Routeburn Track: A glimpse into the 3-day adventure

The Routeburn Track (33km) is one of the Great Tracks of New Zealand. The original track took hikers over Mount Aspiring and through the Fiordland National Park and could be done in 2, 3, or 4 days.

The highlights of the track include dense rainforest, high alpine forests, thick moss-covered stands of trees, and rocks with incredible waterfalls, streams, meadows, and incredible mountain views. Earland Falls, Lake MacKenzie, and the Harris Saddle, as well as side-tracks, make this track a truly memorable experience.

The weather can vary greatly and always expect rain even if it is not in the forecast. The Fiordland National Park receives 200+ days of rain annually. The driest season being November to the end of April. Bookings can be made from the end of June (although the exact dates change yearly). The trail books up quite quickly, so early reservations are recommended.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains the track well. However, there are rocky, rooty, and slippery sections with big step-downs and steep inclines; often, there is flooding near MacKenzie Hut and between the Harris Saddle and Routeburn Falls Hut. Always be prepared for wet feet and flooding.

During the tracking season, the Department of Conservation huts are basic, well serviced, and offer gas stoves for cooking, coal stoves for warmth and drying in the common areas, but little to no heat in shared sleeping quarters. The bunk pads are comfortable, close together with storage underneath, but don’t expect much privacy. With up to 20 bunks in one room, body heat does increase the sleeping quarter’s temperatures. The bathrooms are all spotless, stocked, and well lit.

Routeburn Return reservations and hut-stays are processed through the Department of Conservation. There are various fees for both. Expect higher costs if you are an international traveler.

There is an option for a more luxurious experience. It is quite a bit more expensive. Still, it includes transportation from Queenstown, two-night accommodation in a private lodge, all meals and snacks, 40ltr backpack for your personal belongings, experienced guides, and a 15min helicopter ride!

Our Routeburn Track adventure started on December 2, 2019, at the Divide Shelter in Fiordland National Park. The night before we stayed in Te Anau, we woke up early to drive 2 hours to the park for the Milford Sound Cruise (a must-do) before starting our track mid-day.

Day 1 – The Divide Shelter to MacKenzie Hut (12km)

(The section from The Divide to Howden Hut is now closed).

By the time we arrived at the Divide Shelter and Car Park, it was mid-day, sunny, and warm. Our packs were heavy as we started up the well-maintained track through a rainforest with creeks, and waterfalls. As we gained elevation, the views became more spectacular, the ecosystem transformed into a high alpine environment, and the weather turned cloudy with rain showers. The most impressive sight in this section was Earland Falls. With all the rain, it was extremely swollen and spectacular. (caution: spicy language in the video)

After Earland Falls, we were pumped, on high-alert, and psyched to continue our climb. We found ourselves in high-meadows of short shrubs with small white flowers, moss-covered trees, and colorful rocks of purple, green, and blue. The views were short-lived as clouds now covered the peaks.

The Key Summit is a side-hike that adds roughly 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how far you venture on the trail. Several tarns adorn the path around the Key Summit and offer reflections on a calm day.

We passed Howden Hut and a few backpackers along the way. We crossed bridges, hiked down into ravines, and along ridgelines. Finally, just as the rain was picking up in intensity, we arrived at the Lake MacKenzie Hut wet, hungry, and very happy. I have never been so delighted for hot water and dehydrated Thai Curry!

The temperature dropped, and the rain increased while we were at the Lake MacKenzie Hut. In the evening, the Hut Master spoke to the group sharing critical information about trail conditions and the weather report. The weather did not look good, and there was a threat of snow. If heavy snow, the track will be shut down due to dangerous conditions.

Day 2 – Lake MacKenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut (11.3 km)

The rain continued all night and into the morning. At the morning Hut Master meeting, we were informed that the lake had significantly flooded overnight. The original track was under water. An alternative route had been marked, and it would be wet, rugged, and slow going.  Within:10 minutes of leaving the hut on the alternative route, we were wading, slipping, and splashing through mid-thigh, cold, rushing water. Our goal was not to fall and keep our backpacks out of the water.

With wet, soggy socks, squeaky shoes, rain-soaked gear, and 50lbs packs, we ventured into an enchanted forest with thick moss-covered trees and stumps, large colorful boulders, murky pools, and lush plant life. I expected to see Yoda peek around a tree at every turn.

The track started to ascend an exposed mountainside. The incline continued for a couple of hours, crossing small bridges, swollen creeks, and waterfalls, swampy sections, and mud. The wind was blowing, and we were soaked to the bone. We stopped for a short time to take in the view and gaze at the hundreds of waterfalls around us. It was a spectacular scene, but we had to keep moving. Deep thoughts of hypothermia moved us faster toward Harris Saddle. We were so happy to summit the saddle finally and took shelter in the day-hut for a brief time to change out of our wet clothes and eat some food.

Day 2 view of Lake MacKenzie Hut from the track above.

Day 2 view of Lake Harris near the Harris Saddle.

Harris Saddle to the Routeburn Falls Hut was mostly socked in as we hiked into the valley. The rain was heavy, and we feared the cold temps would bring on the snow, so we kept our pace. I stopped briefly to snap a few shots of Lake Harris and the river along the way. I was impressed with the condition of the track and the many built-in stairs that made the trail easier to navigate.

The river was loud and swollen. We saw the Routeburn Falls before we found the hut, and the Falls were massive and torrentially beautiful. I can only imagine what the CFS (cubic feet per second) measured at the heart of the falls. It was heart-stopping to watch. The Routeburn Falls Hut is perched on a cliff with a massive deck and incredible views. The wind does whip through, but gorgeous. We found our bunks and were happy to see drying racks next to the hot coal-burning stove in the common area.

We dried out as best we could and feasted on our dehydrated dinner and sweet snacks. At dark, it was time to hunker down in our bunks and sleeping bags with our headlamp and a good read. I slept soundly that night despite the torrential rain and winds.

Day 3 – Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter (8.8km)

It was bittersweet leaving the Routeburn Falls Hut in the rain. The track was in great shape, downhill, and we had a feeling this day would go quickly despite the weather. The views of the Routeburn River and valley floor were magic with the towering mountains, low lying clouds, and deep green forest. We suspected the mountain peaks had snow, but could not see them for the clouds.

Our Backpacks were lighter, so we moved faster. I was looking forward to dry-clothes and our Airbnb in Queenstown, but it was also sad that this incredible adventure was coming to an end.  The Routeburn experience had brought Jeff and me together as a team.  At different times along the way, we had to lean on each other and work together. We were leaving the Routeburn track with a better sense of our relationship, how to have fun in adversity and what we can accomplish when we work together.

We found out later that the Department of Conservation closed down the Routeburn Track a few days after we finished because of the weather and snow.

A good reminder that Mother Nature is in charge and if the Routeburn Return sounds like an adventure you would like to do, you must be prepared and ready for anything.

We can chat more about this experience and what I would recommend if you would like to include such an adventure in your next New Zealand Vacation. New Zealand Travel Solved can make this magic happen for you!

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