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.
Read on to learn more about the Milford track, or hit the button below to request your FREE New Zealand brochure - everything you'll need for exploring New Zealand's Great Walks is inside!
Location: Where is the Milford Track?
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.
Milford Track Great Walk Map
History of the Milford Track
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?
Flora and Fauna: What to look for on the Milford Track
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.
Weather on the Milford Track
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.
Fitness: Should I hike the Milford Track independently?
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.
Accommodation and facilities on the Milford Track
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.
Track etiquette and how to prepare
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.
Manuka Milford Hiking Adventure
- 14 Days
- South Island
- From US$6399 + 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
- South Island
- From US$2999 + 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.