Hike the Milford Track in New Zealand
Finest Walk in the World
The 53.5 kilometre (33.2 mile) Milford Track is one of the jewels in the crown of New Zealand’s extensive walking track system and the most famous and popular of its nine Great Walks. Located in the heart of spectacular Fiordland National Park on the South Island, it is part of the Te Wahi Pounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Over 12,000 people walk the track each year and about half of them walk it independently as a 3 nights/4 day trek during the summer.
The rest opt for the full-service 4 night/5 day guided option. You carry a large day pack (rather than a backpack with all your food and a sleeping bag), have a knowledgeable guide always on hand, and finish each day’s walk with a hot meal, warm showers and sleep under a comfy duvet each night. If you can imagine this level of service for two weeks, have a look at our 'Manuka' 14-day hiking tour, which includes the Milford Track Guided Walk as well as many of the best day walks on the South Island.
The Milford Track is located in the southwest of New Zealand's South Island and starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishes in Milford Sound. Te Anau, the nearest township, has a full range of accommodation, shopping and hiking gear hire services. It is a 1 hour 45 minute drive from Invercargill, 2 hours from Queenstown, 3 hours 30 minutes from Dunedin and 8 hours from Christchurch.
The early Maori of Southland and Otago likely travelled what would later become the Milford Track route in search of pounamu (greenstone) near Milford Sound. In 1880, Donald Sutherland, who was the first European resident of Milford Sound, added to Milford's reputation as the Eighth Wonder of the Natural World (according to Rudyard Kipling), when he discovered a spectacular waterfall (the 5th highest fall in the world) that he would name after himself.
In order for visitors to see Sutherland Falls, he started building a walking track up the Arthur Valley, but the rugged Fiordland coast greatly limited access to Milford Sound so finding an overland route from the great lakes of the interior became an imperative if Milford was ever to become a popular destination.
In 1888, Sutherland and others were commissioned to cut a track up the Arthur Valley as far as Sutherland Falls, while explorer/surveyor Quintin Mackinnon and his companion Ernest Mitchell were employed to cut a track up the Clinton Valley from the north end of Lake Te Anau. Persistent rain soaked them to the skin, wetted all available firewood and eventually caused a flood that washed away their provisions. After beating a retreat to Te Anau Downs for new supplies, Mackinnon and Mitchell returned to the valley and in October, 1888, they reached the head of the Clinton Valley, crossed the pass and continued down the Arthur Valley on the track cut by Sutherland, to Sutherland Falls and finally Milford Sound. The pass was named in honour of Mackinnon and the next two years were spent completing that first track.
Despite their efforts, in 1890, it was still a lengthy and fairly arduous journey to Milford Sound for visitors. It could take days to row up Lake Te Anau. Mackinnon was the first Milford Track guide and was long remembered for his good nature and ability at cooking pompolonas, a type of scone made from mutton fat candles which one of the guided trip huts takes its name, and did his best with kaka (a native parrot) and pigeon stew. He ferried parties in his sailing boat Juliet to the head of Lake Te Anau, then up over the pass to Lake Ada where another boat ferried them to Sutherland's accommodation house at Milford Sound.
Sutherland was also reportedly rather piqued the pass had eluded him for 8 years and he insisted on calling Mackinnon Pass “Balloon Saddle”, adding that he could have discovered it at any time if he had wanted to. He regarded Milford as his own, and his rather brisk attitude towards city folk (or "asphalters" as he called them) is noted by many of the walkers who signed the visitor's book in the chalet he built at Milford in 1891.
The title 'the finest walk in the world' first accompanied an article by poet Blanche Baughan which was published in the London Spectator in 1908. In the early days packhorses were used to carry stores to the huts. Beyond Pompolona hut, a cleared area is an old horse paddock and stables site. It was not uncommon to be hut-bound by flooding for several days at a time. Old number eight wire and insulators visible along parts of the track are the remains of a telephone system that linked huts before radio communication was adopted. Then at the end of it all, you had to walk back the way you came until 1954, when the Homer Tunnel was cut and the Te Anau-Milford Sound highway opened. It took a hundred years of refining but these days more than 12,000 visitors hike the Milford Track each year to make it one of the most famous treks in the world.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) manages the public huts on the Milford Track and it’s by far the most popular of its nine Great Walks. In 1992, it sold the license to operate the guided walk, which accounts for about half its visitors. The new operators, known as Ultimate Hikes, invested extensively to upgrade the facilities, build their own accommodation along the track, and are now the exclusive commercial operators for the Milford Track Guided Walk.
What would Sutherland think of “his track” today?
For the last two million years huge glaciers have shaped the landscape of Fiordland. They have left behind U-shaped main valleys, ice-gouged ledges and the hanging valleys of tributary streams. These formations are well preserved because of the hardness of the mainly granite, rock.
Silver, red and mountain beech forest dominates the lower Clinton, with colonising species such as fuchsia, wineberry, broadleaf and mountain ribbonwood common around slips and avalanche paths. Beyond Mintaro the track climbs above the forest through sub-alpine scrub and into the tussocks and alpine herb communities of the pass. In early summer the white flowers of the mountain buttercup Ranunculus lyallii, mountain daisies and snow marguerites can be seen. From the pass the track drops through a shrubland zone which includes mountain three finger, the tree daisy Senecio bennettii (with yellow flowers), and a native broom Carmichaelia grandiflora, which has sweetly scented mauve flowers. The higher rainfall and milder temperatures in the lower Arthur Valley produce a more diverse forest, which includes silver beech, kamahi, miro, totara, fuchsia, mahoe and pate. Ferns, mosses and lichens are abundant around the track.
Common bush birds are bellbirds, tomtits, grey warblers, and rifleman. Brown creepers are often conspicuous near the bushline, while robins prefer beech forest in the lower Clinton. Yellowheads are scattered through each valley. Flocks of redpolls and silver eyes feed in more open areas, and occasionally a falcon may be seen. Rock wrens inhabit the subalpine scrub and kea are common on the pass. Brown kiwi, kaka, weka and morepork are often heard calling at twilight. During the summer, calls of the long-tailed and shining cuckoos may occasionally be heard. Rare blue ducks live on the fast-flowing Clinton and Arthur Rivers.
The Milford Track is in Fiordland National Park, which has high rainfall and changeable weather. Unpredictable weather patterns mean that cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain, which can cause temporary surface flooding on the track, can occur at any time of the year (even summer!). Be prepared for at least one wet day on your trip. Remember, exposure/hypothermia can affect anyone when the weather is wet, cold and windy. Be prepared with suitable clothing. Hypothermia can kill.
During the winter season (late April to late October) snow and avalanche danger (56 avalanche paths cross the Milford track) can make the track impassable. Please check current track and weather conditions at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre before departing on the track.
During the booked walking season (late October to late April), the Milford Track can only be walked in one direction as a 4 day/3 night walk from Glade Wharf to Milford Sound. Only 40 independent walkers and a similar number of guided walkers are permitted to start the track each day. Booking during this time period is essential. In the winter season (late April to late October), walkers can travel the track in either direction, staying up to two nights at each hut. Staying overnight in shelters or camping on the Milford track is not permitted any time of year.
Walking the Milford track independently requires either bus or private transport to Te Anau Downs, 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from Te Anau, then boat transport to Glade Wharf. Boat transport is also required from Sandfly Point (the end of the track) to Milford Sound. During the booked walking season, travel arrangements can be made via the Great Walks Booking Desk along with your Hut bookings. During the winter season, there is no regular transport services to and from the track and walkers must organise all transport prior to departure for the track.
The track passes through the beech forests of a sheer-sided glacial valley as it gradually climbs and follows the usually crystal-clear Clinton River to the foot of Mackinnon Pass. The pass (1073 metres/3520 feet) is dominated by alpine herbfields, and spectacular views of the surrounding mountains are obtained. The Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand can be seen after the descent from the pass. The higher rainfall and milder temperatures of the Arthur Valley give a more diverse forest walk, past waterfalls and lakes to Sandfly Point. A wide variety of native birds may be seen or heard along the length of the track.
Day One: Clinton Hut 3.5km, 1-1.5 hrs
From Glade Wharf, you'll walk 1km to Glade House, which is the first overnight stop for guided trampers, and then up the track for about another hour, through attractive beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River, to Clinton Hut. There are good swimming holes available near the hut and a side trip around the wetland boardwalk just prior to the hut.
Day Two: Mintaro Hut 16.5km, 5.5hrs
You'll have a gradual climb from Clinton Hut today as the track follows the Clinton River to its source, Lake Mintaro, at the base of Mackinnon Pass. It passes through sections of forest and crosses many small and a few large streams, which may need to be forded after or during heavy rain. The track also passes many avalanche paths, which are sign posted during the danger season. Use caution at other times as dictated by the weather. Just prior to Mintaro hut is the steepest section of the day's walk. It is approximately 30-45 minutes of uphill walking to the hut. The vegetation changes to reflect the higher altitude and rainfall.
Day Three: Dumpling Hut 14km, 6hrs
From Mintaro Hut there is a well-graded steady climb of about two hours to the top of Mackinnon Pass, passing Mackinnon Memorial on the way. A toilet and lunch shelter, with a gas cooker, are sited at the pass. Then the 8km walk from the pass drops steadily down over rocky terrain, and provides spectacular views. For many trampers, this is the most difficult part of the track. At Quintin Hut (a guided trip overnight stop) there is a public shelter and toilet where you can leave your packs if you want to take a side trip to Sutherland Falls, which takes about 1 1/2 hours return. A good view of the falls can be found 20 minutes towards Dumpling Hut from the Quintin Hut turnoff. From the Quintin shelter it is about an hour walk to tonight's accommodation, Dumpling Hut.
Day Four: Ferry from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound 18km, 5.5 - 6 hrs
The track first follows the Arthur River and crosses it by a bridge at Boat Shed (a morning tea stop for guided parties). It then follows the shores of Lake Ada to Sandfly Point, passing through high beech forest and affording views of Mackay Falls, and Giant Gate Falls - a good lunch spot with toilet and shelter facilities. Bell Rock, near Mackay Falls, is an intriguing rock which has been worn by water and grinding stones and then tipped over in a rock fall. The rock cuttings alongside the Arthur River and around Lake Ada were blasted out by prison gangs and contracted work parties late 19th century. Floods can cause delay. If the track is closed during the booked season conservation staff will notify walkers and provide support for those already walking. You will need to leave Dumpling Hut between 8 and 9am to meet the boats from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound which leave at 2.30pm and 3.15pm. The crossing takes approximately 20 minutes.
Any reasonably fit person can walk the Milford Track. You will need to be able to carry all your own gear over rough rocky uneven surfaces, climbing and descending for up to 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) a day. It is an ideal trip for groups or individuals. The Milford Track is not recommended for children under the age of 10 due to the mountainous terrain and adverse weather conditions. Make sure all of your party is capable of undertaking the trip. Fording flooded waters up to one metre deep may be necessary after periods of heavy rain. Physical fitness and good equipment will make the difference to your enjoyment regardless of the weather. It is suggested you start a regular walking programme 1- 2 months before your departure on the track. This programme should include some practice at carrying your pack on hills or stairs.
For your own safety it is essential to carry the equipment listed below, no matter how warm it is on the day of departure, as the weather is notoriously fickle in the mountains. Most trekking equipment is available for hire or purchase in Te Anau, near the start of the track. A full range of food is available in Te Anau and a basic store is available when you arrive in Milford Sound. You won't be able to purchase food on the track and independent walkers cannot dine at the huts for the guided walkers.
You will need at least one set of clothes to walk in, and another dry set to change into at night. It is not always possible to dry clothes overnight in the public huts. Warning - synthetic clothing is flammable. It is essential that this clothing is carried as your safety and the safety of others could depend on it. NB: cotton clothing such as jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts are NOT suitable.
- Sturdy hiking boots: need to be comfortable and well broken in.
- Socks: (wool/polypropylene) two pairs
- Shorts: (cotton/ nylon)
- Shirt: (wool/polypropylene)
- Longjohns or trousers: (wool/polypropylene)
- Jersey or Jacket: (wool/polypropylene)
- Undershirts/ T-shirts: (wool/polypropylene)
- Mittens/Gloves: (wool/polypropylene)
- Woollen hat /balaclava and sun-hat
- Raincoat: (waterproof, windproof with hood)
- Extra socks, underwear, shirt or lightweight jersey.
- Pack: with large waterproof liner
- Sleeping Bag: good quality down or hollofil
- Matches/ Lighter: in waterproof container
- Torch: spare batteries
- Eating utensils: Knife, fork, spoon, plate, cup
- Cooking utensils: pot/pan/billy, pot scrubber
- Toilet gear: soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, small towel (remember do not wash in lakes or streams)
- First Aid Kit: insect repellent, sunscreen, blister kits, pain relief, and assorted bandages
- Survival Kit: Survival blanket, whistle, paper, pencil, spare days food
- Drink bottle: you need to drink regularly during day
- Optional extras: sunglasses, camera, and lightweight shoes for in hut, earplugs for communal bunk rooms
- Outside the booked walking season, walkers will also need to carry gas cookers and mountain radios
You won't be able to buy food on the track so you'll need to carry in everything you'll eat. Food should be lightweight, fast cooking and high in energy value. For example:
- Breakfast: cereal, firm bread, honey or other spreads
- Lunch: cracker biscuits, cheese, salami, margarine, jam/jelly, powdered fruit drink, fruit
- Dinner: instant soup, pasta/rice, dried vegetables/fruit, cheese or dehydrated (freeze dry) meals.
- You will also need: snacks, biscuits, muesli bars, tea/coffee, powdered drink, emergency food in case of any delays on the track.
You will need to drink regularly while walking, even on cooler days, to avoid dehydration. You need to carry some water, as you may not be able to find any en route. Giardia maybe present in some areas. Regular testing is not carried out. If you wish to treat the water you can boil water for 5 minutes, use a filter, or chemically treat it. Drinking water at the huts and shelters comes from the rivers and lakes.
See our Hiking Resources for a more comprehensive gear list for multi-day trek and useful packing tips.
What to Expect in the Huts
There are three Department of Conservation huts on the track: Clinton, Mintaro and Dumpling. Independent walkers are expected to leave the shared DoC huts clean and tidy, and take their rubbish out with them. In the winter season huts are supplied with tables and benches, water supply, stove for heating in main hut and pit toilets. In the booked walking season tables, benches, lighting, heating, cold running water and gas cooking rings are supplied in the main hut. Ablution blocks have flush toilets and wash basins. In both seasons walkers sleep in communal bunk rooms, mattresses provided - no lighting or heating. Conservation staff are in residence over the booked walking season. They are equipped with radios for use in emergencies and for weather forecasts. Camping or staying overnight in the rest shelters is not permitted on the Milford Track. Facilities for guided walkers are not available to independent walkers.
Please use toilets at huts and shelters. If this is not possible bury toilet waste well away from watercourses. Remember drinking water at huts and shelters comes from rivers and lakes.
We recommend you arrange travel insurance to guard against loss of costs associated with cancellation or delay of your trip. The Department of Conservation will not be liable for injury, damage or any costs incurred by intending walkers. Emergency evacuation from the track can only be arranged by Conservation staff. For your own safety please sign hut books when you arrive. Know the symptoms of exposure. React quickly by finding shelter and providing warmth. If you become lost, stop, find shelter, stay calm and try to assist searchers.
Please Remember When Trekking in New Zealand
All native wildlife in the park is protected. To protect ground dwelling birds no dogs or other domestic animals are permitted on the track or in the park. All rubbish must be carried out of the park. Fire is a major threat and open fires are prohibited - please use portable stoves for cooking. Smoking is not permitted in the huts and shelters. A permit is required before a firearm can be carried into a National Park.
During peak season (October - April) you must purchase Great Walk Tickets at a Department of Conservation (DOC) office before you start the track. During the winter off-season, you'll be required to have a Backcountry Hut Pass or hut tickets, which you can also purchase from DOC. To book online, see Milford Track DOC for current rates and more details.
Manuka Milford Hiking Adventure
- 14 Days
- US$5,899 + tax
If you wish to concentrate on hiking the iconic tracks of New Zealand and like your creature comforts, we’ve crafted this trip just for you. It has a strong focus on New Zealand’s natural history. Our guides have plenty of time to interpret the flora and fauna and explain the geological and social history of the areas you’ll visit. You also have the choice of a selection of the best day hikes Fiordland National Park has to offer, along with an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, or hiking the famous Milford Track in its entirety. The ‘Manuka’ really is hiking New Zealand in style!
Activity level: The 'Manuka' is an active hiking trip, but has options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Manuka' trip range between three and six hours to complete, with longer hikes on the Milford Track Guided Walk option.
Takahe Great Walks Discovery
- 5 Days
- US$2,899 + tax
Over five days you'll hike on three of New Zealand's nine 'Great Walks', all located in the Fiordland National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage area with mystical coves and dense temperate rainforest. This is a bucket list hiking trip where you need not forgo any creature comforts.
Activity level: The 'Takahe' is a hiking-focused trip, with options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Takahe' trip range between three and six hours to complete.