When I was trying to plan our trip to the Milford Track in New Zealand, I had wished I had more information before heading out. The New Zealand Department of Conservation Website gives you a lot of good information as far as what to bring and how to be safe, but it’s really lacking as far as the logistical information in my opinion. So I’ve put together all of the information I wish I’d known. If you really want to hike this thing, sit back, grab a glass of vino, and read on. All prices are as of January 2016.
What is the Milford Track?
The Milford track is a 4 day, 33 mile/53 kilometer hike in the Fiordland region of New Zealand. It is one of the 9 Great Walks in New Zealand and often referred to as “The Finest Walk in the World.” It is by far the most popular hike in New Zealand. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty awesome. You pretty much walk from the northern most point of Lake Te Anau (a.k.a. Glade Wharf) to a place called Sandfly Point, which is essentially to Milford Sound. Only 90 people are allowed to enter per day. It can only be walked in one direction. You walk through forest, wetlands, past rivers, through avalanche zones, over suspension bridges, through mountains, through valleys, and past lakes and waterfalls. In fact, to even get to the trailhead, you have to take a car to a bus to a boat. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about that, later. There’s also an optional excursion to check out Sutherland Falls, the second highest waterfall in New Zealand. Check out the elevation map.
Sounds awesome! Now what?
Decide when you want to go. High season is the end of October through the end of April and it has the most favorable weather. Low season is any other time. If you’re not going during the high season, you might be a badass or just crazy. During low season you’ll probably need crampons, have an increased risk of avalanches, have shorter days, no rangers at the huts, no radios, no gas, no water, and worst of all it’s cold. Even some of the bridges are removed so they’re not destroyed by avalanches. But you’ll also have significantly lower prices.
Decide how you want to do it. There are two ways to do the Milford Track. The easy way or the hard way. The hard way is through the Department of Conservation and the easy way is through a company called Ultimate Hikes. Let’s compare:
|Ultimate Hikes||Dept. of Conservation|
|Fancy Huts||Basic Huts|
|Comfortable Beds||Carry your own bedding|
|Drying Rooms||Dry by the fire (hopefully)|
|Meals provided||Bring your own food|
|Logistics handled||Book your own on the DOC site|
|$2245+ per person (minimum)||~$362 per person|
Soooo. As you can see, you’re really paying a premium for those extra perks. The $2245 is the minimum you can expect to pay during high season, by the way. That’s for a dormitory style/shared bathroom situation. If you wanted your own room with an ensuite, you’re looking at the $3200+ range. Whichever you choose, booking early is critical. The Milford Track is always sold out during high season since only 40 people per day can go through the DOC and 50 through Ultimate Hikes. Your only hope would be to show up at the DOC center or Ultimate Hikes and ask if someone canceled.
Got it. How do I book?
If you’re doing Ultimate Hikes, you can book through their site. If you’re going through the NZ Department of Conservation, you can book through the DOC website. Bookings for the high season usually open in late February of that year. That’s right, eight months early. Keep your eye on that page. When I booked, they allowed people to sign up to get a notification when booking is going to open, but I don’t see that there now. It is critical to book early. I know I’ve already said that. But seriously.
For example, I wanted to go on December 26, 2014. I remember sitting on WiFi in an American Airlines lounge staking out the website, waiting to book the very second it opened. It was a little confusing to me with all of the logistical stuff I was able to book through the DOC, and I didn’t have a handle on where I was staying yet to know if I was making the right choice. I couldn’t go back, so I opened up another browser and started a new booking. Within 12 minutes of opening, all of the dates within 4 days of my dates were booked. I went back to the original browser and just bought whatever I had put in my cart. Luckily it was all the correct stuff.
If you’re booking through the DOC, you’ll be able to book transfers and huts at the same time. The huts must be booked consecutively because you cannot stay in a hut for more than one night. The transfer situation is where things get a little confusing.
My recommendations are to book:
- Clinton Hut ($54)
- Mintaro Hut ($54)
- Dumpling Hut ($54)
- Bus from Te Anau DOC to Te Anau Downs at ($25)
- Boat from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf ($81)
- Boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound ($47)
- Bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau DOC ($47)
There are a lot of time tables for these things. I would recommend booking the morning bus and boat from Te Anau/Te Anau Downs. The 2pm boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound. And the 2:30 bus back to Te Anau DOC.
Here’s how it will go down with the instructions above:
- Park at the DOC center parking lot in time to catch your bus.
- Go into the DOC center and pick up your passes with your confirmation.
- They will hand you a ticket for each hut and any passes you may need for your transfers. Put these in a waterproof bag.
- Go move your car into the extended stay lot and get your pack and supplies.
- Wait for your bus where they indicated (usually out front).
- The bus will pick you up to take you on a 30 minute ride to Te Anau Downs.
- The bus driver will direct you to the boat at Te Anau Downs. Board the boat and take the hour and a half boat ride to Glade Wharf across beautiful Lake Te Anau.
- Hike the track! (More on this later.)
- Arrive at Sandfly Point by 2:00, 3:00, or 4:00 depending on which boat ride you booked out of Sandfly Point.
- Hop on your boat and get a ride back to Milford Sound.
- You will be directed to your bus back to Te Anau (or wherever else if you chose a different final destination).
Let’s clarify with a map, shall we? If you look at the map, you’ll see the bottom star is Te Anau where the DOC center is. The star above that is Te Anau Downs. The very top of Lake Te Anau is Glade Wharf, where the trailhead is. Then you walk Milford Track. By the way, longer than 12 hours 12 minutes. Thanks, Google. When you finish the Track, you’ll end up at Sandfly Point, where the dropped pin is.
There are plenty of other options available, but that is what worked for me. For instance, you could have a bus from Milford Sound all the way back to Queenstown, but I didn’t do that, so I’m not sure where in Queenstown it drops you.
I booked! What should I bring?
My husband and I had a good laugh at the 80% DEET. It couldn’t be legal, we said. Who needs 80% DEET? That’s excessive. Unnecessary.
Until it was necessary. Very, very necessary. Sandflies are the worst. They’re worse than midges. Worse than mosquitoes. They just suck. They are tiny and swarm and bite you. They are probably the worst insect bites I’ve ever dealt with. Super itchy. Super painful. And a lot of people have severe reactions because they’re not used to these little assholes. DEET up.
As far as your other equipment, if you’re going through DOC, I would bring:
- Food for 4-5 days
- Hummus, cheese, and bread
- Freeze-dried meals
- Coffee and coffee fixins
- Dried fruit
- A pot to cook in
- Sleeping bags
- Clothes (check the weather for the time of year)
- A rain jacket
- A rain cover for your pack
- Hiking boots
- Water purification system (I use a Steripen)
- Ear plugs (someone will snore, trust me)
- Trekking poles
- Camp towel
- Baby wipes (this will be your shower)
- Trash bag
- Something fun to do. It gets boring in those huts.
What can I expect?
Here’s how this will go down.
Day 1 – Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut
First you do all those things I said to do in the logistics section. Te Anau>Bus>Te Anau Downs>Boat>Glade Wharf. Perfect! Now it’s probably like, 2pm and you have to start the hike. Fear not! Your first day is only about a mile and a half. Should take you about 1.5 hours tops.
This is the day where you’ll learn very quickly not to stop or else the sandflies will swarm you.
This is the Glade House, which is one of the “fancy” huts from the Ultimate Hikes folks. Look at their adorable little backpacks! I will say that after lugging a 35lb pack, hearing them complain about those tiny backpacks was enough to make me want to use them as sandfly bait.
Day 2 – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
This is the day where you walk through a whole lot of wetlands and flat land. Here you follow the Clinton River to Lake Mintaro, the base of the Mackinnon Pass, which you’ll see tomorrow from the top. You’ll walk through Clinton Valley until you get to your hut for the night. We had rain this day and we were able to see some pretty gorgeous waterfalls in Clinton Valley. Even if you don’t, you’ll certainly be very impressed by the mountains all around you.
Once you get to Mintaro Hut, you’ll make some new acquaintances named kea. Make sure all of your gear is secure or inside. The hut ranger may even break the “no shoes or gear inside” rule because the kea are so destructive. Kea are the only alpine parrot in the world and they are put on this earth to be little jerks and f*ck your shit up. They fly all around the hut trying to destroy anything they can. Wires. Solar panels. Trekking poles. Shoes. Whatever.
Do not feed them. They are clever little things and will work in teams to try and outsmart you. One will distract you while the others will be raiding your pack. It’s basically like the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. If they had thumbs, we’d all be in trouble.
Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut via Mackinnon Pass
The day you’ve been waiting for! You get to the highest point on this day. Remember that valley you were in yesterday looking up at the mountains? Well yeah. Now you’re looking down at it.
Once you start your descent, you’ll get to Quintin Shelter where you can veer off and go see Sutherland Falls. It’s the second longest waterfall in New Zealand. It’s cold. And I don’t know if it’s worth it. But here’s a picture. Decide for yourself. It takes about an hour and a half round trip.
Day 4 – Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point
This is your final day! It should take you 6 hours to reach Sandfly Point. If you have a 2:00pm boat ride out, you should probably plan on leaving around 7:00am so you have enough time to stop for pictures and lunch.
With the worst of the elevation gain and the knee-destroying descent behind you, today should be a breeze! Only about 11 miles to go. Today you’re going to follow Arthur River. First point of interest is Mackay Falls and Bell Rock. Bell Rock is a giant rock that Mackay Falls hollowed out and then somehow it was flipped over forming the shape of a bell.
After Bell Rock you’ll hit Lake Ada, which I think is the worst of the elevation gain on Day 4. It should be a piece of cake after yesterday. The next point of interest is Giant’s Gate, another waterfall. You won’t be sick of them by now, don’t worry.
The last 3 kilometers are smooth sailing. It’s a pretty wide trail made by a prison gang in the late 1800s. By now you’ve reached Sandfly Point. SOMEHOW I did not run into any sandflies here despite the name. By this point I look like hell and I’m so swollen I have to squeeze my wedding ring onto a sausage-like pinky finger. This is what accomplishment looks like, right? RIGHT?!