a summer cottage. I was glad that I arrived at the hut shortly after noon and had plenty of time to enjoy a perfectly sunny afternoon by the lake. The turquoise waters, despite the cold water temperature, was inviting enough for many hut guests who brought swimsuits to take a quick dip in the water.

The route

Routeburn Track, 32-kilometer long, is not a very difficult hike. I ran into some people doing the whole track in 1 night/2 days. While perfectly manageable in a shorter time frame, I think 2 nights/3 days itinerary gives you more time to enjoy the beauty of the trail and appreciate the unique beauty of each section.

Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut – 8.8-kilometers 

If you start from Routeburn Shelter, the first day of the hike is fairly short. The section between the trailhead and Routeburn Flats Hut is entirely flat and takes around 1.5-2 hours. The trail, which goes through the forest, offers a relaxing start to this three-day hike.

Once you leave the Routerburn Flats Hut behind, the trail gets steeper almost immediately. This last section leading to Routeburn Falls Hut takes around one hour.

When I did Routeburn, the first day was very rainy with low visibility. But if you hike the trail on a sunny day, there is a short section on the way to the Routeburn Falls Hut that offers splendid views of the valley and the conical-shaped hills that the valley is home to. An iconic scenery that I wish I got to experience on a sunny day.

Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake McKenzie Hut – 11.3-kilometers

As is also the case for Kepler Track, the second day of the track is when you experience the scenery that makes Routeburn one of the most epic hikes in the world. The day starts with a climb up to the Harris Saddle and takes the hikers through a mountainous terrain that, with the mixture of endless greenery and the rocky terrain, reminded me of Scotland. While I have not watched the franchise, I suspect that this is also the part that gives the hikers the feel of the Middle Earth featured in the Lord of the Rings.

Mountain and lake scenery in Routeburn Track - one of Great Walks of New Zealand

Within an hour or two, you reach Harris Saddle  – a very flat, relatively narrow, and exposed section with mind-blowing views of Lake Harris. This exceptionally scenic section ends at Harris Saddle Shelter, a cozy wooden hut for short breaks (or overnight stays only in case of emergency). This is also where the trailhead for the 1-2 hours hike to Conical Hill starts. I did not do the side trip (as I read before that there were some sketchy sections towards the end). Instead, I walked back towards Harris Saddle to take some photos benefiting from the sun that only showed up once I reached the Harris Saddle Shelter. Some of my hiking buddies who hiked up to Conical Hill all agreed that the final part of the climb felt a little sketchy, required some scrambling and they did not feel too comfortable. 

Lake McKenzie Hut to the Divide – 12-kilometers

Once you leave Harris Saddle Shelter behind, the hike involves minor ups and downs until the final section, which requires a nearly hour-long descent down to Lake McKenzie. This section was almost as beautiful as the Lake Harris part and offered inviting views of Lake McKenzie. The second day of the hike requires 4 to 5 hours of hiking. Most people arrive at Lake McKenzie Hut early in the afternoon.

Women hanging out by lake in one of Great Walks of New Zealand

The third and final day of the hike that leads to Divide is also full of wonderdul scenery. The trail goes through mossy forests (that feel even greener than the ones in Japan) and passes by magnificent Earland Falls, which is 174 meters high. There are also sections along the trail that are exposed – due to landslides –  offering dramatic rocky mountain scenery.

Having done all three of the most famous Great Walks, I can say that Routeburn Track was the trail with the most picture-perfect scenery. The experience felt similar to some of the hikes in Switzerland where the landscape is invitingly beautiful and does not feel intimidating.

To put it in a better context, Kepler Track is the hike that really gave me the thrill of high altitude ridge walks whereas the scenery along Milford Track felt epic. On the other hand, Routeburn is where the nature made me feel truly welcomed.