Friday, January 27, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - The Milford Track

***This post is part 8 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The Milford Track is one of the most well-known hikes (or tramps, as they would say in New Zealand) in the world. As such, several regulations have been put in place to ensure that the trail remains pristine. During the summer peak season of October through April, access is highly regulated. A maximum of 90 hikers (40 independent, 50 guided) are allowed to start the trail each day, only in the northward direction.

Absolutely no camping is allowed anywhere on the Milford Track, so there are three huts along the route to house independent hikers (guided groups stay at private lodges with better amenities). They are the Clinton Hut, Mintaro Hut, and Dumpling Hut. Each hut has basic facilities that include bunk areas, restrooms (flush toilets but no showers), and gas cookers, but hikers must carry in all of their own food and cooking equipment.

Whether you are going independently or with a guide, booking your reservation in advance is absolutely essential as spots fill up quickly, especially during the holiday season. We made our reservations on the Department of Conservation website exactly six months in advance on the day they became available, and even then, we had to move our schedule back one day because space was already gone. During the winter season, the trail and huts are not maintained and it can be extremely dangerous to do the hike. You can read more about winter hiking here.

Throughout our four days on the trail, we didn't experience a single drop of rain, which is highly unusual. Since the Milford Track cuts through temperate rain forest, there is typically heavy precipitation at least two out of every three days. Every ranger at the huts mentioned how rare it was to see such clear, sunny weather for more than two consecutive days. We were indeed very lucky, as I had read many horror stories online about how wet the Milford Track can get, with flooding and helicopter evacuations a real possibility.

The hike starts off with an easy first day. After disembarking the ferry at Glade Wharf, a quick 2.2 mile walk leads to the Clinton Hut. Be sure to do the side trip around the wetland board walk, as the scenery there is rather sublime. There is a bit of free time that evening, so exploring the nearby swimming hole or going on a night hike to see the small patch of glow worms are all good options.

Wetland board walk

Clinton Hut

The second day gets harder, with a 10.3 mile hike up a gradual incline along Clinton Valley up to Mintaro Hut. You get your first sight of Mackinnon Pass here, along with some spectacular views of the Pompolona Ice Field. While the elevation gain wasn't large, this was still a very tiring day for us due to the heat and lack of forest cover for parts of the trail. I especially liked Mintaro Hut, as the bunk area layout upstairs afforded groups a little more privacy. Like all the huts, there is a swimming hole nearby to cool off after a long day's hike.

Mintaro Hut

The third day is the most strenuous, but also the most breathtaking. It starts with a zigzag climb for two hours straight up to Mackinnon Pass. There, you get an amazing 360° view of the valleys below. There is also a shelter for refuge from the blizzard conditions that can sometimes occur at the pass, along with a bathroom with perhaps the best view in the world. The descent afterwards is quite steep, and can be especially dangerous in wet weather. What follows, however, are a series of impressive waterfalls that are absolutely stunning to see. The 1 1/2 hour side trip to Sutherland Falls is a must, although I don't know if I would recommend hiking behind the falls unless you have a change of clothes readily available and perhaps some sandals! Another hour of hiking and you arrive at Dumpling Hut.

Mackinnon Memorial

Bathroom with the best view in the world

Yes, there's actually a window in the bathroom

Sutherland Falls - tallest in New Zealand

Clever kea

The last day is a relief compared to the day before. However, it is still a very long hike (11.2 miles) from Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point. Luckily, there is plenty to see along the trail, with some beautiful waterfalls and suspension bridge crossings. Sandfly Point certainly earns its name as you will literally be eaten alive by the bloodsuckers. In fact, I didn't mention that sandflies are virtually everywhere on the Milford Track. Even with insect repellent, be prepared to have dozens (if not more) of bites by the end of the hike. You reach the end of the Milford Track at the 33.5 mile marker, and from there you can either take the 2:00 pm or 3:15 pm ferry directly to Milford Sound.

End of the Milford Track

First view of Milford Sound

I have to say, the Milford Track was probably the best-maintained trail I've ever been on. The Department of Conservation has done an amazing job keeping the facilities immaculate. The waters in the lakes and rivers were by far the clearest I've ever seen, anywhere. I consistently drank from these sources without a filter and never had any problem throughout the four days. And while the huts were basic by everyday standards, they were actually quite luxurious for backpacking. Not having to pack tents and gas cookers was a godsend, and the fact that there were flush toilets couldn't be emphasized enough!

My only small regret was not seeing a wild kiwi during the hike. While rare, rangers have said that sightings are definitely possible during the dusk and early morning hours. We heard several kiwi calls on the second and third nights, but unfortunately we never actually saw one. There are, however, plenty of other interesting inhabitants throughout the area, including the insanely smart kea, a large species of parrot that is known to open backpacks and even make off with food and hiking boots.

The Milford Track was definitely the highlight of my trip to New Zealand, and I won't soon forget the awe-inspiring scenery along the way. It was strenuous, but definitely doable for anyone who is in relatively good shape. I would highly recommend experiencing the Milford Track at least once in your lifetime.


  1. Hello,

    I'm about to do the walk this year in November. what sort of food did you take?

    1. Hi there, for the main courses, we brought a lot of freeze-dried backpacking meals from REI (or any other outdoor gear store). All you need to do is boil hot water and mix in a large pot :) They are very high in sodium, but your body will need it after an entire day of hiking and sweating. Of course, we rounded out the diet with plenty of fruits, nuts, cereals, and snacks. We saw other hikers who also brought fresh vegetables and even eggs to cook (although I wouldn't recommend hiking with eggs)!

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am planning to go in Dec. 2017.
    Great info.