Labelled 'the finest walk in the world', it's no wonder the Milford Track is one of New Zealand's most popular Great Walks. 54 kilometres of well-constructed paths, suspension bridges and boardwalks lead trampers through vast glaciated valleys, lush green forests and over crystal waterways. Oh, and not to forget the abundance of waterfalls and wildlife you’ll pass along the way too. What makes this track even more unique, however, is that on the most miserable of days Fiordland comes to life like never before…
- The water taxi to and from the track
- Glacier-carved fiords
- Incredible views from the MacKinnon Pass
- New Zealand's tallest waterfall
DAY 1 - 5km // 1-2hrs
Most visitors of the track start off in the early hours of the morning catching a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, where water transport is then required to reach the start of the track. Here you get the first indication of just how rugged and uncompromising the environment in Fiordland is.
Moss laden silver and red beech trees hugged the track as we strolled up the lower Clinton Valley from Glade Wharf. We‘d arrived early and knew it wouldn’t take long to reach Clinton Hut, so we took our time to spot trout in the clear water, admire the tomtits and robins going about their business and gawk at the strange calls of paradise ducks.
At the first hut, we found there were gas cookers, heating, mattresses and even a flushing toilet! Facilities are limited outside the Great Walks season, so make sure to always check DoC before you go. Clinton Hut has a really nice optional boardwalk side trip and some great swimming holes that are worth seeing, so it’s worth getting to camp early in the afternoon to make the most of your time here.
DAY 2 - 16.5km // 6hrs
Day two started with a gradual ascent to the source of the Clinton River, where we cut down into the Clinton Valley and were overcome by the immensity of the mountains on either side.
On a nice day, the sun beats down on hikers and temperatures can call for a swim at the closest water hole. More likely however, are the odds of seeing low floating clouds, torrential rivers taking over quiet creeks and waterfalls plundering down previously blank rock faces. Water is a dominant feature on the Milford, with an average of 7-10 metres falling per year. All this fresh water means there’s no need to carry multiple litres in your pack – just fill up a cup or bottle as you go.
It took us around four hours of hiking before we first saw Mackinnon Pass, and then a further two hour’s ascent to reach Mintaro Hut.
Note: Don’t leave anything outside to dry overnight at the huts as the Kea are particularly friendly and likely to take your jocks and socks. For real though.
DAY 3 - 14km // 6-7hrs
This was the toughest, but most rewarding, day of the entire journey. The track picked up where it finished yesterday, climbing uphill from Mintaro Hut to the top of the Mackinnon Pass. Make sure to admire the Clinton Valley as soon as you break free of the moss-covered canopy and start to zigzag up the mountain. The weather can change quickly and there’s no guarantee you’ll get a view from above.
A ferocious wind was whipping across the pass when we crossed it, but we stayed outside as long as possible to admire the northern and southern valleys, snowfields and mountains from the highest point on the track (1154m). We ducked into the Mackinnon Pass Shelter to eat our lunch and use the toilet, being sure to keep the door wide open for a straight shooting view of the Clinton Valley.
From here we began the steep descent beneath Mount Balloon and Jervois Glacier, acutely aware of our aching feet and quads, to a boardwalk which follows the Roaring Burn River. It’s not long from here until Dumpling Hut, however, when you reach Quintin Lodge I highly recommend dropping your bag and taking the 2km side track to New Zealand’s highest waterfall – the Sutherland Falls. Water from a glacial fed lake dives down three levels of mountain toward the ground, where it shatters into a cloud of mist. Worth wearing your rain jacket for this one.
DAY 4 - 18km // 5-7hrs
The final 18km of the Milford Track are long but, with barely any change in the gradient, it’s the perfect way to reflect on the past few days and appreciate the beauty around you. At one point the path seems to carve itself into the side of the mountains, a sheer drop immediately to the right leaving not much room for error.
Some of the main features seen in the first 4-5 hours from Dumpling Hut include Mackay Falls, Lake Ida, Bell Rock and Giant Gate Falls. From Giant Gate Falls it’s approximately 1.5 hour’s walk to Sandfly Point, all along a flat 3km track built by a prison labour gang in the late 19th century.
In the tourist season, trails of people are around on day walks from Sandfly Point to Giant Gate Falls. Aside from at night time and from across the pass, we had barely seen any other people the entire trip and were surprised to encounter so many people before reaching Milford Sound. Boats from Sandfly Point leave at 2:00pm and 3:00pm every day, however, there’s a shelter not far from the wharf which is available to wait in to avoid the sandflies ruining the final hours of your trip.
- Rain jacket
- Spare socks to wear at night
- Cooking utensils (huts in the season provide cooking facilities with fuel)
- A warm sleeping bag
DISTANCE - 53.5km
ELEVATION GAIN - 1154m is the highest point, but from the start of the track to the highest point is approximately 800m gain
DURATION - 4 glorious days
Words by toitū founder, Jessie McRae, with images by friends and family. This article was originally posted on We Are Explorers.