Routeburn & Milford Track | Best Day Hikes

By New Zealand Trails

7 minute read

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Many people do not have the several days needed to walk the famous Milford and Routeburn Tracks in their entireties. Read on for the best options for day hiking on two of the most famous walking tracks in New Zealand.

Milford Track - 'the finest walk in the world'

Situated in Fiordland National Park, the Milford Track starts at the northern tip of Lake Te Anau where it follows the Clinton River to its headwaters, before crossing the Southern Alps at McKinnon Pass. It then meanders down the Arthur Valley from the Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall, before finishing at Milford Sound.

Unlike many of the other tracks in the area, which were originally routes established by European pioneers in the 1860s gold rush, the Milford Track was established solely as a recreational walking track. In 1880, the discovery of Sutherland Falls hastened the search for an inland trail to connect Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound. Prior to the discovery of the route, visitors to Milford and the Falls had to take a steamship from Invercargill! For those of you that aren’t too familiar with New Zealand’s geography, Invercargill is nearly 300 kilometres south of Milford… and that’s just by land!

After a few failed attempts, Scottish explorer Quintin Mackinnon discovered the pass which now bears his name in 1888 and the Milford Track was born. Mackinnon became the first guide on the track and local history is full of stories of his guiding and bush cooking prowess. From that day, visitors have been enjoying the splendour and beauty of walking the Milford Track, living up to its reputation of 'the finest walk in the world'.

Amazing Milford Track view

It's hard to believe this is real, but it is! Come see for yourself on a Milford Sound day walk.

Milford Track Day Walk - Sandfly Point to Giant's Gate from Milford Sound

A day walk from Milford Sound at the end of the track is a fantastic experience for people who want to do more with their time in New Zealand than just hike one track. You’ll start in the morning from Milford Sound with a stunning boat ride across to a place aptly named Sandfly Point to begin your walk. Your guide will then lead you on an enthralling three or four hour (choose your own pace!) return walk through this most famously beautiful part of New Zealand. You are likely to have the track to yourselves for most of the way. The greatest advantage of doing the day walk from this end of the track is that those walking the full track start a full day's walk away from you, so you really don't run into many other hikers.

The walk to Giant's Gate Falls takes you alongside both the Arthur River and Lake Ada. You’ll meander through beautiful ancient Gondwanaland forest, a mix of beech and podocarp (rimu, totara, miro) trees with a vivid green understory world of moss, ferns and lichens. The Milford Track is not only a popular walking track but also an active conservation area and the fruits of many years of hard work are evident in the birdlife all around you. It’s not uncommon to see endemic bird species along the track including kea, weka and the rare blue duck (whio). The whio were once widespread around New Zealand and the Milford Track is now one of the only places they can be found.

Lush Milford Sound day walk in the rainforest

Gorgeous and untouched, there's almost endless forest just like this waiting for you.

Routeburn Track - one of our favourite walks

The Routeburn Track is one of our favourites! All of our South Island trips include a day hiking in this incredible landscape. Our guides know the Routeburn inside out and they all love it!

If you’re on the World Heritage tour, your day begins by travelling alongside the stunning Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Glenorchy. The Tommy Thomson scenic drive is stellar, there’s something magical about the vast lake as it shimmers in the morning sun. Our guides will stop at a lesser-known spot called Bennett's Bluff, which gives you a stunning elevated view towards the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, Mount Earnslaw and Mt Aspiring National Park. If the famous New Zealand scenery is one of the main reasons you’re visiting, we promise you will not be disappointed with the outlooks here.

If you’re on the Kiwi Classic, Masterpiece, or Pure South, your day begins with a boat trip around Milford Sound, one of the highlights of any New Zealand holiday! You’ll then make you way back towards Te Anau, as the road winds through Fiordland National Park with mountains such as Mount Christina, Mount Mitchelson and Mount Talbot dominating the skyline. As you journey through Fiordland, you’ll encounter the Homer Tunnel. The construction of the tunnel was an epic task. Work was started in 1935 with the 1.2 km tunnel opening 19 years later in 1954. It’s a great spot to see some locals in the form of the notoriously cheeky native Kea, who can usually be seen hanging around near the tunnel entrance.

In addition to a wide range of wildlife, guests are amazed by an array of waterfalls along the route – you never know where you’ll spot the next!

Overlooking the valley on a Routeburn Track day hike

Though the standards around here are very high, this view on the Routeburn day walk ranks amongst the best - we promise!

The Routeburn Track passes through two national parks, with Fiordland in the west and Mount Aspiring in the east. As with most of the mountain passes in the South Island, the first human visitors to the Routeburn Valley were Maori on their Greenstone (Pounamu) gathering journeys to the West Coast around 500 years ago. The establishment of a more permanent route up the Routeburn Valley, over the Harris Saddle and down into the Hollyford Valley came as a result of the Central Otago goldrush of the 1860s.

In what proved to be an ultimately overly ambitious proposal, the local authorities planned to build a wagon trail all the way from the head of Lake Wakatipu to Martins Bay on the Hollyford Track, where a deepwater port was to be built for the purpose of transporting gold by steamship to Melbourne. It was for this purpose that a surveyor by the name of Patrick Caples, employed by the Wakatipu Mining Board, ventured up the Routeburn Valley alone in 1863 to discover the Harris Saddle and became the first European to enter the Hollyford Valley below. However the goldrush was short-lived so the transport route never eventuated. It was these events that put the Routeburn on the map. As tourism began to develop in the late nineteenth century, a popular excursion was to travel to the head of the lake by steamship before heading up the Routeburn Valley in open top cars to enjoy the wonderful wilderness.

The part of the Routeburn that guests on the World Heritage experience is on the eastern side of the main divide of the South Island and it makes for very different flora than the areas on the western side of the divide. The World Heritage walk starts amongst what is often regarded as some of the most beautiful Red Beech forest in New Zealand, complete with a soft carpet of leaves and ethereal light from the pale green leaves of the Nothafagus fusca (Red Beech). The track follows the Routeburn River up the valley, passing through stunning sections of river and gorge (particularly impressive when the river is in flood!). Hikers can even see remains of the last campsite where road crews made their camp before the road was abandoned.

You gradually climb higher up the valley and are rewarded when you break out of the forest into the alpine sanctuary of Routeburn Flats, the perfect place to stop for lunch! Keep an eye out for the extremely rare Yellowhead (Mohua) and friendly Bush Robin in the trees around the hut as you enjoy your lunch and a well-deserved hot drink with the magical alpine scenery as a backdrop.

Stop by the river on a Routeburn day walk

Crystal clear alpine waters trace the lush New Zealand forest along this section of your Routeburn Track day hike.

The return walk to Routeburn Flats will be enough for some people, but if you're looking for a little more of a challenge and views of a lifetime, then our guides can accompany you on the climb to Routeburn Falls. It's definitely a good stretch for the legs, a 300m (900ft) climb, but the track is excellent all the way and there's no rush at all - if some of your party would prefer to relax then Routeburn Flats is an ideal place to pass the time while others make the climb to the Falls. We’ve guided thousands of people of all ages and abilities on our small group adventures and we reckon that most people have chosen to go on to Falls and absolutely loved it. The first third of the climb is the steepest, but it soon flattens out. From time to time, windows through the forest offer excellent views of the surrounding mountains and Routeburn Flats below, providing a teaser for the main event.

Once you arrive at Routeburn Falls, head out on the rocky area to the right of the huts for what are some of the best views on any day walk in New Zealand - the perfect glacial valley, with the flat floor flanked by forest-clad slopes rising up to rocky peaks dusted in snow; your photos from here will be in your highlights reel for certain.

In contrast, the part of the Routeburn that our MasterpieceKiwi Classic and Pure South guests experience is on the western side, giving a different array of flora and fauna. Our walk begins in a beech forest where the floor is carpeted with vibrant moss. The spectrum of green on display is sublime as you head deeper into the wildness. Micro-civilisations seem to have been created by the towering tree ferns and minuscule mosses as you trek through the forest.

As you leave the forest and edge closer to the top of the Key Summit Trail, the Humboldt mountains stretch out ahead. The Darran Mountains appear in the distance as you ascend and you’re able to see down the Hollyford Valley to the Tasman Sea. We reckon it’s one of Fiordland's most iconic scenes!

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