Milford Track: Hiking Guide to the Finest Walk in the World
There is not a more popular hike in New Zealand than Milford Track, once claimed to be the finest walk in the world. Read our hiking guide to the Milford Track including information on how to reserve huts and boat transport, budget tips, what to pack, and much more. Simply, in this post, you will find everything you need to know before hiking the crown jewel of Fiordland National Park.
We must say it aloud. We consider ourselves privileged for having experienced Milford Track, one of the most sought-after multi-day hikes in the world. Milford Track is nowadays overly popular, and when you are traveling on a strict itinerary, it is very hard to find a spot available on the hike, because huts along the trek must be booked months in advance in the main season from the end of October until April, and we do not even mention here that hiking Milford Track will set you back several hundred dollars, and even more than a thousand dollars, when traveling as a couple or as a family, which is price, not everyone can afford (or want) to pay.
And even when you are traveling around New Zealand out of season, like we did, Milford Track is still not a budget-friendly activity, although the accommodation is much cheaper. On the other hand, weather conditions can be inconsistent, to say the least.
The famous Great Walk goes through glacial valleys, climbs up to the Mackinnon Pass, walks around one of New Zealand's highest waterfalls, and in the rainforest.
But is Milford Track truly so outstanding that you should revolve your New Zealand trip solely around it?
Well, when reviewing our memories and photos in retrospect, we would say yes, it was really worth it. Had we hiked Milford Track if we haven't been traveling in the low season and if we had to pay the full price? Probably not. But we will leave the decision up to you.
Nevertheless, Milford Track is a spectacular trek in Fiordland National Park, one of its kind, and we decided to put together this guide to help you with planning it.
This hiking guide includes tips on how to reserve huts and boat transport, where to stay in Te Anau, what to pack, how to plan your itinerary and what you can expect when it comes to weather in Fiordland.
MILFORD TRACK LENGTH & DIFFICULTY
Milford Track is 53.5 kilometers long hike, and it will take you four days to finish.
It is a moderate hike, which is easy most of the time except for the climb and later descend from Mackinnon Pass.
We did not find the hike challenging, but what can make it pretty hard are the weather conditions as it rains more than often in Fiordland National Park, and you can also experience cold periods.
Another thing which can make the hike harder is that you must carry your backpack (unless you go with a privately owned company), especially if you are not used to tramping.
MILFORD TRACK TRAILHEAD
Trailhead of Milford Track is called Glade Wharf, and the only way how to get there (the only option which makes sense) is by boat from Te Anau Downs.
WHERE TO STAY ALONG MILFORD TRACK
Milford Track is special in many ways.
One of the most significant differences is that there are only huts along the trail and no camping is permitted, which is bad news for all budget travelers who often can afford hiking Great Walks only thanks to sleeping in a tent. For independent hikers, there are three huts along the trail: Clinton Hut, Mintaro Hut, and Dumpling Hut.
Huts are serviced between October 29 and April 30 which means, there is a ranger present who can answer your questions, explain the trek's profile, and provide you with an up to date weather forecast.
Outside the main season, there is no ranger (DOC workers from time to time check the facilities and hut permits), there is no gas for cooking, water supply is limited, and there are no radio facilities.
HOW TO MAKE RESERVATION FOR MILFORD TRACK
It is very hard to reserve huts along the Milford Track because the most popular dates are gone within minutes after the reservation system opens (in June).
To be successful, you need to either already have selected dates for your vacation, and try to reserve huts during this time slot, which can be quite hard, so the better option is to wait for the booking system to open, book some of the dates available (during the season you want to travel in New Zealand), and then plan your vacation according to the Milford Track.
Milford Track is often booked out for the six months in high season in a couple of weeks, but in case you were not able to make your reservation, check the system from time to time as cancellations can happen.
Trekking in New Zealand is divided into two seasons, and some treks during this time have different rules and different ways how to book the stay, and Milford Track is one of them.
October 29 - April 30 | This is the main hiking season in New Zealand and time when you must fight with thousands of travelers from all around the world to make your booking. The most popular dates in December and January are usually gone first. The booking system is usually opened at the end of June for the next hiking season. One night in a hut along Milford Track costs NZD 140 per person, and you must book all three huts. These rates are valid for international visitors, locals pay significantly lower rates, but if you are not a local and have for example working visa, you are also eligible to get a discount, so check the official booking site.
May 1 - October 28 | The low season brings lower prices, but also worse weather conditions. During this time it is not possible to reserve huts, accommodation works on first come first served basis (when there are more people than beds, someone has to sleep on the floor). Price is only NZD 15 per night per person, and you do not need to sleep three times along the trek, you can walk faster, or stay even longer if you wish. To pay for your stay, you need to either buy Serviced Backcountry Hut Ticket in advance in any visitors center, or you can buy Backcountry Hut Pass for six or twelve months, so this option obviously pays off when you plan on traveling in New Zealand more extensively.
HOW TO ARRANGE TRANSPORT FOR MILFORD TRACK
The easiest way how to arrange transport is at the time of booking (you will be offered the option after you choose your dates in the reservation system), as DOC offers the transfer by bus from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, then a boat from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf, and later transport from the end of the hike, boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound, and bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau.
You can book buses with either DOC or with any private operator. The transport will cost you around NZD 200.
In case you are traveling around New Zealand by rental car, you can drive 27 kilometers from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs and leave the car on a carpark, but you will have to get there somehow from Te Anau after the hike, unless you want to pay for car relocation service (you can have your car also relocated from Te Anau to Milford Sound, but it is costly).
WHICH DIRECTION SHOULD YOU WALK
Milford Track is a one-way hike, but unlike other treks in New Zealand, you cannot choose a direction in which you will hike.
All hikers start in Glade Wharf and end at Sandfly Point, which has an advantage that all people walk in the same direction.
HOW MANY DAYS YOU NEED TO FINISH MILFORD TRACK
When you were lucky and made a reservation for Milford Track during the high season, you do not have other option than to spend three nights and four days on the trail as the regulations on this Great Walk are very strict.
If hiking Milford Track outside the main season, you can walk faster or spend on the trail more time, you only need to arrange transport to get from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound.
As we were hiking Milford Track in May, we met there a guy, photographer, who was sleeping in a hut his seventh night as he was waiting for perfect weather conditions to take great photos!
BUDGET & WEATHER & SAFETY TIPS
Milford Track is the most expensive trek out of all Great Walks, but still, it is possible to hike it on budget, but be ready you will still have to spend money on transport as the trailhead and the finish point of the hike is accessible only by boat.
In case you want to save some money, your only option is to hike Milford Track in offseason, between May 1 and October 28 when the price for accommodation drops significantly from NZD 140 to NZD 15 per night.
The only difficulty when hiking in Fiordland National Park during New Zealand's winter is that the weather conditions are wet, icy and avalanches can occur. When it comes to safety, the only danger along the trail which you should not underestimate by no means is the weather. This part of New Zealand can see rain often (there are more than 200 rainy days in a year), and it can snow and be windy almost any time, but summers also can be hot, so come well prepared.
We did Milford Track at the beginning of May when the conditions were not that harsh.
We had some rain, and it was a bit chilly in the morning and later at night, but overall we couldn't complain. As we were not traveling on a strict schedule, we could watch the weather forecast, and when it seemed pleasant, we booked transport and started the hike (we waited almost a week as it was raining more than 50 mm every day). Fiordland National Park is one of those few places in the world where the rain adds to the beauty, as when it's pouring, new and new waterfalls start running from all those sheer cliffs around you!
If you plan on hiking Milford Track closer to winter, it is always necessary to ask in any information center in the area how is the current situation on the trail as there is a hazard of floodings and avalanches.
That's why it is always better to think first about your safety, whether you are well-experienced and well-equipped, and not to try to save several hundreds of dollars instead.
When hiking in the winter, you should pack the following items:
MILFORD TRACK ITINERARY
Because of many regulations on Milford Track, unlike on other hikes, you cannot choose which direction you want to walk.
Only in offseason, it is not compulsory to stay in all three huts and do the hike in four days, but we planned our itinerary for Milford Track according to the classic recommendations.
Day 1: Te Anau - Te Anau Downs - Clinton Hut
You will start the first day according to time you booked the boat from Te Anau Downs, but generally, it is completely fine to start in the afternoon because the hike from Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut is only 5 kilometers long.
We were picked up by bus in Te Anau which took us to Te Anau Downs, where we switched to boat, and in approximately an hour we arrived in Glade Wharf, the official beginning of Milford Track.
It rained, but we were ok with that as the first section of the hike led us through thick beech forest, and we also relied on the weather forecast showing us sunny weather for the most important third day when we should have crossed the pass.
You can see a couple more huts along the trail, but they are privately owned and not accessible to independent hikers.
The wide trail led us to Clinton River which we had to cross via a suspension bridge, then we took a short detour to explore the Clinton Boardwalk Trail and shortly after we emerged near Clinton Hut.
Day 2: Clinton Hut - Mintaro Hut
The second day started with a gradual climb along Clinton River.
This section offers beautiful views, and you will see several worthwhile natural wonders such as Pompolona ice field, Hidden Lake (you must take a short detour), Hirere Falls and when the weather is good you might even get a glimpse of Mackinnon Pass.
We really enjoyed the walk via Clinton Valley, and we could only imagine how is it like when it is pouring, and the water is running down the sheer cliffs. That day clouds were hanging low, but still, we could appreciate the beauty of Fiordland National Park.
Along the way are two shelters where you can hide for a while in case it is too rainy. The last section of the trail climbs more steeply to Mintaro Hut.
When we arrived in the hut it was cloudy, but we know that when the weather is lovely, many hikers leave their bags in the hut and head to Mackinnon Pass as the weather in the park is not stable, and it might be the only chance to get the awe-inspiring vistas.
We hoped the weather forecast will be fulfilled, so we relaxed in the hut and waited for the next day.
Day 3: Mintaro Hut - Dumpling Hut
The third day of Milford Track is the hardest, but for us, it was also the most beautiful one.
The trek ascends steeply via several switchbacks, but I don't know why but I like walking zig-zags. As we were climbing up, the sun was shining, but above the clouds, and we were not sure if we would get any views at all.
To reach Mackinnon Pass you need to gain approximately 500 meters, but once you get to the pass, you will forget the hard climb immediately.
The pass is absolutely breathtaking.
You will see the memorial, many photogenic peaks around you, glacial-carved Clinton Valley lined with pointy peaks, several tarns thanks to them you can make amazing photos of the reflecting mountains and kea birds will be swirling above you.
Did the weather cooperate with our plans at the end?
It did, but we had to wait in the pass for three hours for the clouds to clear. Yes, you read it right. We spent three terribly cold hours in the Mackinnon Pass, but it paid off. Fortunately, there was a shelter where we could wait when the cold wind was blowing.
Once we were happy with what we saw, we started descending. This section can be often slippery, so be careful. The trail took us via a wooden staircase along spectacular Roaring Burn River creating cascades, until we reached the floor of the valley and Quintin Lodge.
From here you can take an approximately one-hour long detour to Sutherland Falls - as with 580 meters it is considered New Zealand's highest waterfall, we believe it is a no brainer.
When you return to the main trail again, you will shortly reach Dumpling Hut, the last hut on Milford Track.
Day 4: Dumpling Hut - Sandfly Hut - Te Anau
Despite its length, the last day of Milford Track is pretty easy as it is almost flat.
Although you have the highlight in the form of Mackinnon Pass behind, Fiordland National Park will prove to you why it is one of the most beautiful parks in the world.
The trail follows the Arthur River to the historic Boatshed, and then you will see a series of many photogenic waterfalls such as Mackay Falls or Giants Gate Waterfalls.
There are also several noteworthy men-made rocks, and then you will leisurely finish Milford Track by stroll around Lake Ada. The end of the Milford Track is called Sandfly Point, and it is a fitting name, as the number of annoying and biting sandflies is incredible.
Pack a bug repellent as well, although we had a suspicion nothing works against New Zealand sandflies.
At Sandfly Point we waited for a boat, but because it was low season, it took a while until we got to Milford Sound as there was only one small boat and all of the hikers could not fit there.
When we arrived in Milford Sound (the boat ride took approximately 10 minutes), we walked along the shore to see the most famous mountain in Fiordland National Park, Mitre Peak, and then we jumped on a bus which took us back to Te Anau.
Although you will be probably tired after four days of hiking, try not to sleep on the bus as the ride to Te Anau is very scenic, and it includes drive via 1.2 kilometers long Homer Tunnel.
FOOD AND DRINKS ON MILFORD TRACK
If you've ever hiked in the wilderness, you should know what to expect when it comes to food and drink on a hike, but it is not an exception that for some travelers Milford Track is the first multi-day hiking experience.
That's why it is good to know you should pack only as much food you can carry on your back.
Do not overpack, on the other hand it is necessary to know you will spend on the trail four days and three nights, so you will need food to have enough energy. We usually bought enough food to have three meals per day, and although we ate every day the same meals only in a different order - muesli, apples, bananas, cheese, couscous, corned beef, tuna fish, vegetables (carrots usually) and a chocolate bar - it was always sufficient.
In case you do not want to think about what to pack that much, we recommend you to buy instant dehydrated meals. They are a bit more expensive, but light and you will have your food ready quickly.
Huts are serviced between October 29 - April 30, outside this time frame you will need to carry gas for cooking. Remember that you must take all your garbage with you.
Water in New Zealand is drinkable, and you can always refill water from the water tank in the hut, from streams or in winter you can melt snow.
We never experienced any problems by drinking untreated water in New Zealand, but if you have a more sensitive stomach, you can bring along pills or drops and treat the water, or you can buy a filtered water bottle.
WHERE TO STAY BEFORE AND AFTER MILFORD TRACK
Milford Track is a one-way hike, and there is only one place where you can start, a small town called Te Anau.
This is also a place where is best for you to spend a night before hiking Milford Track, as there are quite many accommodation options and a large grocery store where you can do the last-minute shopping.
When you finish the trek, depending on your plans, you can either return to Te Anau (you must have your transport arranged in advance) or you can stay in Milford Sound, but the options here are very scarce.
Where to stay in Te Anau
Budget | Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers - Great location on the lake's shore, clean shared space, well-equipped kitchen, and friendly atmosphere make from this place a perfect budget option.
Mid-range | Lakeside Motel & Apartments - Quiet and well-maintained hotel is reasonably priced and offers its guests comfortable rooms, kitchenette and stunning views of the lake.
Luxury | Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas - Warm and stylish rooms, perfect views, heated swimming pool, and sauna are the main reasons why to stay at this place.
Where to stay in Milford Sounds
If traveling on a budget, your best bet is to return to Te Anau (we would say this is basically the best option almost for everyone, and then you can return to Milford Sound for a cruise if this activity is on your New Zealand itinerary), because there is no cheap accommodation in Milford Sound as generally there are only two options where you can stay.
The first one is Milford Sound Lodge, which is usually fully booked and can be booked only directly via the hotel reservation system, the other option is rather an overnight experience as you can book a room on Milford Sound Overnight Cruise - Fiordland Discovery.
WHAT TO PACK FOR HIKING MILFORD TRACK
Fiordland National Park is known for the rainy weather conditions, and although it can be warm during summer between December and February, you should always pack layers and extra clothes to stay dry and warm during the night.
Here are five essential things you should have in your backpack for hiking Milford Track.
Rain Poncho | Although you can luck out the weather, you should not even think of hiking Milford Track without rain poncho.
Sleeping Bag | You do not need to carry mattress as it is provided for free in the hut but you will need a warm sleeping bag.
Water Bottle | It is not necessary to pack plastic water bottles, take only your regular bottle and it is possible to collect drinking water from streams or from water tank in the hut.
Here are packing essentials for staying in huts.
We've also created an in-depth Ultimate New Zealand Packing List where you can find more information and useful tips.
TOURS FOR EXPLORING MILFORD SOUND
When you finish Milford Track and return to Te Anau or Queenstown, it is still worth it to travel back at least for a day to enjoy one of the most photogenic places in New Zealand either from the shore (you can see Mitre Peak even without taking boat), from the air, or the most popular option is to explore Milford Sound by boat.
Here are several tours you can take to fully appreciate fjords of Fiordland National Park.
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