Before Morgan and I went on our recent New Zealand trip, we pored over NZ’s Department of Conservation website for info on where to hike and run during the week following the February 7 Tarawera Ultra 100K (see related race report).
Along with eating meat pies, meeting Maori, renting a camper van, and going really fast on a luge or a shotover jet, “tramping” (Kiwi for hiking) one of the country’s nine Great Walks is a quintessential New Zealand experience.
When we traveled around New Zealand five years ago, we explored parts of the Heaphy and Abel Tasman “tracks” (what they call trails there). This time we wanted to head to the southern tip and do one from point to point, all in one day.
Why all in one day? Most visitors take several days to do a Great Walk, and an impressive network of well-built, dorm-like huts, which you can reserve through guides or the DOC website, make camping quite manageable.
But we didn’t want to deal with renting and carrying packs with enough food and sleeping gear for overnight camping. With limited time to explore that region and the desire to hike briskly instead of plodding while weighted down, we wanted to devote only one day to a single track. We thought we’d start in the early morning, carry daypacks with layers of clothing and a picnic, and finish near dinner time.
Of the three Great Walks in the southern region known as Fiordland, Milford Track (53K/33 miles) seemed a little too crowded and hard to access, involving boat rides to the trailheads. Kepler (60K/37 miles) seemed a little long (so we ended up doing part of it out-and-back another day).
The 32K/20 mile Routeburn, however, seemed just right.
The only thing is, the DOC website made us question whether we really could do it in a day. It says you need 2 to 4 days, and you must reserve a bed in a hut a long time in advance.
With some digging around, however, we discovered you really can do the Routeburn in a day and you don’t need a permit. It’s not that hard. Locals do it all the time.
If you hike leisurely at 2 miles/hour, it will take you around 10 hours, say 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., which is not a problem this time of year because the sun stays out well past 8 p.m. Morgan and I averaged closer to 2.5 miles/hour. We stopped quite a bit to take photographs and picnic, but then we gained time by running parts of the smooth, downhill stretches during the second half. We finished in 9 hours.
I concluded that the DOC’s message about the route taking 2 to 4 days is probably a well-coordinated and well-intentioned effort between the government and third-party providers to get people to pay for guides, pay to rent camping gear, pay for huts and not overextend themselves physically. [Update: see the first comment from Glen below, which is a good note of caution. He says it takes 2+ days in snowy inclement weather.]
Here’s a step-by-step guide of what you need to do:
1. Choose your direction.
You can start at either end. We started at the Routeburn Shelter and ended at The Divide, which is the right-to-left direction of this map:
The Routeburn Shelter trailhead, near Glenorchy, is a little over an hour from Queenstown. The Divide trailhead is closer to Milford Sound. To drive all the way from one end to other takes about 4 hours, 45 minutes. If you start at the Routeburn Shelter (Glenorchy/Queenstown side) and end at The Divide, then you’re closer to Milford Sound, where you can explore the next day (which we did).
2. Book a room at Milford Lodge if you hike the Glenorchy to Milford direction.
If you want to stay and explore Milford Sound the day after your hike, book a room for a night or two at Milford Sound Lodge, the only place to stay in that area and closer to The Divide trailhead than the town of Te Anau (except for Mitre Lodge, which looked aging and rundown). You could stay at Te Anau, but then you have a long drive to Milford Sound. The Lodge books up far in advance. It offers a small number of lovely self-contained “chalets,” affordable dorm-style rooms with a shared bathroom, and a high-quality cafe. Where the Routeburn track ends at “The Divide,” on the Te Anau-Milford Highway, it’s a 35 minute drive to Milford Sound Lodge and an hour-plus drive in the other direction to Te Anau.
3. Arrange to have your car transported from one end to the other while you hike.
A couple of car transport services operate in the region. We went with Trackhopper, founded and run by a Kiwi named Mike Stone, who was very responsive when making arrangements and trustworthy with our car and possessions. He and his wife transport people’s cars from one end of the track to the other (a 4+ hour drive)—then they run back over the trail to return to their home. They are both talented trail runners.
We were staying at a hotel in Queenstown the day before doing the Routeburn, so we arranged the following timeline: Check out of our hotel and hit the road by 6:45 a.m.; drive 45 minutes to Mike’s house in Glenorchy by 7:30 and pick up Mike; then Mike gets in our rental car and directs us to the Routeburn Shelter trailhead, about another 20 minutes away. We handed the keys to the car to Mike, which held all our belongings (but we hiked with our passports and wallets, just in case our car got broken into—highly unlikely). We hit the trail around 8 a.m.
Mike then drove our car to Te Anau, filled it with gas, then drove and parked it at The Divide trailhead at the other end of the Routeburn. He used a lockbox and put our key in it. He had given us the combination to the lock box. Fast forward 9 hours, and our car was right where he said it would be, parked and locked, when we finished our hike; we were able to get the key, get in our car and drive to Milford Sound without a problem.
4. Dress in layers of clothing and take enough food for the day.
When we started, it was cold enough that I wore running tights, gloves, a long-sleeve wool shirt with a tank top underneath and a lightweight waterproof jacket. (We lucked out and had perfect weather, but rain is always a high possibility, so bring rain gear.)
Since I’m an Ultimate Direction Ambassador, Morgan and I got to test out two excellent UD packs. (FYI these links go to UD’s site and if you purchase them, I will receive a very small commission. Trust me, I would not promote these links unless I truly recommended these products!)
I used the SJ Ultra Vest 2.0, which had just the right amount of carrying space and pockets for this day trip. I carried food, some basic first aid and a blister kit, sunscreen, and my wallet and passport. As I shed layers during the day, they easily fit in the pack. I liked how the bungee cord on the outside of the pack worked to hold my bulkier jacket.
I found out, however, I did not need to take both water bottles, because the water on the track is plentiful and safe to drink! So, you can get by with just one bottle and refill it at streams.
Morgan had camera equipment to carry in addition to some extra clothing and food, so he used Ultimate Direction’s roomier Fast Pack 20. We like how the top of this pack folds and functions like a dry bag. It gave him plenty of carrying capacity and useful pockets for smaller stuff.
We also carried one pair of trekking poles, the Black Diamond Lightweight Z Poles that fold and carry easily in a pack. Morgan thought he’d use them. It turned out he wanted one hand free to steady the camera around his neck, so he only used one of the poles and I carried the other. It worked out nicely to share a pair.
5. Enjoy the hike!
These photos show the different stretches of the trail from the Routeburn Shelter to the Divide.
At the end of the hike, we got in our car, drove for about 40 minutes along the gorgeous Te Anau-Milford Highway, and checked into the Milford Sound Lodge. We had one night in an upscale, tastefully done modern-design chalet right at the river’s edge. (The room wasn’t available our second night there, so we transferred for that second night into a simple dorm room with a queen bed and shared bathroom, which was fine and more affordable.) If you can get this corner room—I think it was #14—book it! The floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the river that leads to the Sound. Pesky but pretty Kea birds hop around the deck outside and beg for food (which we did not give them; don’t feed the Keas!).
We got dinner at the cafe and brought it back to our room to eat—the perfect end to a perfect day.
The next day we hiked more and took an afternoon cruise on Milford Sound. Tip: take an afternoon cruise, not a midday one, because it’s much less crowded. Most of the day-tripping tourists arrive for a noon cruise and make it difficult to park by the harbor. The 3 p.m. cruise felt peaceful and less touristy. We did the “Encounter Nature Cruise” with Southern Discoveries and highly recommend it—the guide was great at explaining the geology and wildlife. The Milford Sound Lodge handled our booking the day before, so it didn’t seem like we needed to book it far in advance. To see a few of those photos from our boat ride, click here.
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