Discovering beautiful Lake Howden while hiking the Routeburn Track

Hiking Routeburn Track In New Zealand

Hiking the 20 miles (32 km) of untamed, rugged wonderland on New Zealand’s Routeburn Track is truly a memorable experience. It’s understandable why this is designated as one of the country’s 10 “Great Walks”.

This world-renowned trail in the Southern Alps overlaps both the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. It features soaring, snowcapped mountain peaks, solemn beech forest, crystal clear rivers, brilliant lakes, and grassy valleys.

Not only is the scenery stunning, but it’s also fantastic to be able to experience such a place as an average hiker. You don’t need special equipment, you just need to be able to carry your own pack over distances.

In addition, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) purposely limits the number of hikers to enhance the experience. However you’re not completely isolated, as you will likely meet awesome people from around the world doing the same trek.

This post covers hiking the Routeburn Track, including what to expect, how to book, how many nights to book, and optional side treks.

Hiking Routeburn Track

The trail traverses from the Routeburn Shelter in the east (near Glenorchy) to the Divide Shelter in the west (near Te Anau), but can be hiked in either direction.

Optimal hiking season here is November through April. And, as it gets busy then, huts must be booked well in advance. To hike outside this season, you need to be a very experienced alpine hiker.

Department of Conservation (DOC) Info on Routeburn Track

Although the trail is noted as an intermediate hike, this doesn’t mean it’s not challenging. Steep cliffs, slippery surfaces, and unpredictable alpine weather can make things treacherous.

In addition, as parts of the track cross over alpine areas, they suggest children under 10 do not hike this trail.

This elevation map gives an idea how strenuous hiking each section of the Routeburn Track is.

Routeburn Track Elevation | doc.govt.nz


Note that the Rotueburn Track is a dynamic trail. Adverse weather conditions can close areas of the trial for periods of time. Always make sure to visit the DOC site to read the latest conditions and possible re-routings.

Transportation

Due to the fact that the distance between the start and end of the trail is over 201 miles (324 km) by road, transportation needs to be pre-arranged for the start and end of the trail.

Buses run regularly from Queenstown to the either the Routeburn Shelter or the Divide Shelter.

Or, if you prefer to drive, you can hire someone to move your car from one end to the other while you hike. The DOC site lists approved operators here.

Also, as a alternative, it’s possible to make this track a loop with the addition of the Greenstone and Caples Tracks.

Finally, arranging bus/boat transport to visit Milford Sound from the Divide Shelter is a perfect add-on to hiking the Routeburn Track. See the list of DOC approved transport noted above. In fact, as it’s only a 45 minute drive, it’s a great finale to the trail.

Routeburn Track Huts

Huts operated by the DOC:

  • Routeburn Flats – 4.6 miles (7.5 km) from Routeburn Shelter. 1.5-2.5 hours.
  • Routeburn Falls – 1.5 miles (2.3 km) from Routeburn Flats. 1-1.5 hours.
  • Lake Mackenzie – 7 miles (11.3 km) from Routeburn Falls. 4.5-6 hours.

Lake Mackenzie to Divide Shelter is 7.5 miles (12 km). 4-5.5 hours.

Note: Hiking times are for the average hiker.

Campsites are also available at Routeburn Flats and Lake Mackenzie.

Note that there was once a hut called Lake Howden Hut. Unfortunately, it was hit by a landslide in February 2020 and was so badly damaged, it has since been demolished and removed.

Hut Recommendation And Benefits

Before you book your huts, you need to decide how many hours you want to hike each day (and, of course, check for the latest on trail conditions). Although it can be done in less, my suggestion is to book Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie.

The benefits of staying at these huts includes:

  • Cuts steepest ascent into 2 days (Routeburn Falls to Lake Mackenzie)
  • Leaves time to swim in Lake Mackenzie, or a side trip up Concial Hill
  • Possible side excursion to Key Summit, or a swim at Lake Howden
  • Allows time for a trip to Milford Sound on the last day of your hike

The trail can also be hiked in 2, or 3 days, but this allows time for the full experience and side trips/excursions.

If you are super fit, and feel confident of your abilities, you can hike the trail on one day.

Hiking From Routeburn Track Shelter To Routeburn Falls Hut

The trail from Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut is 6 miles (9.8 m) and takes about 3.5 hours.

It starts by following the crystal clear, Routeburn River through a wooded area.

Crystal clear Routeburn River early on when hiking routeburn track.
Routeburn River

The river has an amazing pale green cast to it, partly due to the unique green rocks in this area.

Crystal clear Routeburn River early on when hiking routeburn track. image
Routeburn River

The trail crosses Sugarloaf Stream, then goes past Bridal Veil Waterfall, before heading up towards Routeburn Flats Hut area.

image


After this, your climb continues upward.

This sectIon of the trail is stunning, as you wander through solemn beech forest,

Beech forest and Humboldt Mountains while hiking Routeburn Track
Humboldt Mountains Through The Beech Forest

cross a stream over one of the trail’s many narrow, swinging bridges,

Swing Bridge

and see magnificent views of the Humboldt mountains.

The stunning Humboldt Mountains while hiking routeburn track
Humboldt Mountains

Finally, you will reach the Routeburn Falls hut for the night.

Hiking Routeburn Falls Hut To Lake Mackenzie Hut

The trail from Routeburn Falls to Lake Makenzie Hut is 7 miles (11.3 km), or about 5 hours. Additionally, you can add in a side trip up Conical hill. This will add in another 1.5 – 2 hours.

After leaving the Routeburn Falls hut, you climb up towards Harris Saddle at the peak of the trail, 4, 117’ (1,255 m). There is also a brilliant lake here called Harris Lake.

To me, this was one of the most beautiful parts of the hike, so you’ll want to stop and admire the view a bit. The shelter here, Harris Shelter, is a good place to take a snack break if the weather is bad. There are also toilets here.

The Routeburn Track is one of the Top things to do in the New Zealand Travel Guide
Harris Saddle

And if you want to climb even higher, you can take the optional side trip up Concial Hill for magnificent views of the Hollyford Valley. I did not do this optional side trip.

After cresting Harris Saddle, you trek southward over Hollyford Face, overlooking the valley. The space here is so grand that you feel like a tiny speck amongst giants.

Traversing the Hollyford face while hiking the Routeburn Track
Hollyford Face

After traversing for a while, you start the steep descent down towards Lake Mackenzie. As you get closer to the lake, you pass through a fantastical, moss and ivy covered woods called, ‘Fairy Forest’. It is by far the most moss covered forest I have ever seen.

Fantastical ‘Fairy Forest’

Finally, you reach Mackenzie Lake. You’ll see the lake before you come upon the hut and it’s very tempting to take your shoes off and wade for a bit if the weather is not too cold.

The water is very cold, but very refreshing. Especially if it’s been a few days without a shower.

Mackenzie Lake

Lake Mackenzie Hut To The Divide

After leaving Lake Mackenzie, you head through more beech forest before coming to an open grassy area called ‘The Orchid’.

Not long after this, you reach Earland Falls. The falls are right above you on the trail and are so high, you can’t get them all into a photo.

Earland Falls

Continue heading west after Earland Falls until you reach Lake Howden.

This is yet another stunning lake. There are also picnic tables at the edge to soak up the view while you rest and eat.

Discovering beautiful Lake Howden while hiking the Routeburn Track
Lake Howden

There used to be a hut here, but it was destroyed by a mud slide in 2020. At this time there are no plans to replace it.

After one last glance at mesmerizing Lake Howden, you set off on the last part of your journey, descending to the Divide Shelter.

There are still more amazing views along this part of the trail.

One of many stunning mountain vistas while hiking Routeburn Track
Routeburn Track

And there’s another side trip here called Key Summit. It’s 2-3 hours round trip, taking you up for panoramic views of the Humboldt and Darran mountains.

Summary

Hiking the Routeburn track really is a feast of nature and a trip you’ll never forget. If you’ve hiked this trail, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

For other great sites and hikes in New Zealand, see my posts on Queenstown as well as hiking Tongariro, Cape Brett Walkway, and Abel Tasman Track.

There’s also spectacular Franz Josef Glacier and the world renown Sauvignon Blancs at the wineries of Marlborough.

And to help plan your trip, check out my New Zealand Travel Guide to learn more about the top destinations, how to get around, the best time to visit, safety concerns, and more.

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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