The Best Kept Secret of the Routeburn Track?

If you’re planning or have planned a trip to the South Island of New Zealand, you may know that the Routeburn Track is arguably the most popular and best of the Great Walks. Some may regard the most popular sites as tourist traps or steer clear of them to get the most “authentic” experience when visiting another country. Generally, I agree with this, and like to seek out the road less traveled or find that hole in the wall local shop/restaurant/bar. However, in my opinion, this would be a mistake when it comes to the Routeburn Track in New Zealand.

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Yes, the trail is popular, and it does book up fast during the busy seasons (December – April for their summer), but because it is a Great Walk, the number of people allowed on the trail is mostly regulated by the number of people that can stay in all of the huts/campsites. So, even though it may be a bit busier than the hikes or tracks that are not deemed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to be a “Great Walk,” we by no means felt like it was too crowded or over populated. Although we did run into other hikers, we were alone for a good portion of the trail, and didn’t feel that their were too many people around.

There is a reason this Great Walk is so popular. The trail is so gorgeous that my breath was constantly being taken away. Even the road from Queenstown through Glenorchy and to the trailhead is a beautiful drive. The drive is worth it in itself!

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Also, if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan (like me), it’ll be an even better experience because there are numerous sites along the road to the trailhead and on the trail where scenes of the film were shot (i.e. the mountains on the right road from Glenorchy to the trailhead were used as Isengard). There were a few times on the trial where I felt as if I was a hobbit in the story (sorry, nerd alert!).

Back to the point…there is a chance we may have had a better experience than most on the trail because we didn’t book the normal sleeping stops that break up the hike into almost 3 equal parts. We tried, but by the time we booked, the Routeburn Falls Hut & MacKenzie huts/campsites were sold out. At first, I was worried about the distance we would have to cover on the second day because of this, but it actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us.

This brings me to the secret…the Routeburn Flats Campsite. Most people fly by on their way to ascend to the Routeburn Fall Hut. But, they are truly missing out on a spectacular experience by doing so. Don’t make the same mistake!

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Honestly, it is worth walking a few extra kilometers and most of the steep section of the climb on the second day of the track to stay here instead of the Routeburn Falls Hut. Why?

1. This may be one of the prettiest campsites you will ever camp at in your life!

2. The huts do get crowded, especially during the summer.

To get to the campsite, you start out ascending through a lush forest along a glacial stream…

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…until you reach a clearing on the trail…

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…that takes you to the campsite located in the midst of a vast meadow in a valley surrounded by (possibly) snow-capped mountains and forest.

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There is a river running just next to the various camping sites, which are all very private, as they have their own paths that reach a raised pad for your tent.

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(Tristin thought this was hilarious that a “Segal” was building a nest for us. I think it was a genius way to create a pad our tent!)

I would have stacked my tent on top of someone else’s to camp here though. No description (or even pictures) could really justly express or show the beauty of this spot. It is simply something that has to be experienced.

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I was so enthralled by the beauty of this place the entire time we were here. We were going to do a few side hikes when we arrived, but instead we opted to kick off our shoes, put our feet in the extremely cold, yet refreshing stream, and look around in awe thinking about how lucky we were to be in this stunningly beautiful place.

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We didn’t want to go into our tent because we didn’t want to miss out on any time we had to experience being there. But, eventually we had to retreat to our tent because it got pretty cold!

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(Sunset)

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(Early Morning Fog)

Even if you are not a big hiker, and don’t plan on doing any of the Great Walks or long tracks while in New Zealand, I think it would be worth it to hike the easy-moderately difficult trail for an approximate 2 hours (4 hours return) to this campsite to at least see and experience it in one day. Or better yet, camp for one night here and then return the next day if you are short on time.

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(Pictures of the Meadow/Camping area from above the Routeburn Falls Hut)

The Routeburn Track was one of our favorite parts of our entire 6-week trip. Whenever we bring up the trip, this is one of the first things mentioned. Whenever we are hiking now, we think about our time on the trail and how much we enjoyed this Great Walk. I highly recommend experiencing part or all of this Great Walk during your time in NZ!

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Before I leave you with a gallery of pictures for your enjoyment, I have one piece of logistical advice. The Routeburn Track is a one way trail that starts in Glenorchy and leaves you on the other side of the pass about halfway between Te Anu and the Milford Sound (or vice versa depending on where you start). Therefore, unless you plan to hike the trail and back, you either need to organize a shuttle to get back to your car (which saves money, but costs a lot of time) or you can use this fantastic Trackhopper Service, so your car is patiently waiting for you on the other side of the pass at the end of your hike. We opted to spend a bit of extra money to save us A LOT of time and effort so that we could go straight to the Milford Sound after ending our hike (the drive back to Queenstown/Glenorchy is about 5 hours). Mike is amazing, extremely knowledgable, incredibly easy to work with, and reliable. If you use the service, I highly encourage you to chat with him to learn so much about the area in a short time.

Cheers!

~Rachel

P.S. If you have any questions about the Routeburn or would like any more information about the trail, preparing for the trip, or booking huts/campsites…please don’t hesitate to contact me!

 

Now, to leave you with a gallery of pictures of our incredible journey!

14 Comments

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  4. Hi Rachel. Looking at doing the Routeburn over Christmas/NYE but it’s super busy! There’s not a lot of space available and we would prefer to stay in the huts. Is the following itinerary doable:
    Day 1: start at Routeburn Shelter, finish at Routeburn Flats Hut (2-3 hours 6.5km)
    Day 2: Routeburn Flats Hut to Lake Howden Hut (22.2km 10.5 hours)
    Day 3: Lake Howden Hut to the Divide (3.4km 1.5 hours)

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    • Hi There!

      Absolutely…this is very doable, pending on your level of experience/fitness. My husband and I are moderately experienced hikers and we actually had to book our trek staying at the Routeburn Flats campsite the first night and the Lake Howden hut the second night. We just woke up early and made sure to rest and eat a lot along the way 🙂 We hiked this trail around that time as well, and it is one of the busiest seasons for the trail! Definitely book it ASAP if you want to get a spot…they do fill up fast! Hope that helps..let me know if you have any other questions!

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      • Brilliant, thank you! We have done multi day hikes previously but they have been porter supported/hut stays so a little nervous about hiking + lugging the campgear with us for 10 hours on the 2nd day! So helpful! I will see if my hiking companion is up for this. Thanks for your post – LOVE the pictures! xx

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        • You’re welcome! It’s totally worth it. Break every hour or hour and a half, have a snack, take a long lunch and leave yourself plenty of time and you should be good! The hardest part is in the beginning of the day, then it’s mostly flat/downhill once you get to the saddle. Just pack what you need to lighten the load 🙂

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  5. Brad says:

    Hi Rachael,

    Great post re the Routeburn Track. Have a few questions if that is okay.

    What time of year did you do the hike?

    How many nights would you suggest. Would you stretch it out to 4 to enjoy the scenery?

    Routeburn Flats Campsite looks great. What other spots did stay at during the hike?

    Thank you
    Brad

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    • Hi Brad,

      Thanks!

      We hiked the Routeburn in mid-December. It was still really cold at night, but the days were nice. January/February are probably warmer because it’s further into their summer.

      We only did 2 nights, but with a 3rd or 4th you could relax more and enjoy a few of the side treks. There were some trails off the meadow in the flats area, but don’t know much about those.

      We stayed in the Howden Hut for our 2nd night (so we did most of the trek in a day), but that was what was available when we booked it. Lake Mackenzie is beautiful and probably a better spot to stay than Howden Hut, in my opinion. So if you stretch it out to 3 nights I think that would be ample time, pending how many detours you like to make and how fast of a hiker you are.

      Hope this helps!

      Best,
      ~Rachel

      Like

  6. Lotte Veendrick says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for the great tips and the beautiful photo’s! We are going to New Zealand in February and would love to do the Routeburn track. Most of the huts are already fully booked so after reading your blog we are now thinking about taking our tent and staying at the Routeburn flats campsite for the first night and then in the lake Howden hut for the second night. I am just worried that our tent might be too heavy to take with us. Did you have a light weight tent with you? And how long did it take you to get from the Routeburn flats campsite to the Howden hut? I see that the Howden hut is only 1.5 hour from the end of the track, would you suggest just walking all the way to the end of the track on the second day instead of sleeping in the Howden hut?

    Thanks for your reply!

    Best, Lotte

    Like

    • Hi Lotte,

      Yes, we had a small lightweight 2 person backpacking tent with us.

      We got up early in the morning (I think around 5am) and didn’t get to the Howden Hut until around 5p or so? We did stop to have breakfast at the Falls hut and had a leisurely lunch and rest at Lake Mackenzie, so it is feasible to go all the way. We wanted to do one of the smaller side hikes, so we chose to stay the night so we could do one the next day on our way off the track.

      If you decide to do it all in one day, leave plenty of time so you can also enjoy the scenery!

      Good luck!

      Best,
      ~Rachel

      Like

  7. John says:

    Hey! Read your passage of the routerburn track and sounds awesome!!! How long would you say you would need to do it in 1 day. Moderate fitness. The whole things one way. And any idea what kind of weather to expect in late September? I’ve googled a bunch just wanted to know if you have some first hand info. Thanks!

    Like

    • Hi John,

      I’m not quite sure what the weather would be like in late September, but I would imagine colder. We went in December, and the nights were pretty cold (and we didn’t have the proper sleeping bag so we were pretty cold the first night). September is the beginning of their spring, so I’d imagine it would be a bit less predictable.

      I’d say you’d need at least 12, but possibly more like 14 hours? I would leave some time to enjoy and stop by the divide and Lake Mackenzie. The part from routeburn flats to the divide is pretty taxing, after that, most of it is just down the other side if you are starting from Glenorchy and going to Milford Sound.

      Hope this helps!

      Like

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