Lake Mackenzie Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track vs Milford Track: Which one is right for you?

21 May 2024

In Fiordland National Park we are lucky to have three, and soon to be 4 Great Walks, all nestled right on the doorstep of our lovely lakeside town of Te Anau! Each Great Walk offers a unique trail, weaving through different natural environments for your exploration.

As most of the Great Walks take 3 days to complete, and it is difficult to secure places in the huts via the Department of Conservation (DOC) system, you will have to make a choice about which is the right one for you. Here is my take on the two most popular trails and my favourites – the Milford and Routeburn Tracks; the good bits and challenges you may face.

Out of caution I do recommend you complete the Great Walks in season, this essentially runs from the start of November through to the end of April.  This is when the trails are fully open and most enjoyable. Only experienced parties should attempt hiking on the Great Walks during the winter months, as conditions can be harsh and dangerous in Fiordland with short days, snow and avalanche risks, plus very cold temperatures.

What to expect from a Great Walk Experience in the summer

Huts – these must be booked.  The huts are well equipped with gas burners in the kitchen, mattresses in the bunkhouses, and clean flush toilets! You’ll need to bring all your food and cooking equipment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while on the trail, as well as a sleeping bag and personal clothing. For a full list of what to bring see -

Trail – the standard of Great Walk Tracks are high, with rough and muddy or wet sections (defined as not over the top of a boot) kept to a minimum. So overall, a Great Walk is the perfect trail for anyone attempting their first multiday experience.

Girl hiking on the Routeburn Trail over Harris Saddle, Routeburn Track, in Fiordland |Trips & Tramps

The trail surface can be rocky in places, but also very beautiful, especially in the alpine areas when the flowers are in bloom!

Rangers – During the summer, park rangers are at huts, and weather conditions are monitored by DOC. If the safety of trail users is a concern, they will close the trail and keep you in the huts (or prevent you from starting at all). Though conditions are extreme for this to happen, it does occur in Fiordland, as our weather can be wild at any time of the year.


This would be my recommendation for your first Great Walk or if your fitness isn’t quite where you want it to be. The Routeburn Track is divided between Fiordland and Aspiring National Park, with the trail crossing the Harris Saddle. The trail is 33 km in total, so the days are manageable. By doing it over 3 days and 2 nights you will average around 4-5 hours walking each day. This means there is plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, and with plenty of incredible views on offer you can take your time to take it all in.


  • One-way trail, no back tracking or retracing your steps!
  • The scenery will see you travel by foot through mountains, view glaciers, and crystal-clear alpine lakes, incredible forests and see some of New Zealand’s rare and unique birdlife.
  • Shorter days hiking, so the days are manageable for a wide range of abilities.
Hikers in the alpine area on the Routeburn Track at Key Summit in the rain | Trips & Tramps

With little shelter from any trees, the trail can be exposed to the weather conditions, so it is worth being prepared!


  • Transport and logistics. It is a long drive from one side of the trail to the other, the Routeburn Shelter and The Divide are over 300 km apart.  We recommend Tracknet for regular bus transfers, this scheduled service is shared, so you can reduce your carbon footprint which is a bonus for the environment.
  • The trail can be very exposed to the weather, as you spend a lot of time in the alpine area where there is little shelter available. The weather in the alpine area of Fiordland is prone to change quickly too, so ensure you pack for all seasons.  This includes ensuring you have equipment for snow and rain, but also hot sun!
kea bird in front of camera high on the Milford Track in Fiordland | Trips & Tramps

High on the Milford Track at Mackinnon Pass, a kea waits to check out the hardy hikers!


This is arguably New Zealand’s most famous Great Walk, offering hikers an incredible glacial carved landscape to explore. When the sun shines it is picture perfect, as you walk amongst the lush green of the native forest, surrounded by lofty mountain peaks.  But when it rains the Milford Track truly comes alive! With torrents of water cascading down the steep mountains, this is when you will truly experience the magic of the trail.  With an average of 200 rainy days a year and seven metres of rainfall on average per annum, chances are, you will get wet, and feel the humbled by the wilderness which surrounds you.

This 53-kilometre, 3-night journey should not be underestimated, and it is recommended for people who have some experience in multiday hiking. The trail can be challenging in places with lots of rock underfoot.


  • Sublime scenery, from deep forested valleys, untamed rivers, and exquisite mountains towering above.
  • Access only by boat at either end of the Milford Track ensures a wilderness experience with limited numbers of people accessing the trail.  This means you can really enjoy the landscape on your own terms in relative solitude if you choose.
  • This is also a one-way trail, with no back tracking or retracking your steps.


  • Getting a booking.  The Milford Track is one trail everyone has heard of, and spaces are limited so you must be quick (and a bit lucky) to secure a place each year.
  • It rains a lot, so you need to be prepared for this.  Go with an expectation of rain and enjoy whatever the weather throws at you.
  • It is a reasonable distance to hike each day, with an average walking time of 6 hours, and this can be made longer if the weather is unfavourable. Day 1 is a short day, just 5 km to Clinton hut, but after this, your days will lengthen. Day 2 to Mintaro Hut is 16.5 km, with a gentle climb. Day 3 to Dumpling Hut is 14 km, taking you over the Mackinnon pass at 1,154 metres.  This is negotiated by a series of zig zags and can be challenging. Day 4 is 18 km down the Arthur Valley to Sandfly Point to complete the trail.
couple with guide on the Routeburn Track at Key Summit | Credit Miles Holden

A guided day hike on these trails can make the day a lot easier, and add to the experience


While the full multiday hikes are an option for some, a day walk boasts a fantastic introduction to these renowned trails. Easier to book and requiring less equipment, this may be the best experience for you, especially if your time is limited while you are traveling in New Zealand.

Routeburn Track Guided Day Walk: Experience the stunning Routeburn Track without the commitment of a multi-day hike. This guided walk covers a section of the trail, showcasing its beautiful alpine scenery and diverse ecosystems. Enjoy the convenience of a return trip to Te Anau in the same day.
Milford Track Guided Day Walk: Discover the magic of the Milford Track with a guided day walk. This option allows you to explore the trail’s highlights, including its lush forests and dramatic waterfalls, all within a single day. A boat ride and a knowledgeable guide ensure you get the most out of this iconic trail.

Choosing between hiking the Milford and Routeburn Tracks depends on your preferences and experience. The Milford Track, famous for its dramatic landscapes and challenging terrain, offers a 53 km, 3-night adventure through lush forests and stunning mountain scenery. It's ideal for experienced hikers but requires more preparation. The Routeburn Track, a 33 km trail shared with Aspiring National Park, is perfect for first timers, featuring diverse alpine scenery and manageable daily hikes over 3 days. For those short on time or seeking a more relaxed experience, a guided day walks with Trips and Tramps provide an excellent introduction to these trails, allowing you to explore their highlights and return to Te Anau the same day with a local knowledgeable guide. Whatever your preference, a fantastic experience awaits, offering a mix of challenge and stunning scenery!



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