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The Routeburn Track is one of the most famous hikes on the South Island of New Zealand. As one of the country’s 10 Great Walks, the track is usually completed over 2 or 3 days. I’ve personally been lucky enough to hike the full trail over 3 days camping along the way.
However, camping or staying in huts for 3 days and carrying all your own food isn’t something everyone wants to do or has time for. I myself don’t always want to rough it out in the New Zealand backcountry (although I find myself doing it a lot!)
Luckily though, you can enjoy breathtaking day hikes on the Routeburn Track – something I regularly do!
For all fitness levels, you can find a specific day hike that suits you. In this blog, I’ll share all the different day hikes you can do on the Routeburn Track as well as hiking tips and essential safety info you need to know before you go!
Routeburn Track Overview
The Routeburn Track is a 32 kilometers (20 mile) point-to-point track that traditionally starts just outside the town of Glenorchy at the Routeburn Shelter and finishes at The Divide Shelter on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
The trail can be walked in either direction and when it comes to day hiking the Routeburn Track this is especially true. From either side of the trail, you get a completely different experience. Starting from The Divide Shelter, the Key Summit is an extremely popular viewpoint. From Routeburn Shelter, Routeburn Falls Hut provides magnificent views of the valley.
For those who are fit enough, you can make it to Lake Harris (from Routeburn Shelter) or Lake Mackenzie (from The Divide Shelter) and back again in one day. Regardless, there are plenty of amazing views to be seen even on the shortest day hikes on the Routeburn Track.
Day hikes on the Routeburn Track range from easy all the way to very challenging. Choosing the right trail for you is important and below you’ll learn about them all!
Related Read: The Routeburn Track is one of the best free things to do in Glenorchy – find out what the others are!
Routeburn Track Day Hike FAQs
What to Pack
Lunch and snacks – There is nowhere to buy food along the Routeburn Track even at the huts. We all get hangry sometimes so it’s best to bring plenty of food!
Wet weather gear – The weather on the Routeburn Track is unpredictable. It can rain any day of the year especially on The Divide Shelter side of the trail. Always bring a wet weather layer! To be honest it’s one of the better trails to hike in the rain in Queenstown.
Water bottle – There are plenty of places to fill up on the trail, but at a minimum, I’d bring a 1-liter water bottle!
Emergency locator – If you plan on hiking parts of the trail in the offseason it’s best to get yourself an emergency locator. You can rent them from the DOC visitor center in Queenstown.
Hiking poles – I need hiking poles! My knees always struggle hiking downhill and hiking poles save them. If you too get sore knees, bring some along!
Routeburn Day Hike Itineraries From Routeburn Shelter
The Routeburn Shelter is the most popular starting point for day hikes on the Routeburn Track. The reason for this is that Routeburn Shelter is only a 15-minute drive from Glenorchy and 1 hour from Queenstown. There are multiple day hikes you can do from here and I’ll mention them below ranging from easiest to hardest.
Bridal Veil Falls
Length: Around 8 – 10 kilometers return (5-6.2 miles)
Time needed: 3 to 4 hours
The first day hike option starting from Routeburn Shelter is to Bridal Veil Falls. There’s no exact info available about how long the hike actually is, however, it is around half to three-quarters of the way to Routeburn Flats Hut, or 8 to 10 kilometers return (5-6.2 miles).
The trail to the falls is wide and almost completely flat making this section of the trail accessible to most. It’s a great nature walk with beautiful views of the Dart River and of course Bridal Veil Falls.
To hike this section of the trail I’d allow around three to four hours at a slow pace. At a fast pace, you could do it in just over two hours.
Related Blog: If you’re looking for another easy hike to do in Glenorchy, then the Glenorchy Lagoon Walkway is perfect. Starting in town, the trail takes you to Mirror Lakes which reflect the Humboldt Mountains almost perfectly!
Routeburn Flats Hut
Length: 15 kilometers return (9.3 miles)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Time Needed: 4 to 5 hours
For those who can do a little more hiking in a day but still want to avoid the uphill climbs on the Routeburn Track, then the hike to the Routeburn Flats Hut is a great option. This hike is 15 kilometers return (9.3 miles) and has only a gradual incline of 300 meters (984 feet) on the way there.
Along the way, you’ll get to enjoy amazing views of the valley, Bridal Veil Falls, the Dart River, and lots more. At a slow pace, you can easily complete this section there and back in under 5 hours. You’ll know exactly when you reach the hut as it is signposted. When you do, take a look around, the views from the hut are spectacular!
Routeburn Falls Hut
Length: 19.6 kilometers (12.2 miles)
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Time Needed: 6 to 7 hours
If you came to hike the Routeburn Track for those epic mountain views from above the valley, then you’re going to need to hike to Routeburn Falls.
Just before you reach Routeburn Flats Hut you’ll see a sign on your left pointing to Routeburn Falls Hut. From here, the trail climbs up the valley before finally reaching Routeburn Falls. The extra distance is under 5 kilometers (3.1 miles), but what you get to see are those classic Routeburn Track views.
I would rate this day hiking option as moderate to hard because of the trail’s length and the fact that you’ll need to climb another 300 meters in elevation (984 feet) to the falls.
Personally, I love hiking to Routeburn Falls Hut. I find it’s the perfect trail length for reasonably fit hikers looking for a fun day hike.
Length: 25 kilometers (15.5 miles)
Time needed: 8 hours
The longest day hike option on the Routeburn Track starting from Routeburn Shelter is to Lake Harris. On my first ever day hike here, I ended up at Lake Harris accidentally. I honestly just thought ‘I’ll go a little further’, and ended up hiking a bit too far for my liking. With that said though, the section between Routeburn Falls and Lake Harris is stunning.
As far as elevation goes, it’s only another 150 meters higher (492 feet). But it’s the trail’s length of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) return that makes your feet sore at the end of the day. Any longer and you might as well hike the entire trail from end to end (more on that below.)
In winter, this section of the trail is within avalanche terrain. For this reason, it’s not advised to hike this far until after October or when the trail opens for multi-day hikers.
Routeburn Track Day Hikes From The Divide Shelter
The Divide Shelter parking lot is located 82 kilometers (51 miles) from the town of Te Anau along the road to Milford Sound. One of the reasons hiking the full Routeburn Track is such a pain is because you need to organize transport at one end of the trail. The problem? It takes around 4.5 hours to drive to The Divide Shelter from Routeburn Shelter.
To avoid this, you can do some great day hikes from this side of the trail, and below are some options!
Length: 7 kilometers (4.3 miles)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Time needed: 3 hours
From The Divide Shelter, the Key Summit is without a doubt the most popular hiking option in Milford Sound. Although this trail starts on the Routeburn Track it does branch off to reach the summit. Still, it’s a popular add-on for those hiking the Routeburn Track.
The trail is literally straight up the entire way. Over 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) you’ll climb 400 meters (1,312 feet) until you reach the Key Summit. From here, on a beautiful day, you’ll get magnificent views of the Southern Alps. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get good weather and if it’s cloudy you won’t see a thing – trust me I’ve been up there when it’s cloudy!
Overall though, the Key Summit Hike is one of the best things to do in Fiordland National Park.
Tour option: This guided Key Summit walk departs from Te Anau (close to Milford Sound) where you will walk between 4-6 hours on the track at a leisurely pace. Lunch and transport are included.
Length: 24 kilometers (15 miles)
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Time needed: 7 hours
The longest day hike from The Divide Shelter is to Lake Mackenzie. This day hike option is long, however, Lake Mackenzie is one of my favorite spots on the entire trail. The lake literally shines emerald green with an epic mountain backdrop and surrounding greenery. It was the most beautiful place I camped in when I hiked the full Routeburn Track.
The length of the trail is what makes this section difficult. In fact, there is only an elevation gain of 550 meters (1,640 feet) from The Divide Shelter parking lot. However, with 24 kilometers (15 miles) to get through, this day hike should only be attempted by those wanting a challenge!
Related Read: Another hike on the South Island that takes you to a stunning alpine lake is the Lake Alta Track. Starting at The Remarkables Ski Field near Queenstown the trail is short but sweet!
Hike the Entire Routeburn Track in One Day
Length: 32 kilometers (20 miles)
Time needed: 8 to 11 hours
It is possible to hike the full Routeburn Track in one day (Routeburn Shelter to The Divide Shelter.) Personally, I have not done this but know many who have. It’s a long day that involves massive inclines and declines (that kill my knees.) To be honest, it’s not my thing, I find hikes like this far too rushed! But for some super-fit hikers or anyone wanting a nice challenge to conquer, it’s an option!
It’s definitely a hard hike so some training should be done before attempting. Most people take around 10 hours with the fastest time I’ve heard of being 7 hours.
Related Read: Driving from Queenstown to Te Anau? Be sure to read my blog about all the best places to stop along the way!
Day Hikes on the Routeburn Track in Winter
In winter, much of the Routeburn Track is far too dangerous to hike. From Routeburn Shelter, anywhere past Routeburn Falls Hut is prime avalanche terrain. Although there are times when you can make it to Lake Harris during the offseason, it’s really risky. During winter, don’t hike past Routeburn Falls Hut.
From The Divide Shelter, it is much safer in winter and you can make it to the Key Summit without issues. However, be prepared for snow. Crampons will come in handy and having an ice ax is also smart. Hiking to Lake Mackenzie is not advised.
Just be aware that people have died on the trail in winter, so exercise extreme caution.
Best Day Hiking Tours of the Routeburn Track
These tours mentioned below are excellent if you don’t have a car or enjoy leisurely-paced/guided group tours.
- Small Group Guided Hike of Routeburn Track – This tour is the choice that will give you the most options when it comes to the distance you will go. You can hike to Routeburn Flats which is about 13 km (8 miles) return which on average takes 2-3 hours. If you are a more advanced hiker you can continue on to Routeburn Falls Hut if you wish which is an additional 4.6 km (2.9 miles) or 17.6 km in total (11 miles) which is over half of the track! You will learn about the fauna and area from an expert local guide and enjoy a provided lunch.
- Key Summit Guided Walk – Departing from Te Anau this walk begins from the Divide Shelter and you can expect to walk between 4-6 hours at a leisurely pace. If conditions permit you will stop at the summit for lunch. If you have a basic level of fitness this walk is considered easy.
- Routeburn Track Guided Hike – This tour option is very affordable at just $205 NZD but still really great value! This tour option is one that will cover the longest section of Routeburn – up to 22 kilometers (13 miles)! So make sure you are in pretty good shape before committing. Lunch, snacks, and transport from Queenstown are included!
Essential Info to Remember
- There is parking at both sides of the Routeburn Track, however, the Divide Shelter is a much smaller parking lot. Parking is free but you are not allowed to sleep in your vehicle overnight.
- The trail is marked with orange markers the entire way. It is really defined and easy to follow.
- If you want to stay overnight on the trail you will need to book your stay on the DOC website well in advance during the summer hiking season. With that said, you can sometimes find one night available. That way you can turn your day hike into an overnight hike!
Where to Stay in Glenorchy
Glenorchy is a beautiful place to spend a night or two. Honestly, the atmosphere is so peaceful and nothing like Queenstown. It’s the perfect place to take a break and unwind. The best places to stay are:
The Headwaters Eco Lodge – This place has it all! It’s a holiday park and has dorm rooms all the way up to luxury accommodation. Breakfast and a 3-course dinner are included daily. The hotel focuses on being environmentally conscious which I love.
Kinloch Wilderness Retreat – Kinloch Retreat is located a short drive out of Glenorchy in an even quieter location on the other side of Lake Wakatipu. Next to Kinloch Retreat is a DOC-owned (but operated by the retreat) campground with non-powered sites for $15 NZD per person per night. Of course, if you want some luxury stay at the retreat where they have dorm beds and luxury rooms.
EcoScapes – EcoScapes is a luxury hotel with the most amazing views. Each room has a large glass wall so you don’t miss a single sunset or sunrise if you don’t want to. They also include a superb breakfast.
There are a few other places to stay in Glenorchy that you can check out on Booking.com. Otherwise, check out some great holiday home rentals in the area.
Other Things to do in Glenorchy
Besides hiking, hiking in Glenorchy is quite limited on things to do so below we’ve highlighted the other main attractions in the area.
- Glenorchy Animal Experience – Visit this small little petting zoo surrounded by mountains and feed all the different animals on the property! Great for kids and adults alike, plus, admission is cheap.
- Lord of the Rings Tour of Queenstown and Glenorchy – If you haven’t been to Hobbiton yet or want to see more LOTR-related sights then taking this 4-hour tour is excellent. You’ll see and learn about several filming locations around the Southern Alps and Mt Aspiring National Park with a break for a picnic lunch.
- Photography Tour of Glenorchy – If you love shooting on your DSLR you can take this photography tour which will be the most convenient way to hop around to all of the best scenic spots as you are driven around by a local photographer. They’ll also share their tips and trips for higher-quality images. Great for beginners and experts.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for Reading!
I love the Routeburn Track. Looking back, it really is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Glenorchy. From the variety of landscapes to the trail’s rather easy difficulty, it’s a wonderful trail that most can enjoy. Luckily for me, I’m local to the area so every summer season is another chance to enjoy the Routeburn Track!
Thanks so much for reading. I hope this guide has helped plan your adventure on the Routeburn Track. Be sure to browse my website for all the best tips, guides, and recommendations on things to do in Queenstown! Also, check out some of my other favorite hiking trails in Queenstown or some of my most popular guides here: