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?”. My answer: no, not even a little bit. 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 (or a lot of) rain. But come rain or 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 where you hike to McKinnon Pass – the rainfall was so high that the Department of Conservation (DOC) considered shutting the trail for the day. This is unfortunately 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 scheduled to start the walk on the day that the trail is closed, you unfortunately lose your booking and cannot reschedule unless there is an opening.

Booking Milford Track

Milford Track is the most famous and, therefore, the most strictly regulated one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It 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), each hiker needs to follow the same direction in Milford Track and stay one night at each one of the three huts operated by the DOC. There are no campsites along the Milford Track.

In addition to the huts operated by the DOC, there are three private huts operated by Ultimates Hikes New Zealand based on their exclusive right to provide guided Milford Track tours. Ultimate Hikes` huts, where breakfast and dinner are served (they also prepare a lunch pack for you), are equipped with showers. As expected, the guided walks, although understandably a more ideal option for some hikers, are expensive (starting at 2,600 New Zealand Dollars per person). Needless to say, I used the DOC huts 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 was told that Milford Track got fully booked within less than ten minutes after the opening of the bookings. Huts can be booked online on the DOC`s Great Walks reservation website. Although rarely (in the specific case of Milford), 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 on 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 based on your choice of company, expect to pay around 250 New Zealand Dollars for the Milford track transport package if you are departing from and returning to Te Anau. If you start and end your trip in Queenstown, you will then need to pay around 340 New Zealand Dollars. As I mentioned in my introductory post about the Great Walks, I used Tracknet for all my track transportation needs and I was very satisfied with their service standards.

Huts along Milford Track: Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling

There are three huts along Milford Track. All three huts are very well maintained and staffed during the walking season. There are enough gas cookers – so there is usually 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 also a daily hut talk which usually starts at 7 pm (and lasts for around 30 minutes) during which the ranger talks about the history of the area and provides weather updates.  

Unlike most other Great Walks, there are no campsites along the Milford Track.

The route

Milford Track, despite being the longest one, is known to be the easiest one among the three famous Great Walks (Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn). Having done all three, I tend to agree with this proposition. While it is a fairly easy hike under ideal weather conditions, the trail requires multiple river crossings. In case of heavy rain, the river crossings may become dangerous. The trail, once you reach McKinnon Pass, also becomes very exposed.

On the third day of the hike, we were “blessed” with very rainy and windy weather. Certain sections of the trail were replaced by a temporary river that you just had to walk through. It felt like a survivor kind of experience. Despite the challenge, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut – 5-kilometers

The first day of the hike, a forest walk on a flat terrain, is very short and takes around 1-1.5 hours. Given the short day ahead, I left Te Anau with a 1 pm shuttle and arrived at the trailhead at around 3 pm. Along the trail, there are some suspension bridges and nice scenery occasionally 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

After a fully sunny first day, the infamous Milford train showed up on the second day of my hike. Although I wish that I got to experience the scenery under better and brighter weather conditions, it was still a tremendously enjoyable and relaxing hike.

One of the best things about the Great Walks is the limit on the number of hikers who can start the trail each day. With only 40 hikers on the trail, and everyone having a different pace, it is very likely that you will get to walk alone for hours. 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 generously allowed me to feel.

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 known to be the day with the most epic scenery, or they say so. But I have no way of confirming this. On the third day of my hike, the rain was so strong that it felt like a different weather phenomenon, not the good old rain that we are all familiar with. And this comes from someone who lives in Japan, an island-nation, with a grim rainy season that almost lasts for two months. I was still not prepared for what Fiordland had in store for me. 

On the third day of Milford Track, the hike felt more like a river walking than a mountain/forest trek. There was almost zero 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 even more beautiful when it rains. I always assumed that – with an average of 182 rainy days per year – this was DOC’s way of keeping the hikers still motivated for this very hyped trail where the hikers are very likely to face the rain.

Although I have no experience of a sunny day hike in Milford (except on the first and last days when the trail goes through the forest), I now think that there might be some truth to it. The heavy rain gives rise to hundreds of waterfalls emerging from giant cliffs, turning Milford Track into a vivid place with a life of its own. The roaring waterfalls create an otherworldly and, honestly, 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 (there was no one else around).

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 (1 to 2 hours of steady climbing) but once you reach McKinnon Pass, the rest of the trail follows a flat terrain or involves a descent. There is also a 2-hour detour to highly praised Sutherland Falls. But I was already so wet at that point that I decided to push forward for the Dumpling Hut – the hut for the day.

Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point – 18-kilometers

After an exciting and nature-wise eventful day, the trail on the last day of the hike (alas an exceptionally sunny day!) follows an entirely flat terrain that allowed me to unwind before rejoining the civilization.

The last day’s hike takes around 4-6 hours. There are many viewpoints along the way where you get a peek view of Milford Sound through beautiful trees. Another highlight of the last day is the impossibly picturesque Mackay Falls surrounded by mossy rocks and lavish greenery. It reminded me of the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail in Yakushima, Japan, famous for its moss forest.

Among the three most popular Great Walks, Kepler is a thrilling trail with a ridge hike involving exciting scenery whereas Routeburn is a trail where you get to experience the picture-perfect nature 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 relationship with nature. I still get the chills when thinking about it.