After Australia, we headed to Queenstown to tackle one of New Zealand’s most world renowned hikes, The Milford Track!
When booking hikes in New Zealand, we quickly learned last year that booking The Milford Track requires commitment and planning. This is not a hike you casually decide to book…
Preparing to book the Milford Track is similar to preparing to book popular concert tickets. You must know in advance when the booking date is released. You should be logged in on the booking page in advance. Finally, when the clock tells you it’s time to go, you do not hesitate, you lock down your tickets as soon as you can.
It’s serious business.
Knowing this, I had the release date of May 4, 2016 at 9:00 a.m. in my calendar as soon as it was announced in Spring. Of course, I also had to make sure that I had the time zone correct. Missing it by a day would be devastating as the hiking permits usually sell out in hours.
Luckily, we secured our dates! It was happening. On February 10, 2017, we were hiking the Milford Track with our friends, Annie and Andrew, from New Zealand.
Almost a year later, it was the week of the hike. Andrew picked us up in Queenstown and we headed into Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park where the Milford Track is located.
The night before the hike, we stayed with friends of Annie and Andrew at their beautiful house on Lake Te Anau.
Their view was absolutely breathtaking and we took advantage of a pre-hike soak in their outdoor hot tub before heading to bed.
In the morning, we were ready to roll.
We arrived at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau to catch our 9:00 a.m. bus.
We parked in the free overnight parking lot and picked up our official tickets for the Milford Track from the Department of Conservation (“DOC”) office. Official tickets are required for boarding transportation and staying in the huts – email confirmations are not accepted.
After a 30 km bus ride to Te Anau Downs, we set off on a 1 hour and 30 minute boat cruise to Glade Warf.
Now, I don’t know how we snagged it, but it was a beautiful day in Fiordland National Park. I mean, I don’t mind hiking in the rain but I at least like to start with some sunshine.
The forecast for the next couple of days promised a little sun and, of course, lots of rain. In fact, our last day was forecasting intensive and persistent rain.
This is not surprising as the Milford Sound gets an average of 6,715 mm (264 inches) of rain per year. That’s 22 FEET! It is one of the wettest inhabited areas in the world.
And no. That’s not a typo…
When we arrived at Glade Warf, we grabbed our gear and headed to the trail! With a huge smile on my face and my camera around my neck, I was ready.
Suddenly, I felt an excruciating pinch on my finger followed by the reflex of my other hand. SMACK. I looked down at the huge swell on my finger.
Well, that didn’t take long. I pulled out my bug spray for a full coat of repellent. Those buggers may be small but they’re fierce. Not to mention, they have a particular taste for “Tori.” Well, I was taking myself off of the menu the next couple of days.
After a full wipe down, we were off!
Day 1: Glade Warf to Clinton Hut
Our first day was a leisurely 5 km (3 mile) walk through beautiful beech forest along the Clinton River.
Within only a short distance, we passed the first of the private huts used by Ultimate Hikes for their guided tours.
The Ultimate Hikes experience includes transport, guides, backpacks, rain jackets, and luxury backcountry accommodations with hot meals and hot showers. It also comes with a luxury price starting around $2,000 NZD for 5 days/4 nights. For more information, visit ultimatehikes.co.nz.
Needless to say, these were the huts we were NOT staying in. We tried to peak inside but couldn’t get a good view…
Probably for the best…
The trail eventually crossed the Clinton River where we experienced the first of many beautiful swing bridges along the Milford Track.
After passing over the Clinton River, we took our time enjoying the great weather stopping for lots of photos along the way.
Overall, it was a great warm-up for the next three days on the trail.
When we reached the Clinton Hut, we checked out the bunk rooms and chose our beds.
After getting settled in, we grabbed some food and wine, and headed to the main room.
Yes. We brought wine. Three litres, in fact! While we had to sacrifice precious room in our bags, nothing quite ends a day on the trails better than a little vino.
Our first night in the hut was all about meeting other hikers. Unlike other Great Walks, the Milford Track can only be walked in one direction guaranteeing you’ll be with the same group from start to finish. We met hikers from all over the world: France, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A., and Canada. Not to mention, hikers of all ages ranging from 10-78.
Everyone had the same story: they logged in the second the booking opened to get their permits. It made us realize even more what a privilege it was to be here.
After a good night sleep in the bunks, we headed back on the trail.
Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
The second day was going to be slightly more difficult than our first – 16.5 km (10.25 miles). The estimated hiking time was 6 hours.
It’s important to note that New Zealand isn’t conservative with its estimated times like other countries. If it says 6 hours, it will take a reasonably fit hiker 6 hours!
From Clinton Hut, we started with a gradual climb along the Clinton River.
We passed huge fallen trees along the trail reminding us that while it was not currently raining, the ever-changing weather brought with it extreme force.
Continuing along the river, we eventually came up to a tree that recently fell blocking the bridge. We quickly assessed the situation and took charge! We started breaking branches and removing parts of the tree blocking the trail.
Our timing was perfect! As we finished clearing the last of the branches, two hikers on the trail walked up behind us. They had been trying to find an alternative route to cross the river. Now, they were able to use the bridge.
We continued on, walking through the forest along the Clinton River, stopping only for a quick snack at Hirere Shelter.
Eventually, we moved out of the forest into the Clinton Valley. Small waterfalls trickled down the towering rock walls reminding us what the Milford is all about.
We couldn’t believe that we lucked out with another dry day on the trails. We had to admit, however, we eventually wanted the rain to experience the waterfalls at their full scale.
Continuing along, we eventually made it to the Bus Stop Shelter. While we hoped it would be equipped with a propane stove, we were quickly disappointed.
Luckily, we also packed some salami, cheese and crackers for lunch.
After lunch, we crossed over Marlene’s Creek. The Ranger at the Clinton Hut warned about potential challenges crossing the creek if we encountered rain.
As we had no rain that day, it was no problem… but we could imagine in a down pour it would be a very different experience.
Shortly after crossing Marlene’s Creek, we came up to Pompolona Lodge, another one of the private huts.
Only 1.5 hours to go!
After a few more waterfalls and bridge crossings, we arrived at Mintaro Hut. Just in the knick of time too, as the rain started to come down. Checking out our next hut, we found some beds and got settled in for the evening… at least I did.
A couple of hours later, the rain eased up and the clouds began to part. Andrew, Kevin and Annie decided to head up to McKinnon Pass with hopes of catching a view. On a clear day, the view from McKinnon Pass is spectacular! The Ranger from Clinton Hut, and Annie & Andrew’s friends from Te Anau, both recommended if it was clear to power through to the top. From the Mintaro Hut, it was 4.8 km (3 miles) uphill. As rain was guaranteed all day tomorrow, this was the only opportunity for a view.
Unlike the others, I decided to stay back. While I was keen to catch a magnificent view, I had learned my hiking limit this summer. No more 20+ km days for this girl.
I know my limit, and I like to play within it. Plus, I had the wine. I would be just fine….
So Kevin, Andrew and Annie set off. Without full packs, it took them just over an hour to reach McKinnon Pass. While visibility was poor when they arrived, they were lucky to catch glimpses of the spectacular view!
While I had no regrets passing on the hike to McKinnon Pass, I was thankful for the photos Kevin brought back with him!
Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut
The next morning, we were up early to tackle the most challenging day on the Milford Track. While the distance to Dumpling Hut is only 14 km (8.7 miles), it includes the steepest uphill and downhill sections of the track. DOC estimates 6-7 hours on this day.
As the worst of the rain was predicted to hit at 9:00 a.m., we set off at 7:00 a.m. I had no plans to be caught in extreme weather at McKinnon Pass.
It was a rocky climb uphill through forests and I was immediately thankful that I had skipped the hike the previous day. This was going to be hard on my feet! Climbing higher, we continued to zig zag up the mountain tackling one switchback after another.
Eventually, we climbed out of the forest and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Clinton Valley. As the rain intensified, so did the waterfalls! Large streams of water poured out of the mountains into the valley.
Before we knew it, the Milford came alive.
When we reached McKinnon Pass, we quickly located the shelter to take refuge from the rain. Unlike the prior evening, there was no chance for a view at McKinnon Pass.
McKinnon Shelter is the only shelter on the Milford Track equipped with a propane stove. Our group slowly trickled in and many warmed up with hot drinks and a snack. Everyone was soaked!
Well, mostly everyone. Kevin and I were still dry. Our Arc’Teryx jackets hadn’t let us down and our Asolo boots proved they were worth their investment.
Kevin did well in choosing our equipment – that’s my boy!
After a snack, we headed back out into the rain. Poles extended and heads down, we ploughed through the rain and McKinnon’s Pass. As we started descending, the rain lightened up, the clouds slowly lifted, and we were greeted with spectacular views of the valley.
Literally, thousands of waterfalls poured off of the mountains.
The Milford is so much more awesome in the rain!
When we reached the valley floor, we crossed the Roaring Burn River and followed it until we reached Quintin Shelter.
At the Quintin Shelter, we took an extended break enjoying the free hot water, coffee and tea provided. There, we cooked up a freeze dried meal with the hot water and rested our feet. The rocky trail from Clinton Hut continued the entire way and we were feeling it!
Although there is a side trip from the Quintin Shelter to view Sutherland Falls, we decided to skip it. Our feet were sore and as we flew over it last year, we were confident the view would not be better than the one we had from the plane. (Photo credit to Kevin).
So after a short rest, we tackled the last few kilometres to Dumpling Hut. Luckily, this part of the trail was flat and still included a glimpse of Sutherland Falls in the distance.
We were right. The view from the plane is much better!
Overall, it was a difficult, long and spectacular day on the trail.
Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
Our last day on the Milford was our longest at 18 km (11 miles). Although longer than the previous day, it was expected to take only 6 hours as the trail was flat.
The day started out with light rain and we took our time in the morning getting on the trail. As the weather was great, we kept a good pace stopping for the occasional photo along the track.
For the record, this woman and her friend Stuart are unbelievable. In their 70’s, they completed this difficult trail. They both are an inspiration to keep active and never stop hiking!
Continuing along the trail, we stopped for some pictures at Mackay Falls.
Knowing that the rain was on its way, we stepped up the pace after Mackay Falls. When we arrived at Giant Gate Shelter, the storm hit. Lightning began to flash and thunder rocked the valley. In a matter of seconds, the rain poured down intensely.
Here we go!
We got our gear together, zipped our jackets and headed back out.
Let’s do this!
Minutes passed and the trails began to flood. Small creek crossings became deep waterways and I quickly worried I may not walk out with dry feet.
It was my claim to fame on the track after all. No one, not even Kevin, had dry feet up to this point!
I jumped from rock to rock and balanced along the edge of creeks and trails. Water spilled out in all directions. I quickly determined that all waterproof sporting equipment should be tested on the Milford Track. If it could survive this, it could survive anything!
Eventually, I came across a waterway with no tall rocks to save me.
I sacrificed one foot as it dove into the water. To even my astonishment, only a small amount of water seeped in. These Asolo boots really are the best!
When we arrived at Sandfly Point, we dropped our bags and walked past the shelter to catch one last view.
The view from Sandfly Point is the most spectacular view we saw on the Milford Track! Buckets of rain hitting the valley produced the most incredible display of waterfalls. We all smiled and enjoyed our last moments of the view.
I have never been more thankful for rain!
It wasn’t long after this that we hopped on the boat to be shuttled through the Milford Sound to its main terminal. Kevin and I both looked out the window in awe. Last year, we travelled through the Milford Sound on a sunny day with almost no clouds in the sky.
Today could not be more different.
While travelling through the Milford Sound on a clear day provides amazing opportunities for photos, travelling in the rain will blow you away. Lady Bowen Falls shoots out of the mountain like a fire hose.
As I told Kevin, it’s the most spectacular waterfall I have ever seen.
When we got to the terminal, we shed our wet gear and rested until our bus arrived.
When it arrived, we began our two hour commute back to Te Anua. While we were all ready for a nap, the bus driver encouraged us to stay awake to catch the view leaving the Milford Sound.
Like our entire adventure over the last couple of days, the view did not disappointed!
We pulled over and took in the 360 degree view of the valley. We soaked in the magic of this special place while we appreciated every drop of rain that spilled into it.
The Milford Track is said to be one of the “finest walks in the world.” I will admit that it took me a couple of days to see what all the fuss is about. Ironically, the moment that it started to rain was the moment I started to appreciate it. It was at that moment, the mountains and valleys came alive and we experienced the magic of the Milford Track.
Well done, New Zealand. Well done.
For more information on the Milford Track, please visit The Department of Conservation website: http://www.doc.govt.nz/milfordtrack