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Most people think that New Zealand’s famous Routeburn Track can only be hiked in the summer, and this is incorrect! While you can’t complete the whole track in the winter, the Routeburn Track winter hike is simply gorgeous and worth checking out! This blog is a guide to the portions of the track you can complete in winter along with tips!
The Routeburn Track is one of the busiest trails in New Zealand – in summer that is!
In winter though, the Routeburn Track becomes a ghost land with only very few hikers venturing onto the pristine trail. This is largely due to the cold weather and the fact that hiking the entire trail in winter is downright dangerous.
However, there is a large section of the trail that can be hiked all year round and with the right preparation, is completely safe! In my opinion, it’s a great time to avoid the large crowds and get out and see some snow!
For those thinking the same as I did, this blog is here to help you have fun but avoid any unnecessary risk on the trail. In no way is this a “you shouldn’t go” post but more of an “if you’re going to go, only go to where it is safe”.
I will also let you know of a couple of great Routeburn Track winter trips that range from 1 day to an overnight adventure!
What are the Risks of a Routeburn Track Winter Hike?
Likely the most dangerous risk of a Routeburn Track winter trip is avalanches. Even on day hikes where you do not complete the mountain pass, there are large areas where steep cliffs and large amounts of snowfall create areas where avalanches are just part of the décor.
Of course, you can easily avoid these areas and below I’ll show you how.
With the remoteness of the trail and the very few visitors in winter, hiking the Routeburn Track can put you at risk of hypothermia. If you were to injure yourself and be forced to spend the night in the sub-zero temperatures things could turn for the worse very quickly.
To combat this, never hike alone, tell people of our intentions for that day, dress for the conditions and when you plan to return, and if you can carry an emergency locator.
3. Large Snow Fall
The trail itself in the alpine areas receives lots of snow. These areas can make the track impossible to find and open you up to new dangers like falling through the deep snow. Losing track of the path and getting lost is also a quick way to turn a fun trip to a dangerous one.
Related Read: Enjoy a mountainside dining experince at Heidi’s Hut in Queenstown! It won’t be a dinner you’ll soon forget.
How much of the Routeburn Track can you hike in Winter?
From the Queenstown side of the Routeburn Track, you can make it to Routeburn Flats Hut without any trouble. This area is not alpine and only elevates to around 600m (1,969 ft). This section of the trail is a flat 7.5km (4.7 mi) one-way trip. You could complete this in around 3 to 4 hours return.
Once you begin heading further in than Routeburn Flats is where the dangers begin to arise. From the Flats, you must begin your ascent up the trail to the Routeburn Falls Hut. Although most of this trail is covered in thick forest, some areas are exposed and in the middle of winter can collect snow.
This part of the track should only be hiked if conditions are good and there is little to no snowfall on the track. In my opinion, in most winter conditions the Falls Hut is as far as you should go.
Note: This will all depend on recent weather conditions so please check with the DOC (Department of Conservation) beforehand in Queenstown.
Related Read: The best tours in Queenstown that you might be missing out on.
The next section from the Routeburn Falls Hut to Harris Lake poses a high risk of avalanches. The section I am mainly talking about is just before Harris Lake and continues all the way over the Harris Pass. Here, you enter a large valley where the trail follows the bottom of steep cliffs.
These peaks collect large amounts of snow and make hiking far too dangerous during avalanche risk times. Also, this is likely where the track will start to disappear under the snow, making both walking and finding the trail more difficult.
Although the first 1 kilometer (0.6m mi) past the Falls Hut is fine, you shouldn’t go any further if conditions and your experience don’t permit it.
Related Read: Hiking the Kepler Track is a must do activity for any avid hiker!
Where to Park for the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Shelter Parking Lot is easy to spot right off of Routeburn Road and has clear marking for the Routeburn Track right across the road. Since it is winter you won’t have any issues finding parking, even in the summer, the lot is big enough to where as long as you get there relatively early you’ll be fine. If you aren’t driving yourself, it’s also convenient for taxis and shuttles to drop off/pick up.
The facilities available in the gravel parking lot are public toilets and a shelter with maps of the track.
How far I Went on the Routeburn Track
I hiked the Routeburn Track at the very end of winter when there had been a few weeks or so of warm temperatures and a few weeks without heavy snowfall. Both Bailey and I always said we would hike as far as was safe and actually made it to Lake Harris (about an hour past Routeburn Falls).
There was lots of snow on the ground but not on the mountains. We could also easily spot the orange poles that marked the track and the cliffs around had lost most of their winter snow.
If the conditions are worse when you hike the Routeburn Track in winter, it is probably best to stop at the Routeburn Falls Hut.
Routeburn Track Winter Itineraries
There are several different ways you can hike the Routeburn Track in winter, but one we can rule out is hiking past the Harris Saddle.
1. Hiking to the Routeburn Falls Hut and back
This option is great as there is no need to buy a hut pass and in one day you can be in and out! The hike up to the falls is 10km (6.2 mi) long one-way and takes you high above the valley floor raising you up 600m (1,969 ft) in altitude!
By no means is this a short day, but it’s a great way for those who are short on time and up for a long day hike!
Related Read: Read our take on the top Lord of the Rings tours from Queenstown.
2. Overnight at the Routeburn Falls Hut
After making the trip up and back in a day I realized that the best way to hike the Routeburn in winter is by spending the night at the Routeburn Falls Hut. This way you can take your time on both the way up and down, and then spend the night in a quiet hut with some pretty spectacular views!
Of course, even in winter the huts still cost money (cheaper) but the great thing is they never book out! You can buy your hut pass at any of the DOC offices! There is one in Queenstown so you can get your pass before you head up!
The Routeburn Falls Hut is super luxurious with a full kitchen, flush toilets, and plenty of rooms for sleeping. It is hands-down one of the top huts in New Zealand that you should really check out!
Related Read: Queenstown is an incredible base for hiking, check out the best day hikes to go on in Queentown.
3. Going Past the Routeburn Falls Hut
The next main sight past the Routeburn Falls Hut is Lake Harris, however, hiking to Lake Harris can be dangerous so make sure to turn back if it looks unsafe. Going any farther than Lake Harris is really farther than I would advise, I would only seriously consider it if you are very comfortable, experienced, and prepared for winter alpine conditions. If you do continue on the next hut to stay at would be Lake Mackenzie Hut.
That said, it’s definitely part of the track that could be easily hiked during summer and you could continue all the way until you reach The Divide in Te Anau.
What to Pack for the Routeburn Track in Winter
- Thermal underwear (top and bottom set)
- Wool or thermal boot socks – Merino Wool is one of the best kinds for hiking
- Hiking boots
- Beanie – very important as you lose heat quickly from your head
- Winter hiking jacket – maybe even a tighter inner layer and a more loose outer layer to protect you from the wind.
- Hiking poles and crampons should be brought with you as recommended by the DOC.
- Food and snacks
- Water bottle (important to stay hydrated even in the winter)!
To bring for the huts:
- Lightweight gas cooker would be nice for warm meals or drinks
- Dry set of clothes
- Warm sleeping bag and blankets
- Slippers or another pair of shoes for walking around inside
Besides the basics, in order to be completely self-sufficient in the worst-case scenario, see the full list from the DOC which tells you what to bring in case of an avalanche.
Where to Stay Near the Routeburn Track
The best town to stay in the night before or after your hike is Glenorchy. From here, you’ll only be about 25 minutes to the trailhead. Here are our suggested accommodations:
Kinloch Wilderness Retreat – This is a great budget option with lots of amenities. Although not in Glenorchy, it is on the other side of Lake Wakatipu in a very quiet area. The views from the hostel are amazing, and they also have private rooms in several different sizes!
Glenorchy Lake House – Located right in town, this is a really good option. You can find luxury private rooms and even a house that sleeps up to 9 people.
Glenorchy Motel – An older-style property with simple rooms that all come with a seating area, TV, and private bathroom, and a hot tub is available for guests. Another great option close to the Routeburn Track.
If you are looking for more choices, check out our guide on where to stay in Queenstown, which is just 50 km (31 mi) from Glenorchy!
Thanks for reading!
The Routeburn Track winter hike was an amazing experience that I highly recommend. Though there are more dangers in winter I loved the quietness of the track and venturing through the snow was really cool!
If you’re a hiker who loves getting away from the busy trails but still wants to hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks then a Routeburn Track winter hike is the perfect option!
If you found this blog helpful be sure to check out all our New Zealand guides on our New Zealand Page here. Or, check out these related articles:
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