Trek: Routeburn Track
Destination: South Island, New Zealand
Length: 28 miles, 3-4 days
Not a half day into the Routeburn Track, at a place called Key Summit, the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park surround an open meadow set high on a rare “triple” continental divide. Here, three epic valleys, the Hollyford, the Eglington and the Greenstone drain into the Tasman Sea (west), the Foveaux Strait on the Southern Ocean (south), and the South Pacific Ocean (east), respectively. The landscape is astonishing, spiced with views into the Darran Range, where a young Hillary trained for Everest.
This magnificent alpine route never lets up as it tours the glacier-carved landscapes of New Zealand's Southern alps through rain forests, across high basins and over mountain passes. Each day delivers such botanical surprise, exotic bird song and scenic payoff that it surpasses even its super-star sibling, the neighboring Milford Track. Shorter than the Milford, and much less popular, the 28-mile Routeburn Track connects Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park of New Zealand’s South Island via a high pass called Harris Saddle.
The hike can be done in either direction, though it's best to start at The Divide and finish at the Dart River. From the Divide, the route gains elevation quickly up to Key Summit, descends to Lake Howden, then climbs past Earland Falls up to the Lake Mackenzie hut. The second day climbs up out of the basin onto the impressive Hollyford Face for the long, ascending traverse up to Harris Saddle, the high point of the route, often snowy in early season. From the saddle, it's only a couple of hours down to the Routeburn Falls hut. From there, the third days takes you down to Routeburn Flats and out to the Dart River through the enchanting beech forest and rugged river gorge dotted with breathtaking jade-green pools.
Logistics: November through April is the season. International hikers arrive via Auckland, the largest city of this island nation, but the hike is staged from Queenstown, a full-on fun hog city two hours away on the wilder and more sparsely populated South Island. Trailhead transportation is arranged from Queenstown, where permits and hiking information are easily gotten, and a guided option is available.
Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles in search of the greatest backcountry routes on the planet. As he researches his iconic hiking books, such as Classic Hikes of the World, Potterfield is always on the lookout for the best hikes on all seven continents. Here, just months before the release of his next book, Classic Hikes of North America, Potterfield offers up his current list of favorite hikes.