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New Zealand’s Most Famous Trail to Run: The Routeburn

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New Zealand's Most Famous Trail to Run: The Routeburn New Zealand’s Most Famous Trail to Run: The Routeburn www.runnerclick.com

The government of New Zealand enthusiastically calls The Routeburn track “the ultimate alpine adventure”. They’re not wrong. On this designated World Heritage Site trail, you’ll cross the spectacular New Zealand Southern Alps, a mountain range extending across most of the southern island. You’ll pass through not one but two national parks: Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. You’ll have the once in a lifetime opportunity to run through beech forest, grassy river flats, sweeping valleys, pristine alpine forests, towering mountains, rainforest, near high alpine lakes and waterfalls (just to name a few). And hopefully, you’ll have the chance to stop in at the Glenorchy Cafe (near The Routeburn Shelter entrance) for a coffee and a slice of heavenly pie.

Here are things you need to know before you go!

Walkway over a river crossing. Photo by Jasmine Ayla Hanner

Getting There

The Routeburn Track is a part of Te Wahipounamu, South West New Zealand World Heritage Area and is a one-way track. This means you have a few transportation options to decide on.

First, you’ll need to decide if you want to start your run at the Routeburn Shelter and end at The Divide, or vice versa. The most popular route is starting from the Routeburn Shelter, because it’s only about an hour drive from Queenstown, while The Divide is over three hours from Queenstown.

Next, you’ll need two rides. One to the trail entrance, and one from the trail end. You can book a shuttle, ride the bus, or you can use a car-relocation service like Trackhopper. Trackhopper is a company owned by a trail-running couple, Mike and Kiyomi, who between themselves have crossed the Routeburn over 500 times.  That means not only can you travel to and from the trail from the comfort of your own car, but you also have two excellent sources of Routeburn trail-running information.

Clothes & Gear

It will depend on what time of year you run, but it’s always a good idea to layer up. The mornings can be chilly, the afternoons warmer, and there is always a chance of wind and rain. So be sure to pack the following:

Also be sure to pack a light, running backpack with the following items:

  • Waterproof casing for your passport, wallet and camera
  • First-aid and blister kit, sunscreen, insect repellent
  • Water (5-10oz for every 30 minutes you run) and food (plan for at least two meals)
  • Tried and tested trail-running shoes
A rainbow over a grass-filled valley. Photo by Jasmine Ayla Hanner

Trail Description

(from the Routeburn Shelter to The Divide)

Although much of the trail is fairly easy, it’s still considered technical. This is because it includes several aggressive uphill ascents, rocks and tree roots are present the whole way through, and there is a technical downhill ascent at the end of the trail when you approach The Divide. The trail can be roughly divided into three segments.

Segment 1: Routeburn Shelter (carpark with shelter, bathrooms & bus stop) to Routeburn Falls Hut. Distance: 8.8km (5.5mi)

​Segment 2: Routeburn Falls Hut to Mackenzie Hut. Distance: 11.3 km (7mi)

​Segment 3: Mackenzie Hut to The Divide (carpark with shelter, bathrooms & bus stop). Distance: 12 km (7.5mi)

The descent down to the Mackenzie Valley shelter / The Divide. Photo by Jasmine Ayla Hanner

Stats & Safety

As always, let someone know where you will be running and your estimated time of return. In this case, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation asks that you fill out an Intentions form on their website before you start the trail.

Location: Mt. Aspiring & Fiordland National Parks, Canterbury Region, South Island, New Zealand
Elevation: 1,300m (4,300ft)
Trail length: 32km (20mi)
Elevation gain: 823m (2,700ft) (starting from The Routeburn Shelter)

When To Go

Remember, these are the Southern Hemisphere seasons.

  • Summer (December, January, February) – the perfect time to trail run in New Zealand, with a good chance of a warm and dry climate.
  • Spring (September, October, November) – also a beautiful time to run the Routeburn Track. It can get a little more rainfall so be prepared to get a little wet, but it’s also a beautiful time to view gushing waterfalls and streams. Keep in mind that winter can sometimes run well into September.
  • Autumn (March, April, May) – with the change of seasons the burst of colors makes this another stunning time to run this track. Keep in mind that winter can sometimes start as early as the beginning of May.
  • Winter (June, July, August) – Not recommended unless you are experienced with avalanche safety skills and equipment. The trail is not patrolled in the winter season, the wardens’ huts are closed, and there is enough snowfall to cover the track and create avalanches.
The trail runs through a moss forest. Photo by Jasmine Ayla Hanner


Well before the Routeburn track was “discovered” in the 1800s by Europeans, it was known to the Maori culture as Te Komama, a trading route connecting Lake Wakatipu with the West Coast. The name Te Komama is the name of the location, and also the name of the map to get there – all contained within a single song. Each verse of the Maori song described geographical features to reach the location, such as river crossings, mountain passes, lakes, and caves. The song even contained stories and feats of different men, making the song not only a map to the destination but also a running history of it.

A high trail overlooking an alpine lake. Photo by Jasmine Hanner

There are many stunning, jaw-droppingly beautiful tracks in New Zealand but as one hiker noted, the Routeburn is like all of them put together. If you’re looking for an introduction to trail running in New Zealand, look no further.


  1. Derek Grzelewski, Routeburn, Article
  2. Helen Dixon, Running the Routeburn Track: A Trail Running Adventure in New Zealand, Blog post
  3. Track Hopper, Routeburn Track Car Re-Location, Business website
  4. Adventure Smart, Outdoors Intentions for Land-based Activities, NZ DOC affiliate

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