Once described as the finest walk in the world, the South Island’s Milford Track in New Zealand is a multiday foot journey beside gin-clear streams, between menacing canyon walls, over an alpine pass, and past one of the world’s highest waterfalls. What’s not to like?
Stats and Helpful Tips
Location: Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand
Ideal Time Commitment: Four Days
Best Time of Year: October to April
Essential Tip: Book well ahead; This is New Zealand’s most famous and popular track.
About the Milford Track
Every day, busloads, carloads and planeloads of people squirm through the mountains of Fiordland National Park to visit New Zealand’s postcard-perfect Milford Sound, but once it was only walkers who could make it to these shores.
A path to the long-inaccessible sound was made possible with the discovery of 1069m Mackinnon Pass in 1888 by Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell. This alpine saddle immediately became – and remains – the midpoint and centerpiece of the Milford Track, opening up access to Milford Sound decades before the road was carved through the mountains. Mackinnon would become its first guide (though, tragically, he drowned in Lake Te Anau in 1892), and the track would spend decades as the private domain of guided hikers. It wasn’t until 1966 that independent walkers were allowed onto the Milford Track.
Dubbed the “finest walk in the world” by the London Spectator in 1908, the 53.5km track has since gained such popularity that access is now heavily regulated. During the hiking season, which runs from late October to late April, only 40 walkers can begin the track each day. You can walk in only one direction – Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound – and you must follow a set itinerary, staying in designated huts each night.
If the experience is regimented, the landscape you’ll experience is far from it. From Lake Te Anau, the track funnels through Clinton Valley, with its glacier-scratched walls closing to little more than a crack at its head. From here it climbs to the crest of wind-whipped Mackinnon Pass. The descent follows the headwaters of the Arthur River, passing by 580m-high Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand, and a string of other waterfalls cocooned inside rainforest. The four-day hike ends at Sandfly Point on the shores of Milford Sound.
- Stepping through lush beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River.
- Wondering at the winter carnage as you pass avalanche clearings near Hidden Lake.
- Bracing against the weather atop Mackinnon pass – there’s a reason the shelter was built here.
- Standing in the showery mist of 580m-high Sutherland Falls.
- Crossing high swing bridges as you descend through the Arthur Valley.
Fiordland National Park
With its coast frayed by fiords – or sounds – Fiordland National Park, at 12,523 square km, is the largest national park in New Zealand and one of the largest in the world. (In comparison, Yellowstone National Park covers 8987 square km). It contains New Zealand’s finest assortment of waterfalls, sharp granite peaks and 14 fiords, most famously Milford Sound. The park was established in 1952 and now forms the largest slice of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. It was inscribed onto the list in 1990, which noted it as the least disturbed area of New Zealand, and containing the best modern representation of Gondwanaland’s ancient flora and fauna.
New Zealand doesn’t have a great store of native wildlife, but one feathered “friend” most hikers quickly come to know is the kea. The world’s only alpine parrot, the kea is a large olive-green bird with bright-red underwings. It’s a great sight and sound – listen for its “kee-aa” call – though your lasting memories of the cheeky and fearless kea might well have to do with its rather antisocial habits. Leave your backpack for a moment and you may well find a kea is dismantling it. Keas have a reputation for picking apart car windscreen wipers, and are also partial to ripping apart the likes of drinking tubes, clothing and tents.
The Adventure Unfolds
The water in the Clinton River is as clear as air, the trout seeming to hang in it like marionettes. Lichen hangs in ponytails from the trees, and ferns surround the track. It’s like walking through parkland – flat, easy, the melodic whisper of the river – which makes it hard to imagine that you’ll be atop an alpine pass in less than a day, probably being battered by who-knows-what weather.
As you head upstream, the high walls of the Clinton Canyon rise to frame a classic U-shaped valley, the scratches from the glacier that carved it looking like giant petroglyphs. You sleep the night at Mintaro Hut, setting out again into cloud in the morning as you begin the 400m climb to Mackinnon Pass. You can see little in this mist, except for the ever-increasing lichen – the landscape comes to resemble cloud forest the higher you climb.
Almost simultaneously, you step out of the tree line and the cloud. The greens and greys are gone, replaced by butter-yellow grasses and pure blue sky. So often hikers reach this pass and see nothing but cloud, wind and rain, with New Zealand’s foulest weather funneling up the valleys to buffet the pass, but you’re in luck. The mist has compressed into the Clinton Valley, and you stand god-like above the clouds. Peaks spear out of the mist, and the pass is like a balcony above oblivion.
Even if Sutherland Falls and Milford Sound weren’t ahead, it’d be worth the days of walking just for this ethereal view. You don’t want to leave. You wander across to the other side of the pass, staring dizzyingly down into the Arthur Valley, your guiding line to Milford Sound. Somehow you must descend from this airy perch, though the drop is so precipitous it makes you giddy just to imagine it. Another good reason to linger on the pass – but tarry too long and you’ll miss your berth for the night.
Making it Happen
Bookings must be made ahead of time to walk hike the Milford Track in season (late October to late April); they can be made on the Department of Conservation website. The Milford Track has a long history of guided hikes, which are operated by Ultimate Hikes.
An Alternative Challenge
During winter the Milford Track is subject to avalanches, making winter hiking perilous and inadvisable. But if you want to escape the summer crowds, it’s possible to hike on the cusp of the season (May is ideal), when track regulations aren’t in force. Bookings aren’t required, and Tracknet in Te Anau operates out-of-season boat transfers to and from the trailheads on Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound.