The Routeburn Track has a well-deserved reputation as one of New Zealand's 'Great Walks' and is a favourite hiking experience for both Kiwis and overseas visitors. Here is our guide to hiking the famous Routeburn Track, including when to walk, highlights, history, flora, fauna and Routeburn Track weather.
Fun facts about the Routeburn Track
With a history that is anything but brief, the Routeburn Track had all the makings of a true classic from the very beginning. It is believed that the route was once frequented by Maori as early as the 1500s for passage to the Dart and Arahura Rivers, in search of highly prized Pounamu (greenstone). Pioneering Europeans began the first mapping of the area in 1861, with David McKellar and George Gunn surveying the landscape for potential grazing country.
The pursuit of grass quickly gave way to gold, and following its discovery, the government ordered the construction of a track for its transportation. However, this project was abandoned and never completed but the first trail was now cut. In the 1880s it had become obvious that this trail had assets even greater than its dwindling gold supply, and the first explorers and tourists began to hike the track and its fantastic scenic backcountry. The present-day trail follows the original explorers’ route, with its natural assets cementing the future of the Routeburn as we know it today. As they say – the rest is history!
As for flora and fauna, the trail is a favourite haunt of the bush robin and, near Routeburn Flats, sightings of yellowhead (mohua) are a special privilege. Fortunate hikers may even catch a glimpse of the rare blue duck (whio) which resides in the higher stretches of the river – often revealed by their shrill, distinctive call. Native parrots also inhabit this wilderness, including parakeets (kākāriki), kaka and of course the cheeky kea - normally seen flying high overhead, squawking enthusiastically. Higher up and beyond the verdant, mossy beech forests, fields of alpine herbs dress the landscape in vibrant hues with colourful daisies, bluebells, gentians, hebes and coprosma, among others. You'll also see patches of ribbon wood trees – one of New Zealand's only deciduous natives.
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Hiking the Routeburn Track
Winding its way through breath-taking South Island alpine scenery, New Zealand's Routeburn Track is open year-round but the best time of year to hike this trail depends largely on how you would like to experience its changeable moods. Showcasing sections of both Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks, enchanting rainforests, grand mountain vistas, majestic waterfalls and clear flowing rivers characterise the length of the Routeburn. Naturally, many of these special features require a fair bit of rainfall. In this higher-altitude environment, geographically positioned in the tempestuous latitude of the roaring forties, changeable and sometimes wet weather is a possibility at any time of the year.
Routeburn Track weather
The environments surrounding the Routeburn are renowned for climatic extremes, so regardless of the season, it pays to be prepared for a range of weather conditions. The best hiking begins in spring (September to November in the Southern Hemisphere) when vast fields of the famous Mount Cook buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii) are in full flower. Spring temperature averages range from 9C (48F) - 17C (62F).
The summer months of December, January and February bring the highest temperatures on the trail, averaging 10C (50F) - 18C (64F) and reaching a maximum of 28C (82F). Despite this, cold snaps can occur at any time and low temperatures can fall below 0C (32F), so don't forget to pack your warm gear. February is generally the driest month of the year with an average of only nine rainy days.
Late autumn (April and May) can be characterised by the first snowfall on the mountains, with average temperatures sitting between 8C (46F) - 16C (61F).
Routeburn Track weather during winter brings temperatures between 1C (34F) - 9C (48F), and snow is common. The Department of Conservation discourages walkers on the Routeburn Track between early May and late October because of the more challenging conditions. Sections of the trail are impassable and specialist equipment is required during this time, so we recommend leaving it to the experts.
Regardless of the season, the rivers and rainforests of the Routeburn Track are nourished by some impressive rainfall, averaging around 7m (23ft) per year. Far from discouraging, this precipitation can bring with it some incredible spectacles in the form of rivers and waterfalls. That's not to say it rains every day on the Routeburn – warm, golden sunshine is also a common mood of these mountains, bringing stunning alpine views and pleasant hiking conditions.
Routeburn Track highlights
This grand, mountainous trail is home to some of the finest scenery in the country. It's hardly surprising that the area has been designated a World Heritage Site, and the Routeburn Track explores 32km (19 miles) of countryside over 2-4 days, incorporating sections of both Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. Setting out, you'll meander through ancient beech forest, enjoying birdlife and regular views of the pristine waterways which are often forded by classic kiwi swing bridges.
The Routeburn River and gorge are always highlights, as is the incredible Hollyford face. Eventually, beech forest gives way to grassy river flats and wide-open spaces before hikers begin the gradual climb into the high country. Continuing onwards, the great walk reveals spectacular alpine meadows and the picturesque alpine lakes of Harris and MacKenzie, in addition to several jewel-like tarns which, on clear days, can offer some wonderful reflections of the surrounding landscapes. The grand views from high on the Routeburn extend to the Darran Mountains and the Tasman Sea and make for some spectacular photos. There are many waterfalls dotted along the way, including the impressive Earland and Routeburn Falls.
Tips to hiking the Routeburn Track
Where to begin
Because the track has road access to both ends, there are two possible starting points for your Routeburn adventure. The most popular is from the Routeburn Shelter end of the trail, located close to the beautiful town of Glenorchy. This end of the track is easily accessed by a short, stunning drive from Queenstown. The alternative involves setting out from The Divide Shelter, located in the heart of Fiordland National Park on the Milford Road which connects Te Anau with Milford Sound. There are a range of transport options to and from either end.
Hiking the Routeburn Track with New Zealand Trails
Often, it may not be possible to fit the full 32 km (19 miles) multi-day hike of the Routeburn Track into a vacation schedule. A day walk on the trail is the best answer – this way, you'll experience the grandeur and some of the trail's special sights without the need to complete the full distance. On our World Heritage Walking Tour, we begin our Routeburn Track experience in a place that's aptly named Paradise. Journeying through beech forests just like the filming locations from Lord of the Rings, we wind our way to Routeburn Flats beside the crystal-clear river. For the brave, a cool dip is highly refreshing! If you're after a challenge, there is the option of the hike to Routeburn Falls, where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the valley, mountains and beyond. On all our other South Island tours (Masterpiece, Kiwi Classic, and Pure South), you will experience the Routeburn Track from the other end, hiking up to the spectacular Key Summit.
If you want to find out more about the incredible 5-14 day hiking tours we run in New Zealand, you can request a free copy of our brochure here.