The Milford Track

The Milford Track on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most beautiful, famous and accessible multi-day hikes in the world. The 3.5-day trek (plus an additional 1.5 days of travel and time exploring the incredible Milford Sound). While we had previously done some other hiking in New Zealand, taking part of this hike was one of the reasons for our return visit to New Zealand.

The hike officially consists of 53 km (33 miles) of mountain wilderness and rainforest; up to and over the 2,400 foot (elevation gain) MacKinnon Pass, past dozens of waterfalls (including the fifth tallest in the world), and ends at the incredibly beautiful Milford Sound. And this 33 miles and 2,400 feet does not include the trail’s many ups and downs nor the number of optional detours and side-hikes that we took. Overall, these added more than 10 miles and another 1,000 feet.

The track is made accessible not only due to its easy access from Queenstown, but due to its series of very nice huts and lodges, located a day’s hike from each other. The huts, which are for independent hikers, provide basic bunks, cooking and eating facilities and cold showers. The lodges, which are accessible only through only Ultimate Hikes guided tours, offer much more comfortable facilities—for, of course, a much higher price. They offers beds (ranging from private, double, en suite rooms to multi-person bunk accommodations) free laundry and equipment drying facilities and guides that discuss and prepare your for the next day’s hikes and provide assistance on the trail. They also provide meals (breakfasts, dinners and box lunches for the trail) and bars (for an additional price). The private rooms were basic, although quite comfortable and the food is more than one might expect from a wilderness hiking lodge.

Three-course dinners included options such as broiled salmon, fried John Dory, grilled steak, beef curry and roast rack of lamb. Breakfasts included choices of fruit, granola, porridge, eggs, sausage and so forth and lunches were make-your-own sandwiches and salads from a broad range of options.

Although the Milford Track is extremely popular, getting on the hike requires plenty advance planning. Access is limited to a total of 90 people per day (40 independent and 50 guided hikers). It is open 170 days per year and slots typically fill up several months in advance. It is worth the wait.

Like our previous Routeburn Track hike, we decided that taking the more expensive “guided” hike provided by Ultimate Hikes was more our speed. As with our past experience with the company, they did a great job. Advance questions were promptly answered and emails provided additional information on things we didn’t think about asking.

We started a pre-journey briefing in Queenstown the night before departure where we received more specific information and could borrow a high quality backpack (we had to carry our personal stuff), complete with a waterproof cover and a long raincoat. Those people sleeping in multi-person dorm rooms could also borrow sleeping sheets. You could also rent hiking poles for a very reasonable amount.

The next day, the journey began.

Day 1—Lake Te Anu to Glade House (1 mile, 20 min walk)

After a morning briefing, we took a bus from Queenstown to the town of Te Anu. The ride was accompanied by an informal tour where the driver explained the 1860 founding of the city for a sheep farm, the growth that was spurred by the 1863 gold rush, the subsequent bust and how the Queensland and neighboring towns expanded their grazing business, diversified into crops and grew their tourism businesses.

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After lunch in Te Anu (and using the last bit of wifi we would have until we returned), we took an hour ferry fide across the glacially-carved Lake Te Anu. Although the lake doesn’t even have the largest surface area of all New Zealand Lakes, it contains, by virtue of its 240 meter average depth, more fresh water than any other lake in all of Austral-Asia! The day was bright and sunny…something we wouldn’t see again during the trip. But it made for a spectacular view of the snow-capped mountains

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After landing, we had to take the obligatory pictures of the start of our hike.

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Then we started hiking…but not far. We only had a a short, one-mile trail to the Glade House where we would spend our first night at Glade House

Glade House

As soon as we checked into our private ensuite room (rustic but quite comfortable), we left on a several mile guided nature walk where we learned about the three species of beech and two primary species of ferns that dominate the Fjordlands ecosystems. We also saw the first of what would be hundreds of traps that are placed throughout the park that are intended to catch the man-introduced predators (especially possums, stoats and rats) that are devastating the country’s endemic birds and placing many on the endangered species list. We sat alongside the first of the dozens of waterfalls that we would experience during our hike and were introduced to the very friendly, very curious species of bush robin that greeted us at many of our stops for the first two days of our hike.

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Then, after our first happy hour, a chance to meet our fellow hikers, our first dinner and night’s accommodation, we were off for our first full-day hike.

 

Day 2—Glade House to Pompalona Lodge (10 miles, 5-7 hours)

Not surprisingly as this area has 220 days of rain a year, day 2 started our rainy streak which would continue for the rest of the journey. Fortunately the rain was not very heavy. And the rain makes the waterfalls flow better.

Our 10-mile, gradual, generally uphill hike went through a Clinton Valley beech forest along the Clinton River to Lake Mintaro. After lunch at the pretty Hirere Falls, where we met our first Keas (smart, inquisitive species of mountain parrots whose survival has been endanger not only by introduced animals, but also by humans who have lost much food and even some valuables to the acquisitive birds). The day’s trail took us to the Wetlands nature walk and to Dead and Prairie Lakes, both of which are surrounded by 4,000-foot sheer rock walls with waterfalls plunging down into the small lakes.

By the end of the hike, we reached the base of Mackinnon Pass and our first views of the Pompolona icefield. The afternoon hike was through a steep, continually narrowing, sheer rock-walled canyon that was carved by Ice Age glaciers and are still scoured by 50 different avalanche paths. This spectacular section of the trail ended at our second night’s accommodation at Pompolona Lodge.

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Day 3— Pompolona Lodge to Quintin Lodge (9 miles, 6-8 hrs w long/steep up/down)

Although the third day’s hike was only nine miles, the morning consisted of a long, steep, uphill climb (3,000 feet elevation gain) to the saddle of Mackinnon Pass, between two high peaks and to the memorial to explorer Quintin McKinnon and, a few hundred meters further, the highest elevation point on the trail.

The pass, which provided incredible views of The Mirror, Lake Mintaro and the Clinton Canyon, was graced with a number of the beautiful alpine flowers, from mountain buttercups and daisies to many even prettier species that we could not identify.

A summit hut also provided the perfect and warm spot for a well-deserved lunch break out of the rain. After lunch at the highest point of the pass and the track, we descended a steep, rocky trail into the alpine Arthur Valley, passing several waterfalls along the Roaring Burn River. Thank goodness for our hiking poles as we both fell on the slippery rocks while making the steep descent (bruises only fortunately). We arrived at our third night’s accommodation, Quintin Lodge, about 3:15 in the afternoon.

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The day, however, was not yet finished. After checking in and dropping off our backpacks, we left for another 5-mile, up a (partially gradually, and partially steeply) a trail to the base of Sutherland Falls, the fifth highest waterfall in the world. It falls 580 meters, in 3 leaps from Lake Quill to the floor of the Arthur Valley. This valley, meanwhile, provided a totally different landscape from that of the previous days. It is home to a temperate rainforest that gets an average 6.4 meters (almost 22 feet) of rain per year. It is not uncommon for it to receive eight or even nine meters! Virtually every rock, tree trunk and branch, and every bit of the Arthur Valley’s floor is covered with several inches of moss. It is literally dripping off every branch. Parts of the floor were also awash in color from lovely, small orchids.

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And all around—3,000-foot high cliffs, some sheer rock, others covered with forests, and many with scars of continual avalanches and landslides, are punctuated by towering, slender waterfalls plunging into the streams and lakes below. Many, which begin as single streams, break into two or three different cascades before plunging into pools that feed fast-moving streams and rivers, many rapids. This day also provided our first view of another endemic bird—the Kewa, a grazing bird that is somewhat similar to a large wild chicken.

 

Day 4— Quintin Lodge to Mitre Peak Lodge (6-8 hrs, 13 miles)

One more 13 mile hike through rain to our destination; down the Arthur Valley to Boatshed, past the beautiful, three-pronged Mackay Falls and Bell Rock (a boulder, whose insides have been scoured out by rushing water and has since been carried out of the river by a big flood). After lunch at Giant’s Gate, yet another impressive waterfall, the final stretch of the track followed the shore of Lake Ada, whose ground, rocks, trees and bushes are all covered with fungi and thick layers of moss. The large lake, with its impressive sand beach, also provided our first setting of a couple of the country’s other indigenous birds—a black swan and blue duck.

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After reaching the Track’s terminus at Sandfly Point’s Mile Marker 33.5, and doing our best to avoiding the bites of the millions of eponymous sandflies that continuously swamped around us, we boarded a ferry for a short cruise to our destination—Milford Sound’s Mitre Peak Lodge. After a shower and clothes washing session (the place had real washing machines and also provided laundry detergent), we basked in one of the most memorable views of all our travels: Milford Sound, a bay that is surrounded by beautiful, nature-carved peaks and bisected by the spectacular Mitre Peak. After dinner (New Zealand lamb rack), a farewell party and a very sound night’s sleep, we were ready to explore the sound (for our second time as we had previously visited the sound).

Day 5 – Milford Sound to Queenstown

After breakfast at Mitre Peak Lodge, we took a 1.5 hour cruise cruised through Milford Sound, which, in reality, isn’t a sound at all. It is, in fact, a glacially-formed fjord whose walls were carved by glaciers. Its rounded mountain tops and U-shaped valleys meanwhile, are being continually formed by erosion. It is this erosion that also prevents the peaks–which begin about 300 meters below the surface and rise another 400 to 1,300 meters above the surface–from growing even taller than they already are. The granite peaks are being pushed ever higher into the air by the same tectonic features that raised the land in the first place. They are being shaken by more than 1,000 earthquakes and tremors (typically between 2.2 and 4.2 on the Richter scale) which causes them to grow at about the same rate as a person’s fingernails.

Although the mile-high Mitre Peak and the other glacially scraped rock faces that pierce the sound’s skyline are beautiful enough, they are made even more beautiful by the:

  • Trees that take root in the topsoil-less cracks in the rocks and whose roots interweave in such a way as to make inevitable the “tree avalanches” that result the loss of dozens or hundreds of trees at a time;
  • The two permanent and hundreds of temporary (depending on rainfall) waterfalls that plunge from the tops of the peak, into the water; and by the
  • Combination of high levels of atmospheric moisture (attributable to the practically continual drizzle and rainfall of one of the wettest places on earth) and the winds of the “Roaring 40s” that create continually changing cloud patterns that envelop or shade portions of the peaks and ensure that no one view is exactly like that of the previous minute.

Although Milford sound is most known for its majestic views, it is also a marine reserve that is home to several species of animals including fur seals, Bottlenose and Dusky dolphins, Crested Penguins and multiple species of cold-water coral. (Of these, we saw a few fur seals and Bottlenose dolphins on our voyage).

Speaking of the water, it is also one of the few places in the world on which a roughly three-meter layer of fresh water lies atop hundreds of meters of salt water. The fresh water, which flows into the sound from the land is both a different temperature than the underlying salt water. And because of the tannins and nutrients it picks up from the rainforest’s soil and the vegetation,it is also a different color (browner and greener) than the underlying salt water.

Simply beautiful—even in the rain and fog.

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After the cruise, we boarded the bus for the four-hour return ride to Queenstown. This, however, did not mean the end of the incredible scenery. We returned through the heart of Fiordland National Park, past, over, and while in the Homer Tunnel, through the middle of the incredible granite cliffs.

The Milford Track is a stunning, if long and tiring hike. The varied views ranged from different types of moss-covered rainforests, through alpine meadows above the tree line; from placid lakes to raging rivers and unforgiving rapids; and, then of course, there are the majestic mountains that surround the valley through which the track ran. Some covered in trees, others sheer slabs of rock reaching almost a mile into the sky—and all punctuated by stunning waterfalls. Meanwhile, the accommodation, the guides and the meals were all very good and we met many great fellow hikers from all over. We unreservedly recommend the track for anyone who enjoys and can endure long, demanding hikes, and we strongly recommend Ultimate Hikes for anyone who wants a guided, rather than an independent hike.

How did the Milford Track compare with our previous trip’s journey along the Routeburn Track? They are very different from each other. While the Routeburn is shorter (32 km over three days), it begins at and scales to higher altitudes than does the Milford and its scenery is more of rugged mountains, much of it above the treeline. This provides views that are more similar to those in the Andes, the Alps or the Canadian Rockies, than to those of most of the Milford.

Is one better than the other? From our recollection, No. Not better, but very different.

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