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Tramping the Routeburn Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park

Image Title: Suspension Bridge over the Routeburn River. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Suspension Bridge over the Routeburn River. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Early Morning Lake Mackenzie Reflectiongram - Pretty as a post card. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Early Morning Lake Mackenzie Reflectiongram - Pretty as a post card. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Mt Lyttle from the Routeburn Track. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Mt Lyttle from the Routeburn Track. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Day two on the trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Day two on the trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Roughing it with ridiculously luxurious accomodations. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Roughing it with ridiculously luxurious accomodations. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

 

The Routeburn Track is one of the Classic Hikes of the world alongside such great walks as Torres del Paine in Patagonia, the Inca Trail in Peru, and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It was recently featured in a 2018 National Geographic Adventure travel article. This 33km/20mi hike through Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island absolutely delivers as a world class hiking experience. One of the reasons this track is so appealing is it’s relatively short (3 days) with modest daily distance and elevation gains and the remarkable quality of the maintained trail. It is also strictly regulated by permits to keep traffic on the trail manageable. The track follows a ridge along the Ailsa Mountains at an elevation of 1,200m/3,600ft with spectacular views across the valley to the glaciers of Mt. Lyttle and down the Hollyford River all the way to the Tasman Sea. You can even see all the way to the Dart Valley where Isengard from the Lord of the Rings movies was set.

Hiking the Routeburn Track (also known as “Tramping” in New Zealand) requires a permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which can be found online - or - use of the guide service, Ultimate Hikes New Zealand. We decide to choose the Ultimate Hikes guided trip. Our guides; Hamish, Tess, and Mel, are all 20-something Kiwis with a passion for tramping and all know their business from the trails to first aid to Maori history. In addition to the guide services, the Ultimate Hikes guided trip provides ridiculously luxurious lodge accommodations including a king size bed with ensuite bathroom. The lodges include washing facilities with hand wringers and drying rooms so you can dry your rain-soaked gear or freshly washed clothes. And then there are the gourmet meals. Seriously. A bar tended by our guides for cocktails, Venison steaks and Salmon fillets with paired wines for dinner, and Eggs Benedict for breakfast. We are now totally ruined for youth hostel community bunk houses and carrying our own freeze-dried meal pouches on future excursions which, by the way, is exactly what you can expect if you do the track with a DOC permit.

The track itself is quite straightforward. It’s a well-maintained and well-marked trail that sees 20,000 people per year over the October to May season - remember that New Zealand’s winter is April to September. The track can be completed either north-to-south or south-to-north. Most people do the track in two nights/three days but it can certainly be done in one night/two days or three nights/four days. There is also an annual organized “Fun Run” that runs the track in a single day. If you can’t get a permit, you are allowed to day hike the track and you will see many day hikers close to either of the trailheads. The Ultimate Hikes guided trip goes south-to-north and makes camps at luxury lodges located at Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls. The Lake Mackenzie camp sits on the shore of a stunning reflectiongram lake that is the subject of an iconic postcard found in every tourist shop in New Zealand. On all three days of our tramp we elected to do side hikes. The first day is a 100m/300ft climb up Key Summit and the second day is a 300m/900ft climb up Conical Hill to the high-point of the trek at 1,515m/4,970ft. The final day’s side hike is a flat walk to Routeburn Flats Hut for yet another Instagram-worthy setting.

Regardless of which way you decide to hike the track, you will need to arrange rides. From Queenstown it’s a 2.5 hour ride to the south-end trailhead at the Divide and a 1.5 hour ride from the north-end trailhead at the Routeburn Shelter. This is one more thing the guided trip arranges for you with a bus to drop you off and pick you up. There are numerous accommodations in Queenstown from Hostels to Four Star Hotels. We stayed at the eclectic QT Hotel, where the staff were kind enough to hold our luggage until our return. For a pre-hike activity, we elected to spend a night in Te Anau and take an overnight cruise on Milford Sound with Real Journeys. This was a cool way to experience Milford Sound with kayaks and an informative nature guide. Because of rental car logistics, we had to return to Queenstown to drop off the car, but had we realized it in advance, we could have easily taken the Real Journeys bus to Milford Sound and then caught the Ultimate Hikes bus the very next day as it came through Te Anau. Another wonderful option for extending your trip is to continue straight through to the Milford Track or the Grand Traverse which continues from the Routeburn Track on to the Greenstone Valley Track.

As far as gear is concerned, on the Ultimate Hikes guided trip all you need are your own clothes and rain gear, personal items, proper hiking boots, water bottle or bladder, and a camera. Included in the price of the trip is a good medium sized pack (40L/2,400 cu-in) but we decided to take our own Eddie Bauer, Alchemist and Deuter, ACT packs. We would also recommend renting trekking poles from Ultimate Hikes at a cost of $25.00NZD for the trip. Although we had spectacular weather for our three days, you should be prepared with quality rain gear and gaiters because when it rains - and it does rain hard and blow hard in south New Zealand - you don’t want to be looking at a seven-hour hike with cheap gear. We took our Arc’Teryx Rain Gear which has never let us down. As a heads-up, there are great gear deals in Queenstown and Te Anau on everything from boots to packs to rain gear. Be warned, however, that it is difficult to get 100% DEET in New Zealand and you will want the good stuff to fend off the man-eating sand flies. If you forget to bring your own, look for Bushman Dry Gel Bug Repellent in any pharmacy. Depending on the time of year, you may also consider bringing a mosquito net hood. Yes, the sand flies really can be that bad. There are particularly good deals on merino wool clothes which make outstanding souvenirs to take home. We always try to arrive at a new destination with nearly empty suitcases so that we can fill them with unique clothes and gear that we may not be able to find in our home town. 

Back to the trail, our last day lunch spot is another short side trail down to the Routeburn River where our guides are familiar with a swimming hole. . . . .The sun is out, the birds are singing, the river is bubbling, and our new trail buddies are howling as we all dive into the fresh, cool glacier fed stream. After a final trail lunch and a short final hike to the Routeburn Shelter Hut parking lot, we pile into the waiting bus and stop in the small village of Glenorchy for a pint of ale to bask in the afterglow of success before heading back to Queenstown. The perfect end to a perfect tramping weekend in New Zealand - Sweet as, mate!

Details:

  • Day 1: The Divide Trailhead to Mackenzie Lodge. 12km/7.5mi distance, 600m/2,000ft gross elevation gain, 6 hours hiking
  • Day 2: Mackenzie Lodge to Routeburn Falls Lodge. 11km/6.9mi distance, 450m/1,500ft gross elevation gain, 6 hours hiking
  • Day 3: Routeburn Falls Lodge to Routeburn Shelter Trailhead. 9km/5.7mi distance, 500m/1600ft gross elevation loss, 4 hours hiking

 

Phil & Diane

 

[Disclosure: Open Door Travelers received no discounts or compensation for this article.]