Earnslaw Burn Track
The Earnslaw Burn Track/Pikirakatahi is a stunning overnighter, which has shot straight to the top of my list of favourite NZ overnight tramps thus far – for the *wow* factor. The track sidles through the forest above the true left of the Earnslaw Burn for about 8.5 km before breaking out into a grassy valley for a further 4.5 km or so to the base of Mt Earnslaw and the Earnslaw Glacier. It surely offers some of the most impressive views you’re likely to get for an overnighter in New Zealand. (But then again, my tramping career has only spanned 4.5 years thus far – so I’ll let you know when I beat it!).
Getting There Earnslaw Burn Track
The Earnslaw Burn track starts from Lovers Leap Road, about 20 minutes from Glenorchy on the road to Paradise. Google maps will get you there, but about 4 km after the Routeburn turnoff take the right-hand fork by a silver letterbox, then cross a small stream. The parking spot is about 1.5 Kms further down on the left, before the big bend. There were about six vehicles in the parking area when I arrived (just outside of the school holidays on a weekday at the end of January). There are no toilets, so stop in Glenorchy on your way through.
The Track and Timings Earnslaw Burn Track
DOC classifies the track as Advanced and suggests the timing as 4-6 hours one way to the viewpoint (which I assume means the bush line). Knowing I can walk roughly 5 km an hour on a good day on a flat easy track, I thought this one might be a little slow going.
On the topo map, the track looks like a reasonably straightforward sidle and you only gain around 500m elevation overall. However, on the ground you’re either going up, going down, picking your way up/down/over tree roots, crossing little streams in gullies, hopping over logs, rocks, boulders or mud, balancing, scrambling up, stepping down, sliding down, avoiding drops, clinging to branches or bits of foliage.. or all those at once.
Most people I spoke with on the track said they were surprised at how much longer than expected their tramp took, with all the tree roots, ups and downs etc.
Some of the blogs I read for my research mentioned there was a lot of treefall, but just days before I walked, DOC had tidied it all up (a fabulous effort – thanks!!) so with that out of the equation, I was pleasantly surprised at the state of the track – but I was definitely in the minority opinion.
Having spent most of this summer tramping and it being very dry conditions, I was up for a sporty mission and really got into it. It took me 3.5 hours from the car park to the bush line with a 10-minute break. If you go when it’s wet, expect the track to take longer than you had planned – the tree roots and gullies would be slippery and pretty treacherous.
The section from the forest to the base of the glacier took me a further 1 hour 45 minutes. Half of that time was spent chatting with everyone coming out from their overnight. On my return, it took 50 minutes from my camp (about 1.5 km away from the glacier) back to the bush line.
Earnslaw Burn Car Park into the Forest
I started walking at 8 am. I clambered around the locked gate at the car park and headed straight across to the trees. There’s a large marker and some signage in the distance. (Don’t head down to the left – towards the river). The track began with a 100m climb through the beech forest, easing into a gentler 200m climb over time. There was a short section through grass and ferns early on, so be prepared for wet feet if it’s a dewy morning.
The track was well marked and easy to follow. After the first 45 minutes or so it became more tree – rooty and a little slower going. There was nothing too difficult in the first hour, and at 8.50 am there was a nice viewpoint looking up the valley.
I arrived at the first river marked on the topo map at 9.45 am. Shortly afterwards, after a sketchy little gully, I lost the track momentarily whilst not paying attention to the markers, and had to backtrack after finding myself perched on a little ledge above a drop nowhere to go.
The middle section of the forest was probably the most technical part, including a short slip. I had a quick break after that at 10.05 am. I had walked approx 4.5 km in just over two hours. The section remained slow-going and included a couple of nasty little drops into gullies, but thankfully with a couple of well-used branches to lower myself down with.
I heard the first of a few helicopters flying to the glacier.
The final 30 minutes in the forest was comparatively easy. I enjoyed the occasional tantalising views of high peaks as the trees thinned. By 11.15 am cliffs rose to the left as the valley closed in, and the first of many beautiful waterfalls appeared from them, high above. I heard a Kea call in the distance. By now it was only half a kilometre to the bush line and only one more gnarly little climb-down before I found myself out in the open at 11.30 am.
From the Bush Line
Upon checking the map, I realised I already passed the rock biv on the opposite side of the river without noticing it. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to cross the river here, and there were flat spots to camp further up.
Once out of the forest, the view that greets you from the bush line is the imposing, slanted walls of Turret Head (2350m) and the peaks of Mt Earnslaw in the distance (2820/30m)- quite the spectacle. I took a look at the tall tussocks, alpine bushes and spiky spaniard, and put my long gaiters on – within five minutes I took them off again as it was far too hot!
Approx 300m out of the bush there was a lovely, flat camp spot next to the river with a rock bench, and another spot 200m further on. The track isn’t officially marked from here but there is a fairly obvious track that was easy to pick up, still on the true left of the Earnslaw Burn (I didn’t need to cross the river at all). Not long after, there was a tricky little sidle up and over the bank, including a slippery little hydro slide, you wouldn’t want to fall down. I met some trampers coming out, who gave me some excellent advice about the track and camp spots.
Towards Mt Earnslaw
As I rounded the sweeping right-hand bend Mt Earnslaw and the full glacier came into view. I had seen plenty of photos, but nothing prepares you for its magnitude! It’s breathtaking.
I picked up one of the numerous tracks weaving across the wet, muddy grassy flats, still on the true left of the river. The DOC website and signage at the start of the track state that a marginal strip extends 10 m on either side of the Earnslaw Burn, and that outside of it, is the private property of the station. As far as I could see, all the tracks to the head of the valley were outside this, and it would be great if an official track is made along this section, to save the grassy flats being chewed up by the various paths everyone is currently making.
About a kilometre after the sweeping bend I passed a couple of spots close to the river, where most people seemed to be setting up camp. There was a second up-and-over just further on, but as I discovered on my way back, it’s easier to walk down to the camp spots and beside the river (no wet feet required). The track rose again and split through the bushes and for the final 1.5 km I tried not to trip over my feet as I marvelled at the glacier.
At the Head of the Valley Earnslaw Burn Track
A high moraine next to the beautiful waterfall on the left provided the perfect lunch spot. I couldn’t believe I had the whole place to myself! I was mesmerized by the number of waterfalls on the face. The waterfall and river roared beside me, and even so, I could hear the cracking ice on the glacier.
After lunch, I headed down to the flat section at the base of the wall. The numerous rock circles dotted around indicated the camp spots people had used. I dropped my pack, grabbed my plb, and crossed the Earnslaw Burn – an easy few steps through shallow water (in these dry, summer conditions).
I headed up a steep, slippery scree slope to the right to check out the ice patch visible from the valley. I’d seen in photos that if you time it right, with the sun on the mountain face, the ice up here shines a crystal-clear blue. But this afternoon in the shade, it was the kind of dirty brown that wouldn’t make it onto social media. Not being that great with caves, and being slightly overwhelmed with the power of the waterfalls thundering around me, I didn’t feel the need to explore any further, and just took it all in.
As I was heading back down, I saw a tiny figure exploring the valley below. It turned out to be a French guy, and we walked back together. He not only found the perfect campsite for me on the way back down the valley, but he’d also very thoughtfully brought a beer, which he shared with me. We sat down and took in the sights before he headed back.
I set up my tent and watched the glacier. As the sun left the face it changed from a pure sparkling white to a solid dirty white, with every fold and crack visible. I heard rumbles of ice fall. Latecomers passed by for a quick look at the glacier, before heading in for their full exploration in the morning. Everyone on a day mission said they wish they’d brought their tent, and weren’t looking forward to the slog back through the forest that evening.
I had a splash in the river (which wasn’t as cold as I expected) and went to bed when it was still light, hoping the chattering Kea wouldn’t visit.
Pink wisps of cloud drifted over the glacier at 6.30 am. The waterfalls were just trickles compared to yesterday and most of them had completely dried up overnight. It was cold enough for gloves as I made my breakfast. The sun hit the glacier at 6.40 am and slowly made its way down, transforming the face to brilliant white again.
At 8 am just as I was about to leave, I met a couple of girls who had camped at the base. They had been visited by a flock of kea and thought it best to pack down before any damage was done. I headed back out ahead of them and by 8.50 am was back in the forest. The forest section took 3 hours 15 minutes (no break) and I was back at the car by 12.15 pm.
The Earnslaw Burn track is a fabulous track suitable for experienced, well-equipped trampers, but I met a number of people day-walking it as a spur of the moment thing (some of whom weren’t even carrying warm clothes).
If this sounds like you – check the weather before you go, start early, take plenty of food and water, a first aid kit/survival blanket, warm clothes and wet weather gear (whatever the weather – it can change in an instant). As with any backcountry tramp, it’s worth hiring/buying a plb. Be aware that the track will likely be more difficult and take longer than you think, and time your walk so you’re out before dark. There is no cell reception, so tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be out.
Stay safe, and happy travels everyone, TT x