Peak(s):  Routeburn Track
Date Posted:  04/06/2015
Modified:  12/03/2018
Date Climbed:   12/24/2014
Author:  Jon Frohlich
 Christmas on the Routeburn Track (New Zealand)   

Christmas on the Routeburn Track

Length: 32km
Time: 3 days
Scenery: Epic
Memories: Priceless

Darran Mountains from Harris Saddle

There's always a worry in the back of your head that after so much planning and so long wanting to do something like this that it will be an inevitable disappointment. Can the reality really live up to what you've imagined in your mind? Is all the time and money going to be worth it? Is the weather going to cooperate? We had both been dreaming of New Zealand for years. This was a very big deal to both of us. I'd first thought about doing the Routeburn or Milford Track all the way back in 2005. Ten years later it was finally going to happen.

The Routeburn Track is normally done as a 3 day trip. The longest day is 12km (7.5 miles). There are very nice huts along the way so there is no need to camp. Permits must be obtained well in advance. I got ours the first day they were available for the season. They sell out very quickly (especially for popular times). The cost for the two of us was about $250 for the permits. You can sign up on the New Zealand Great Walks site to get an email when the permits are available so you can log in right away

Day 1 - December 24

By the time we set out on the Routeburn we had been in New Zealand for a few days already. Our jet lag hadn't been bad at all and we'd had some time to see the city of Queenstown and get our packs and supplies together for the trek. We even managed to squeeze in an additional horseback ride we hadn't previously planned. We had booked transport to the start of the track from Queenstown and early on the morning of December 24th we walked down the hill from our hotel to the transport office and dropped off our extra luggage. It was a beautiful morning and the bus drove along beside Lake Wakatipu towards the small town of Glenorchy about an hour away. The valley and the mountains around Glenorchy were used for many scenes in Lord Of The Rings. The scenery was stunning and as we left Glenorchy we turned off on a dirt road that headed up to our starting point.

Queenstown from above

We got to the Routeburn Shelter right at 10am and got our gear together and headed off. Our hike today was supposed to only take a few hours and at this time of year in New Zealand there is tons of daylight so we were in no real hurry. The distance for today was supposed to be 8.8km (5.5 miles). The track starts off through a nice beech forest. The trail is wide and obviously they spend lots of time on trail maintenance because it was extremely smooth and easy to walk. The trail rose gradually and paralleled the river. There are a number of nice bridges to cross over at a few points. The water was amazingly clear and we passed a few waterfalls along the way.

Starting out

Through the beech forest at the beginning

Very clear water

One of the many bridges across the river

The terrain gradually flattened out and opened into a wide valley between the mountains. It took us about 2 hours to reach the Routeburn Flats hut where we ate lunch. The huts on the Routeburn all have drinkable water so no need to bring any filtration along. After the Routeburn Flats hut the trail climbs steeply and we had about 1000 vertical feet to reach our hut for the night. The trail winds along the side of the mountain as it climbs above the valley.

View down to the river

Lunch near Routeburn Flats

Views as we kept heading up

There were many more bridges to cross and eventually we saw Routeburn Falls (the location of our hut) across the valley. The hut was not visible until the very end. On one side of the trail was our hut and on the other side was the guided luxury hut. You can spend $1000 or more to do this guided and have meals provided for you. I don't really know why you would but it's an option. We weren't allowed to even go inside so no idea how the luxury half lived. Our hike for day 1 had taken us a little over 3 hours.

Routeburn Falls Hut

Just above the Routeburn Falls Hut

Waterfall near Routeburn Falls Hut

There were 3 bunk rooms. All very dark even in the middle of the day. We chose our bunks and got unpacked. We found the bathrooms. Flush toilets and running water! This is definitely not what we are used to in Colorado. The cooking area for the hut was separate from the sleeping area. Propane and stoves are provided for cooking. There was a large balcony with a great view of the valley below. We explored the falls up behind the hut and saw some people swimming. A helicopter delived supplies to the luxury hut which ruined the peaceful setting briefly but it didn't last long. We saw a forecast for the next day calling for early showers and rain later. This was a concern because the next day was the high point of the track and our opportunity for the best views. Eventually we decided to hike up above the hut a bit just in case the weather tomorrow was bad. We hiked about 30 minutes up above the hut and the views were gorgeous. We became determined to leave early the next morning and beat the weather so we could see the scenery.

We ate dinner early and drank some of our wine. There was a warden talk at 7:30. He turned out to be from the U.S. and told us there would be a Christmas party at our next hut. It turned out he wasn't joking.

Day 2 - December 25

We woke up very early on Christmas Day. We slept reasonably well and went outside to find clear skies. We made breakfast and got packed up to leave. We headed out from the hut at 6:30am.

Above the hut on Christmas morning

The first part was a repeat of our short dayhike. We were a little sore but felt better once we got moving. The trail meandered for a while through a very nice alpine meadow with some boardwalks. The trail goes to Harris Saddle which has a small shelter for hikers if the weather is bad. We tried to guess where the saddle was but every guess was wrong. The trail goes past Harris Lake on a shelf above it before turning to the saddle. There was a large waterfall on the other side of the lake. We came around a corner and got a glimpse of the view from Harris Saddle. It was stunning.

Nearing Harris Lake, looking back down

First view of Harris Lake

Harris Shelter and Darran Mountains

Early morning light was shining on the Darran Mountains across the valley from us. We dropped our packs at the shelter and started up the side trail to Conical Hill. The only mountain we climbed in NZ was a modest peak not even 5000 feet high but the views.....

The trail up to the summit got steep but easy to follow and we reached the summit just before 9am. We had it all to ourselves. We were ahead of every other hiker and the weather was perfect. New Zealand hadn't disappointed us. We could see all the way out to the ocean and soaked it all in. We enjoyed the view as long as we could. If Christmas Day could be any better than this I have no idea how. We were afraid the weather might still change and we still had a good distance to go. As we hiked down we finally ran into other hikers. We assured them the view from the top was worth it.

Mountains from the top of Conical Hill

Conical Hill Summit

Darran Mountains

Looking at the trail heading past Harris Saddle

From Harris Saddle the trail goes along the side of the mountain (called the Hollyford Face). The terrain was mainly flat with some ups and downs and some small stream and waterfall crossings. We took one break for a snack with another gorgeous view before the hitting the final turn to our next destination, the Mackenzie Hut. We could see the lake and the hut far below us and after we wished for a zipline briefly we started down the hill. We passed back into the forest with moss covered trees and it looked like a rain forest. We reached the hut and dropped our packs again. We got to the hut about 12:30pm. The elevation gain was 1600 feet and the loss was around 2000 feet.

Hiking away from the Harris Saddle with Conical Hill above

More views across the valley

Along the trail

Our first view of Lake Mackenzie and the hut

After eating some more food we walked the very short distance over to the lake. We spent Christmas afternoon reading by the lake with some soft moss to sit on. The weather never got bad and in fact got kind of hot. We took a nap, ate dinner, drank the rest of our wine, and generally enjoyed the rest of the day. We talked to some other hikers from Chicago, Utah, and some other New Zealanders from Wellington. They invited us to play a weird card game called Fluxx for part of the evening.

Lake Mackenzie with clouds rolling in

Lake Mackenzie Hut

Around 9pm our hut warden Clive appeared dressed as Santa with another guy dressed as a bird (takahe?). There was some bad Christmas caroling which we couldn't escape and some miniature fruit pies. The New Zealand version of 12 Days Of Christmas was very weird.

New Zealand backcountry Christmas

Day 3 - December 26

We managed to sleep in until 6:30. Our transport back to Queenstown was picking us up at 3:15pm but we knew our hike wouldn't take that much time so we weren't in much of a hurry. The weather had finally gotten rainy and there were some low clouds. Not terrible weather really but much different than the previous two days. We left around 8:30am and moved out slowly. The hike out from the hut was flat and then headed back up into the forest. We couldn't see very far as the clouds socked in everything.

Our next landmark for today was Earland Falls. First we passed through an area called The Orchard which I guess people use for a lunch break sometimes. We finally caught sight of the waterfall in the distance. It was huge (174 meters high) and the trail goes right under it. After the falls we hiked to the Lake Howden Hut through more forest. The fog made the forest look eerie. We reached Lake Howden at 11am. It was a short distance to the end of the track so we had some more time to kill. We ate some lunch and read inside the hut. More and more people started to arrive and the hut got crowded. We saw some kea (parrots) but I couldn't get a photo of one.

Waterfall on our third day

Earland Falls across the way

Bottom of Earland Falls

At 12:30 we finally decided to head out. It was only an hour to the end at Divide so we took it slow. We saw a group doing the side hike to Key Summit but the clouds were still thick and we saw no point since there would be no view. Even going slow we got to Divde at 2pm and had an hour to kill.

Foggy forest on our way out

Getting our bus was a bit of a mess. The company seemed disorganized and we had to get off the bus on the way back so the driver could get gas. If we had known what we know now we would have stayed in Te Anau for a night. It was a beautiful town on the edge of the lake and would have made for a shorter ride after hiking. We passed a fatal car accident on the way back to Queenstown. Apparently all the tourists driving on the wrong side of the road makes for some very dangerous driving. We finally got into Queenstown at 7:30pm. We barely managed to get our luggage before the office closed and got a taxi up the hill to our B&B for the night.


The Routeburn is awesome and we truly enjoyed it. The views were great and we didn't feel like it was terribly hard. It was very different than backpacking here. I'm sure with bad weather it could be kind of harsh but we lucked out for the most part and it was amazing. Truly worth the time and I'd love to go back and do more treks. Most are similar to the Routeburn (3-5 days) with huts but if you are really looking for a challenge there is something called the Dusky Track which sounds brutal (look it up, it's 10 days and nuts).

Later in the trip we went to the Mount Cook area for 2 nights. Totally unrelated but Mount Cook (also called Aoraki) and the surroundings are unreal. Aoraki is only a little over 12,000 feet but is absolutely ridiculous looking. Well worth the time too. Frankly I can't say enough good about New Zealand. I want to go back already.

Aoraki / Mount Cook

Valley near Mount Cook

Mount Sefton

Aoraki / Mount Cook

View from Sealy Tarns

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

I agree with Dave...
04/06/2015 21:41
What amazing pics!


Simply fabulous, Jon!!
04/07/2015 00:25
What a great way to spend Xmas! Looks like one could easily spend several months (years?) down there and not get bored! Thanks for sharing your trip!


Great Pictures!
04/07/2015 14:40
My wife and I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand but didn’t have the time for any of the tracks. Your pictures are making me wish that we had! And I agree that the B&W of Cooke needs the framed/enlarged treatment. A great picture.


"I want to go back already"
04/07/2015 14:41
I’ve been saying the same thing since 2004, crap keeps coming up. One day. Thanks for the fond memories. Looks like you lucked out with weather. That’s a wet country. It would be cool to take half a year off from life and tick off all those Great Treks.

It’s tough to find water that clear in the states – maybe Glacier? But the temperate rain forest makes for some incredible landscapes. Thanks for the TR.


04/07/2015 16:46
You’re killing me with this!

My wife and I lived in NZ for 6 months after we got married. I too, want to go back. The views, the peaks, the’s all just so amazing. The Routeburn really must be one of the greatest walks on the entire planet. Glad you guys got good weather for it too.

Thanks for sharing this. I loved the read.

Oh and PS: Agree Mt. Cook is unreal. Bucket list.


is there a
04/07/2015 20:16
fundraiser associated with this?

mt cook!!


I’m in!
04/08/2015 12:24
Let’s go Abe!
Thank you for opening up my narrow focus and keeping us all cultured. Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dave B

04/08/2015 13:27
Awesome trip report and great photos. Epic is an apt adjective for the scenery for sure.

That B&W of Cook needs to be printed larger, framed and hung in a prominent place.


04/08/2015 22:00
Thanks for sharing your visit/trek! Great pics!
NZ is high on my bucket list – considering a few month visit in the next few yrs...
It would involve a dramatic change in my employment.


Holy cow!
04/12/2015 15:38
I have cousins in NZ that I’ve never visited.... time to call ’em up! Breathtaking!


Special place...
04/20/2015 01:19
I too cannot say enough good things about New Zealand. Nice report.

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