The Routeburn Track Day Hike Guide
September 19, 2018
The Routeburn Track in New Zealand is most commonly done 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 or Glenorchy!
Routeburn Track Day Hike
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular multi-day hikes. Every summer thousands of trampers (the term used in New Zealand for hikers) head to New Zealand’s South Island to embark on some unforgettable journeys 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.
Here’s everything you need to know for the perfect Routeburn Track Day Hike!
About the track
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.
Hiking the Routeburn track in one day
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) and therefore, a Routeburn Track day hike is perfect!
From Queenstown, you can access the hike, hike some pretty spectacular parts and return all in one day.
Below are 3 different distances dependent on fitness level and the time of year.
Start of the trail (End of Routeburn Road) to Routeburn Flats Hut and back
Distance: 15km return
Elevation hiked: Around 300m
Time: 3 to 5 hours
This rather easy section on the Routeburn 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.
Start of Trail (End of Routeburn Road) to Routeburn Falls Hut
Distance: 19.6km return
Elevation hiked: Around 600m
Time: 5 to 6 hours
Heading in slightly further this time the trail does become more difficult after the Routeburn Flats Hut as 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 rock fall in 1987, crossing several small suspension bridges, Eagle Bluff, and of course Routeburn Falls.
Start of Trail (End of Routeburn Road) to Lake Harris Saddle
Distance: 25km return
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Elevation hiked: About 850m
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 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.
What to bring
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!
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!
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. However, on the longer trails, it pays to bring a good set of boots, pants and if you have bad knees, hiking poles.
The start of the trail until Routeburn Flats is mostly shaded, however, 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.
Do I even need to say why!
Other Tips and Important Information for the Routeburn Track Day Hike
- The trail is clearly marked with orange makers 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.
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!
There are some really incredible places to explore on the South Island of New Zealand! Some of my personal favourite are: Mt Nicholas farm, Mount Cook National Park, The Tasman Glacier, Moke Lake, Roys Peak, Mt Hutt, and the Hooker Valley!