If you’re thinking of hiking the Routeburn Track during your visit to New Zealand there are certainly some things to consider before taking on the trek!
Should you do it in a day? Can you!? How do you get your car to the other side?
Is one side better than the other? What do you bring? How much is the trail and do you NEED to stay in a hut?
There are many questions and I hope this post helps answers those for you. Here’s everything to consider before taking on the Routeburn Track.
Routeburn Track Quick Info:
So what exactly is the Routeburn track? It’s one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, it’s very popular, and the huts along the trail are sometimes booked out a year in advance.
Pretty intense, huh?
Here are the quick deets on the Routeburn Track:
Distance: 33km / 20.5 miles one way
Time: 2-4 days (or you can do it “my way” which I explain below…)
Huts: Many people choose to stay at the Routeburn Falls Hut and Lake Mackenzie Hut for a one night stay at each.
The hike promises waterfalls, great views, glaciers, and mountain lakes… But if you can’t get a hut or don’t want to spend the cash to do so (they aren’t cheap!) can you still do the Routeburn Track?
Totally! I completed the Routeburn Track and didn’t spend a dime on staying in the huts. The hike itself is, luckily, free, it’s the sought-after huts here that will cost you.
I’ll tell you how you can avoid paying for the huts and still do the whole track, therefore coming out of the Routeburn Track spending a whopping zero dollars.
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How to Do the Routeburn as a Day Hike
So if this thing is over 33km how does one see it all in a day? Well, some people have done the entire 33km in ONE DAY. But I’m not a psycho nor a masochist so no, I’m not suggesting you do this…
Instead, my suggestion, if you truly want to see everything on the Routeburn Track, is to simply do half from one end one day, and the other half another day.
Seems simple enough, right? This way you’ll be hiking in for the day without the need to carry a large backpack on your back nor shelling out literally hundreds of dollars for a dorm bed for two nights or more.
The Routeburn Track trailheads are quite far from each other if you’re driving, so what you’ll do is the hike in from one side one day, and when you make it towards the other end on your New Zealand trip, you can hike it from the other end. So your hikes won’t be consecutive.
But as you’ll find out…You may only want to do ONE side anyway. As always, I keep things totally honest here, so I’m going to tell you right now, one side is much better than the other (in my opinion), and with my tips, hopefully, you won’t waste any time on the Routeburn Track, and you’ll only make room for the best of the best!
So what are the highlights and details of each end of the Routeburn Track?
Routeburn Track Day Hike #1
Routeburn Shelter (near Glenorchy) to Harris Saddle
Distance from Trailhead to Harris Saddle: 25.7 km / 16 miles roundtrip
The perks about making this Routeburn Track day trip:
- It’s shorter and therefore a bit easier
- You’re out of the treeline after you pass Routeburn Falls Hut
- You get to walk through the gorgeous valley
- And reach Harris Saddle sooner
Routeburn Track Day Hike #2
The Divide Shelter (on Milford Road) to Harris Saddle
Distance from Trailhead to Harris Saddle: 38 km / 24 miles roundtrip
The perks about making this Routeburn Track day trip:
- You get to see the majestic Earland Falls
- You are in the treeline most of the time which means lots of shade (also a con though because that means fewer views)
- It’s more of a workout (could be a pro or a con depending, ha!) because it’s longer
- The ascent is more gradual
Making It to Harris Saddle
You may be wondering, what is Harris Saddle and why is that the “goal” of both days? And this is a really good question and what ultimately ties everything together… Harris Saddle is where the absolute BEST views are.
No matter which direction you are heading from, you MUST make it to Harris Saddle otherwise, neither direction will be that spectacular.
Yep, the Routeburn Track makes you really work for those views, and the grand finale is smack dab in the middle of the track, and there’s no way around it.
If you have extra time, roam around the saddle, and perhaps even add on the Conical Hill track which is a detour in and out trail from Harris Saddle.
So really, which side of the Routeburn Track should you take?
What Is The Best Routeburn Track to Take?
This is just a personal opinion guys, so hey, you do whatever you want to do… But I think the choice is straightforward. Option #1 is hands-down the best trail in my opinion.
Routeburn track trail Routeburn track cave trail
First off, when you do the Routeburn Track from Glenorchy, you aren’t walking as far. The trail is quite a bit shorter coming from this direction which is appealing enough but it’s also the much prettier route.
As soon as you pass Routeburn Falls Hut, you’ll be greeted with waterfalls and a deep golden valley surrounded by towering cliffs that lead you straight to Harris Saddle.
The walk is nothing short of magical and everything becomes so so much more worth it.
Take the trail from the other side and the only great view you get is of Earland Falls, which is beautiful, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re chugging along on the trail for much longer to reach the same spot.
You are always in the treeline coming from this side, blocking your views the majority of the way. Mackenzie Lake is nice enough, but with all the other spectacular lakes in the country, it pales in comparison. There are some peeks out from the treeline with some mountain views but nothing truly spectacular.
By the time you make it to Harris Saddle, it’s time to head back and you’ve actually hiked MORE in this one day than it would have taken for you to hike the ENTIRE Routeburn Track.
And that’s just silly. In my opinion at least.
So do you have other options? What if you want to continue past Harris Saddle and complete the entire track in a day? How do you get back to your car if you don’t want to hike the whole thing again?
Are there other options for the Routeburn Track?
Of course, there are…
Hiking The Entire Routeburn Track
If you still want to hike the entire thing but don’t want to hike back just to get your car, you can hire someone to drive your car for you to the other end.
Pretty genius of the Kiwis to think of that.
Companies like EasyHike and Trackhopper will meet with you, grab your keys, and take your car for you to the other side so when you’re done with your hike in a day, two or three it will be there waiting for you.
Key Summit Track via the Divide
So you’re already on “this side of town,” and you were thinking of hiking the Routeburn Track via my opinion #2 for the day, but now you’re not so sure, should you ixnay the entire day!?
You can still hike the best bits because I’m here to tell you what they are.
If you’re still keen because you’re in the area already, go to The Divide, and hike the Key Summit Track! You’ll get immediate views unlike the Routeburn Track #2. The Key Summit Track is well worth it and not very difficult to get to either.
You’ll hike just the short beginning portion of the Routeburn Track, then turn off and walk uphill for a bit to get some genuinely fantastic views of the Fiordland and Lake Marian in the distance. This one is only 7km or 4 miles, so way more reasonable.
Of course, if you’re dying to see Earland Falls, you could hike to it, then turn around and go up Key Summit after that making your trip a few miles longer but not wasting TOO much time in the treeline without any excellent views.
Again, I’d only do this if you actually have a bit of time to spare, there are too many other great things to see in New Zealand!
But I Want to Stay in a Hut
Hey, go for it! There are three main huts to choose from—Lake Howden, Lake Mecenzie, and Routeburn Fall Huts. In my opinion, none of them are placed in an area that “works” for me as I think Lake Howden and Routeburn Falls Hut just come too soon.
The hike isn’t that hard or long to either of these hikes.
If I HAD to stay in a hut on this trip, this is what I would do:
Hike to Routeburn Falls Hut. Drop off my things, continue hiking to Harris Saddle and enjoying it there. There’s a shelter at Harris Saddle that you can hang out at, it’s not for camping though—it’s gorgeous.
Stay at Routeburn Falls Hut that night, get up, see the sunrise, hike back the way I came in and not bother with the other side of the Routeburn Track.
This way you’re only staying in a hut for one night (again, not cheap! $130 for a dorm bed), you see the best bits, and you save money on not having a car relocation service relocate your car to The Divide.
OOORRRR You could just skip staying in a hut altogether like I did and do different hut treks that are:
A. Not as popular
B. Significantly cheaper
C. Still gorgeous
So Do You Recommend Doing the Routeburn Track?
Yep, sure do, but only for a day and going from the Glenorchy Route. I felt my day was pretty wasted coming from the other end and if I knew that Harris Saddle was the main pretty bit and there was almost nothing else to see coming from The Divide, I just wouldn’t have hiked it from the other side!
I saw Harris Saddle the first time around, so there’s no point in seeing it again AND hiking for WAY longer to see it.
A glimpse through the clouds Routeburn track suspension bridge
Of course, this is MY opinion and I’ve been traveling the country for a few months now, so I could be slightly biased because I’ve seen some much prettier spots here. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone but perhaps this post will just make you think a bit harder on doing this hike in its entirety.
Tips for Hiking the Routeburn Track
- Make sure you’re taking the right daypack out with you to hike! You’ll be carrying it all day.
- Take water, but you can get some more water at the taps at the huts if you run out on the trail.
- The “rules” for this track will change with the weather! If it’s been raining, it will be more challenging as there are rocky trails at certain points that will become slippery. If it’s winter, you need to check with DOC to see if it’s even safe to go and the track should only be used for experienced hikers only.
- Hiking shoes would be great but runners would also work fine for the Routeburn Track.
- Sunscreen! The sun in New Zealand is crazy, lather it on and take it with you on the trail to reapply.
- When you park at either end, make sure you’re not leaving things in plain sight that may entice someone to break in. Unfortunately, these main trailheads are sometimes prime spots for theft. Make it harder for them or better yet, don’t entice them with leaving things out in the open. We always close all our curtains in the van and use a wheel lock.
- Wearing quick dry clothing would be wise as the weather in the area (and really, most of NZ) is crazy and will go from sunny to frigid, to raining in a matter of hours.
- Also, you should always bring a rain jacket when hiking in NZ because, again, crazy weather. I use the outer shell of my favorite jacket as it doubles as a rain jacket and it’s a bit thick and can keep me warm. I only had to use this jacket at Harris Saddle as it got really cold. Otherwise, I wore my light jacket (I was here in summer).
- In case you’re curious what else I wore: I wore this light jacket, these hiking shoes, and used this daypack.
- There’s nothing you can really do for this tip but just know that the gorgeous Kea birds will be out and about here, yay! BUT they are destructive AF. We came off the trail to see three of them literally trying to break into a car. I’m not joking. And a fourth had ripped off the antenna of the next car. If you’re renting, I’m not sure if they offer Kea insurance but… Yeah… This could be your car.
- On that same note, wildlife is precious and fragile! Don’t be a dick and feed the Kea or any animal on the track, don’t leave your gross toilet paper on the ground, bring your trash out, and overall just be a good human. We all share the trails and want to enjoy them forever, don’t F them up by being a crappy human. Deal?
PS- If you like the photos in the post, they are all from the Routeburn Track option #1 (from Glenorchy) with the exception of the two just above “Routeburn Track Day #2.”
Hopefully, this helped someone looking to hike the Routeburn Track in New Zealand. The Great Walks are, well, great, but if you don’t want to shell out over $100 bucks for a dorm bed, this would be the best alternative.
Off to Milford Sound next? Read my thoughts on the Milford Sound area.
So what do you think? Are you taking on the Routeburn Track? Will you just do it from one side? Let us know in the comments!
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad since 2011 and blogging on Where in the World is Nina? for nearly as long. Nina helps people like you move around the world while making money. She loves talking about how to work abroad and online to travel longer!