Inscribed on almost every “World’s Best” hikes list is the Routeburn Track in New Zealand. All too often the reality fails to meet the hyped expectations, but Routeburn does not disappoint. From start to finish the trail wow’s you so much that the work of hiking is forgotten.
The sun rising outside the Routeburn Falls Hut, a fine start to our final day on the track. This is a view hikers traveling in the traditional, Queenstown to Te Anau, direction are given on their first day.
Having completed the Milford Track just days earlier we chose to hike in the opposite direction of most, starting from Te Anau and hiking towards the comforts of Queenstown, the de facto capital of New Zealand tourism. We had been discouraged by the weather report in the Department of Conservation office: freezing temperatures and snow at the level of the campsites.
Traveling with $25 warm-weather sleeping bags and yet to rent a tent, news of snow was unwelcome. Given our experiences with rental tents we made the expensive decision to change from camping to staying in hut dormitories. Even though the huts were listed as booked we learned that there are a couple extra beds always available for a difference of $36 NZD ($28 USD) per person ($54 NZD for huts versus $18 NZD to camp in high season). Being budget travelers as we are, we lamented the cost, but decided that if greeted by rain, snow and freezing temperatures, this was the right move.
Within minutes of starting the Track the rain started, turning to snow as the temperatures plummeted. As we warmed ourselves by the fire in the hut we were glad to not be huddled together fearing the rain making it’s way into our tent…
The thermometer greeting us with welcome news: there would be snow on the mountains! Having been enraptured by the jagged mountains of the Milford Track, Hollyford Valley and surrounding us on the Routeburn Track there was only one thing more I wanted: snow capped peaks. The sheer granite mountains piercing the blue skies lacked snow to highlight their grandeur. Knowing today would be the day we headed out early hoping for the best.
The view that greeted us upon waking up in Lake Mackenzie Hut. Starting off from here the views only improved.
Looking back as we left from Lake Mackenzie Hut the sun showed us the spectacular placement of the Hut that couldn’t be seen in the downpour the previous day.
Heading out against traffic we had hours of trail and stunning views to ourselves. As we climbed, descended and rounded mountains we found ourselves in awe. All around us were breathtaking views, uninterrupted sounds of nature and artistically placed sprinklings of snow. By the time we reached our predetermined lunch stop we both agreed: this was the single most beautiful day of hiking either of us had done.
LOCAVORista surveying the trail ahead.
The Track as seen from Conical Hill where hikers making the extra effort can see across New Zealand’s South Island clear to the Milford Sound.
The day progressed slowly as the views overwhelmed any urge to complete the hike. Though it was physically strenuous with a steady mid-day climb, all effort was rewarded with vistas that were unparalleled to any other short hikes I’ve ever done. Combining well maintained trails with dormitories that are as nice as any in New Zealand, Routeburn Track is what a city slicker like me hopes all hikes would be.
The views from near Routeburn Falls Hut, arguably one of the nicest and best placed public park sleeping facilities in the world.
OK, does Routeburn deserve to be alongside hiking in the Khumbu Region of Nepal, the GR-20, and Fitz Roy as one of the world’s best? Absolutely. It deserves to be atop it’s own classification: world’s best accessible hike. Unlike the Khumbu region it requires no high-altitude acclimatization. Unlike the GR-20 it can be done on limited time as Queenstown, just two hours away, is served by international airlines. Unlike Fitz Roy, or it’s twin Torres del Paine, it requires no camping. Routeburn takes the work out of hiking so you can focus on some of the world’s best views. For hiking purists this is sacrilegious, but I believe accessibility is key to getting people, myself included, interested in the great outdoors.
WHEN YOU GO:
- Book ahead. Visit the Department of Conservation Online Booking Site to make reservations in high season. Though it doesn’t fill as quickly as the Milford Track, if you want to hike on certain days, make a reservation ASAP.
- You don’t need a guide. Guided walking service is available, for substantially more, but given the fact that the trail is maintained, staffed by trained wardens and huts have cooking facilities (burners, bring your own camping pot), trekking unguided is easy.
- Be prepared for bad weather. You will need waterproof pants, jacket and bagcover. Also carry a sleeping bag rated to freezing. You can purchase and rent most of this in New Zealand, but at prices that are outlandishly expensive by North American standards.