The Routeburn Track is a 32km walking track through NZ South Island alpine wilderness.
While you could get it done in less than 3 days, most walkers want to take their time and soak up the astounding scenery of this world heritage area.
The famous Routeburn Track links the contiguous national parks of Mt Aspiring and Fiordland – quite simple some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet and scenes that New Zealand is known for the world over.
What’s the best time of year to walk the Routeburn Track?
Only the most experienced of alpine walkers should consider the Routeburn track during the winter months and the surrounding weeks.
More specifically May to early October is considered out of season and the weather can quickly turn extreme. Avalanches are always a possibility at that time as well.
From mid to late October until near the end of April, the four huts for walkers along the Routeburn are serviced, and the weather makes it a safer and more pleasant time to be out there walking.
Naturally this also means it’s the season when the most people will be on the Routeburn Track. You’ll either be someone who wishes to completely avoid people, or you won’t mind the constant human activity. But during the summer at least, there’s very little choice – the huts are almost always at full capacity and there will always be people walking around and going to and from Harris Saddle for those great views.
Where does the Routeburn Track start and end?
The official beginning of the track is at the Routeburn Shelter, along the Route Burn river (from which the track gets its name; “burn” is an English word for a small river or stream).
Go to 314 Routeburn Road, Kinloch to get to the Routeburn Shelter.
The end of the track is at a spot called The Divide.
Obviously, you can walk the track in either direction. It’s just that the majority of walkers start from the Glenorchy side, and end at The Divide. But if you prefer to start at The Divide – go for it!
You can also alter your course and turn it into a circuit instead. At Lake Howden there’s an option to divert to one of two other tracks: the Caples Track or the Greenstone Track.
At Routeburn Shelter there are toilet facilities and signage including maps and information about the walk.
The name “shelter” is there for good reason – this site provides excellent shelter that you can use as needed before or after your walk.
Parking and Transport
There’s ample parking available at the Routeburn Shelter, even during peak season. This is also where you’ll be dropped off by your bus or taxi if that’s your mode of transport.
Where to base yourself for the Routeburn
Queenstown, Glenorchy, Te Anau and Wanaka are all gateways to the Routeburn. From there, you can either drive or take a shuttle bus to the start of the track.
Environments along the Routeburn Track
Visitors who haven’t yet explored much of the south island and mountainous areas that the Routeburn passes through can be surprised to learn that much of the track actually takes you through stunning thick rainforest.
Along with the stunning green rainforest parts of the walk, you do of course get to walk through alpine environments including the opportunity to enjoy spectacular views from Harris Saddle and Conical Hill from which you can see the water of Martins Bay.
Then, when you get to Key Summit you’re rewarded with amazing valley views of Greenstone, Eglinton and Hollyford Valleys.
Yes, as you would expect there is a good amount of ascending climbing sections along the Routeburn; you’re in the mountains after all. But the entire track is well graded and maintained and this does help offset the terrain difficulty.
Routeburn Track Huts & Camping
Because the Routeburn Track is an official tourist walk, all campsites and huts need to be booked in advance during the peak season – from late October to late April.
There are always rangers on duty at these sites, and they regularly check that the people staying at the facilities are the ones who have booked in and paid for those specific nights.
These are the four Routeburn Track huts:
- Routeburn Flats
- Routeburn Falls
- Lake Mackenzie
- Lake Howden
Cooking gas rings are provided at all the huts.
Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls are considered the two most popular; but as mentioned, you’re likely to find all the huts quite busy during peak season so strongly consider booking well in advance.
NZ residents get a big discount on hut costs compared to international tourists.
Currently it’s NZ$65 for locals, while tourists pay NZ$130 per night.
You can still stay in a hut outside the summer walking season – but facilities will be limited. You do not need a booking during that time (May to late October) and the cost is just NZ$15 per night for everyone.
Then there’s the option for camping, as an alternative to the huts.
You can camp at either Routeburn Flats or Lake Mackenzie for a fee of NZ$40 for tourists, and NZ$20 for locals.
Another option is to camp 20 minutes away from the Lake Howden Hut at Greenstone Saddle and that one is a free camping spot.
These are the only legal camping locations along the Routeburn Track.
You are not allowed to stay overnight at the track end shelters or at Harris Shelter.
How to book a walk on the Routeburn Track
Due to the increasing popularity of the Routeburn, way back in the mid-90s authorities decided that to prevent overcrowding and environmental damage, numbers of walkers would need to be controlled. This is done through a permit system, requiring you to pay a fee to access and walk the Routeburn Track.
You can reserve your spot by booking through the Great Walks website (greatwalks.co.nz), or by visiting a DOC visitor centre anywhere in New Zealand.