Milford Track: a Hike Worthy of All Praise

When a hike is as popular as Milford Track and promoted as “the finest walk in the world”, there is always the inevitable question: “is it overrated?”. For me, the answer is a definite no. The four days long trail is worthy of all praise.

Milford Track goes through one of the rainiest regions not only in New Zealand but in the entire world and you will very likely face some serious rain. But come rain or come shine, it is still the hike of a lifetime. And oh boy, the rain sure came. On the third day of the hike – the day with the best views were you hike up to McKinnon Pass – the rainfall was so high that the Department of Conservation (DOC) considered shutting the trail for the day (this is not a very rare occurrence – in the event the trail is closed for a day, the hikers remain at the huts and continue the hike the next day or whenever the weather permits. If you are supposed to start your hike on the day the trail is closed, you unfortunately lose your booking and cannot reschedule unless there is opening).

Booking Milford Track

Milford Track, the most famous and as a result the most regulated one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is a 3 nights/4 days trail where the hikers cover a total distance of 53.5-kilometers. Unlike the other Great Walks including Routeburn and Kepler Tracks, Milford Track can only be walked in one direction with a one night stay at each one of the three huts managed by the DOC. There are no campsites along Milford Track. In addition to the huts managed by DOC, there are also three operated by Ultimates Hikes New Zealand, which offer guided Milford and Routeburn hikes. Their huts are equipped with showers and meals are served on the premises (so you do not need to carry your own food other than snacks). As expected, the guided walks, although understandably a more ideal option for some hikers, are expensive (starts at 2,600 New Zealand Dollars per person). Needless to say, I used the DOC huts and did the hike on my own and enjoyed every minute of it.

Light shining on mountains in Milford Track

Similar to other popular Great Walks, there is a limit on the number of people who can start the trail each day – 40 – during the walking season (from October 24th to April 30th). Bookings usually open in late April or early May. For the 2022-2023 walking season,  I have been told that Milford Track got fully booked within less than ten minutes after the opening of the booking website. The bookings can be done online using the Department of Conservations Great Walks reservation website. Although rarely, cancellations occur. I could get my booking for Milford Track in December for a mid-March hike. 

Where is Milford Track?

Milford Track is located in Fiordland National Park in the South Island of New Zealand. The trail starts at the head of Lake Te Anau, which requires a 30-minute bus/car ride from Te Anau town to Te Anau Downs where you need to switch to a boat for an hour-long ride to Glade Wharf. The hike ends at Sandfly Point, very adequately named, where you will catch a 5-minute boat ride to Milford Sound ferry port to meet your car or ride to your base-town (which was Te Anau in my case).

Mountain view through trees in Milford Track

The track transport for Milford Track is unfortunately almost discouragingly expensive. While the prices may slightly vary for each company, transport between the trailheads and Te Anau commonly costs around 248 New Zealand Dollar. If you start and end your trip in Queenstown, you will then need to pay 339 New Zealand Dollars. As I also mentioned in my introductory post about the Great Walks, I used Tracknet for all my track transportation needs and was very satisfied with their service standards.

Huts along Milford Track: Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling

There are three huts along Milford Track. Unlike most other Great Walks, there are no camping sites along the trail.  All three huts are very well maintained and staffed during the walking season.  There are enough gas cookers – so there is no line – and flush toilets. Outside the walking season, you need to bring your own cooker. A hut ranger is nightly present during the walking season. There is a daily hut talk which usually starts at 7pm (and last for around 30-minutes) during which the ranger talks about the history of the area and give weather updates.  

The Route

It is often reported that Milford Track, although longer, is the easiest one among the three famous Great Walks (Milford, Kepler and Routeburn). Having done all three, I tend to agree with this proposition. However, one needs to keep in mind that Milford requires multiple river crossings that can become a very adventurous affair in case of heavy rain. The trail, once you reach McKinnon Pass, also gets very exposed and unexpectedly cold in case of rain/wind. On the third day of the hike, we were exposed to a very rainy and windy weather. Certain sections of the trail were literally replaced by a temporary river that you just had to walk through. All in all, it felt like a survivor kind of experience and, although extremely wet, it was quite enjoyable. 

Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut – 5-kilometers

The first day of the hike, forest walk on a flat terrain, is very short and takes around 1-1.5 hours. Given the short day ahead, I used the late track transport option and arrived at the trailhead at around 3pm. Along the trail, there are some suspension bridges and nice scenery opening to the Clinton River. It is an enjoyable stroll that leaves you plenty of time at the hut to get ready for the real hike the next day.

Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut – 17.5-kilometers

The second day of the hike starts with a gentle climb in the morning. The highlight of the day is the open field that you walk through with views of the McKinnon Pass and Pompolona Ice Field. The hike, which again requires a gentle climb of one hour or so at the end, takes around 5-6 hours.

Waterfall along Milford Great Walk in New Zealand

My second day on the trail, while nothing compared to what was waiting for us on the next day, was a rainy day. Although I wish that I got to experience the scenery under better and brighter weather conditions, it was still a tremendously enjoyable hike. One of the greatest things about the Great Walks is the limit on the number of hikers who can start the trail each day. With only 40-hikers covering the trail with you, and everyone having a different  pace, it is very likely that you will get to walk alone for hours. And experiencing a landscape as majestic as Milford with no other human in sight can evoke delightfully strong feelings. It allowed me to have this intimate moment with nature and feel grateful for the sense of belonging that it allows you.

Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut – 13-kilometers

Many people agree that the Harris Saddle is the highlight of Routeburn Track whereas the accolade goes to Hanging Valley for the Kepler Track. As for Milford, the third day – when you hike through McKinnon Pass is the most epic day – or they say so. I cannot talk much about the scenery but I will always remember my third day on the trail as the day I truly got a sense of what rain is. And I do not say it lightly. I live in Japan, an island nation, with a grim rainy season that almost lasts for two months (and not tropical rain – there are many days when the relentless day never stops). Yet I was still not prepared for what Fiordland had in store for me. 

The hike felt more like a river walking than a mountain/forest trek. There was almost no visibility in certain sections.  Yet it was one of the most memorable hiking experiences of my lifetime. You will often read and hear that Milford Track is actually even more beautiful when it rains. I always assumed that – with an average of 182 rainy days per year – this was the DOC’s way of keeping the hikers still motivated for this trail where you will most likely encounter rain. Although I have no experience of a sunny day hike in Milford (except on first and last days when the trail goes through forest), I now think that there might really be some truth to it. The heavy rain gives rise to hundreds of waterfalls emerging from giant cliffs turning Milford Track into this extremely vivid place with a life of its own. The roaring waterfalls in turn create this otherworldly and even a little intimidating scenery – almost physically telling you that it is nature that rules our world. It was an experience so powerful that there had to be some physical manifestation – so I stopped and screamed with joy.

Mossy rocks along Milford Track in New Zealand

The hike on the third day takes around 6-7 hours. There is a fairly steep section early in the day (that lasts around 1-2 hours) but once you reach McKinnon Pass, the rest of the hike is either through flat terrain or involves a descent. There is also a 2-hours detour to Sutherland Falls, which is highly praised. But I was already quite wet at that point and decided to continue in the direction of the Dumpling Hut, the end point for the day.

Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point – 18-kilometers

After the very exciting and nature-wise eventful day, the last day of the hike (alas an exceptionally sunny day!) that almost entirely goes through flat terrain allowed me to unwind before rejoining the civilization. The last day’s hike takes around 4-6 hours and there are some nice viewpoints along the way where you get a peak view of Milford Track through beautiful trees. Also make sure to take a break at the impossibly picturesque Mackay Falls that is surrounded by mossy rocks and lavish greenery. It reminded me of Shiratani Unsuikyo trail located in Yakushima, Japan, famous for its moss forest.

Among the three most popular Great Walks, Kepler is an exciting trail with a mind blowing ridge hike whereas Routeburn is exceptionally beautiful offering a picture perfect scenery. And when it comes to Milford, I will have to say that it is exceptionally majestic. It is an experience that will define or further shape your relation with nature. I still get the chills when thinking about it.