Finest walk in the world?
Maybe . . .
The question is, can the track live up to the hype?
In this intensely overhyped modern world it’s remarkable that there are still places of such magnificence that they transcend what is, or could be, said about them. Defy description.
The two poles of Fiordland’s weather can affect the Milford experience in a significant way. In the dry the vegetation dripping forest and the tightness and immediacy of the Clinton valley make this one of New Zealand’s most intimate walks, indeed supply much of its charm. There is massive views from the Mackinnon Saddle with the precipitous Mount Balloon and Mt Hart towering shaft-like above, the view down to Quinton Lodge way below. The ending at Milford Sound.
In the wet, and Milford can do wet better than most places in the world, you might find yourself wading waist deep in water, the track transforms. Those 800 metre cliffs, and the glacially created Clinton Valley is totally cliff, run with water, you are in the midst of a valley of 1000 waterfalls, something that can only be experienced, lived, words and photography a poor substitute.
Three varied days of scenery, a more demanding and difficult track than some might be expecting, together with the close companionship of the other 39 participants in the same adventure, it really is an immersion into another world that Modern Life has increasingly veiled.
Yup, this is a track where the standard cliche “awesome” can be expressed with the original meaning intact.
Finest walk in New Zealand? Well, of course.
Great Walk | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
There are three ways to experience the Milford Track.
The cheaper summer season option is as an independent, “freedom walker”. You book your place in the huts together with transportation, carry your own gear, including food and sleeping bag and look after yourself. You are required to sleep in the hut you have booked and camping is not permitted. Sounds good, although while you have flush toilets there are no showers.
The problem is that each day is limited to 40 walkers and as this is a world renowned track places are taken very quickly, the summer season is usually completely booked. Occasionally cancellations do occur but you need to be ready to walk at short notice and in Te Anau to go.
The cost: $165.50 for the boats and buses to Milford, $70 x three for the huts, (for Kiwis), and $53 for the bus from Milford back to Te Anau. The huts cost $140 a night for non-New Zealand residents during the 2019—2020 season.
You are charged differently depending on whether you are a New Zealand resident, a drivers license will be sufficient proof, or not, in which case you will be charged double the local rate.
The other summer option is with the 50 person guided walk with Ultimate hikes. This more often has places, at least in the shoulder ends of the season. You stay in different, more upmarket huts with a higher level of servicing, ie, showers, sheets, food is prepared, wine is available, there are hand washing facilities and drying rooms for wet clothes, etc, and you only need to carry your clothes and camera. Too easy.
The downside is that this option is expensive. The cheapest option in a 4 to 6 person bulk room and sharing a bathroom is around $2100 for most of the season. If you want a single room with ensuite it clocks in at over $3000, although they include an extra night at Milford Sound in the package.
There is also a winter option, ie, outside the summer season, where the huts are $15 a night but it has certain issues. You need a minimum of six people to pay for the boat access, there is a very real avalanche danger, many of the bridges are taken out to avoid damage, thick snow is possible, etc. October and May are the best months for this unless you have considerable alpine experience in NZ conditions.
where | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
The track is a one way route that starts at the Glade Wharf on Lake Te Anau, tracks up the Clinton Valley to Mackinnon Pass and follows the Arthur River to Sandfly Point on the upper section of Milford Sound.
distance | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
53.5 km, more or less
time | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
4 days, no flexibility allowed in summer months
when | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
The usual walking season is during the summer months, the dates are from 25 October – 30 April. An exceedingly popular track, there is a limit to 40 walkers at each of the DOC huts, booking is required. Unless you strike it lucky with a cancellation the track is usually fully booked soon after bookings are opened in June. Check the availability of huts.
Bookings are not possible during the Winter Season, from 1 May to 24 October. During this time avalanche danger is a major, and very real, concern. There are 57 avalanche paths to cross. Many of the bridges are removed due to potential avalanche damage. The major determinant for track access is getting sufficient numbers to make the cost of the water access bearable, usually there is a minimum of six people required to make it worthwhile for the operators.
It is possible to walk in May or late October but check with DOC about recommendations about safety. They monitor the avalanche danger.
maps and GPS | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
On the extremely well-marked and signposted track there’s little real requirement for anything more than the map in the free DOC brochure.
It is possible to buy a real map, ie, on old-fashioned paper. The Newtopo Milford Track map at newtopo.co.nz/milford-track-map.html at a scale of 1:38,000, $20, is available from major DOC offices and some outdoor stores, Macpac keep them, or consult this comprehensive list of retail outlets.newtopo.co.nz/where-to-buy.html.
Potton and Burton also make an excellent 1:40,000 scale waterproof map of the Kepler Track for $24.99.
route description | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Boat access is required at both ends of the Milford. From Glade Wharf at the start of the track there is a shortish flat walk to the first accommodation, Clinton Hut.
Day Two is walking up the slowly steepening Clinton River valley to the more compact Mintaro Hut.
Day Three starts with a two-hour climb to The Monument, where you will normally meet the local kea, with another half hour to Mackinnon Pass and the nearby Mackinnon Pass shelter, where gas is provided for a cuppa stop. From there it is down, sometimes steeply, around 215 timber steps are involved at one stage. This section can be slippery in the wet. Packs can be left inside the Quintin Lodge Day Shelter, that’s adjacent to, err, Quintin Lodge, while the detour up to the base of the impressive Sutherland Falls, NZ’s highest at 580 m. Back at the shelter Dumpling Hut is just an hour further down the valley.
Day Four is a race down the flattish Arthur Valley to time the boat pickup. Not much reason to spend too much time hanging around Sandfly Point due to, umm, vast numbers of a certain biting insect species resident.
huts | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
The Milford Track huts are comfortable enough, the mattresses are okay, the fireboxes work, the roof keeps the water out, what’s to complain about?
There is no camping available on the Milford Track.
Here’s the three 40 bunk “freedom walkers” huts you will encounter:
There are some shelters to get, err, shelter when the weather is not so great, ie, raining heavily.
Beech Hut a historic hut reconstruction
Hirere Shelter: similar design as Andersons Cascade Shelter, with toilet
You will also walk past the guided walkers private huts:
Tramping times | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Here’s the DOC stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DoC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to walk faster.
Unfortunately this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, experience the thundering waterfalls, watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to occupy the minimum time racing through this memorable landscape.
Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut
Time: 1 – 1 hour 30 minutes
Distance: 5 km
Side trip – Wetland Walkway
Time: 15 min return
Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Time: 6 hours
Distance: 16.5 km
Mintaro to Dumpling Hut
Time: 6 – 7 hours
Distance: 14 km
Side trip – Sutherland Falls
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes return
Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
Time: 5 hour 30 minutes — 6 hours
Distance: 18 km
getting there | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Boat access is normally required at both ends. When starting the track embark at the Te Anau Downs jetty, 25 km north of Te Anau on the Milford Road for the hour-long trip up to the Glade Wharf. A second boat will deposit you at on the road side of Milford Sound at the conclusion of your walk. Buses are available to take you back to Te Anau Downs, Te Anau or Queenstown.
During the summer season boat transport must be booked through DOC once you have confirmed your hut space. In winter the boats only go if there are a minimum of six people per trip. Two companies provide a transport package to do the round trip from Te Anau, Milford Sound and back to Te Anau for around $240. There’s no easy way around that cost.
Tracknet has a bus from Queenstown or Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, to connect with their boats from Te Anau Downs to Milford Track. Check website for times.
At the end of the Milford Track, Tracknet has a boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound that connects with their Milford Sound to Te Anau bus, and you can go on to Queenstown.
Real Journeys have a similar schedule that can take you t and from Te Anau or Milford Sound. Check website for times.
supplies | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Te Anau has one major supermarket, Freshchoice, open 7 am to 9 pm seven days, for getting the main supplies. There is also a small 4 Square with similar, but marginally truncated opening hours.
Shellite or Fuelite and gas canisters for your stove can be obtained at Outdoor Sports, Fiordland Frontier Supplies, both open Monday – Friday 9 00 am–5 30 pm and Saturday 9 am-1 pm, or Mitre 10, Monday – Friday 8 am-5 30 pm, Saturday 9 am-4 pm, Sunday 11 am-3 pm, if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it. All these shops are in the main shopping area of Te Anau.
warnings | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound gets more than 6 m of rainfall a year on average, five times that of Auckland or Wellington. That’s a lot of water. And it rains most days of the year.
The Milford Track is entirely weather dependent. You can get a pleasant spell where there is no rain. That’s good. You can also get a fair amount of rain, either at night, or continuing through the day, in which case you will get wet. Despite the dampness you then get a different appreciation of the Milford, suddenly 1000 waterfalls appear, it’s not all bad. It’s fantastic.
Every now and again, even during the summer season, conditions deteriorate due to extreme rain and the track is flooded. There are two common flood zones, one adjacent to the Clinton River before the Hirere Shelter, and just before Dumpling Hut where wading knee deep, or more, may also be required, although the water is relatively calm. The DOC hut wardens are experienced about advising what conditions you are likely to encounter, they have flood markers in the rivers. Sometimes the rainfall is of such dimension that the track is blocked, requiring the use of helicopters to jump trampers over flooded creeks, you are forced to pay extra for these. DOC tries to do everything to keep the flow of trip going but occasionally when the weather is too bad even for the helicopters to fly people have the whole trip cancelled and money refunded. It is not possible to transfer to any other date because all dates are usually fully booked. It’s just bad luck and is nothing you can do, except paying for the expensive guided walk, if they have space. This is hard to accept when you’ve planned the tramp for months but that’s the nature of, err, nature.
Even when it hasn’t been raining excessively the track can be slippery, particularly on the downward section from Mackinnon Pass to the Quinton Lodge Day shelter. There are about 215 timber steps to descend and shortly after that there’s been concrete poured to keep the track adhering to the hillside, care should be taken.
Good news, the track to the Sutherland Falls has been re-routed to the other side of the river, over a couple of new suspension bridges, to avoid the major avalanche and slip risk from where it once traversed. So no worries there.
During the winter season walking the Milford can be significantly more problematic. And that’s not just the difficulty of getting the boat access to the start and finish of the track. There are 57 named avalanche zones the track takes you through. During the avalanche season they can start at any time of the day and gather momentum high in the mountains before dumping 800 m over a cliff, not just causing destruction by their own fall but also by the enormous winds caused by the snow displacement. You really have to have plenty of alpine experience to recognise when avalanches are high risk. Mackinnon Pass, but also the rest of the track, is often under snow in winter, and the appropriate equipment, which might include ice axe and crampons, may be needed.
During the winter season most bridges over the creeks are removed to avoid damage from avalanches. Those creeks can rise very quickly, and fall almost as soon as it stops raining, one inexperienced tramper drowned crossing Pompalona Creek in May 2014, ie, creek crossings can be very dangerous. The amenity in the huts is also lower: gas stoves are not accessible and the water is turned off, the pipes drained, to avoid pipe damage, the flush toilets are locked and the long drop toilet must be used.
DOC insists you hire an emergency locator beacon during the winter season in case you become trapped or have any mishap, the boat captain takes down details.
For those with a lack of serious alpine experience the winter crossing should only be attempted when the avalanche danger is thought by DOC staff to be minimal, which may be limited to May and parts of October.
Better mention the delightful keas, a large native parrot, which can be very entertaining, they are quite fearless and will approach quite closely, particularly along Mackinnon Pass. They are, however, legendary for their destructive capabilities, can undo zips in a pack easily and fly away with what they can pull out: car keys, wallets, passports, etc. Keep an eye on the birds and don’t leave your pack out of sight, they can also rip holes in them quicker than a can opener.
other websites | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
DOC has a track guide on the tramp.
a big image slideshow | Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
Here’s a 51 image slideshow from the Milford Track giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.
Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.