Classic treks: Routeburn Track, New Zealand

By Justin Walker and Lauren Smith 22 January 2015
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With majestic alpine scenery, a wide variety of terrain, and a family-friendly hut system, the Routeburn is an accessible classic trek

YES, THE WELL-KNOWN Milford Track is right next door, but for those looking to jam in the most of New Zealand’s Southern Alps landscape – whether mountains, fast-flowing alpine rivers or beautiful beech forests of multiple shades of green – then the Routeburn Track is the best of the nine NZ Great Walks.

The Routeburn can be walked in either direction: from Routeburn Road end in the east, to The Divide, or vice-verse. Either way, you’ll be gobsmacked by the surrounding landscape within minutes of hitting the track. At 32km, you could even, theoretically, complete the Routeburn Track in two days, but that would be a disservice to the track and yourself.

Our preference would be to start from the eastern point at Routeburn Road end and get the big climb up to Routeburn Falls Hut out of the way on the first day. The Falls Hut is probably one of the most dramatically situated of NZ’s Department of Conservation (DOC) backcountry huts, perched high overlooking the river valley (and Mt Somnus) below, with a waterfall running down one side of its location.

The second day on the Routeburn is spectacular: you continue climbing to Harris Saddle (and Lake Harris along the way), before winding your way along the (near) top of the Serpentine Range, with views of the Hollyford River valley, before descending to the beautifully located Lake Mackenzie Hut.

The final day involves an initial climb, passing Routeburn Falls on the way, before descending to Howden Hut and then climbing up again to The Divide. One sidetrack not to miss is the one to The Divide. The turnoff is 15 minutes from Howden Hut and when you arrive at The Divide itself (a 1.5-hr return walk) you’re greeted by spectacular views of the Darran Mountains.

The track is well graded throughout, with only a few short rocky sections, and the Great Walks huts (for independent walkers) are brilliant (gas stoves and wood heating, plus bunk rooms).

As long as you’re well prepared for Fiordland’s oft-changing weather (and remember to book your hut tickets well in advance; the Great Walks booking season opens July 1), the Routeburn Track is perfect for both those just getting started on multiday treks and adventurous families; children from 10 years of age upwards easily handle this walk.

If there’s one world-class track we’d recommend to introduce the family to the joys of multiday trekking, it’s the Routeburn.