New Zealand hiking at its best | The Routeburn Track (South Island)
Whilst spending a week in New Zealand for a wedding, I was invited to trek (referred to as ‘tramp’ in NZ) the world-renowned Routeburn Track. Located in the South Island of New Zealand, the Routeburn Track is a 40km one-way trail, linking Fiordland National Park with Mount Aspiring National Park.
We did the Routeburn Track with the team at Ultimate Hikes, which made the experience all the more memorable. I was impressed at the value for money the trail and inclusions for the 3-days. The package included all transport, accommodation (private lodges), meals, snacks, backpacks, rain jackets and guides 24/7 for 3-days.
The accommodation along Ultimate Hikes private lodges was a step above ‘glamping’ – providing cosy rooms with warm showers, room heating, drying room facilities, large communal areas, 3-course meals and best of all, a variety of beer and wine in the evening. Another great aspect with Ultimate Hikes was the small intimate size of the group we walked with – small enough to remember everyone’s names, but large enough not feel obligated to talk to someone along the trail (if you prefer to be in your own head space and take in the trail and its surroundings – which I tend to do). But if you are keen to chat, the guides are fun, friendly and highly knowledgeable – and always up for a conversation.
The track itself is rated Medium in difficulty. There were some long-gradual incline sections, as well as steep (and sometimes tricky) downhill parts – which is often the hardest on your body. But don’t let this deter you. The views are incredible, and experience everlasting. The settings on the trail, both below and above the tree line are uniquely special in their own right. You truly feel at one with South Island’s national parks, leaving work, troubles, city traffic, pesty neighbours (and everything else) behind.
The tranquility and peaceful surroundings make for an emotional experience… and best of all, you’re exercising. There were times when I was so caught up in admiring the views, or talking to the birds, that I’d covered an uphill section without even realising. There was never a dull moment on this trail, picturesque at any altitude, section, or terrain.
Shaped by successive glaciations into fiords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls, this trail is guaranteed not to disappoint. And the birdlife is prolific through forested sections of the track; native tomtits, robins, fantails, wood pigeons and bellbirds are commonly seen, as well as the cheeky Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot.
The variety of landscapes will astound you: mountainous peaks; sheer rock faces; alpine basins; pristine lakes; cascading waterfalls; luxuriant forest; turquoise rivers and spectacular views at every turn.
Below are diary notes on general thoughts and experiences along the 3-day Routeburn Track.
Day 1 | Queenstown to Lake Mackenzie
Est. time: 4-6 hours
Starting elevation: 550m
Elevation: Up to 1,000m above sea level (if optional climb to Key Summit)
Accommodation: Lake Mackenzie Lodge
The group met at Ultimate Hikes area around 6am – to meet and greet the guides and fellow trampers. We then jumped on a coach ride for 1.5 hours to reach the starting point. The drive was quite nice as it allowed us to catch up on sleep or enjoy the winding roads hugging the cliffs, surrounded by the many mountains and Lake Wakatipu. The drive took us to the Divide, stopping in Te Anau for morning tea and refreshments.
The start of the hike got the heart racing early on with a steady ascend up the trail through Silver Beach forest. After about an hour there was an option climb to Key Summit. We left our packs with the guides and took the additional climb atop the mountain. The views were truly breathtaking, and not to be missed, offering panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
There was the most beautiful setting with a small lake shimmering against the sun with the backdrop of the mountains. This was one of my favourite panoramic shots from the trail.
The top of the summit reached approx. 1,000m above sea level, just above the tree line. As mentioned, this optional hike was well worth it, and wasn’t too strenuous. Plus, once atop Key Summit, it’s all downhill to Lake Horden for lunch.
Start of trek… up, up, up!
Optional section… Climb up to Key Summit
Atop Key Summit
Lake Horden Hut is a quant little spot by the water, a lovely spot to stretch out on the grass, under the sun, and rest. There was tea, coffee and hot chocolate available (and flushing toilets!).
The last section after lunch was the final home stretch before reaching the lodge. Some took their time to get going, which was fine as no rush from the guides. We could leave on our own accord.
After a short 80m climb passing through Earland Falls, we reached a waterfall was as high as the eye could see. The power from the top of the waterfall hitting the lake echoed through the trail thunderously, and was phenomenal. Small ponds and rock pools accompanied it… Another lovely spot to rest and hydrate after the climb up.
Tramping toward Earland Falls
Shortly after the waterfall the trail traverses around the mountainside to the Orchards, another beautiful spot – opening up through a clear section of the trees, littered with what looks like orchard trees. It’s a majestic setting and feels like you’ve opened the door to another room. The trail continues for another hour or so, with various terrains, cross-river bridges, rolling cliffs, and large tree roots protruding up from the rocky paths, with vines that twist and bend around the trail as you walk. And the bright green moss covering tree trunks and branches is like something from a movie set.
Descending down to Lake Mackenzie Lodge
The trail finishes with a fairly steep decline section, opening up to a great outlook of Lake Mackenzie Lodge – with Lake Mackenzie only 100m nearby. The trampers arrived in the late afternoon, which left ample time to relax, nap, shower, or explore a little more to Lake Mackenzie – I opted for the latter. With some snack left over from lunch, I wandered over to the lake and found a large rock to perch. It was a nice spot to take in the peacefulness. With no noise, I sat back and watched the clouds drift across the mountain ranges, taking bites of the mountaintops as they passed by…
Arriving at Lake Mackenzie Lodge
After a hot shower and change of clothes, we gathered in the communal area – where cheese, meats and biscuits were provided, along with beer or wine options (alcohol is not inclusive but prices are very reasonable). Some trampers mingled, others read books, played board games, or scribbled in their diaries. The communal area was spacious, with high windows, comfortable couches and a view looking out to the trees. A perfect way to farewell the day’s last bit of light.
And the best was yet to come, with a 3-course meal. I discovered that the food is helicoptered in to the lodges every week, prepared by onsite chefs daily. So you can be assured the food is fresh, and delectable. After dinner, the guides took us through the following day’s route, as well as some historical information, and native birds and wildlife to look out for. Once the formalities were over, some stayed in the communal room to mingle, whilst others retreated back to their lodge to sleep.
Day 2 | Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Falls
Est. time: 4-6 hours
Starting elevation: 850m
Elevation: Up to 1,300m above sea level (with optional climb to Conical Hill reaching above 1,500m)
Accommodation: Routeburn Falls Lodge
With plenty of time to sleep in and let the body recover, most reached the kitchen around 7.45am where we made our lunch and assorted fruits and snacks for the day’s trek ahead. Breakfast was at 8am and offered an assortment of breads, condiments, cereals, yoghurt and the chef’s special was eggs et al.
Day two had to be my favourite day of the trek, even though it was raining, wet and cold. The first few kilometres were shared in the ancient forest. The ancient forest was surrounded by bright green moss that suffocated the trees, part of branches and even spilling on to the ground, making for the perfect fantasy adventure film. I absolutely loved this section, truly majestic. I struggled to find a good walking pace as I was constantly stopping to take photos and video.
Ascending up the Ancient Forest
Once we unwillingly escaped the ancient forest, we emerged above the tree line for stunning views of Lake Mackenzie. As we walked past Lake Mackenzie, the climb beings to hug the mountain, which overlooks this wonderful lake – helping you forget about the climb and simply take in the views.
Views above the tree line
Unfortunately for us, it rained for most of the day, and the further we climbed the worse the visibility got due to low cloud. In any case, we weren’t going to let a bit of water spoil the fun, as unpredictable weather is part of trail blazing. We still managed to sneak peaks of the Darran Mountains across the Hollyford Valley when the clouds opened up.
We continued to climb, following the track along the mountain face, and whilst the long-distance panoramic views were smothered by clouds, we were able to enjoy the mountain daisies, buttercups, gentians and edelweiss along the path. There were some smaller waterfalls and creeks running through and under the tracks which we used for water refills and a quick photo opportunity.
Trail section higher up
There were some sections where we were more exposed to the wind, which made things a little chilly. Part of the fun, and great fitness. After a fairly tough (and wet) climb, we stopped for lunch and hot refreshments at the Harris Saddle hut. There was an optional climb to Conical Hill which provides a panoramic view of the surrounding peaks, but due to the weather conditions (wet and dangerous winds), the section was closed. We were happy to reach the lodge for a warm shower anyway!
After lunch we pressed on, soon after being rewarded with absolutely stunning views of Lake Harris and surrounding mountains. This was another of my favourite sections, scenery-wise. Every few minutes I would unknowingly stop walking to take in the views (and take photos), it was truly exquisite – all the while forgetting about the rain, wind and cooling temperature. A remarkable view tends to block out any unwanted factors.
Views across Lake Harris
The track continues around Lake Harris, before descending into the upper basins of the Routeburn Valley, hugging the Routeburn Falls down to the lodge. Views of the valley are on display throughout the descend, making it difficult to stay focused. The descend to the lodge is particularly tricky so be very careful. There’s a hand rail to assist, which is recommended even for the fitter, to ensure no injuries whilst the mind is already thinking about a warm shower and beverage by the fire place.
The Routeburn Falls Lodge was uniquely positioned by a large waterfall and hidden amongst the mountain ranges and surrounded by trees of all shapes and sizes. Our room (twin share) was fantastic, the communal area was larger, with a nice sized outdoor deck and clear windows stretch over the roof for sky gazing and extended mountain panoramas. We had a shower, hung the wet clothes in the drying room and headed straight to the lodge for a beer, a game of Scrabble and cheese and biscuits.
Views of Routeburn Falls Lodge
Dinner was again high quality, with a 3-course meal and plenty of food. The wine was delicious and conversations flowing. Another lovely night to relax, unwind and meet fellow trampers. The Routeburn Falls Lodge was my favourite of the two lodges, more so because of the view from our room (private double) and the natural sunlight the communal area offered.
Day 3 | Falls Lodge to Routeburn Road
Est. time: 3-4 hours
Starting elevation: 1,000m
Elevation: NA. Gradual decline down to 480m
After a decent sleep in, we packed our lunch, had breakfast (including chef’s special), and set off the our last day of tramping. Day three was the easiest of the days because it was predominantly downhill and not too steep or trick. The rain had also cleared which was a bonus.
Most of the trail was through the forest below the tree line, but there was still picture perfect scenery throughout, as well as some friendly interactions with the birdlife. There were a number of suspension bridges, mountainous views through high tree line openings, the chirping of South Islands bird life, and the chorus of the rivers from waterfalls flowing downstream.
Descend down from Falls Lodge, before Routeburn Flats
Before lunch, we took a 5-minute detour down to the Routeburn Flats. What an awe-inspiring viewpoint at sea level! Surrounded by mountain ranges, valleys, and the national park itself – with a small river passage the only things between the Alps and us.
With little sun exposure during the morning’s trail, having half an hour of relaxation out in the open grounds under the sun was welcomed. Some took snaps, others lay on the grass and watched the clouds drift by, disappearing behind the mountains. I opted to do both, capturing this cool panoramic shot.
We left Routeburn Flats and descended to Forge Flat for a picnic lunch. Along the way there was a long bridge river crossing. The power behind the river from the waterfall was incredible! I took a quick time lapse and panoramic shot whilst crossing.
Bridge river crossing
Soonafter, we arrived at our lunch spot by the river, which was soothing and tranquil. I’m told the river is normally clear and shimmers colours of blue / green. However, due to the previous day’s rain, the river was at high tide, slightly murky with a strong and fast-moving current. I was captivated with the power of the current, pushing so much water with it from the mountaintops. I managed to take a cool time-lapse to show the pace of the river rapids.
Lunch picnic spot by the river
After lunch, the last section of the track shadowed the river through the beech forest to the Road End. As we continued to descend you could still hear the thunderous power of the rapids directly below us crashing in to rocks and anything in its path.
An few hours after lunch we reached the end of the Routeburn Track. After some high fives and recap of the day’s tramp, we relaxed in the sun and waited for the rest of the crew.
Ultimate Hikes took us to one last stop at the Glenorchy pub – a small town on the way back to Queenstown. There’s a lot to say about enjoying a cold beer after a long hike, with views of the mountain range that was just tramped!
Though the town of Glenorchy is small, the old houses still have million dollar views!
Though sad to see the end, everyone was in good spirits. I felt fortunate to have experienced such a beautiful track. After a short coach journey back to Queenstown, we all exchanged emails and contact details and were on our merry way.
Recap on the 3-day Routeburn Track experience
Overall, the Routeburn Track was an amazing experience. If you enjoy being out in the wilderness and nature, you will LOVE the Routeburn Track! Perfect for any age and most fitness levels. Ultimate Hikes do recommend a medium level of fitness, as the days are fairy long and there are some tricky sections to navigate. Plus, it’s nice to have a decent level of fitness so you can enjoy the scenery along the way.
If you’re an experienced trailer looking for a tough challenge, you won’t get it on the Routeburn Track (unless you run), but the views definitely make up for it.
As mentioned, we did our trek with the team at Ultimate Hikes who were fantastic and worth every dollar. The accommodation was in private lodges, and was exactly what you want after a long day’s tramp. We stayed in our own room, which helps for a good nights sleep. However there are share rooms, which the other trampers said exceeded their expectations. The communal rooms and facilities at each lodge were fantastic and the meals were wonderful (you won’t go hungry!). The guides at Ultimate Hikes were friendly, knowledgeable, and great value. Doing the track in a group also opens the door to making new friends and guaranteed to leave with plenty of great memories.
The average age group on the 3-day Routeburn Track was between 45-65+. Though there were some under 40’s and over 70s. So it’s a mix of all ages!
The weather conditions were unpredictable, sunshine one minute and raining the next. And the temperature can drop at any time. So be sure to pack for all weather types and climates. Ultimate Hikes provide rain jackets and backpacks for the trail.
The terrain along the trail varied throughout, from smooth well-formed paths to rough terrain littered with rocks and tree roots. There were some tricky sections with tree roots, trunks and large rocks with steep uphill and downhill parts, which is where the fitness helps (and remember to take your time, it’s not a race).
The trail starts near Queenstown and finishes close to the Milford Sound, or the other way around.
Routeburn Track was also named one of the top eleven trails in the world by the National Geographic Adventure Magazine in May 2005.
You can find out more information about the trail, trek itinerary, costs, recommended equipment list as well as a pre-track debrief, which is all available on the Ultimate Hikes Routebourn Track website.