The best walk in the world? Tackling New Zealand’s Routeburn Track

“I keep wondering whether I really like tramping…the cold and the loneliness and the fear–do they outweigh the magnificence, the terrible impersonal glory of the mountains?”

-Charles Brusch, Poet-

14 miles is too far to walk when you’re on vacation. And in the mountains. And carrying a pack. And with your wife, who, to be fair, is a trooper.

14 miles in a day is brutal, but to turn around the next day and repeat the same thing is just stupid.

This, however, was the only way I was going to hike New Zealand‘s ultra-popular Routeburn Track. This past year Lonely Planet listed the Routeburn Track as one of it’s top ten treks in the world, and the heavily trodden track has seen it’s annual numbers climb to over 13,000 walkers per year.

A sub-alpine pass which links the lush Hollyford Valley with Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu, the Routeburn track was historically used as a trading route for native Maori moving precious pounamu–greenstone–from the quarries of Martin’s Bay to villages further inland. By the 1870′s European prospectors realized the strategic importance of the Routeburn Track as a way of crossing the Southern Alps en route to Fiordland, and the steady stream of visitors was on.

Now, as one of New Zealand‘s 9 “Great Walks“, the greenstone traders and early explorers have been replaced by Gore-Tex covered tourists carrying carbon fiber walking poles.

Nonetheless, like many uber-popular trails the world over, the Department of Conservation limits the number of people who can through-hike the 20-mile route by only providing 50 beds in each of the 4 backcountry huts scattered along the trail. During the summer months, the no-frills huts (mattresses and gas stoves are provided) run a pricey $40 US per person/night and reservations are absolutely crucial.

How crucial you may ask? Well, the Milford Track just down the road is already booked for the entire year, and the next available beds on the Routeburn Track weren’t for another month.

“Except”, chimed the ranger at the National Park office, “for a two-bed opening on Sunday which just opened up. I suggest you take it.”

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Which is how I ended up meandering through the Southern Alps at distances far too lengthy to be enjoyable.

But wait? The trail is only 20 miles. Why did you walk 28? Because one logistical dilemma involved with the Routeburn is that you finish the hike a full 225 miles away from your starting point and the parking lot where you left your car. Thoughtfully swooping in to solve this dilemma are companies who will gladly shuttle your car to the other side of the trail for a cool $200 US, or you can enjoy a five hour bus ride back to your car to the tune of around $100 US/person.

Or, as a third option, you can just save the money and turn your haggard butt around and walk in the way you came. When you are a budget-conscious travel writer who lives in your van, this is unfortunately the best choice.

So why then, if the trail is so fully-booked, expensive, and logistically unfriendly, would so many people choose to trek it?

Because, to put it simply, it might actually be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the entire world.

The trail begins by gently climbing through beech forest so thick it can still appear dark even at noon. Moss hangs off the tree branches like the beard of an old sea captain, the soggy green confines teeming with devilish sand flies Captain James Cook once described as “the most mischievous animal here.”

Even though the Fiordland region is in the midst of the one of the driest winters in recent memory, gently flowing streams cross the trail at regular intervals, with the highlight being 574 ft. Erland Falls which explodes down the mountain with such ferocity the force of its spray occasionally renders the main trail impassable.

Of the two lakes along the 20-mile route, Lake Mackenzie is rung by sun-heated boulders and begs the weary hiker to relax for a swim. Meanwhile, the elevated Lake Harris looms stoically in the shadow of 4,200 ft. Harris Saddle, which is the highest elevation achieved along the trip.

On the ridge line connecting the two sub-alpine lakes the Hollyford Valley opens up in a gaping cleft below, and the glacially carved peaks of the Southern Alps are bespeckled with so many waterfalls the mountains literally appear to weep.

In the distance it’s faintly possible to glimpse the Tasman Sea, the gaze cutting clear over the mountains which form the backdrop to the epically popular Milford Sound. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a curious kea, the world’s only alpine parrot which numbers only around 5,000 left in the wild.

In other words, if ever you felt like Gandalf riding along a mountain crest, it’s from this very perch right here.

With weary legs, a full memory card, and a body odor sculpted by sweat, muscle cream, anti-itch ointment, and lemon-pepper tuna fish (you have to pack out your own trash), I crawled my way back in to the recesses of the campervan and wondered if hiking 28 miles of the Routeburn Trek was a good idea after all.

Scrolling through the camera and the images burned in my mind, it really wasn’t even a question.

It was.

So is it the best walk in the world? If you do the suggested 3 day/2 night route and the weather is nice…maybe. But really, there are too many trails to be trodden to make such a claim, although I’m more than game to chalk this up to research…

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.