For a large portion of people, the idea of hiking conjures up images of wet socks, heavy backpacks and overtly practical outfits. This is all pretty close to the truth, but what’s undersold are the endorphins (they’re epic), the sense of achievement when you finally get to wherever your lugging said heavy backpack, nature pees and the feeling of basking in true wilderness. There are plenty of beautiful places to get your stride on through nature across the world, but to hike in New Zealand is to experience a place of other-wordly beauty.
For the yet-to-be-converted hikers amongst you, New Zealand and its lush, varied and trail-rich landscapes may just be your gateway drug. For already avid hikers, the New Zealand Great Walks are your wet dream – except you don’t have to wake up with sinking disappointment and your cat on your pillow. These tracks are as real as it gets, and there’s plenty of them, so there’s no better time to start planning your trip than now.
First, a little history. Kiwis (people from Aotearoa, New Zealand) love to go hiking – or tramping, in Kiwi-speak. New Zealand is filled with fantastic walking trails, which thread through its magnificent landscape, as well as backcountry huts maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) for hikers to hang their boots and rest their weary heads. It’s a national pastime now, and it all started back in the 1800’s. While Māori people had been walking around on two feet long before Europeans arrived, when the settlers did arrive and came face to face with the dense bush, they had to make a pretty rapid transition from horseback to foot.
Later, when deer and trout were introduced, folks went hiking into the hills to hunt, and to the rivers and lakes to fish. These days, tramping through nature is a popular hobby in New Zealand, and a welcome rewilding and unplugging from the human-made world. Of course, the world-class trails and huts make the whole multi day thing pretty easy – and those are just the standard walks.
Then, there are the Great Walks, which are aptly named and absolutely brilliant. The Routeburn track, of course, having been named one of the best walks in the world by Lonely Planet, is one of them.
What is a New Zealand Great Walk?
The New Zealand Great Walks are the country’s premier multi day walks – they explore the absolute gems of the country’s wild spaces. From fiords, glacier carved cliffs, native beech forest and soaring mountain ridges to coastal tracks and bubbling volcanic zones, the Great Walks are kind of like the wonders of the world, but in New Zealand, and exclusively on foot.
These trails are also more maintained than other hikes in New Zealand. They’re well marked and managed, and the huts are resort-like compared with some of the other backcountry huts you’ll find hiding in the bush and atop of mountains. Okay, maybe not resort-like, but they’ve got plenty of bunk space, are comfortable and most of them have fireplaces, cooking facilities, running water and flushing toilets. The Great Walks are popular, and for good reason, but the limited capacities of the huts and campsites means that even when they’re full, you’ve still got plenty of space to yourself when you’re out on the trails.
How many Great Walks are there in NZ?
There are ten, although one of those is really a Great Kayak – the Whanganui River adventure involves far more paddle-time than hiking time, but it’s an epic journey regardless. The walks range in length from 32 to 82 kilometers, and have both serviced huts and campsites along the way.
The hiking season is from November through to April, and for most of them, you’ve got to get in quick and book online a few months in advance. The majority (seven) of the tracks are in the South Island, which makes sense, seeing as it’s both the biggest and most sparsely populated island. These South Island walks range from deep rainforest to alpine and everything in between, and among them, the Routeburn track is the crème de la crème. It’s an insane odyssey of alpine ridges, high mountain lakes and mystical beech forest, and crosses two of New Zealand’s most spectacular National Parks: Fiordland National Park and Mt Aspiring National Park.
How do you get to the Routeburn Track?
Most people hiking the Routeburn track use Queenstown as their base – it’s about an hour from the Routeburn Shelter, where the track starts just outside of Glenorchy, and two and a half hours from the other end of the track, close to Te Anau. Queenstown’s got everything you need in terms of hiking gear, transport to the start and from the end of the track and supermarkets to stock up on scroggin (Kiwi-speak for trail mix).
If you’ve got wheels, you can drive yourself to the track start (either Te Anau or the Routeburn Shelter in Glenorchy depending which direction you’re planning to hike), but the Routeburn track isn’t a loop track, so you’ll need to organize a shuttle back to your car from the end of the track. Alternatively, one of the many shuttle operators based out of Queenstown can drop you off and pick you up at either end.
Aside from all the admin and logistics, Queenstown is also just a gorgeous spot and the best place to enter back into the world after a few days in the wild. The jewel of the south is tucked in under the mighty Remarkables range with more charm, cafes, restaurants and adrenaline-fueled activities than you can shake your itinerary at.
How far is the Routeburn Track?
The Routeburn track is the shortest Great Walk at 32 kilometers – if you don’t add on side trips like Conical Hill and Key Summit. The track can be done in either direction, starting at the northern Mt Aspiring National Park end of Lake Wakatipu (near Glenorchy) or on the Te Anau (Fiordland National Park) side, at the Divide, a few kilometers from Homer Tunnel towards Milford Sound.
There are three maintained huts along the way, and if you’ve never had a DOC hut experience yet, they’re one of the best ways to experience the true New Zealand. The huts are humble abodes, filled with bunks and gas cookers and wooden benches where endless stories are exchanged, and when you’re coming to the end of a day’s hiking, they’re the most welcome sight in the world. The huts on the Routeburn track are Routeburn Flats hut, Routeburn Falls hut and Lake Mackenzie hut.
On Day 1, the first hut if you’re walking from the Routeburn Shelter on the Glenorchy side (as most folks do) is Routeburn Flats hut. It’s only a couple of hours in from the Routeburn Shelter, so most people doing the walk in 3 days skip staying at this point for more than a cup of tea. Of course, if you have more than 3 days, by all means stretch your nature walk out for as long as possible.
The next hut, after the track climbs steadily through beech forest for about an hour and a half, is Routeburn Falls Hut. The Routeburn Falls hut has 48 bunks, and sits at the edge of the bushline with magnificent views and easy access to its namesake, the Routeburn Falls waterfalls.
The next day, the track leaves the Routeburn Falls hut and takes hikers on a solid 5 to 6 hour climb through wetlands and tussock (New Zealand alpine grass) flats. Walk along the bluffs above Lake Harris to Harris Saddle, and hurray! You’ve made it to the highest point! Crack open that third bag of scroggin, would ya. Harris Saddle is 1,255 m above sea level. There’s a wee shelter here, too, to hide from any unwanted weather and where a well planned, well deserved lunch goes down a treat with the views. For any keen beans who’re looking for a side trip, a steep climb from the Harris Saddle up to Conical Hill rewards with insane views of Lake Harris, the Hollyford Valley and out to the Tasman Sea. The side trip to Conical Hill is about 2 hours up and back to the shelter.
From here, the track heads back down from its highest point, and watch your step – the sweeping views from the Hollyford Face across to the Darran mountains are distracting when hiking, to say the least. At the end of this descent sits Lake Mackenzie Hut, greeting hikers with its promise of warmth and shelter, and shiny plastic mattresses have never felt so good. Both Lake Mackenzie hut and the Lake Mackenzie campsite have views down the Routeburn Valley, and are of course in close proximity to the beautiful Lake Mackenzie itself.
The next day, tackle the final chunk from Lake Mackenzie hut to the Divide. It’s about a 5 hour walk, with the trail climbing back up to the bush line before gradually descending to the Divide, and taking hikers past the impressive Earland Falls and down to Lake Howden on the way. This used to be the site of Lake Howden hut, but unfortunately it got destroyed in the storms of 2020. It was a dramatic time, with hikers having to be rescued from Lake Howden Hut by helicopters as floods swept in. So, no more Howden Hut, but everybody survived and the lake lives on. From here, the track climbs for about 15 minutes before reaching the Key Summit Track turn-off.
If you’ve still got gas in the tank for a side trip, Key Summit is a great option. An hour and a half return trip, the track climbs above the bushline for gorgeous views from the high point to the Darran Mountains and the Hollyford Valley.
From the Key Summit turn-off, the tracks winds down through silver beech forest to the Divide on the Milford Highway, which is also the lowest crossing of the Southern Alps at 532 metres. From the Divide carpark, it’s 85km to the lakeside village of Te Anau, which is waiting with pubs full of hot chips, cold beers and anything else you fancy to go alongside your well deserved pats on the back.
How long does it take to walk the Routeburn Track?
Most people walk the Routeburn track in three days and two nights, staying at Routeburn Falls hut on day 1 and Lake Mackenzie hut on day 2. If you’ve got wiggle room after the Routeburn track in your New Zealand travel itinerary, make sure to spend a night or two in both Te Anau and Queenstown, soaking in the alpine vibes and glorious views. This part of the world is not a place to be rushed through, but one to be marveled at, steaming mug, cold beer or walking pole in hand.
Can you do the Routeburn Track in two days?
Being just a short track (quality over quantity, after all), the Routeburn truck is easily done in one night. If you ask us, why hurry in such a beautiful place? But, if fast is your jam, most people stay at Lake Mackenzie hut, starting at the Divide and leaving the longer day with the climb over Harris Saddle to day 2. That way, you’ve eaten most of your food by the time you haul your backpack up to the high point and over the saddle.
Can you do the Routeburn Track in a day?
You can indeed – some people even run it, teaming up with a buddy to leave a car at each end. It makes for an amazing trail run but we reckon the Routeburn track is best enjoyed slowly, with plenty of time to stop and stare.
If you’re short on time, a popular day trip from the Divide is Key Summit, which rewards with panoramic views and can easily be squeezed into a day trip to the Sound. An easy day hike, the Key Summit track starts by following the Routeburn track for about an hour from the carpark at the Divide, then winding about 20 minutes through the bush up to Key Summit.
Another more challenging day hike would be to go from the Divide or Routeburn Shelter as far as Lake Harris and back , which is hella rewarding, but not for novice hikers. Whilst you miss out on the quintessential DOC hut experience, it is truly remarkable how high you can go in a day’s hiking – from the car in the morning, the top of a mountain saddle for lunch, and back to the car for sundown. Magic.
How difficult is the Routeburn Track?
The highest point at Harris Saddle is 1,255 m above sea level, which is a fair climb, especially if this is your first time scaling any kind of mountain. However, the walk is graded as Intermediate, which means it’s suitable for people with limited backcountry experience.
If it’s your first multi day hike, you may need to do some practice. Remember, what makes overnight hikes different is the fact that you have to bring all your food, which can be heavy. Fill your backpack and start pounding the pavements for a couple hours at a time a few weeks out from your hike, and you’ll soon be fit as a fiddle.
What is the weather like in New Zealand?
New Zealand weather is notoriously unpredictable, whichever season you visit. The Great Walk hiking season is from November through to April, which generally means warmer weather and fewer storms, but rain, wind and snow may still definitely be on the cards.
Seeing as you’ll be staying in a hut (or two) perched on a mountain on the Routeburn track, you’ll need to be prepared.
When can you book Great Walks?
Usually bookings open three or four months before the season starts, and it pays to get in early, especially for the Routeburn track. The great thing about pre-booking is that it gives you plenty of time to get excited, and start doing some research into the other amazing things that surround the trail – in this case, the entire South Island. While it’s the trails that bring hikers here, there are plenty of other incredible ways to experience New Zealand and get delightfully distracted. Te Anau, for example, close to the Divide where most people finish the Routeburn track, is the gateway to Fiordland and home to the stunning Lake Te Anau, as well as its own charming village vibe.
Then, there’s the mighty Mt Cook, grandmaster of the Southern Alps, the wild and rugged West Coast and the gorgeous mountain towns of Central Otago. We suggest giving yourself a solid few weeks.
What should I take on a Great Walk?
Ahh, the art of packing for an overnight hike. It takes a bit of practice but when you nail it…damn does it feel good. Basically, you need to pack everything you need, whilst still being able to carry your pack without pitching sidelong off the track. The DOC huts on the Routeburn track have bunks, mattresses, fireplaces, toilets, basic cooking facilities, lighting and cold running water (no showers, sorry). That means you’ve got to bring warm clothes, a sleeping bag, cooking gear and food.
With New Zealand being unpredictable at the best of times, and the Routeburn track no exception, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got thermals, a couple of pairs of spare dry socks, a waterproof layer and a warm beanie. Solid hiking boots will be your best friend on this hike, and if you buy new ones, make sure you give yourself a bit of time to wear them in. A headtorch is pretty essential, too. Once you’ve got your layers sorted, it’s time to think about food. This, again, is an art, with all sorts of different strokes for different folks. You can go for maximum efficiency and bring all dehydrated meal packs, or make a pack mule of yourself and bring extravagant dinners with all the bells and whistles. However you decide to dine in the wild, for heavens sake, no glass jars, and you may want to think about how that whole cabbage is going to feel halfway up the mountain trail to Harris Shelter.
People have been in the hiking game for a while, so there are a few good meal ideas for those who like a little more ceremony than pouring boiling water into a bag, but don’t want to lug tons up the mountain. Mainly, food that that doesn’t have a whole lot of water weight. Risotto is great; just add dried veggie stock, mushrooms and a few veggies before you hit the track, then cook it up when you’re ready. Wraps are always better than bread for lunches (already flat so it doesn’t matter if they get flattened), and cans of tuna are an all time favorite. Remember, there are no bins on the trail, so you’ve got to bring down whatever you take up.
What should I bring on the Routeburn Track?
The Routeburn track is an alpine hike and New Zealand’s weather is unpredictable, so it’s always better to be overprepared. You may want to invest in a pack liner or waterproof pack cover so that your gear stays dry if it rains. It’s like a raincoat, for your backpack. Sunblock, insect repellant and a first aid kit are also must-haves, with plenty of plasters if it’s been a while since your last hike. Copious amounts of scroggin always go down well at break stops, and a rubbish bag is important for leaving no trace.
Now for the fun stuff – the hike doesn’t count unless you gram it, so bring your phone or camera (with it’s own little waterproof pouch, obviously). A pack of cards is always a good option for nights in the huts, as is a book, but maybe leave the Luminaries at home and take something a little lighter to thumb through by torchlight.
Now, not to go all camp Mum, but you might want to do one last check before you leave the Routeburn Shelter – have you got thermals? Warm socks and a beanie? And most importantly, a raincoat? Perfect. You’re good to go.