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Classic Hikes of the World: Routeburn Track

An excerpt from Peter Potterfield's new book on the world's best hiking routes
By Peter Potterfield - September 2nd, 2005

  • Routeburn Track
  • South Island, New Zealand
  • 28 miles, 3-4 days, easy

This astounding alpine route never lets up as it tours the glacier-carved landscapes of New Zealand's Southern alps through rain forests, across high basins and over mountain passes. Each day delivers such botanical surprise, exotic bird song and scenic payoff the route surpasses the allure of even its super-star sibling, the neighboring Milford Track. Slightly shorter than the Milford, and much less popular, the 28-mile Routeburn Track connects Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park of New Zealand's South Island via a high pass called Harris Saddle.

Not a half day into the Routeburn Track, at a place called Key Summit, the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park surround an open meadow set high on a rare "triple" continental divide. Here, three epic valleys, the Hollyford, the Eglington and the Greenstone drain into the Tasman Sea, the Foveaux Strait on the Southern Ocean, and the South Pacific Ocean. The landscape is astonishing, spiced with views into the Darran Range, where Hillary trained for Everest.

The track is a venerable one, steeped in local tradition. Nineteenth century European settlers used the track to connect settlements on the Greenstone River with budding commercial centers on Lake Wakatipu. Long before that, as early as 1500, the Maori forebears of this region used the track to reach the Dart River drainage and its treasure of jade--the precious "greenstone," or pounamu.

Connecting a series of radically different eco-zones, the track covers its wild array of natural wonders in just three or four days. On the way up, an ancient grove of ribbonwood trees called the Orchard gives way to the high-decibel wonder of Earland Falls as it drains Roberts Lake, 265 feet above. Ocean Peak Corner, a highlight of the long grinding traverse up the Hollyford Face, shows you the view all the way down to Martins Bay on the Tasman Sea.

The hike can be done in either direction, though it's best to start at The Divide and finish at the Dart River. From the Divide, the route gains elevation quickly up to Key Summit, descends to Lake Howden, then climbs past Earland Falls up to the Lake Mackenzie hut. The second day climbs up out of the basin onto the impressive Hollyford Face for the long, ascending traverse up to Harris Saddle, the high point of the route, often snowy in early season. From the saddle, it's only a couple of hours down to the Routeburn Falls hut. From there, the third days takes you down to Routeburn Flats and out to the Dart River through the enchanting beech forest and impressive river gorge dotted with breathtaking jade-green pools.

The appeal of this wilderness is enhanced by being in New Zealand, where the seasons are of course reversed. One can go hiking--they call it "tramping" down here--in the dead of a northern hemisphere winter. November through April is the season. International hikers arrive via Auckland, the largest city of this island nation, but the hike is staged from Queenstown, a full-on fun hog city two hours away on the wilder and more sparsely populated South Island. Trailhead transportation is easily arranged from Queenstown, where permits and hiking information are easily gotten, and a guided option is available.

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