There are occasions in one’s life when the universe serves up such joy and wonder that all you can do is soak it up and treasure the good fortune that brought you there. On this early morning in February, the jagged, snowy Darran Mountains reflected sunrise shades of rose, violet and blue-grey across the cloud-filled Hollyford River valley far below our high ridge perch, with the Tasman Sea glittering 30 miles to our north. We’d made a headlamp start that morning from the MacKenzie Hut, now a dot far below us, switchbacking up the north wall of the bowl encircling the hut as the rocks and peaks slowly emerged from black to soft-edged purple to glowing amber-orange all around us. Now Dan and I scampered among the tarns and unique subalpine tussock, flowers and moss on the crest capturing the iridescent scene in photos as fast as we could.
We were on day two of the Routeburn Track, our group’s consensus favorite of the eight different extended trails that we would sample during our month-long New Zealand trekking adventure in February of 2013. We started the Routeburn (pronounced ROOT-burn) at The Divide (1750 feet elevation), the lowest east-west crossing in the Southern Alps and a whistle stop on the ultra-scenic Milford Road that channels the tourist hordes between the town of Te Anau and the Milford Sound. The first section, bustling with the tour-bus crowd, took us gently uphill through dense endemic rainforest for about a 45 minutes to the junction with a 30 minute side trail that climbed steeply up about 400 feet to the top of 3011-foot Key Summit, with a boardwalk through tarns and bogs at the top and, on a clear day, panoramic views of jagged 8000-foot peaks in the Ailsa Mountains to the east and the Darren Mountains to the west. Alas, we had only peek-a-boo views on this February (mid-summer) day, through a thick cloud deck. Still, as if to tease, the mist would suddenly rise to offer a view of peaks that were surprisingly close and looming nearly overhead.
Rejoining the main trail below, it was only another 15 minutes of steady, modest grade through the beech forest before we broke out onto the shore of Lake Howden (2250’), one of several stunning rock-ringed lakes along the track and a perfect lunch spot. The rest of this first day, on mostly forested track along the steep west wall of the Ailsa Range, our path climbed ever upward, periodically crossing rushing creeks draining snowfields above. One of these dropped 250-feet in a thundering cascade – Earland Falls – which provided lovely deep pools for dipping at its base. Shortly beyond the falls the track crossed a bench which dropped steeply to the Hollyford River on its far side, an abandoned orchard on its top and the high peaks of Mount Christina, Mount Lyttle and Mount Gunn in the Darrans seemingly close enough to touch just across the valley. From there it was another hour’s traverse along the steep thickly forested slope, and a crossing of aptly-named Roaring Creek to the day’s high point of 3300 feet elevation, before we dropped to the MacKenzie Hut, overlooking a sky-blue lake in a bowl with rocky peaks and lush forest all around. This was a very congenial hut, a dryly funny Scotsman as hut warden, and the usual coterie of trekkers of a dozen nationalities (and degrees of inebriation) spread out and chattering or preparing meals in the spacious common/dining room. Here we were also introduced to what we termed the ‘slumber party’ bunkhouse arrangement – large platforms with individual mattresses laid side by side and no separation between, perhaps the better to get to know one’s neighbors. But we took it in stride and were soon out the front door in shorts or swimsuits, to discretely wash or float or leap screaming from the rocks into the brisk water or just read on the beach.
So here we were on that splendid ridge on the morning of day two, not at all minding the wait for the rest of our gang to make their way up after a more civilized start time. Once we gathered and marveled together at the views, we set out on the narrow track traversing the green-gold tussock across a steep face that stretched down to the Hollyford 3800 feet below and up to the crag tops 1800 feet above. Along this stretch we were facing due north and had clear line of sight to the Tasman Sea in a notch far ahead, as well as to the ever unfolding glaciers and rugged peaks of the Darran Range across the valley (Oh for another month just to explore those trackless valleys and hidden lakes!). This was the best kind of open ridge walking, a dream on a clear blue-sky day. A signposted junction announced Deadman’s Trail, which true to its name left the main route and disappeared abruptly down over the precipice to arrive eventually at one of the Hollyford Track camps barely visible far below. After an hour or so from the sunrise viewpoint, winding around the convexities and concavities of the slope, we began to see the notch of Harris Saddle opening to the right ahead, with aptly-named Conical Hill rising behind…and then, there we were, climbing the last few stone steps to the flat bench of the saddle at 4115 feet. A metal-walled shelter with a nice west-facing porch and small interior room sat near the western edge of the saddle affording great views across to the Darrans over a couple of sky-reflecting tarns. A wonderful lunch spot, and popular too, with trekkers coming from both directions and even a dayhiker stopping by (no time to stop!). Just beyond the shelter was the rocky boot path-cum-scramble route 850 feet up the slabs and boulders to the top of Conical Hill – really a collection of knobs along a short ridge with a full 360-degree panorama out to the Tasman Sea and the Serpentine Range to the north, along the length of the Darrans to the west and south, and our first views of our route to come, down successive high benches past glacier-carved Lake Harris, the source of the Routeburn River which first fell and then lazily wound due east into Mount Aspiring Park.
With time aplenty to enjoy the warm sun and breeze from the hilltop and take pictures of each other and the scenery from all possible vantages, we finally trooped back down to the shelter, gathered packs and set out toward the east, leaving the Darran Mountains behind us. The track was cut into a steep cliffside winding around the south side of Lake Harris (4000’), then stepping steeply down to meet the outlet at a precipice with views to the golden meander of the Routeburn 1600 feet below. The footing became seriously rough here, trailbed filled with rounded and jagged 6-inch cobbles and dropping fast, requiring close concentration with every step. So it was with surprise that we looked up to see the stilts and windows of the Routeburn Falls hut at 3900 feet, with the falls themselves tumbling in short leaps into emerald pools close by. Climbing the steps to the hut, we found a fantastic long deck with benches and broad views of the winding ribbon of the Routeburn, now splitting into north and east forks, and the peaks of the Humboldt Range beyond. The dining area was warm, the bunk rooms dark and quiet (no slumber party, thank you!), and the sunset amazing after a refreshing dip in the pools below the falls. This hut living was seriously growing on us.
The next day was going to be fairly easy so we took our time with breakfast and packing up. Then it was down and down more rocky steps, along steep cliff walls with waterfalls and the fan of a giant rockslide which apparently was triggered by heavy rains in 1994 and brought every tree down with it. Then the tread finally flattened, carrying us into peaceful rain-shadow forest with large trunks and sun-speckled canopy of towering red beech. In about an hour and a half from the Falls Hut we were deposited onto the amber waving grassland of the Routeburn Flats, the north fork of the river tracing lazily out of our sight into a notch in the Humboldts. A 20-bunk hut is located here for those who want to make a late start from the east end of the track, with windows overlooking the flats and the snowy peaks beyond. We hopped the braids of the river and wandered north awhile, drawn by the siren’s call of those far peaks, but alas had to turn around to make our date with our bus at the trail’s end.
Still, the trail had more treats in store, of the watery rather than the peak-y kind. We followed the river closely, crossing periodically on suspension bridges and stopping more than once to cool our feet and marvel at the crystal clarity and emerald-aquamarine color of the water rushing over white rocks. Not far downstream, the forest closed in and the river dropped down through successive sculpted pools into the Routeburn Gorge far below the trail. (A group of canyoneers in helmets and harnesses were dropping down the pools into the gorge as we passed.) Then it was abruptly out of the cool cover of the trees and over a final swing-bridge – oh the harshness! – into the bright, hot, dusty parking lot beyond. Luckily we only had a half-hour or so to wait for our bus, which took us an hour east and then south along the northernmost arm of Lake Wakitipu to the dry plains and into bustling Queenstown to our hotel. Showers! Wifi! Clean clothes! And yet that wistful feeling that something had been gifted to us over the past three wonderful days that would be hard to surpass ever again.
Routeburn Track Standouts: Stunning panoramic views of the rugged and remote Darran Mountains and the Hollyford Valley out to the Tasman Sea. Extended ridge walking above tree-line. Huts with great waterfalls and lakes/pools for swimming, and a crystal clear river which drops to a scenic gorge.
Booking Your Spot on the Routeburn Track
Camping is possible on the Routeburn track, near Lake MacKenzie and Routeburn Flats. Advance bookings are required for track transport, huts and camps, and hut space during the prime season (mid December through mid February) fills up early, so start checking the DOC booking page at https://booking.doc.govt.nz/ 8-12 months before you plan to travel. The track can be done either direction, with convenient transport options from Queenstown and Te Anau.