Routeburn Track of New Zealand: Picture Perfect Scenery

Routeburn Track is one of the most desired Great Walks of New Zealand. The track, located in South Island, goes through two national parks, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland. Usually finished in 2 nights/3 days, the 32-kilometre long track is particularly famous for the Harris Saddle section that offers otherworldly 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 not rare and I could get my booking for 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

In the event you need to cancel your booking (as I had to do for my earlier booking due to the delay in visa processing), there is no penalty if you cancel within 24 hours. Beyond that point, the cancellation fee is set as 10% of the booking fee if done at least 15 days prior to the starting day of the hike, 50% if done within between 4 to 14 days prior to the hike, 75% if done between 1 to 3 days prior to the hike. You can check the terms and conditions at DOC website.

I hiked Routeburn Track in the beginning of March, right after I finished Kepler Track. The only booking dates available for both tracks required me to do the two hikes back-to-back. While I was initially worried thinking it would be a challenging endeavor, I can now say that hiking Kepler and Routeburn Tracks back-to-back is perfectly possible. While both tracks involve some ups and downs, there are not any very strenuous sections. I am a relatively experienced hiker – as a person living in a very hiking friendly country, Japan – but I am not exceptionally strong, just slightly above average, yet I did not have any difficulties.

I was, however, very careful in terms of the weight of my backpack. Since I carry a full frame camera and a lens, I unfortunately do not have much room for 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 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), I felt quite comfortable right until the end of the hike.

Where is Routeburn Track?

Routeburn Track is located in the South Island of New Zealand. The track can be walked in either direction – the eastern trailhead is located at Routeburn Shelter – which is an hour drive from Queenstown whereas the western trailhead is at the Divide, which is closer to Te Anau requiring a 1 hour 15 minutes 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 the hut and closed it permanently. While there are three huts – 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 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 valley. I stayed at Routeburn Falls Hut but I would be equally happy staying at Flats Hut that I visited for a short snack break.

While Routeburn Falls Hut is highly praised with its hilltop location, the real prize of the track is the Lake McKenzie Hut. The hut, positioned by beautiful Lake McKenzie and 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 and was glad that I arrived there shortly after noon to enjoy a perfectly sunny afternoon by the lake. The turquoise color lake, despite the cold water, was still 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 give you more time to enjoy the beauty of this track and appreciate 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 fairly flat and takes around 1.5-2 hours. The trail, which goes through forest, offers a relaxing start to this three day hike. The section between Routeburn Flats and Routeburn Falls Hut requires a steady climb for around one hour. While it is a relatively steep hike, the most demanding sections last for 15-20 minutes.

When I did Routeburn, the first day was very rainy and there was low visibility. But if you hike the trail on a sunny day, there is a 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. Quite an iconic view that I wish I got to experience on a sunny day.

Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake McKenzie Hut – 11.3-kilometers

As it is also the case for Kepler Track, the second day of the track is when the trail shows you why Routeburn is considered to be one of the most epic hikes in the world. The day starts with a climb up to Harris Saddle taking 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 series, I suspect 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 section  – a very flat, relatively narrow and exposed section, which offers mind-blowing views of Lake Harris. The section ends at Harris Saddle Shelter, -a cozy wooden hut for short breaks or overnight stays only in case of emergency and a great place to take a break. This is also where you can take opt for the 1-2 hours hike up to Conical Hill. I did not do the side trip, and instead 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 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 exciting views of Lake McKenzie, which looked like an oasis. The second day of the hike requires four to five hours of hiking and you will most likely want to arrive at Lake McKenzie Hut early in the afternoon to enjoy the scenery and hang out at the beach.

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 also felt very special. The hike goes through mossy forests, that felt 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 often cloudy yet very dramatic views of the rocky mountain range. 

Having done all three of the most famous Great Walks, I can say that Routeburn Track felt like the one offering the most picture-perfect scenery. The track and the scenery felt similar to some of the hikes in Switzerland  where the scenery is very invitingly beautiful and do not feel intimidating (which in my view is not necessarily a bad thing to feel about a hike/scenery (who does not love Norway?). To put it in a better context, Kepler Track is the hike that really gave me the thrill of high altitude ridge walk whereas the scenery along Milford Track felt very dramatic and majestic. Routeburn, on the other hand, made me feel being embraced by a very approachable yet still exceptionally beautiful scenery.