The Poet and prison reformer Blanche Edith Baughan wrote an essay about Milford Track titled “Finest Walk in the World,” in London’s Spectator in 1908, and while it’s easy to say that her experience of the world’s treks must have been limited, her bold claim is one that can still be argued to this day.
Baughan’s beginning was simplicity itself: “Deep in the south-west corner of New Zealand, far away from all familiar scenes of travel, lies the celebrated Milford Sound, an inlet of the sea surpassing in magnificence even the fjords of Norway. Of late years a track has been made overland to the Sound, and this track anyone possessing feet to walk with, eyes to see with, and the love of nature at her loneliest and fairest, could scarce do better than essay.”
Baughan described the environment as “truly the ‘region of the perpendicular’ — the mountains split right straight down from their summits to within a few hundred feet of sea level… the frowning white-tipped walls begin to draw together above the canyon, [and] you realize that you are walking at the bottom of a giant furrow of the earth.”
Maori frequently traveled this route during journeys to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi to collect pounamu (greenstone). In 1888 a track was cut up the Arthur Valley to the Sutherland Falls, with the first known European crossing of the pass made later that year. Today approximately 14,000 people walk the Milford track each year making it one of the most popular walks in New Zealand.
The moss-green pounamu found here was prized by Maori tribes up and down the country, crafted into jewelry or simply used as currency. Harder than steel, it was also handy for creating the deadliest of weapons, such as razor-sharp axes and broad-bladed clubs called meres, which hung from the wrist with plaited twine and could be used to wrench open an opponent’s skull. It was more valuable than gold.
The Milford Track is now one of New Zealand’s most popular walks, with approximately 14000 people completing the Milford Track each year.
During the booked walking season (late October to late April) the track may only be walked in one direction, Glade Wharf to Milford Sound. A maximum of 40 independent walkers are permitted to start the track each day, otherwise, it quickly becomes overcrowded, the damage to the environment increases and the magic of its solitude is lost.
The huge valleys that you’ll see throughout your trek along the Milford Track are the result of glaciation over the last two million years. These glaciers carved their way through the landscape leaving behind these U-shaped valleys, ice-gouged ledges, and the hanging valleys of tributary streams.
Beech trees dominate the forest of the Lower Clinton. Beyond Mintaro the track climbs above the forest through the sub-alpine scrub, and into the tussocks and alpine herb communities of the pass. The higher rainfall and milder temperatures in the lower Arthur Valley produce a more diverse forest. Ferns, mosses, and lichens are abundant around the track.
The trail begins at Lake Te Anau and traverses suspension bridges, boardwalks, and a mountain pass, past New Zealand’s tallest waterfall, Southerland Falls at 580 meters, below the soaring mountain peaks and above the V-shaped valleys that descend into clouds of mist and spray. On a sunny day is scenery as fine as can be found anywhere, but only when it rains, and torrents of water tumble down the mountainsides, turning sections of the track into muddy ditches, do you really experience the true magic of it all.
And you are likely to experience that magic. The Clinton and Arthur valleys, separated by the Mackinnon Pall — at 1,140 meters, the highest point of the walk — receive a whopping 6.8 meters of rainfall each year. Camping isn’t permitted, but there is a shelter hut on Mackinnon Pass, a welcome sight if it is a bad, wet, Milford day.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has set a rule of no children under the age of 10 – this is for various safety reasons (for example risk of hypothermia) and because the lodges/accommodations are not set up for children – they are very strict with how they operate the track. You will need to get special permission from Department of Conservation to bring children under the age of 10.
If you’d prefer to hike the trail independently without a guide, you’ll need to arrange this through the Department of Conservation.
Time: 1 hour
The track from the wharf is a wide 4WD trail which was once used by packhorses to carry supplies to the huts. After around 15 minutes of walking, it passes Glade House, the official start of the Milford Track. The track crosses the Clinton River via a large swing bridge, and continues along the true right (west) side. The lower part of the Clinton River has excellent Trout Fishing – so keep your eyes open for activity in the water.
In places the track offers impressive views of the peaks next to Dare Pass, but most of the walk along the river is through native beech forest. It takes around an hour to reach Nealle Burn Hut, the first hut for independent walkers, after leaving the boat at the wharf. This new 40-bunk hut was built after the Clinton Forks Hut was removed in 1997 when the river was threatening to carry it away. Before it was removed, it was possible to step off the porch of the Clinton Forks Hut into 3m drop to the Clinton River. Neale Burn Hut has two bunkrooms of 20 beds each, a dining/common room, and an extensive verandah where you can sit and enjoy the views. Everything is connected by decking and future plans call for an interpretative boardwalk tour of the adjacent swamp. All independent walkers must spend the first night here because the hut at Mintaro will be fully used by the party that left Glade Wharf the previous day.
Time: 5 – 5.5 hours
The track continues alongside the Clinton River to Clinton Forks, the site of the first overnight stop for independent walkers until 1998. Beyond Clinton Forks, the track heads up the West Branch of the Clinton River. A couple of kilometers past Clinton Forks, the track clambers over the debris from a major landslip in 1982. The avalanche blocked the river and created the lake to the right of the track; dead trees emerge from the water. Waterfalls feather down on both sides of the valley, and a short walk to the left leads to a waterfall view. A little further along the trail, the guided walkers have a lunch stop – near the Hirere Falls. About 4km past Clinton Forks the valley becomes noticeably narrower, with granite walls boxing it in on both sides.
Mackinnon Pass, further up the valley, comes into view for the first time and a short side track curves west (left) to Hidden Lake, on the far side of which is a towering waterfall. The track remains in beech forest until it comes to the Prairies, the first grassy flat. Prairie Lake, at the start of this stretch, is a good place for a swim, since the water is marginally warmer than other lakes in the valley. There are good views from here towards Mt Fisher (1878m/6160ft) to the west and Mackinnon Pass to the north. The track reenters bush and begins a rocky climb to the first shelter, a somewhat gloomy lunch stop, but a place to keep your sandwich dry!
The track crosses Pompolona Creek via an impressive swing bridge and continues its winding course over low scrub. There are many frame bridges along this stretch, and the track ascends more steeply as it passes a side track to St Quintin Falls, eventually working its way to Lake Mintaro and Mintaro Hut – the second night stopover for independent hikers. About 3.5km walk beyond Mintaro Hut is Pompolona Hut (the second night stop for guided hikers).
If the weather is clear, you might want to stash your pack and continue to Mackinnon Pass (1073m) to be assured of seeing the impressive views without obstruction from clouds or rain. The pass is a 1.5-2 hour climb from the hut, and offers spectacular views at sunset on a clear evening.
Time: 6 hours
The track leaves the hut, swings west with the valley and resumes its climb to Mackinnon Pass. It crosses Clinton River a second time and begins to follow a series of switchbacks out of the bush and into the alpine sections of the route. After 4km at a knee-bending angle, the track reaches the large memorial cairn that honours the discovery of this scenic spot by Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell, in 1888.
The track then levels out and crosses the rest of the alpine pass, there are impressive views all around – of the Clinton and Arthur valleys and several nearby peaks. The two most prominent peaks on the pass are Mt Hart (1782m/5846ft) and Mt Balloon (1853m/6079ft). If the weather is fair, trampers like to spend some extra time at the pass.
The track passes several tarns (small alpine lakes), ascends to the highest point of the walk at 1154m/3786ft and reaches Mackinnon Pass Shelter, before swinging north for the descent. From the pass to Quintin Hut, the track drops 870m over a span of 7km. Soon, the track arrives at Roaring Burn Stream, crosses it and reenters the bush. The stream, with its many beautiful waterfalls and rapids is an impressive sight, but the long series of wooden and pierced metal stairways and lookout platforms along the valley beside the stream are almost as eye catching. It was constructed for the 1996-97 tramping season. There are fine views of Dudleigh Falls shortly before Quintin Hut. Quintin, another private hut, has an airstrip, several buildings for guided trampers and a day-use shelter for independent walkers. Nearby is Beech Hut, an historic reconstruction of one of the primitive huts from the early days of the Milford Track. You should consider leaving your pack at Quintin Hut and following the spur to Sutherland Falls (a 1.5 -hour round trip). They are an awesome sight and, for many, the highlight of the hike.
Time: 5.5 – 6 hours
The last leg of the Milford Track is an 18km walk to a shelter at Sandfly Point. The tramp takes most people between five and six hours, and if you plan to meet the 2pm launch to Milford, you should be out of Dumpling Hut no later than 8am.
The track descends back into bush from the hut, and soon the roar of the Arthur River can be heard as the track closely follows the true right (east) bank. After around two hours of walking the track reaches the private Boatshed Shelter (a morning tea stop for guided walkers) and then crosses the Arthur River on a large swing bridge. Just beyond, the swing bridge the track crosses a bridge over Mackay Creek, then comes to the side track to Mackay Falls and Bell Rock. Both natural wonders are a short walk from the main track and worth the time it takes to see them, especially Bell Rock, where the water has eroded a space underneath large enough to stand in. The Mackay Falls may not be as impressive as Sutherland Falls, but it’s absolutely worth a look.
The track begins to climb a rock shoulder of the valley, laboriously cut with axes a century ago, above Lake Ada. Along the way there’s a view of the lake all the way to the valley of Joes River. From there the track descends to Giant Gate Falls, before continuing along the lake shore. The open shelter just before Giant Gate Falls is a lunch stop if it’s dry. It takes about an hour to follow the lake past Doughboy Shelter, (private hut for guided walkers) through wide open flats at the end of the valley to the shelter at Sandfly Point.
Though it is important to be on time to meet the boat at 2 or 3pm, Sandfly Point isn’t a perfect place to spend an afternoon – it’s a haven for its namesake, the sandfly. Thankfully the shelter there is reasonably sandfly-proof if you must hang around. The sign marking the end the track is a great place to grab a photo and keep the proof that you completed your adventure, and one of the world’s greatest multi-day hikes.
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