Milford Track: The Complete Guide

mountains and forest reflected in a lake

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New Zealand's collection of Great Walks, overseen by the Department of Conservation (DOC), are easy-to-follow trails through some of the country's most impressive scenery. The Milford Track, in the Fiordland area of the lower South Island, is one of the most popular of the bunch. It offers spectacular glacial valleys, forests, and waterfalls on a four-day walk through a wet but beautiful landscape. Here's everything you need to know about planning your hike on the Milford Track.

Essential Information

  • Distance: 33.3 miles
  • Time commitment: 4 days
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Highest altitude: 3,786 feet at Mackinnon Pass Shelter
  • Start and end points: Start at Glade Wharf, Te Anau Downs and end at Sandfly Point, Milford Sound.
  • Best time to hike the trail: October to April

What to Expect

Because the Milford Track is a Great Walk, the trail is generally wide and in good condition, with bridges over rivers and streams.

Fiordland is notoriously wet: It averages 200 days of rain per year, which amounts to 23 feet of rain! Because of the rainfall and the challenging geography of Fiordland, the Milford Track has seen some serious damage in recent years. Parts or all of the trail can be closed for maintenance—especially in the months following flooding—so check local conditions before confirming your plans to walk the Milford Track.

Late October to late April is the best time to go, but this is also when the trail is busiest and accommodation the most expensive. The risk of avalanches is greatest in the off-season, though, and some bridges might be inaccessible. Only attempt the trek in the off-season if you're a highly experienced trekker.

While the Milford Track isn't recommended to families with kids under the age of 10, it's a good option for active tweens and teens. While there is some uphill walking, the altitudes aren't particularly high, and there are lots of interesting things to see along the way that kids will enjoy. There are even water holes to swim in when the weather's warm.

How to Hike the Trail

The Milford Track can only be done in one direction: from Glade Wharf at the head of Lake Te Anau, at Te Anau Downs, to Sandfly Point at the edge of Milford Sound.

Camping isn't allowed on this trek, and accommodation is available only in three huts that must be pre-booked during the peak season. As this is a popular trek with no flexibility in terms of places to stay, it's essential to book your stay—along with your transfers to/from the trailheads—as far enough in advance as you can, to avoid disappointment.

The first day is fairly easy, as it begins with a 75-minute boat ride from Te Anau Downs. The trail then passes through beech forest and along the Clinton River for about an hour and a half. It's good to arrive at Clinton Hut early to enjoy a swim in one of the nearby swimming holes.

Day two is longer and more challenging, taking about six hours to reach Mintaro Hut. The trail leads to Lake Mintaro, at the foot of the Mackinnon Pass. You'll walk past the Hirere Falls, the Pompolona Icefield, and up the Clinton Valley.

Day three requires about the same amount of walking as the previous day. The trail rises steadily to the highest point, Mackinnon Pass Shelter, at 3,786 feet. There are views of Lake Mintaro and Clinton Canyon on the way up. From the shelter, the trail descends to Quintin Shelter and Dumpling Hut.

The final day covers the last 11 miles, following the Arthur River to the Boatshed. There are many points of interest, including Mackay Falls and the rock-cuttings beside the Arthur River and Lake Ada. The final leg of the journey is a short boat ride from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound.

Points of Interest

Fiordland's high rainfall means there are some spectacular waterfalls to check out on this trail. Some of these can only be seen by hiking the Milford Track or taking a sightseeing flight over the area. A highlight is Sutherland Falls, which can be visited on a 90-minute side trip from Dumpling Hut on day three. These are 1,900 feet high and drop in three stages, starting from Lake Quill high in the mountains.

Other attractive features of the trail include towering mountains, valleys and canyons, and the Pompolona Icefield. At the end of the trek are impressive views of Milford Sound and Mitre Peak, one of New Zealand's most famous scenes. It's impressive whatever the weather, which is just as well because there's a good chance you'll see it shrouded in cloud and mist, with the added bonus of waterfalls that only appear in wet weather.

Bird and animal lovers should also keep an eye out for kea birds. These large alpine parrots are known for their inquisitive nature, and may play with or steal things you leave outside huts. Other birds to look out for are fantails, tui, and kereru.

Travel Tips

  • Good waterproof clothing and boots are essential for any hikes in New Zealand, but especially so on this trek.
  • It's essential to take plenty of insect repellant, too. Sandflies in particular are a real nuisance.
  • You'll need to pack food, utensils, and cooking equipment (such as a portable stove and gas). Hut accommodation is basic, and doesn't include cooking facilities. As this is a national park, you must take everything out with you that you take in.
  • Always tell someone about your trekking plans, so an alarm can be raised if you don't return or get in touch by your stated date. There have been many cases of hikers getting lost in the New Zealand wilderness, even on well-marked and well-frequented trails.