Hiking the Routeburn Track in New Zealand

When you think of classic hikes, the Milford Trail in New Zealand is always near the top. There is no doubt that it is achingly beautiful with pristine woodlands, other-worldly goblin moss draped across gnarled and twisted trees, and epic waterfalls spilling down lush mountainsides. The Milford sound deserves its place as one of the world’s best hikes.

But it’s not the only beautiful hike in New Zealand. The Routeburn, a 2-3  day, 32km hike which climbs over the Harris Saddle for sweeping views of the Southern Alps, and passes through a number of waterfalls, including Earland Falls, which you literally have to walk through. Bring rain gear though. If the weather doesn’t soak you, Earland Falls will.

Day One

I had just completed the Milford track the day before I started the Routeburn. The weather had been perfect the entire time. This morning, day one of my trek, however, was pouring! Rain pooled along the streets of Te Anau as I waited to join a group to hit trail. I guess my luck with the weather could only last so long. I had heard horror stories of the weather on MacKinnon Pass. By the time we made it to the trailhead, luck was back on my side and the rain had settled back into a light drizzle.

I headed out setting a quick pace up the muddy path. After 4 days on the Milford, I had my hiking legs under me. About 30 minutes into the hike, you can take a detour to a lookout with great views of the Humboldt ranges. I arrived and the entire lookout was blanketed in thick, damp fog. After snapping a few fleeting photos of the view, I packed my gear and headed back down towards the main trail. As quick as the fog had rolled in, it cleared. I turned around and headed but up to the peak. The views were worth the return trip.

The rest of day one was an easy hike down into a gorge through Beech forests and across the Sugarloaf Stream before ascending up to camp 1, situated beside Lake MacKenzie. I dumped my gear, cleaned up and headed down to the lake to watch the sunset. The views and reflection of the water were incredible.


Day Two

Day two was a steady climb up to Lake Harris and the Harris Saddle. The views continued to open up until you were surrounded by craggy peaks and azure blue volcanic lakes. I stretched out in the sun near the hut at Harris Saddle, took off my shoes and ate my lunch, prolonging the moment as long as I could.

After lunch, the trail hugs Harris Lake and begins to descend towards camp 2. Don’t forget to turn around and look back at the views. The lake, nestled between snow capped peaks rivals the Swiss Alps for postcard perfect views. Less than an hour later I was at camp. To be honest, the day was really short. I think it took me perhaps 4 hours to hike it. I considered continuing on to camp 3. But why rush nature? It took millions of years to make this incredible landscape. Why should I rush through it for no good reason?

Day Three

Day three I was ready to go by 6am. I headed down to the Routeburn Falls capturing the early morning light before heading off for the final 7 miles. Rocky, at first, the trail followed the valley ridge on a meandering path, diving back into the the beech forests below. The Routeburn can be completed  easily in either direction.


During my descent I passed many hikers heading up towards Harris Saddle. Although the hike up would be a long ascent, I suspect you would be rewarded with the views of Harris Lake continually unveiling itself before you much more than the direction I took. I made an effort to turn around regularly to check out the view, but it is not the same as walking towards the peaks.

By mid-morning I was down at the car park having completed the 7 miles in about 2 hours. I lay in the sun waiting for my group to arrive. I drifted off, my pack as my pillow. Milford may get all the glory, but the Routeburn sure isn’t a runner up. My advice, do both!