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Routeburn Trek, New Zealand

Hiking the Routeburn TrekTrekking in the south western corner of New Zealand, a.k.a “God Zone” provides an unparalleled, old-growth forest hike, but the question is which trek is the best? Milford Trek has long been labeled the champion, but Routeburn trek is now showing up on many people’s lists as a superior experience. While it is difficult to obtain permits for the Milford Trek, it is somewhat easier to schedule a hike along Routeburn.

Tourists have flocked to Routeburn since the late 1880’s, but previously it was used as a route to find pounamu or greenstone. Now it is a rouged alternative to Milford and is hiked by over 13,000 people a year. Treked in either of two directions, the trail’s waterfalls and deep river valleys can be visited as either an independant or guided walk.


Days Trekking: 3 days
Distance: 32km, 20 mi
Max Elevation: 1,255 meters, 4,142ft, Harris Saddle
Starting Elevation: 532 meters, 1,745ft
Approximate Elevation Change: 723 meters, 2,397ft
Price Range Independent: <$150
Price Range Outfitter: <$1,000
Challenge Level: Moderate, under good weather conditions



  • Two incredible waterfalls (Earland and Routeburn)
  • Deep river valleys
  • Old growth forests
  • Well constructed and staffed huts


When to Go

Similar to the Milford Trek, the main trekking season is from late October to late April. However, some people choose to trek off season when the DOC huts are not necessarily staffed. If you go off season you will also have to contend with an increased risk of avalanches and slips.

The Routeburn Trek is very popular. although not quite as popular as the Milford Trek. Still it is advised that you book your trip well in advance. Of course you could get lucky due to a cancellation. The reservations start in July and it is best to book when permits first become available.


Guided vs Independent Treks

There are two options for trekking Routeburn. You can walk independently and take advantage of the DOC huts (open and staffed in high season only), but you must be self-sufficient with your food and equipment needs. The huts provide a bunk to sleep on (you need only your sleeping bag), flush toilets and cooking stoves. They are staffed by wonderfully knowledgeable, helpful and witty staff. It is by far the best, most organized and competent system I have seen in the world. For more information on booking an independent trek visit www.doc.govt.nz.

In contrast, you can participate in a guided walk with far more luxurious huts which provide bedrooms as well as bunk-style lodging, hot showers and very comfortable common areas. Because gourmet meals are prepared daily, walkers need only carry their personal clothing and equipment. There’s even beer and wine for purchase, if you want to wind down after your hike. This is a wonderful way for you to break into trekking, especially if you may need more guidance and supervision. While significantly more expensive than independent walking, the fees help subsidize the costs of maintaining this enchanted land. For more information visit www.ultimatehikes.co.nz.


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Access / Local Information

The main access city is Te Anau, which is a small town that can meet all of your last minute preparatory needs. You can either drive or take a bus to Te Anau from the much larger city of Queenstown, which is a short flight from Christchurch or Auckland. If you are already in New Zealand you can also take a bus or drive from Christchurch.

Queenstown offers a lot more shopping and activities for adrenaline junkies including bungee jumping, zip lining, paragliding and more. Be aware that both towns exist primarily around tourism and it is expensive to buy quality equipment. Therefore, it is best to have all your equipment purchased in advance and use the towns to purchase food for your treks.



Routeburn Trek, the heart of Fiordland, is located in the south west corner of New Zealand.




Day to Day Account - Jeff Salvage - Routeburn Trek, New Zealand

There is much debate as to whether the famed and traditionally renowned Milford trek is the best trek in New Zealand or the somewhat lesser publicized Routeburn Trek is king. There of course was only one way to find out and that was to hike both treks back to back. So after a day off and a nice recuperative massage my wife Jennifer and I headed back onto the trail. The story continues...