The Routeburn Track, New Zealand – Day Hiking Guide

The Views from the Routeburn Falls Hut

The Routeburn Track in New Zealand is most commonly hiked over a couple of days, but it is possible to see a great portion of the track on a day hike! This blog is all about the Routeburn Track day hike and how it can easily be accomplished from Queenstown, Glenorchy, or Milford Sound.


The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes.

Every summer thousands of trampers (the term used in New Zealand for hikers) head to New Zealand’s South Island to embark on an unforgettable journey through pristine landscapes – and the Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful!

As with most popular tourist attractions, bookings are required and with very (and I mean VERY) limited accommodation along the Routeburn Track it is likely that most will miss out hiking the track’s 3-day classic route.

However, what some people don’t know is that you can hike some of the most amazing parts on a Routeburn Track with only a day hike.

This day hiking option is becoming more and more popular – especially with the cost of huts and campsites for non-NZ residents increasing.

So, here’s everything you need to know for the perfect Routeburn Track hike and how to hike it in just one day!

Routeburn Track Overview

How long is the Routeburn Track?

The Routeburn Track is a 32-kilometer or 20-mile trail.

Where does the Routeburn start and finish?

The Routeburn Track can be hiked in either direction starting from either Routeburn Road near the town of Glenorchy (near Queenstown) or the Divide carpark on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound.

How difficult is the Routeburn Track?

Hiking the trail with the recommended 3-day itinerary is an easy to medium difficulty multi-day hike. However, if you hike the trail in less time, that difficulty greatly increases.

Is the Routeburn Track safe to hike in winter?

The short answer is no as the alpine section of the trail crosses through high-risk avalanche terrain. In recent years people have died hiking the trail in winter.

Do you need bookings for the Routeburn Track?

You do not need bookings to hike the trail however you do need to book the huts and campsites if you plan to use them. You can book them on the DOC website with bookings usually opening in March to May.

What are the Routeburn Track huts?

The Routeburn Track huts are the Routeburn Flats Hut and Campground, Routeburn Falls Hut, Lake Mackenzie Hut and Campground, and the Lake Howden Hut.

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About The Routeburn Track

Bailey hiking the the Routeburn track near the Routeburn Falls Hut
Hiking just past the Routeburn Falls Hut

The Routeburn Track is a single 32 km trail that leads through the Southern Alps from Glenorchy (a small town near Queenstown) to the Divide (a car park near Te Anau on the road to Milford).

The track can be hiked from either direction in 1,2 or 3 days. Along the trail, there are four huts: Routeburn Flats, Routeburn Falls, Lake Mackenzie, and the Lake Howden Hut.

These huts are run by the DOC (Department of Conservation) and at the Routeburn Flats and Lake Mackenzie you can also find campgrounds.

The Routeburn Track crosses both Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National Park – two of New Zealand’s most beautiful national parks. The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks and hiking these trails is considered a must-do activity in NZ!

Aside from the four huts along the trail, there is also one emergency shelter at the Harris Saddle. This shelter is used primarily in winter in emergencies, however, it can also be used in summer for exhausted or injured hikers.

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6 Hiking Itineraries to Hike The Routeburn Track in ONE Day

The Routeburn Track, New Zealand

During Peak season (between December to February), the Routeburn Track huts completely book out. The limited spaces mean that many visitors must find an alternative way to hike the Routeburn Track (other than the classic 3-day trip.)

Therefore, a Routeburn Track day hike is the perfect way to still experience this world-class trail.

From Queenstown, Glenorchy, Te Anau or Milford Sound you can access the trail, hike some pretty spectacular parts, and return all in one day.

Below are 6 different ways to hike the Routeburn Track in ONE day.

1. Routeburn Road Trailhead (near Glenorchy) to Routeburn Flats Hut

The valley floor at the Routeburn Flats Hut
Views from the Routeburn Flats campground and Hut
Distance:15 kilometers return (9.3 miles)
Difficulty:Easy
Elevation hiked:300 meters (1,000 feet)
Time:3 to 5 hours

This rather easy section on the Routeburn Track is perfect for those who may not be the most experienced hikers but still want to enjoy some of the Routeburn Track’s stunning landscapes. The track in this section is rather flat and sheltered from the weather.

Highlights along this section include the turquoise water of the Routeburn River, Bridal Veil Falls, views of the Southern Alps, and thick untouched forest. Most of the trail in this section is shaded and very well maintained.

2. Routeburn Road Trailhead to Routeburn Falls Hut

The Views from the Routeburn Falls Hut
The Views from the Routeburn Falls Hut
Distance:19.6 kilometers return (12.1 miles)
Difficulty:Moderate
Elevation hiked:600 meters (1,970 feet)
Time:5 to 6 hours

Heading in slightly further this time the trail does become more difficult after the Routeburn Flats Hut. From the Routeburn Flats Hut, you make your way up to Routeburn Falls.

As you climb in elevation the views of the area become all the more breathtaking. Looking down back towards the valley floor is stunning and the views of Mount Somnus and Mt Homus are amazing!

Highlights on this part of the track also include passing the site of a major rockfall in 1987, crossing several small suspension bridges, Eagle Bluff, and of course Routeburn Falls.

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3. Routeburn Road Trailhead to Lake Harris Saddle

The Harris Saddle on the Routeburn Track
Panorama of the Harris Saddle and lake!
Distance:25 kilometers return (15.5 miles)
Difficulty:Hard
Elevation hiked:850 meters (2,790 feet)
Time:7 to 8 hours

Once again, this hike takes you further up the trail past the Routeburn Falls Hut to the highest point of the Routeburn Track, the Harris Saddle!

This is the day hike I did during my winter mission on the trail. For a beginner new to hiking this could be a very difficult hike. However, in my opinion, Lake Harris (just before the saddle) is so beautiful is worth the extra few hours of walking.

Other highlights along this part of the trail include walking below the towering cliffs of the Southern Alps, swimming in Lake Harris (only in summer), and enjoying one of the quieter, more peaceful parts of the track.

Please note, in winter this part of the trail becomes highly dangerous. Please check with the Department of Conservation before going any further than the Routeburn Falls Hut. 

For more information on hiking the Routeburn Track in winter check out our blog!

4. The Divide Trailhead (on Milford Road) to the Key Summit

A man walks along the trail of the key Summit on the road to Milford Sound
Walking along the top of the Key Summit!
Distance:7 kilometers (4.3 miles)
Difficulty:Easy to moderate
Elevation hiked:400 meters (1,300 feet)
Time:3 hours

The hike to the Key Summit from the Divide carpark is one of the most popular things to do on your way to Milford Sound. This hike is a climb to the Key Summit and there isn’t much flat ground on this part of the trail. However, it is a short hike and only takes a few hours to complete.

From the top of the Key Summit, you get a 360-degree view of the Southern Alps. Just be aware this is very dependent on the weather which is notoriously unpredictable in this region.

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5. The Divide Trailhead to Lake Mackenzie Hut

Te Mackenzie Lake from above on the Routeburn Track
Mackenzie Lake from above on the Routeburn Track. You can just see the hut on the right-hand side of the lake.
Distance:24 kilometers return (15 miles)
Difficulty:Moderate to hard
Elevation hiked:550 meters 1,800 feet
Time:7 hours

If you keep hiking on the Routeburn trail past the Key Summit turn off you will eventually reach the Lake Mackenzie Hut. This hut is located in a stunning area surrounded by nature. The lake itself shines green and is the perfect place to cool off in summer.

Hiking to the Lake Mackenzie Hut and back would be quiet the challenge and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. The Lake Mackenzie campground was my favorite place I stayed on the trail!

Tip: The Lake Mackenzie Campground isn’t always fully booked. So you could hike in, spend one night, and then hike back out! Just be sure to book your campsite in advance online!

6. Routeburn Road Carpark to the Divide

Hiking on the Routeburn Track
Distance:32 kilometers (20 miles)
Difficulty:Hard
Elevation hiked:850 meters (2,790 feet)
Time:8 to 10 hours

The last way to hike the Routeburn Track on a day hike is to do the entire trail. This is a very common thing to do, however, it is a very long and hard day. The 32km journey will see you climb 850m to the saddle and then back down to the Divide!

If you choose to do this you will need to organize a bus or lift for the other side. Be aware that from one end of the trail to the other takes around 5 hours by car!

If the drive seems like a bit much then consider spending the night in Milford Sound either before or after your trip. That way you can wake up fresh, begin your hike and finish in Glenorchy or vice versa.

To be honest I’m not sure if you would be able to enjoy the stunning views as much on this hike as you would be constantly hiking. But if you’re crazy enough, go for it – I’m sure it will be rewarding!

What To Bring on the Routeburn Track

View on the Routeburn track

Food

Depending on which hike you intend on doing you may need to bring more or less food. The full-day hike to Harris Saddle will have you wishing you brought a packed lunch and snacks.

Bailey and I brought only a few snacks and were dreaming about Fergburger and poutine the entire way down!

Water

The water that runs from the streams on the Routeburn is generally fine to drink, however, it is not tested and in the warmer months, you should boil it for 5 minutes, filter, or treat it.

In winter when I did the hike, I drank straight from the rivers up near Lake Harris and ate plenty of snow without any purification or boiling!

Hiking Gear

On the first and shortest route mentioned above, hiking gear is less likely needed and a good pair of runners and active-wear clothing would suffice. But on the longer trails, it pays to bring a good set of hiking boots, pants, and if you have bad knees, hiking poles.

Sunscreen

The start of the trail until Routeburn Flats is mostly shaded, but once you begin the ascent to Routeburn Falls and especially from the falls to the Harris Saddle you become very exposed to the sun and wind.

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Other Tips and Important Information for the Routeburn Track Day Hike

A suspension bridge at the start of the Routeburn Track
  • The trail is clearly marked with orange markers and poles
  • Parking is available at both ends of the trail, however, the Te Anau side is more limited.
  • Hiking the trail in winter exposes you to a few extra hazards and in some cases won’t allow you to hike much of the trail.
  • There are a few suspension bridges that are limited to only two people at a time. Checking the load limit of every bridge is a great idea.
  • Routeburn Road is an unsealed gravel road. Livestock can cross the road at times too.
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Before you go…

Hiking the Routeburn Track is something every visitor to New Zealand should consider doing. Most don’t have 3 days to spare on one trail so the Routeburn Track day hike is the perfect compromise, and as I found out, still spectacular!

Thanks so much for reading! I hope this blog has answered all your questions about hiking the Routeburn Track! If you have any others please leave them below in the comments section!

If not then be sure to check out all our New Zealand guides (we have tons!) on our official New Zealand blog page! Or check out these related articles:

The BEST Milford Sound Boat Cruise

The Blue Pools Visitor Guide

Lake Marian Track Guide

Hiking Ben Lond in Queenstown

Mount Crichton Loop Track, Queenstown

Heading to Milford Sound? Check out all of our informative Milford Sound blogs!

Spending some time in Queenstown? We’ve written dozens of blogs about visiting Queenstown!

-Daniel


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2 Replies to “The Routeburn Track, New Zealand – Day Hiking Guide”

  • Hello, I am traveling solo to Queenstown, New Zealand in February 2020. I was looking to do a day hike from the Routeburn shelter to the Routeburn falls. Besides expensive group tours do you know of any shuttles that take independent hikers to the trail head and pick them up later on in the day as well, and return to Queenstown? Maybe even a website of solo hikers that want to share a hike?
    Thank you and have a great day!

    • Hey!

      There are shuttles from Queenstown, lots of them actually. They are not that cheap though and from my memory last year it was around $50 each way!

      I would recommend hitching a ride with someone doing the same for the day. We have had lots of luck on facebook groups there is one called Queenstown Hiking. You can plan hikes with others on here. There are no rideshare services only services for switching cars at each side of the track.

      If there are two or three of you it would honestly be much cheaper to just rent a car for the day.

      Let us know how you go but honestly that time of year so many people will be going to do the Routeburn for a day you may even meet someone in your hotel or hostel.

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