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New Zealand Routeburn Track Route Guide

Discover Routeburn Track, one of Aspiring and Fiordland National parks top destinations for tramping and hiking track adventures - the Routeburn Track, Queenstown, Glenorchy New Zealand.

Facts
One Way  
Time 2 - 3 days
From Routeburn Shelter, head of Lake Wakatipu
To The Divide, Milford Te Anau Road
Distance 32. km
Huts 4 Great Walks Huts, 2 Great Walks Campsites
Grade medium
Highest Point
1225 m, Harris Saddle
Lowest Point 450m
Maps Map 260 D40 / C40 Milford
Map 260 D41 Eglinton
Map 260 E40 Earnslaw
 
Route Guide Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track is approximately 39 km long and may be walked from either end. This Routeburn Track Route Guide will describe the journey from east to west; there is a sense of exploration in starting from the mouth of the Routeburn Valley, following in the footsteps of early Maori travellers, Caples, Barrington and those other European explorers who pushed into unknown from the valley's head.

Location
Distance
Times
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats
6.5 km
2.5 hours (2)
Flats to Routeburn Falls
2.3 km
1.5 hrs (1)
Routeburn Falls to Harris Saddle
4.3 km
2 hrs (1.5)
Harris Saddle to Lake McKensie
7 km
3 hrs (3.5)
Lake McKenzie to Lake Howden
8.6 km
3 hrs ( 3.5)
Lake Howden to Divide
3.4 km
1 hr ( 1.5 hr)

Take at least 3 days for the Routeburn track walk, and spend perhaps an extra day at Lake McKenzie or the Routeburn Falls. The most common pattern for walking the Routeburn Track is:

The rough, unsealed access road from the Dart River bridge winds through Routeburn Station land and enters the Mount Aspiring National Park at the first stands of beech forest. From this area there are views of the head of the Lake Wakatipu, the South Island's second largest lake (293 sq km and up to 378 m in depth); also the wide Dart Valley and the high peaks of the Forbes Mountains, dominated by Mounta Earnslaw (2819m). But the road is soon swallowed by the trees and after several km it comes to an end on a tussock flat beside the river and the spacious Routeburn Shelter ( toilets, fireplace). At the end of the road you are hemmed in by beech forest and close mountains. Mounta Momus (2141m) fills the way to the north; and there is little suggestion of the big Dart Valley to the east, or the bare tussock hills cradling Wakatipu. Though a nature walk ( Double Barrel) is marked for day visitors, there seems to be no way for the traveller to the west, no passage through the abrupt walls, rock bluffs laced by waterfalls and the bush-filled gorge.

 
Routeburn Flat
Routeburn Flat
Darran Mountains
Darran Mountains
Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu
 
Routeburn Shelter (465m) to Routeburn Flats (700m)

Approx 6.5 km. Walking Time: 2.5 hours ( 2 hours in reverse). *These are average walking times and include rest periods.

Routeburn track starts at the footbridge across the river, 200 m before the access road reaches the shelter flat ( small car park). From here to Routeburn Flats the benched track on the north bank of the Routeburn climbs and sidles through the trees, entering the gorge high above the river,making a way to the upper valley with surprising ease - a tribute to the skill a nd work of the pioneering track cutters. Early on, where the character of the track surfaces changes and it becomes unexpectedly wide, you can see the last stretch of the 1870s road, crumbled now at the sides and edged by young trees.

At first the Routeburn track follows the edge of the river but soon it begins a graded climb, canopied by forest. Contrast to the un-ending vista of climbing trees is afforded by the cascading break of cold streams, notably the Bridal Veil which you reach about an hour after starting. All major creeks and streams on the track are bridged so that there is no danger from flood except under abnormal conditions.

Birds may be scarce or plentiful, depending on the season and the amount of traffic! Honey-eating bellbirds and tuis will be more tuneful in early morning; a grey robin may sit on your boot if you are still and quiet; male tomtits will bodly advise you of their territorial boundaries as you travel through the forest, and parakeets may be noisy in the canopy; fantails will always be found at the water's edge and riflemen scurrying around the beech trunks in search of insects. The Routeburn Flats are likely to be haunted by paradise ducks through the sub-alpine basins above the falls are almost exclusively the domain of pipits and keas.

Montane beech forest dominates the track environs between the altitudes of 500 and 1150 metres - on both the Routeburn and Hollyford slopes. There are 3 species of beech: red, mountain and silver. Red beech needs relatively warm temperatures for growth and will be found in the lower regions on the track, giving way more and more to mountain and silver beech as altitude increases. In the upper valley, near the Routeburn Flats Hut, you can see clearly the high temperature needs of the red beech. Here it is absent from the lower slopes of mixed mountain/silver beech. But it occupies a 100 - metre wide zone in an apparent thermal belt above, before being replaced by the other species which extend to tree line. The forest floors are thickly carpeted with mosses,fungi, ferns and many small plants; but tree regeneration has been seriously affected by the browsing of introduced animals such as red deer. Taller species include coprosma, fushia, ribbonwood, pepperwood and more particularly on the Hollyford Slopes, kamahi, broadleaf and totara.

The enclosing stillness of the forest is broken in the gorge by the pounding of the river through massive boulders jammed beneath the trees. The track maintains its height, but as the bed of the river rises, the rushing green water draws closer and you can descend to the edge of the sculptured rocks, study patterns of moss and perhaps dream a little of Maori travellers picking their way through this moist, sunless defile: Te Komana.

Distances on the track are not great and a couple of hours after leaving the road you will emerge from the gorge on to the upper flats, cross the river again by the bridge and wander through the breaking trees to the stretches of open tussock. The flats were the old limit to horse traffic and, at the far end, bluffs whitened by the Routeburn Falls seem to bar the way. You can see the huts above the falls, as well as the fine snow peak of Mount Somnus (2281m)

Hut: Routeburn Flats, 700 m; 20 bunks

 
Moss Track
Moss Track
Routeburn Flat Bridge
Routeburn Flat Bridge
Routeburn Track Lunch Stop
Lunch Stop
 
Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Falls (975 m)
Approx 2.3 km. Walking Time: 1.5 hours (1)

About 250 m before the Routeburn Flats Hut the track re-enters the forest, climbing again in a westerly direction, and it passes the back of the hut some 60 m above the floor of the valley. Routeburn Track is still benched, well graded and wide, climbing easily on the southern slopes of the valley to finally emerge at the Routeburn Falls Hut on the bushline. The beech forest becomes progressively lower, more gnarled and mossy as altitude increases and in the beds of some of the higher side creeks you may discover in early summer the first blooms of the giant mountain buttercup.

From the huts at the falls you can look back down to the Routeburn Flats and the gorge. Beyond the steep spurs of Momus, which hide the beginning of the track, rise the black ramparts of Turret Head in the Forbes Mountains, and a whide gulf indicates the valley of the Dart. In a few hours of walking you have left behind road, valley, bush and gorge in climbing more than 500 metres to a sub-alpine world at the tail of the Southern Alps Main Divide.

Routeburn Track 'hut keas' will probably greet you, or wake you in the morning by sliding down the hut roof; and cause expletives to be added to the vocabulary of superlatives that you will have mostly used to that point in exclaiming on the scenery. Below lies a confined world of forest; above, the opern and airy world of boulder and tussock basins edged by rock ridges that are outlined by snow in spring and autumn.

Huts: Lower hut is national park Routeburn Falls Hut, 975m; 48 bunks. Upper green hut is private property of Routeburn Walk Ltd.

 
Routeburn Flats Hut
Routeburn Flats Hut
Routeburn Flats Track
Routeburn Flats Track
Routeburn Flats View
Routeburn Flats View
 
Routeburn Falls to Harris Saddle (1277m)
Approx. 4.3 km. Walking time: 2 hours (1.5)

Climbing continues, a final 300m, to the gateway of the Harris Saddle and the boundary between the two national parks. Routeburn track becomes boggy, though still well defined and marked by orange fence standards, rising across the southern side of the basin above the Routeburn Falls. The Scottish flavour of the track's name seems more appropriate now to the clear stony creek that runs through the tussocks before it makes a final leap into the forest through the falls.

In the alpine tussock grasslands there is an abundance of berried and flowering plants and shrubs, which have recovered well in recent years from the damage cuased by the grazing of introduced deer and chamois. Sub-alpine plants are not showy - save for the giant buttercup and flowering spaniard - but a careful scrutiny beside steams or in the shelter of boulders will reveal daisy and gentian mountain foxglove and hebe, beneath the overhanging waves of snowgrass.

Higher up, your attention will be held by waterfalls and grey rock and the dip of ridges towards the saddle. The track swings even more to the south and seems to climb too high until, suddenly, Lake Harris comes into view, dammed in its small high basin, colour changing with sun or cloud. It may seem grim in rain; icy and repellent if snow blankets the steep mountain walls; but a source of glittering refreshment on a hot summer's day.

Routeburn track, hewn and blasted from the rock, edges above Lake Harris. If the Routeburn track is snow-covered, it may be impassable. The approach to and the crossing of Harris Saddle should not be attempted except in good weather conditions.

You are likely to be so occupied with the sight of the lake below and the distant view back over the Routeburn to the Richardson Mountains that Harris Saddle will open up suddently and catch you by surprise. In a moment the workd changes. The wind swirls through;beyond are the parting of the mists of Fiordland, the huge space of the Hollyford Valley and the rearing barrier of the Darran Mountains; glacier, hanging valley and sharp-edged peak stretch from Christine (2502m) in the south to Tutoko (2746 m), chief of Fiordland, in the north.

You can obtain an even wider view in the fine weather, if you scramble a further 240m to the top of Conical Hill, north of the saddle. If you do - keep to the marked track: the sub-alpine plant cover in this area is too fragile to withstand the indiscriminate trampling of boots. In summer, Harris Saddle is a place to linger; but the grey triangle of the shelter hut beneath the saddle to the west reminds that storm in high places can bring tragedy to the unprepared.

Hut: Harris Saddle, 1260m; emergency shelter only; no bunks

 
Harris Saddle
Harris Saddle
Valley View
Valley View
Harris Saddle Shelter
Harris Saddle Shelter
 
Harris Saddle to Lake MacKenzie (900m)
Approx. 7 km. Walking time: 3 hours ( 3.5)

From the saddle the Routeburn track goes south; roughly down a gully and then awkwardly at times in a traverse well above the hollyford bushline that lasts for several kilometres. About 2 km from the saddle a sign marks the start of Deadman's Track, which leads steeply to the floor of the Hollyford Valley. Another few kilometres and you will see a large square rock below the track which can be used as an emergency bivouac in rough weather. This Hollyford Face is the most exposed section of the track - to north-west rain and southerly cold - and no time shouuld be wasted if the weather is doubtful.

On the traverse of the face, the Darran Mountains catch your eye constantly and you will be able to see right down the Hollyford to Lake MacKenzie (Whakatipua-waitai) and the sea at Martins Bay (kotuku) - a great divide between the Southern Alps and Fiordland. At the head of the Hollyford, Key Summit stands clear, and you walk aloof above the dusty line of the road in the valley floor.

Two hours or more from the saddle the track rises and turns a spur and the basin of Lake MacKenzie is revealed. From this point the track is a well-formed zigzag, dropping down 300m to the lake and the huts in a tussock bay sheltered by the forest. The first trees you encounter down the zigzag are draped with skeins of moss, witness to heavy rains, and boulders litter the forest to the lake's edge. On a still evening or in early morning there is little to compare with the picture of reality and lake reflection of Emily Peak (1820m) and her sister. If you have a day to spare on the track, it could not be spent more profitably than in exploration of the bush and mountain margins of Lake MacKenzie

Huts: Hut by the lake is the national park Lake MacKenzie hut, 900m; 48 bunks. The green hut at the head of the tussock bay is the private property of Routeburn Walk Ltd.

 
lake MacKenzie
Lake MacKenzie
Lake Harris
Lake Harris
Emily Pass
Emily Pass
 
Lake MacKenzie to Lake Howden (695m)
Approx. 8.6 km. Walking time: 3 hours ( 3.5)

From the hut, the track crosses the tussock bay, dotted with veronica scrub, and then climbs again for an hour, regaining through the beech forest much of the height lost in descending the zigzag. Then the track filters through the top edge of the trees, more varied in this western region, and there are frequent vignetted views of the Hollyford and the Darrans. In summer the dull evergreen may be broken by the rich red of rata blossom, and birdlife increases with a greater variety of fruit and flower. You may hear the sweet notes of the bellbird, the rattle and bell call of the kaka and perhaps the whooshing beat of bush pigeons' wings. At the forest edge there may be waxeyes; deeper in the bush, brown creepers; and above the rocky bluffs, the black-backed gull, a good way from the sea.

After two hours of walking, the Routeburn track brushes hard against the mountain bluffs and emerges aty the foot of Earland Falls. Spray fills the air and its performance on a rain-filled day will be compensation for the drenching discomfort of dripping bush. Even on a fine day you will need parka and plastic bag for a close photograph. And, if the creek fed by the falls is flooded, you will have to go downstream to use the bridge.

Down again for an hour on an improving track. Creeks, forest, views of the Darrans, untiul a sudden opening of the trees reveals Lake Howden. This is an important junction point. Weset lies the remainder of the Routeburn Track to the Milford Road; north, a track drops down Pass Creek to the lower Hollyford Valley Road; south, the Greenstone Track goes past Lake McKellar, 34 km to Elfin Bay on Lake Wakatipu. Those with long legs might consider this route home, rather than by bus or car. But if developers have their way there will be no track in the Greenstone; there will be a road instead and the margins of Lake Howden will provide parking places for package bus tours! If you have valued your experience on the Routeburn Track, make your protests against road development clearly known.

Hut: Lake Howden, 695m; 28 bunks

 
 
Mountain Daisy
Mountain Daisy
Lake MacKenzie
Lake MacKenzie
Lake MacKenzie Hut
Lake MacKenzie hut
 
Lake Howden To Key Summit (919m) to Milford Road (532m)
Approx. 3.4 km. Walking time: 1 hour (1.5) lake to road. Allow extra hour for Key Summit

From the lake a short climb leads to the flanks of Key Summit and the final descent. A worthwhile side excursion leads up through the bush to the open tops of Key Summit, a unique geographical 'chockstone' from which the geomorphology of the region can be clearly appreciated. The Hollyford Valley developed along a major fault zone between two plates of the earth's crust. This is truncated at the lower end of Lake McKerrow by the Great Alpine Fault at its southernmost limit. Large scale movements in this zone have produced a close association of rocks differing in age and type. West of the Hollyford stand the Darran Mountains, built of obcurate granite and diorite, part of the metamorphic Fiordland Complex of rocks. The Ailsa and Humbolt mountains to the east are composed of rocks more typical to the Southern Alps - younger modified lavas, sandstone, mudstone and limestone.

Geological dynamics have created a fascinating watershed pattern of which Key Summit is the lynchpin. Rivers in the valleys below run north (the Hollyford to Martins Bay); south(the Eglinton through Lakes Fergus and Gunn, and on to Lake Te Anau); and east (the Greenstone, on to Wakatipu). To the north-west, you can see the full glory of Mounts Christina, Crosscut and Lyttle and the cloistered hanging valley of Lake Marian. Due west are the other granite peaks of the upper Hollyford - Ngaitmamoe Peak, Pyramid Peak and Mount Park.

Key Summit is also a botanist's mecca. Stunted beech trees take the place of sub-alpine scrub an merge into perhaps the finest bog and swamp region of our mountain lands, with plant life ranging from sundews, bladderworts and orchids to the bog forstera, bog daisy and bog pine.

On the descent over the easy 'shoe track' from Key Summit to the Milford Road you become slowly immersed in thickening forest, closed in from the mountains and wide spacious world of the Routeburn is finally sealed off and insulated from the noisy, dusty tourist road below. Thumbing a lift or waiting for the bus, one is filled with that special feeling of calm and satisfaction that only recreation in such a region of mountain, forest and lake can bring.

Hut: At the Divide, 532 m; roadside shelter only; no bunks

 
Mountain Daisy
Mountain Daisy
Earland Falls
Earland Falls
Routeburn Falls Rainbow
Routeburn Falls Rainbow
 
More>> Routeburn Track Photos
 
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Further Information

Department of Conservation

Cnr Mull & Oban Streets, Glenorchy
Phone: (03) 442 9937
Email: glenorchyvc@doc.govt.nz
Web: www.doc.govt.nz

 

 
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