Routeburn – Greenstone Tracks

The Routeburn track / Great Walk is a 32km, 3 day walk, the Greenstone track is a 42 km, 3 day walk.  We combined the two, walking out on the Routeburn track and returning on the Greenstone for a 66km 5 day walk.   The Routeburn section is a Great Walk and huts or campsites must be booked from October to April while the Greenstone is a backcountry track and the huts are more basic and are first in best dressed.  The Routeburn is almost as spectacular as the famed Milford track, if you can’t get out on the Milford because it is already booked try the Routeburn.  The Greenstone track runs parallel to one of the world’s premier fly fishing streams. Either of these tracks can also be combined with the Caples track.

Caution, remember this is New Zealand and the weather can turn quite quickly.  We tried this combination of tramps on a previous occasion in early January a few years earlier with friends.  On reaching the Lake Mackenzie (2nd) campsite while the guys were setting up the tents the hut warden caught up with the girls who were lounging around the picnic table. The conversation went something along the lines of:

Laconic Kiwi hut warden “Hi Ladies.  What are you planning tomorrow”

Girls “We are thinking about hiking back via the Caples track”

Laconic Kiwi hut warden “I don’t know about that, I think you should think again”

Girls (mentally, we must look a bit unfit) “Actually that’s what they would like to do, we are thinking about convincing them to hike back via the Greenstone”

Laconic Kiwi hut warden “I don’t know, I think you should think again”

Girls (mentally, we must look REALLY unfit) “Is there a problem on the track?”

Laconic Kiwi hut warden “Not yet, but there will be tomorrow.  The weather bureau’s predicting the rain to start tomorrow afternoon, 30mm per hour for 48 hours.  If you don’t get out tomorrow, I hope you have enough food for a couple of weeks, or money for a helicopter ride.”

We hiked out to The Divide, caught a bus into Te Anau and found a hotel room in Te Anau.  The rain started while we were on the bus and we saw 3 times Perth’s annual rainfall over the next two days.  We took another bus to Queenstown, where some of the ski lifts had been reopened and the boys took a day walk up onto Ben Lomond to experience some hiking in the snow.

Closest towns: Both the Routeburn and Greenstone tracks can be started from either Glenorchy (with transport also available from Queenstown) or Te Anau on the other side of The Divide. We had already hiked the Hollyford, Kepler tracks from Te Anau in the two weeks prior to this and met up with some more friends and started from Queenstown.

Tents or Huts and Bookings

In December the Great Walks huts can be something of a zoo, campsites are available for tents and we chose to carry tents. There are 4 huts, although you will probably only need 2 ($54 pp per night) and 2 campsites. However, the campsites are not well spaced and the first days walking is quite short making the second day quite long. Bookings for the Great Walks Huts and campsites are required from October to April.   The Greenstone Track has a campsite at Greenstone Saddle and two backcountry huts, you can also camp along the bush edge so long as you are at least 50m off the track.

Day 1 Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats (6.5km, 1.5 -2 hours). The Routeburn shelter area is really very pretty and if you are only after a day walk the trip out to the flats and return is well worth the effort. Some friends joined us for this trip making eight feet walking. The track is again well benched, it meanders along the Route Burn, climbs up to Bridal Veil Falls and up the gorge before reaching the Routeburn Flats hut and campsite. The campsite has a couple of picnic tables, a shelter for cooking in and a tap for tank water, but the stream provides crystal clear water. Most trampers will head up to Routeburn Falls hut.

Well benched Routeburn track
Well benched Routeburn track

Day 2 Routeburn Flats, past Routeburn Falls Hut, past Lake Mackenzie Hut to Lake MacKenzie campsite. (13.7km, 5-6 hours). For campers rather than hutters this can be a big day. The track heads up hill quite steeply to Routeburn Falls hut (2.3 km 1.5 hours). It is worth the effort and the view from the hut, a nice place to stop for some scroggin, is spectacular.   Don’t forget to look back generally, the view is always good, and you will be earning it. About this stage you also breakout above the treeline.

The track continues up to the Harris saddle (1225m), past Lake Harris. Some of the walking here has a bit of exposure, but it shouldn’t worry anyone unless there is a bit of ice or snow around. Stop for a big break at the emergency shelter. If you’re feeling very energetic take a side trip up Conical Hill for views of the Hollyford Valley and Lake McKerrow.

The track then proceeds level for a little while before heading down in a couple of zigzags to Lake MacKenzie Hut. The campsite is probably another kilometre further on. If you don’t have your walking legs under you this can be a bit of a heartbreaker, remember the campers have already done some extra distance and height getting to Routeburn Falls and have the extra weight of tent. The campsite had been moved from previous position and we expected to finish near the hut, which you walk towards, zig, and then away from, zag, a couple of times as you descend from Harris saddle.

Harris Saddle, Emergency Shelter
Harris Saddle, Emergency Shelter

Day 3 Lake MacKenzie to Howden Hut to McKellar (15.6km, 4 hours). Day three is much easier than day 2. The walk to Howden hut is 8.6 km 2.5hours (+ the extra km you hiked in to the campsite) while the walk from Howden to McKellar Hut is 7km, 2 hours. The ups and downs are much smaller and more gentle than day 2. Trampers only doing the Routeburn track head from Howden hut to the road/pickup point at The Divide, about an hour away up and over a small hill. McKellar hut is a backcountry hut.

Somewhere on this day we also passed a bunched up but quite disparate group of hikers and their guides. As we went past the smell was unmistakable, soap, shampoo, hot water – soapies. A few days of tramping and camping in the outdoors had heightened our senses, we had come across a group staying in private lodges with access to showers. I can only imagine how the conversation went on the other side.

About half way between Howden and McKellar Huts we met up some other friends and eight feet became twelve. They had hiked in from The Divide and were joining us for the Greenstone section of the track having walked the Routeburn previously with us several years earlier (see the conversation above) and the Hollyford and Kepler in the previous couple of weeks. That night was actually Christmas eve. As we left them in Queenstown we had joked about bringing Christmas pudding. They had done better, not just pudding but custard. Not powdered custard but litres of real custard, carried in the backpack. That night we slept well with perhaps overly full stomachs.

Lake MacKenzie, near the campsite
Lake MacKenzie, near the campsite

Day 4 McKellar Hut to Greenstone Hut (18km, 5-6 hours). Day 4 is mostly along grassy river flats and tussock and the day was quite warm. We took plenty of water and filtered more along the way. The days walk has a quite a steep short sharp uphill at the end. At Greenstone hut there were plenty of rabbits about, and nearby the Rangers had been doing a lot of work on track maintenance and improvement.

The whole area is an outdoor paradise. The Greenstone River and the associated Caples River are world class Rainbow and Brown Trout fisheries (with strict license and bag limits). While the valleys are also part of the Wakatipu Recreational Hunting Area (no shooting near the tracks) with black fallow, white fallow and red deer. The Caples and Greenstone tracks are joined by the Steele Creek track (fitness, experience and navigation skills required) and the Mavora Walkway, part of the Te Araroa trail with Mavora Lakes 2-3 days away. And of course you are not really that far, 30-40km, from the Milford and Hollyford tracks, although nearly 350km by road.

Greenstone track. Mostly Flat
Greenstone track. Mostly Flat

Day 5 Greenstone Hut to Greenstone Road end (12km, 4 hours). The final day was quite warm again and we started with plenty of water. This part of the walk includes some private farmland and there were stock in the stream, it is probably not the best place to be relying on filtering stream water. The track meanders up and down off the river side and in and out of farm and bushland. It is a pretty flat and a very pleasant walk. Towards the end of the walk the Caples and Greenstone rivers join as does the pathway branching off to the Caples track (Mid Caples hut). There is a final swing bridge, another few hundred metres and you are done.

Greenstone Track. Meandering among the trees
Greenstone Track. Meandering among the trees

For more information on hiking in New Zealand: see our post A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand and the Department of Conservation Website for the DOC Routeburn and DOC Greenstone tracks.

Routeburn profile

N.B. Elevation scale difference between these profiles .

Greenstone Profile

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