Routeburn Track, Great Walks of New Zealand
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
An escapade in the elements, by the Masson sisters.
The Routeburn Track is a 32km hiking track in the South Island and should take three to four days to complete. It is a moderately difficult walk as there's a considerable amount of undulation throughout the track. It's one of the Great Walks of New Zealand and has beautiful vistas, alpine gardens and reflective tarns.
My sister and I have always wanted to walk the Routeburn Track and we had an opportunity to tackle it after my daughter's wedding in Wanaka, early March. First lesson – the Great Walks of New Zealand book up early! Leaving it to November to book huts limited our options.
We were not able to book into a hut on the Routeburn Track until the second night of the planned trip and availability only worked from the Divide side. Solution; do the Caples first! This added one and a half days to the planned three-day tramp and meant we would almost do a circuit. Great that you can do the Routeburn Track from either Te Anau or Glenorchy (Queenstown) side.
We stocked up on necessities in Queenstown – a four nighter required wine. Boarded the shuttle in Queenstown, then a great drive along Lake Wakatipu, before the road turns into a single lane and lose metal after Glenorchy.
Greenstone Shelter to Mid Caples Hut
2-3 hrs (24 bunks – serviced. No bookings – first in gets the bunk)
Started after lunch as we didn’t have far to go, a lovely sunny day. Up a gorgeous valley, along the true left of the Greenstone River then after the turn off to the Greenstone track, the true left of the Caples River. Interesting swing bridges worth checking out – great engineering. Made friends with an inquisitive Toutouwai (New Zealand Robin) who followed us as we walked, I think he was hoping we would stir up a feed.
We followed the bush line consisting mainly of beech, with the odd grass clearing. Came across a couple of slips that didn’t cause us any problems. We got to the hut in just under two and a half hours – only one other group of five there, so no problems with getting a bunk. A short meander down to the river for a very refreshing swim, where after keeping the squealing to a minimum saw some Whio (Blue Duck).
A warden turned up just before dark, a shame he was a bit of a “pissing competition” kind of guy – always bigger and better. A bit of sport for the other party.
Day 2 - Mid Caples Hut to Lake Howden Hut
5 ½ - 8 ½ hrs (Great Walk Hut – bookings required – 28 bunks)
Woke to a yellow and red sunrise and slight cloud. Continued up the valley through long grassy meadows, then into more beech forest. There were a few streams coming down to the track that were low as there had been no rain for a while.
After about two hours the track meets the junctions of Steele Creek, Kay Creek and Fraser Creek Tracks which look interesting but not for this trip. Backcountry skills required! Lunch in the bush then after a steady climb, we reached McKellar Saddle (945 m) with great views. There is a bit of boardwalk there to protect the fragile environment. Amazing sub-alpine vegetation and tarns at the saddle, a real contrast to the previous meadows and beech forest.
The track then goes down from the saddle, zigzagging for about an hour (hard on the knees!) to reach the grassy valley floor and the junction to McKellar Hut and Lake Howden Hut – one hour either way. We were in no rush to get to Lake Howden Hut as we had booked the bunks, so had a chat to a couple of people heading to McKellar to camp who had come off the Routeburn and were heading to the Greenstone Track.
Arrived at the Lake Howden Hut after a moderate, cruisy 7 ½ hour walk followed by a very, very refreshing swim in Lake Howden. The Caples Track was in pretty good condition in March 2019 – need to check current conditions following massive storms in February 2020 which also took out part of the Lake Howden Hut. A full hut – including a few contractors doing trapping on the tracks. The Great Walk huts have wardens who give you great information on the current conditions, along with the history, flora and fauna of the area.
Day 3 – Lake Howden Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut
3 – 4 hrs (Great Walk Hut – bookings required – 50 bunks)
We had planned to go up to Key Summit in the morning before heading on but woke up to low cloud and rain so there wasn’t much point. Left the hut just after 10am in light rain that steadily got heavier – yay for waterproof trousers! The bonus of the rain was the waterfalls were flowing well – Earland Falls (174m) especially impressive. The emergency bridge came in handy. The terrain was different again from the previous days with a steady climb through beech forest, creeks and waterfalls. After reaching another grassy area (The Orchard) you drop down with brilliant views of the lake to the Lake Mackenzie Hut – a moderate 3-hour walk, we didn’t take many breaks due to the rain.
The sun came out for the afternoon which meant we could explore the area and the amazing rock formations – huge rocks with splits down the middle. No swim in Lake Mackenzie, a bit cool, so just up to the knees but a bonus of no sand flies – too cold for them.
The warden at Lake Mackenzie Hut is a legend. Euan boosted the trapping of introduced pest on the Routeburn Track and set up a trust to continue this work. To says he is passionate about this is an understatement (though, passionate in a very West Coast kind of way). He had the fifty people in the hut transfixed for about 1 ½ hours talking about the work he was doing and tales of stoats and their dastardly ways. You can really see the benefit of the trapping with the number of birds we saw on the track that day – Toutouwai, Mohua (Yellowhead), Tititipounamu (Rifleman) and at the hut a cheeky Kea or two. I hope he raised lots of money as he got some from us!
Day 4 - Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut
4 ½ - 6 hrs (Great Walk Hut – bookings required – 48 bunks)
One thing about Great Walks is they are absolutely beautiful and thus super popular, so you either have to leave early or late if you are after some solitude. Leaving when you think there will be a break in the weather is likely to be when most other people (especially the assisted walkers) will leave. Note to self – leave early unless you want to be constantly overtaking!
This is the most challenging part of the track and the most scenic, if you can see it. Today – rain, wind, low cloud. Not a lot of photos! However, it would be my favourite day of the track. Climbing to the tops, the Darren Mountains lurking behind the cloud, glimpses of the rare Tuke (Rock Wren) up to the snowy Harris Saddle (1,255 m). This is pure alpine, even though we are in March – two layers of merino, Gortex coat, waterproof pants, hat and gloves and constant movement.
Hunkering down in the Harris Saddle Shelter for hot Miso soup, then coming out to a break in the cloud with glimpses of the stunning Lake Harris. Slipping around the bluffs above the lake, then down waterfalls (literally down waterfalls!) – be sure to make use of the ropes. Arrived at a full Routeburn Falls Hut after 4 ¾ hrs very wet but very happy. More blue sky so able to go out and explore the Routeburn Falls cascading over the rocks and glimpses to the top. Resisted the temptation to run up to Harris Saddle to get the view.
Another great warden had saved a couple of bottom bunks for late comers and gave them to us – must have been our great chat. Or our generous natures having provided food to “the gym bag guy” – who left the Divide at 7am, with the aim of walking to Routeburn Shelter and hitching to Queenstown in a day, in sneakers, with a light weight parker, and a gym bag over his shoulder that contained a change of clothes, a sandwich and muesli bar. I saw him go past Lake Mackenzie Hut and couldn’t believe anyone would be out there in weather dressed like that with a shoulder bag. By the time we got to the Routeburn Falls Hut he had dry clothes on (yeah for the gym bag), but no food left or energy to walk any further – it was hard to balance with a shoulder bag. If it wasn’t for the generosity of others, he would have been up the creek big time!
Day 5 - Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter
3 – 4 ½ hrs
Stunning morning – again resisted the temptation to run up to Harris Saddle for the view. We had a deadline with the shuttle pick up. The track descends through more gorgeous beech forest, with great views of Humboldt Mountains, and again we were kept company by Toutouwai flitting from branch to branch.
It took no time to get to Routeburn Flats Hut and the grassy meadow. A swing bridge takes you into the gorge then down Bridal Veil Waterfall where we saw a group of very serious looking climbers/canyoners heading up. Sugarloaf Stream lead onto the sparkling clear river that gave the track its name – the Route Burn – and on to the Routeburn Shelter. This part of the track only took 3 hours so we regretted not running back up to Harris Saddle but did manage to get an earlier lift back to Queenstown.
Overall – loved it rain and all, in fact I think the weather only enhanced it. Would do it again in a heartbeat. Next time would go from Routeburn Shelter to the Divide and overnight in Te Anau before tacking the Kepler.
You can find out more about the Routeburn Track on the Department of Conservation website - Routeburn Track.