Hiking the Milford Track

Is hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand on your bucket list? Here are some handy tips to help you enjoy 'the finest walk in the world'.

Is hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand on your bucket list?  Here are some handy tips to help you enjoy 'the finest walk in the world', including an overview of the track, how to get there, weather, cost, info on independent and guided walks plus the best day hiking on the track too. Gidday, my name’s Andrew Wells, I’m a New Zealand hiking guide and have been leading guided walks on the Milford, Routeburn and other New Zealand Great Walks since 1999 and here are my tips on how to enjoy your walk on the Milford Track.

Milford Track Overview:
The Milford Track is a 53 kilometre (33.5 mile) walking or hiking trail in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. The track starts at the northern tip of Lake Te Anau, then follows the Clinton Valley to the Mackinnon Pass, which you walk up and over to come down into the Arthur Valley, which you follow out to Milford Sound.  Also on route on the track is the Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall (580m / 1904 ft).

Where is the Milford Track and how do I get there?
The Milford Track is in Fiordland National Park, which is part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area.  It’s in a pretty secluded corner of the country, but luckily there’s really easy access to both ends of the track.

The best airport for access to the track is Queenstown - if you’re coming from overseas this is where you should fly into.  Queenstown is well served by domestic flights and easy to connect to from an international flight too. Coming from North America or Europe, you’ll fly into Auckland and connect to a domestic flight to Queenstown which takes about 2 hours.  From Australia fly into Christchurch then make an easy 45 minute domestic flight to Queenstown.

You can start and finish your walk from Queenstown, however you may also want to consider going to Te Anau, a pretty little lakeside town on the shores of Lake Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park.  It’s about a two hour drive from Queenstown to Te Anau. 

Guide’s tip:  Your first day’s walk is not too long so if time is tight then travel all the way from Queenstown on Day 1 but stay in Te Anau the day you finish to unwind and sort your gear out.  If time is not so tight, then I love doing the track from Te Anau, with all the hikers in town it will put you in the right mood and there are plenty of people to share stories with both before and afterwards.

How do I get on and off the track?
To get to the Milford Track, everybody needs to catch a boat from Te Anau Downs to the start of the track, Glade Wharf at the top of Lake Te Anau.  There are two boats per day, leaving at 10.30am and 1pm, the trip takes about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Te Anau Downs is about 30 minutes drive from the town of Te Anau, there is ample parking and also buses that can drop you off there.

The track finishes at Sandfly Point, which is right on Milford Sound, a 15 minute boat ride from the main Milford wharf.  The classic 'Anita Bay' launch has the job of transferring hikers from the track back to Milford, something it's been doing for over 75 years!  The first launch of the day for track walkers is at 2pm. followed by departures at 3pm and 4pm.  They know how many people are on the track and won't leave anyone behind.

Milford Track Guided v Independent
Walking the full Milford Track is a lifelong dream for many New Zealanders and overseas visitors, I’ve guided lots of people through the track myself and it’s a lot of fun!  Whether you’re going guided or independent, everyone starts at the Lake Te Anau end of the track and hikes through to Milford Sound, with 3 nights on the track. Boats to the start of the track depart from Te Anau Downs at 10.30am and 1pm, there are buses departing from both Queenstown and Te Anau which will get you there.  You’ll finish your walk in Milford Sound, and the boat from the end of the track to Milford Sound harbour is included in your track package, for both independent and guided walkers.

Walk the Milford Track independently:
Independent (or 'Freedom’) walkers need to book a Milford Track package with the Department of Conservation (DOC), this will include your boat transfers on and off the track at each end, and your accommodation in huts on the track each night, but not your bus to Te Anau Downs and from Milford Sound.  The huts sleep up to 40 people in large bunk rooms and have communal kitchens with plenty of space for everyone.  Mattresses are provided, as are gas cookers and there’s a coal burner in the common room but no heating in the bunk rooms!  You need to bring all your own food and cooking equipment, plus your own sleeping bag.  There is generator electricity for lighting only, which will be turned off in the evening, there are no showers, flush toilets nor drying facilities.  The huts have a warden who will collect your tickets and let you know of weather and track conditions for the following day.

Milford Track Guided Walk:
New Zealand’s oldest guided walking company, operating since the 1890s!  Your entire package from Queenstown (or Te Anau) is provided and you don’t have to organise anything else yourself.  You’ll be in a group of up to 50 people, with three or four guides looking after the group.  Everyone walks at their own pace so you can have all the peace and quiet on the track you want.  Guided walking lodges are generally two hours before the independent huts, meaning you have a super short walk on the first day but quite a long one on the last day.  The lodges are very well run and have everything you need - hot showers, a drying room, full bar and great food.  All bedding, towels and even shampoo and soap are provided so you only have to carry your essentials plus a change of clothes for the evening.  They can even loan you a backpack if you don’t have one of your own.

As the groups are quite large, the guides have limited time to spend with walkers, but they will get around and tell you a bit about the track and environment.  They have nicely spaced rest huts along the way each day which offer shelter if it’s raining and they’ll even make you a hot drink!  One really nice thing about doing the track guided is that you spend your last night in Milford Sound, a really nice way to round your walk off with all your new friends.

Main differences between independent and guided walking:

  • Preparation: Going guided, you only have to organise your clothing, everything else is prepared for you.  Going independent, on top of your clothing, you need to sort out cooking equipment, a sleeping bag and plan all your food for 4 days.
  • How much you carry:  It’s really easy to work out who’s walking independent and who’s walking guided when you see people’s backpacks.  You’ll have to carry a large, heavy backpack walking independently, good news is it will get a little lighter as you eat your food.
  • Guides: ‘Guided Walking’ means you’ll have friendly guides to help you with anything at all, from problems with your gear, a bit of moral support to indentifying the native flora and fauna.  Going independent means you’re on your own all the way, but you’ll run into plenty of other friendly walkers and a real camaraderie builds over the 4 days.  A note about safety, the DOC are really careful about the safety of all walkers so in the event of extreme weather everyone is looked after by DOC staff and track guides.
  • People you walk with:  Fair to say the average age of the guided walkers is a bit higher than independents, probably around 50, compared with 30-something for independent.  Saying that I’ve seen people from 13 to 80 on the guided walk and plenty of sprightly looking silver headed walkers lugging their packs on the independent walk.
  • Cost:  With all the services provided, obviously going guided does cost more.  To give you a comparison with current prices, the 5 day / 4 night guided trip starts at around NZD$2000, moving up in price depending on which type of room you’d like.  To walk the track independently from Queenstown (4 days / 3 nights) will cost you around NZD$450 for all your accommodation and transport, food costs will be on top of this.

Guide's Tip: Everyone will have a budget to work to, but if comfort is important to you then the guided walk is well worth it.  There's a huge difference in your enjoyment of the track when you can have a hot shower at the end of each day, have great food served up, get everything dry in a drying room and sleep in clean dry sheets each night.

A note about water: 
There’s plenty of water on the track, drinkable from side streams but also water in tanks at the DOC huts along the way.

Day walks on the Milford Track
If the full four day adventure is not for you, you’ve got two great choices for day walks at either ends of the track:

Milford Track Day Walk from Sandfly Point, Milford Sound:
This is fantastic new option for people to experience the Milford Track and Milford Sound in the same day.  The Milford Sound end of the track is ‘Sandfly Point’, a 10 minute boat ride from the main Milford Sound boat harbour.  Catching an early boat across to the track to walk the lowland rainforest in total seclusion is a great way to experience the track, around a 8 kilometre (5 mile) return walk to Giant’s Gate Falls is what I like to do before returning for the boat just after midday.  This is the only way to combine the famous Milford Track and Sound in the same day!

There’s no public boat to the Milford Track from Milford Sound, so the only way to experience the track and the Sound in the same day is to join a guided tour - either a day tour departing Milford Sound at around 8am or as part of a longer trip, our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour’.  On the day tour you’ll either have to stay in Milford Sound overnight or leave early from Te Anau to get there for 8am.  Joining a longer tour means you don’t have to worry about trying to find accommodation in Milford or doing any of the driving.
Once you get back to Milford Sound a little after midday you’ve got plenty of time for a cruise on the Sound, or if you’d like to make the day one you’ll never ever forget, how about a helicopter flight the length of Milford Sound.  See more about this option here.

Milford Track Weather
The million dollar question, what’s the weather on the track like?  Milford is famous for its liquid sunshine so it pays to be prepared.  Fiordland is an amazing area of pristine rainforest and rugged peaks, and it’s the elements that are responsible for this landscape, the elements you’ll be in the middle of on the track.  I’ve walked the track more times in sunshine than in rain, but I may just be lucky!  Anything can happen at any time so you need to be prepared.

For some more reading about what to bring and how the weather will be, try these:

What to bring on your New Zealand Hiking Trip
What’s the best time to walk the Milford Track?

Thanks for reading and I hope you find all this info useful for your walk on the MiIford Track.  I’ve been guiding on the Milford and more of New Zealand’s best walks since 1999, and have now put the 'best of the best' of New Zealand hiking and iconic activities together in our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour’ - a real ‘Trip of a Lifetime’.  People tell us they love getting out into the best of New Zealand’s famous landscapes and relaxingt in comfortable 4-star accommodation and savouring delicious New Zealand food and wine in hand picked restaurants each evening.  Small friendly groups led by expert Kiwi guides just add to the fun.  See all about our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour' here.

Milford Track Day Walk from Glade Wharf to the Clinton Forks:
A great way to experience the track and Lake Te Anau together in the same day and timings work really nicely for a day trip from Te Anau.  Get yourself to Te Anau Downs for the 10.30am boat and you’ll arrive at the track at 11.45am, you’ve then a little over 5 hours to discover the track, flat all the way!  You’ll see historic Glade House and follow the tranquil Clinton River on your walk up to the Clinton DOC hut or a little further, Clinton Forks.  A couple great side trips are the Glade Burn, the Wetland Walk and the 'Big Tree'.  In the middle of summer a dip in the crystal clear water back at the wharf after your walk will freshen you up!  You can do this day walk by yourself or join a tour from Te Anau.

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