Often lauded as the “finest walk in the world”, the Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s best accessible backcountry treks. Over four days, adventurers explore deep into the rainforest valleys and spectacular mountains of Fiordland National Park – one of the country’s most wild and remote places.
Kia ora! I’m Alice and I write a New Zealand hiking blog filled with awesome ‘tramping” (New Zealand term for hiking) adventures. I’ve had the privilege of tramping the Milford Track in its entirety twice, and recently completed a day hike from Milford Sound. Each trip has been a pretty special experience. It’s one of my favourite multi-day tramps in New Zealand, and the day over Mackinnon Pass is nothing short of spectacular.
Quick Overview of the Milford Track
Length: 53.5 km / 33.5 mi
Time: 3 nights / 4 days
Start: Te Anau Downs (water taxi to the trailhead at Glade Wharf)
Finish: Sandfly Point (water taxi to Milford Sound)
Season: the Great Walks season is from October (spring) to April (autumn). Outside of this season it is not recommended to walk the Milford Track unless you have proper alpine and backcountry experience – the huts have limited facilities, bridges are removed due to avalanche risk, and the track may not be safe due to snow, flooding and/or avalanches.
Accommodation: Department of Conservation (DOC) huts which need to be booked in advance during the in-season. Free camping is realistically not permitted (you are required to be 500m from the track, which is not feasible in the majority of valleys due to steep cliffs).
Day 1: Glade Wharf – Clinton Hut
The first day on the Milford Track is extremely cruisey.
We parked our car at Te Anau Downs, heaved heavy packs onto soft shoulders, and stepped onto the water taxi with an excited jump to our step. The boat trip across Lake Te Anau lasted about an hour, as we were taken further and further away from civilisation and into the wilds of Fiordland National Park. On my second trip, we were lucky enough to have beautiful weather and could sit on the roof deck, gazing out at the mountains.
On arrival at Glade Wharf we washed our boots in soap aimed at killing any nasty bacteria or plankton we might be bringing in to the forest and its waterways, took our mandatory photo in front of the official Milford Track sign, and then we were off!
The first day is two hours of flat walking through dense rainforest to Clinton Hut, which acts as a nice warm up for the more strenuous days ahead. The rangers at all of the DOC huts are extremely knowledgeable. Our ranger at Clinton took us on a guided nature walk in the evening, culminating in eating foraged snowberries and pointing out the names of the towering peaks surrounding us while listening to the various bird calls lilting out of the rainforest. That evening after dark we walked further up the track and found the glow-worm grotto our ranger had described. Turning off our headlights, the blue-white lights just above our heads looked like stars twinkling in the night sky.
Day 2: Clinton Hut – Mintaro Hut
We woke early and were on the track not long after the sun had risen, ready for the six hours’ walking ahead of us. Native birdsong was our new soundtrack, and sunlight filtering through misty rainforest was the new film reel unfolding before our eyes.
The highlights of day two was the side trip to Hidden and Prairie Lakes; two beautiful tarns nestled against the towering cliffs lining the sides of the Clinton Valley. Some of us were brave enough to take a dip in the freezing water, while others relaxed in the sun on the waters edge.
The new Mintaro Hut, where trampers now spend their second night on the Milford Track, was unveiled later in 2020/2021. I didn’t have the chance to stay in it (missed its opening by a month!), but it looks and sounds amazing. At the older hut (since decommissioned), we walked a few minutes down to the river and the helicopter pad, for a lovely but very brief swim in the freezing water.
Day 3: Mintaro Hut over Mackinnon Pass to Dumpling Hut
The third day of the Milford Track is the biggest by far: 14 km with 600m+ elevation gain and 1000m+ descent. Our group was taking a while to get ready, so while waiting I went for an early morning explore around the hut and forest on my own. And what do I see but a wild kiwi right on the track, not even 30 metres from the hut. It tottered along, sticking its beak into the earth to smell and feel for any prey, before running off into the dense rainforest, making a lot of noise as it did so! Not many people are lucky enough to see kiwi, and the ones that do normally see them in specialist wildlife centres. So I felt especially privileged to have seen one in the wild, in Fiordland National Park.
After that experience, I was feeling pretty amped! But the day just kept getting better. We climbed up the side of Mackinnon Pass in low, clinging cloud and mist. But not far above the bushline, we climbed above the clouds and looked down on a beautiful inversion layer. It looked like a sea of clouds was covering the Clinton Valley we’d spent the last two days walking up.
The views from Mackinnon Pass are incredible on a good day, and our luck held out – sunshine and barely a breeze. We had a good stop at the memorial to Quinton McKinnon, the first European explorer to find a route in to Milford Sound. The memorial has sat on top of the pass for over a century (a long time in New Zealand standards, and certainly for Fiordland’s wild weather).
It was a long walk down from Mackinnon Pass to the turnoff to Sutherland Falls – but that didn’t put us off adding the extra 90 minute / 4.5 km return walk to the base of the falls. At 581 metres, Sutherland Falls were long thought to be the tallest waterfall in New Zealand. Standing at the pool at their base you can really feel the awesome powerof the water cascading down from Lake Quill, far above.
After refreshing ourselves in the spray of Sutherland Falls, we re-traced our steps back to the Milford Track and carried on the extra hour to Dumpling Hut, our accommodation for the night. Once there, we had our mandatory freezing swim in the nearby Arthur River (keeping an eye out for the rare whio blue duck who likes to surf in river rapids).
Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
We woke to creaking muscles and joints, protesting at their overuse from the day before. But our enthusiasm remained undimmed. The last day of the Milford Track is the longest in terms of distance (18km), but is mostly flat and takes less time than the day prior over Mackinnon Pass.
We left Dumpling Hut with a mixture of excitement – we were going to be sleeping in a real bed, with a real pillow after dining on real food that night! But also with sadness – we would no longer be on the Milford Track. With that dichotomy of emotions; wanting the last day to both last forever and be over quickly, we ate up the kilometres beneath our boots.
We were lucky enough to finally spot a whio – New Zealand’s rare blue duck that appears on our $10 note, surfing some river rapids in the Arthur River near the track. But the highlights of Day Four are the waterfalls – McKay Falls and Giant Gate Falls. The 2020 flooding of Fiordland National Park (which included 600mm of rainfall in 24 hours) had wreaked havoc on the Milford Track, especially the Arthur Valley which the track follows out to Sandfly Point. The ranger at Dumpling Hut had told us that there were some places that were so full of flooding debris (whole trees, boulders, etc.) that they had to be bombed in order to make a way through for the track. At Giant Fate Falls, the once mossy bluffs on either side were scoured-clean rock, highlighting that we were there on Fiordland’s terms, rather than the other way around.
We reached Sandfly Point, the end of the Milford Track, with aching feet and smiling faces. Our water taxi was waiting (perfect timing to avoid the sandflies). As we glided over the water, I looked back at the disappearing Arthur Valley, contemplating the last four days. The Milford Track is an amazing experience. I’d definitely be back.
If you’re contemplating hiking the Milford Track – then check it out on Hiiker here, or my all-you-need-to-know guide on the Milford Track. I’m always happy to chat with people over on my Instagram if you have any questions or want some New Zealand hiking inspiration.