Hiking the Routeburn Track in Winter
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and a favourite track and fond memory of hikers from all over the world. Set in the stunning Tititea/Mt Aspiring National Park, the track is 32km (20 miles) long and follows a historical trail crossing from the Lakes District of Queenstown and Wanaka to the Hollyford Valley in Fiordland. Starting in stunning beech forest and carving its way up above the tree line and over the Harris Saddle, it offers a diverse range of scenery and birdlife.
Weather on the Routeburn Track in Winter
Throughout winter, weather on the Routeburn Track is highly variable as it sits on the border between the West Coast and Central Lakes regions. This means it can be completely different from one side to the other at any given time, so always pack for a range of conditions. Generally in winter, the daily high on the track is between 1’C-9’C (34F-48F), although this commonly drops below freezing (0’C/32F), even in the daytime. Nights almost always drop below freezing and snow is very common on most of the track. The altitude also has a large impact on the temperature, with the start of the trail at 500m/1600ft generally 5’C-10’C (10F-20F) warmer than the higher parts of the trail which reach over 1300m (4000ft). It is always advised to check weather forecasts for both sides of the track as chances are you will see conditions changing almost every hour along the trail. The average temperatures don’t change much throughout the winter months of June to September, before increasing significantly during October.
Conditions on the Routeburn Track in Winter
As mentioned above, the Routeburn Track is famous for its diverse scenery, ranging from dense forest to craggy mountain tops, with everything in between. The trail is generally walked East to West starting from the Lake Whakatipu/Queenstown end, beginning by following the Routeburn River through the virgin beech forest as it gently climbs up the valley. Several bridges allow the track to cross the river as the track arrives in the Routeburn Flats, a surprising flat oasis between the towering peaks. It is also home to the first hut on the trail, the Routeburn Flats hut, which is a common overnight stop for multiday hikers and one of our favourite lunch spots on our New Zealand hiking tours. Due to the lower altitude, an out and back hike to Routeburn Flats is a great day hike option to avoid the elements while still experiencing the incredible scenery, with the best of the native birdlife also calling this area home particularly in the spring months of October and November.
From here on the track gets significantly steeper as it ascends the side of the valley towards the Harris Saddle. In winter this section is regularly covered in snowfall, with snowmelt also making the track slippery so extra gear such as crampons and hiking poles are recommended. After crossing the saddle, the trail descends to the mists of Lake Mackenzie and the next hut for weary hikers. The final day the trail re-enters the forest and crosses over above the Hollyford Valley, where lovely panoramic views highlight the final descent to the trail end at The Divide. Enroute, we recommend dropping your packs and making the side trip and extra mile up to Key Summit, which offers amazing views of the whole area. Key Summit can also be hiked as a half day walk from The Divide and this is a favourite trip for New Zealand Trails to allow guests to experience the immense natural beauty of the Routeburn Track. Like many of New Zealand’s Great Walks, Routeburn Track Huts are only open for bookings in the hiking season of October to April and tend to book out quickly when they are released each year around April for the following season.
Getting to the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn River end of the trail is just over an hour's drive from Queenstown, passing through the picturesque lakeside town of Glenorchy which was only accessible by steamboat until the 1960’s. Transfers here are available year-round, both one way and as a return day trip depending on how far you plan to hike. The Divide end of the trail is halfway between the town of Te Anau and Milford Sound, over 4 hour's drive from the other end of the trail. Again, transfers can be booked from here either back to Queenstown, or more commonly to Te Anau where multi-day hikers generally stay for a comfortable night after 3 days on the trail. Transfers are a lot more limited in the winter months, so it is important to plan your hike accordingly to avoid long waits at either end. At New Zealand Trails we commonly stay in Te Anau and make sure to allow time to do the Key Summit section of the trail enroute to Milford Sound.
The Routeburn Track with New Zealand Trails
The snowy mountains of the Tititea/Mt Aspiring National Park make for breath taking scenery in winter, but for the mere mortal their beauty is best observed from a distance. Other than the first section up to Routeburn Flats the rest of the trail is often snow-covered for large periods and the Department of Conservation does not advise attempting the whole trail, going as far as removing bridges to discourage it. Either side of winter is when the Routeburn Track is at its best, with the Spring months of October/November seeing the forest come alive while snow still crowns the peaks above. The crowds are also thinner, allowing a chance to enjoy nature uninterrupted. This is also the case late in the season in March/April when the high season crowds are replaced by Autumn colours and the weather is generally the most settled. The best part about this unique region is that no two days are the same, with mother nature offering up a new glimpse into her beauty each time we are lucky enough to visit.
If you’d like to experience our favourite parts of the Routeburn Track, as well as many other Great Walks and incredible trails, then our New Zealand hiking and adventure tours might be just what you’re looking for. On our all-inclusive guided adventures, you’ll join two local New Zealand guides to explore all our must-see destinations and experience the off-the-beaten-track hidden gems that only we locals know. If you’d like to find out more grab a copy of our FREE BROCHRUE and find your perfect New Zealand itinerary.