Our first taste of New Zealand’s Great Walks is the Routeburn Track, a 3-day 32.1-kilometer trek that is often touted as one of the country’s finest. In a country known for spectacular hiking, that’s quite an endorsement. It also happens to be considered one of the world’s “Classic Hikes,” so you know we are all over this one!
The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s most popular Great Walks, and it is absolutely essential to book accommodation as far in advance as possible. We made our reservations nearly six months before our hike, and still we struggled to find hut space, making us feel quite lucky to be able to do this trek at all.
While it is possible to start the Routeburn Track from either direction, the limited hut space meant that we would have to start at The Divide on the west end (near Milford Sound) and head east to the Routeburn Shelter (near Glenorchy). We happened to be coming from Wanaka/Queenstown in the east, so this meant a lot of extra driving for us, but we made the most of it by adding in a morning cruise of Milford Sound before hitting the trail on Day 1.
After our early morning cruise, we were ready to hit the trail. We parked our car at The Divide, where we ate a quick lunch, packed up our backpacks and attached our lock box to the exterior of the car before finally hitting the trail around 2 pm. If all goes according to plan, sometime over the next three days, a driver from Easy Hike will come to pick up our car and drive it to the Routeburn Shelter trailhead at the east end of the track. That is only 32.1 kilometers by foot from where we are now, but it is 325 kilometers by car. We have to pay a pretty penny for this service ($295 NZD/$215 USD), but the convenience and time savings definitely makes it worth the extra expense.
We stop for the requisite trail sign photo at the trailhead and start climbing right away. Over the next 1.7 kilometers, we will gain about 400 meters of elevation, our steepest grade of the day. The trail is lined with ferns, other interesting primeval-looking foliage and even a small, pretty waterfall that help keep our minds distracted from the hard work our legs are doing.
With only 12 kilometers on tap for the day to reach Lake MacKenzie Hut, we decide to take the short side trip to Key Summit (918 meters). We stash our backpacks just after the trail junction and go light up to the summit where we make a short loop around a stunning alpine wetland. The views of Fjordland’s Darran Mountains and Hollyford Valley to the west are phenomenal, so the extra time and effort is well worth it.
From there, the hike to the hut is fairly level and straight-forward. We take a long rest break at the base of beautiful Earland Falls before pressing on. Signs along the trail indicate that this area is often flooded and inaccessible to hikers, but we are able to get to the base of the falls without any incident. It’s a beautiful little cove, so we thank our lucky stars that the trail is open for us.
From the falls, we gradually ascend through an open, grassy area known as the “Orchard.” Here the trail opens up, and we get wonderful views of the waterfall behind us as well as the mountains ahead of us.
From there the trail makes a final dip to Lake Mackenzie Hut, which will be our home for the evening. There are several pretty rock staircases along this section of trail, and we are grateful to have them.
We arrive at Lake Mackenzie just as the hut warden is wrapping up his nightly hut talk, which is unfortunate as we hear from other hikers that his program was excellent. We find two mattresses together in the bunkroom above the dining room/kitchen. By the time we get settled, make our dinner, eat and clean everything up, it’s already dark and quiet in the hut. It looks like everyone heads to bed quite early, and we are quite happy to comply.
Day 1 Trail Logistics:
Start Point: The Divide
End Point: Lake Mackenzie Hut
Distance: 12 kilometers
Walking Time: 3-5 hours
Best Done: October-April
Date on Trail: 23 December 2016