New Zealand Part 5: Te Anau & the Routeburn Track

View from Key Summit, Routeburn Track

We started the second part of our trip, two self-guided Great Walks, by heading to Te Anau. There, we saw glowworm caves before starting the Routeburn Track the next day. We did the Routeburn Track as a three-day, two-night hike, staying at Lake Mackenzie Hut and Routeburn Falls Hut.

This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Our itinerary included:

  1. Christchurch and Akaroa
  2. Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park 
  3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
  4. Lake Tekapo, Ohau, Blue Pools, and back to Queenstown
  5. Glow worms, Te Anau, and the Routeburn Track – this post (Packing List)
  6. Milford Track (Packing List)

Note: when possible, booking through links in this post will earn us a commission. If you find this information helpful, please consider using them to make your reservations. 

Queenstown to Wanaka Sunday, March 3, 2018

We left for Te Anau and the Routeburn Track from Queenstown. In the morning, we woke up and made a return trip to Vudu Café & Larder for breakfast. I repeated the outstanding brioche French toast; Kyle had equally outstanding orange zest pancakes.

After breakfast, we walked back to the hotel, stored our bags, and walked across the street to our shuttle pickup. We had booked with Tracknet, which easily arranged for our travel to Te Anau, on to the Routeburn Track the next day, and from the end of the Routeburn Track to back to Queenstown.

Our pickup was at 10:45a, and the drive to Te Anau was lovely and uneventful. In Te Anau, we got dropped off at the Department of Conversation Visitor Center a few minutes before 2pm. There, we checked in for our permit.

After our stop at the DOC, we had only to across the street to get to our bed and breakfast, Te Anau Lakefront B&B ( The owners were out, but self-check in was easy and we got settled in our comfortable room. When they returned, we said hello and placed our breakfast order for the next day. In that conversation, we learned they were from Patagonia originally, so we also talked some about how the landscapes in New Zealand and Patagonia compared.

Te Anau Bird Sanctuary

We had some time, so we took a walk along Lake Te Anau. The walk led us to Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, where we saw Takahē, Kākā, ducks, and many other birds.

Back in town, we walked to the Redcliff Café for an early dinner. Unfortunately, we arrived just as power went out in town. They encouraged us to have some water and wait a bit, as they would need power to operate the kitchen. We had a reservation for the 7pm glowworm tour, so we started to get worried about whether we would be able to have dinner in time. Just as we thought we would have to give up and switch to somewhere faster, the power came back.

Once seated on their back deck, the staff kept service moving, for which we were grateful. We shared venison-hazelnut-chocolate lollipops and pork belly, scallops, and cauliflower purée as appetizers. I had a delicious steak, but Kyle’s dinner–duck confit with a blue cheese soufflé–was even more excellent. For dessert, we shared a deconstructed lemon meringue pie and a chocolate brownie with berries, ice cream, and mousse. We very much enjoyed this dinner.

Te Anau Glowworm Caves

After dinner, a short walk brought us to the dock where the boat departs for the glowworm caves. We arrived shortly before they boarded. We had timed the boat ride to coincide with dusk, and it was beautiful. Once at the cave site, the guides gave us a quick briefing about the glow worms and the caves. They then divided us into smaller groups.

In these groups, we walked through the caves. Some sections were dark so, we could see glowworms. Other sections were illuminated so we could appreciate the features of the cave. In still other places, lights illuminated the stream, revealing trout and eel that lived in the caves.

Deep in the caves, we boarded a boat. The guide pulled the boat further along the stream. In this dark, dark space, the glow worms were particularly stunning. I appreciated the no photos policy here, which gave us a quiet, dark place to sit and observe.

After our tour of the caves, we returned to the visitor center and then had a lovely boat ride back to Te Anau. A short walk brought us back to the bed and breakfast.

Routeburn Track March 4-6, 2018

Routeburn Track Day 1: The Divide to Lake MacKenzie

In the morning, we woke up, enjoyed a delicious breakfast, packed, and crossed the street to our shuttle to the start of the Routeburn Track.

The DOC shuttle brought us to The Divide trailhead. With a forecast for deteriorating weather throughout the day, we set out quickly–eager to make the most of blue skies that were unlikely to last.

A relatively short hike brought us to the junction for the side trip up Key Summit, though the last ten minutes or so as we ran across a large guided group from Ultimate Hikes. They were friendly and their guides encouraged those who were maybe newer to hiking to practice good trail etiquette, which we appreciated.

From the junction, another 15 minutes or so of gradual up brought us to Key Summit. Even though clouds were starting to close in on the horizon and obstructed our views of the higher peaks, we could see why this would be a good short hike (about 4.5 miles round trip) for those who could not do the whole Routeburn Track. The summit area offered 360º views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains, including views toward Harris Saddle and the next day’s route. The landscape was also an alpine wetland, with various trails, bogs, and tarns.

After taking in the views, we resumed our route, back down to the junction with Routeburn Track and then descending to Lake Howden and its hut. We took another snack break at Lake Howden.

From there, the route began climbing through forests. We passed Earland Falls and then an open area called The Orchard. Along the way, the forest opened up, offering views of the surrounding mountains. By this time, the weather had clouded in and it soon began to drizzle. Not long after, though, we reached the Lake Mackenzie Hut, passing first the swankier hut for guided hikes and then reaching the cozy Department of Conservation Hut.

We checked in, changed into dry clothes, and made tea to warm up. While getting settled, we could hear kea or kaka clattering about on the metal roof, though we caught only limited glimpses of them that night.

After dinner, the hut ranger Evan Smith talked about devastation wrought on New Zealand’s birds by the introduction of stoats and other predators, as well as recovery and restoration efforts. From the talk, we learned more about New Zealand’s birds, and gained a begrudging admiration for stoats’ biological abilities and great appreciation for the incredible amount of work going into making New Zealand ground predator-free once again. If you’re considering visiting New Zealand, you might consider donating to the Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust, which supports the Routeburn and Upper Hollyford Restoration Project.

Routeburn Track Day 2: Lake MacKenzie over Harris Saddle to Routeburn Falls

At dinner, Evan had mentioned the kea often visit the hut in the morning, so we woke up early to see if they would make an appearance. Sure enough, they did, landing in the trees and on the roof. Some appeared to enjoy sliding on the roof, while others used their beaks to try to peel back the roof; the roof did not budge. We watched these playful birds until they flew off.

We had breakfast and then set out. The morning was grey and wet, with no signs of of clearing. While we had nice views back down to Lake MacKenzie, the weather limited our views as we hiked toward Harris Saddle. We could see the saddle, but nothing further, nor could we see cross the valley to the west.

The weather had not improved by the time we reached the saddle, and so we skipped the hike up Conical Hill, as there would be no views.

Across the saddle, we we were happy that we could enjoy moody views of Lake Harris. The scenery along this winding stretch of trail was stunning–I’d love to return on a sunny day.

Continuing our descent, we reached our next stop, Routeburn Falls Hut, only a couple of hours after the saddle. This hut is in a stunning location, built essentially onto a cliff at the head of the Route Burn valley with stunning views.

After we warmed up, we started to see patches of blue sky. We did not want to let this opportunity go to waste, and so we hiked back up the valley, retracing some of our steps from earlier in the day. After climbing a bit, we could see that the clearing did not extend back to Harris Saddle or Harris Lake–they were still clouded in–and so we instead set about finding a vantage point back down the Route Burn valley.

We found such a view a bit above the trail and to the south, by a large tarn. The clouds continued to blow over, resulting in constantly changing light and shadows.

Eventually, it was time to head back down to the hut and make dinner.

Routeburn Track Day 3: Routeburn Falls to the Routeburn Shelter

The morning brought a cloudy but beautiful sunrise, with shades of pink and yellow light illuminating the distant mountains.

For the day, we had a short walk ahead to the Routeburn Shelter. Normally, this would mean that we were in no hurry to leave, as we had several hours until our pickup. However, the hut ranger had suggested that we might enjoy detouring out the Route Burn’s north fork, from Routeburn Flats Hut, if time allowed. So, we set off relatively early.

Along the descent to the hut, we saw many birds, including Yellowheads, little Riflemen, tomtits, and fantails. Most notable were the South Island robins, which would hop along the trail as we walked, climbing on and pecking gently at our boots of we paused for even a moment.

At Routeburn Flats, we had to look around a little to find a good crossing that would lead us to the path up the north fork. As we did, a vibrant rainbow appeared back toward Routeburn Falls.

The hike along the north fork was lovely, with wide open meadows that gave way to steep valley walls. These were interspersed by thickets of trees and brush, with still more birds. We saw waterfalls, cliffs, and more birds, before we eventually had to turn around to be on time for our pickup.

Below Routeburn Flats, the trail soon starts to run closer to the Route Burn. Its beautiful blue waters were our companion for the rest of the hike.

Back to Queenstown

We had a short chance to rest and cleanup at the Routeburn Shelter before our Tracknet shuttle arrived to take us back to Queenstown. The shuttle ride was incredibly scenic, with the driver pointing out key mountain ranges along the way. It was on this drive that it stood out to me just how many different kinds of landscapes there are in New Zealand, and how moving just one ridge over could bring you to a whole other world.

We crossed the Dart River at the setting of Isengard from Lord of the Rings. The shuttle made a short stopover in Glenorchy, with lovely views of Lake Wakatipu, and then resumed our trip back to Queenstown.

In Queenstown, we checked back in to the JUCY Snooze ( | and picked up our luggage. We did a quick load of laundry and repacked for our next adventure, the Milford Track.

Once we were set, we went to meet my parents–who were continuing their own New Zealand trip–for dinner. We selected Eichardt’s Bar, where we enjoyed good cocktails and many delicious tapas. The lakeside location was nice too.

After saying our goodbyes, we went back to double check our packing and get some sleep. In the morning, we’d set out for the Milford Track the next day.

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