The original Great Walk, the Milford Track perhaps doesn’t quite live up to its reputation but is still a pretty awesome tramp. Of the seven Great Walks I’ve done I’d rank it joint third (with the Kepler), behind the Routeburn (higher, better views, less rain) and Tongariro Northern Circuit (for variety of bizarre landscapes). Ranking may have differed if I’d seen more than clouds at McKinnon Pass but the Milford Track does have by some margin the worst weather of any Great Walk so it is pretty common not to see much. The waterfalls however were spectacular!
Te Anau to Glade Wharf
Relaxing journey to the start of the track from Te Anau, with a half an hour bus ride to Te Anau Downs and a scenic hour and an half boat trip across Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf.
Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut, DOC time 1 hour, 5km
Very easy and short first day on the track, following along the lush green Clinton River, with a nice little detour into a wetland area. After recently staying in Backcountry Huts Clinton Hut felt huge, with two bunk rooms and a kitchen, all in separate buildings around a decked area. I now understand a possible purpose for this hut and why the ferry doesn’t leave earlier than 1pm. When the weather is bad (as it often is) it makes it much easier for DOC to control the number of people starting the track.
Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut, DOC time 6 hours, 16.5km
Much more like it, decent tramp further along the Clinton River, escaping the bush after about an hour into an impressive prairie. Had classic Fjordland weather, easy to understand why it is one of the wettest places on the planet. Forecast was for 200-250mm of rain, that day! Thankfully missed the worst of it by setting off at dawn and enjoyed spectacular waterfalls cascading from the steep valley sides. Somewhat surprised by a group of runners doing the track in a day overtaking me! At Mintaro Hut by 11.15am though so quite a lot of hanging around, enlivened by watching an impromptu yoga lesson in the kitchen!
Mintaro Hut to McKinnon Pass Shelter return, DOC time 4 hours, 10km
Woke to the news that 390mm of rain had fallen since 8pm last night (a season record!). DOC have closed the track before when 200mm of rain has fallen. The river by the next hut (Dumpling) was above the 4m high measuring gauge, so we were held at Mintaro Hut for an extra night. This also affected a couple more runners on the track, who were in water up their chests before wisely stopping at Mintaro Hut for the night.
Despite the relentless rain we were able to head up to McKinnon Pass, a welcome escape from another day in the hut (spacious as it is). Spectacular views of 1,000m high waterfalls cascading down the steep mountains to the valley below made up for thick cloud at the pass. Headed past the McKinnon memorial onto the shelter, though this is the highest and most exposed part of the track and I would have been better off just returning to the hut from the memorial. If anything the rain was heavier on the way back down with much of the track becoming waterfalls. I very relived to change into dry clothes and sit by the fire back at the hut.
Mintaro Hut to Glade Wharf, DOC time 7 hours, 21.5km
Sounded like it rained all night and I was apprehensive that we might be stuck for another day in the hut. Thankfully it was only 20mm of rain and we were allowed to go. I couldn’t spend an extra day to finish the track at Milford, so had to turn back. The waterfalls were noticeably less numerous and heavy than the previous couple of days. Was a dry and fairly dull (the interesting prairie section felt much shorter heading back) walk to Glade Wharf to catch the boat back to Te Anau Downs.
I think I was actually lucky with the weather. The track is seen at its best either on a (rare) sunny day when you’ll get impressive views from the pass (though judging by photos the Routeburn has more and better views) or when it is bucketing down (to a slight extreme this time), bringing the waterfalls out. Most Great Walks have great views, the Milford is the only one with anywhere near this many waterfalls. So I think I did well.
Unique things about the Milford Track
Milford Track has quite a different vibe to any of the other Great Walks, or tramps generally. It has to be done in four days, three nights (annoyingly so as the first leg to Clinton Hut is very short) and in one direction (ending at Milford Sound, unless the track is closed and you retrace your steps like I did). You therefore spend four days with the same group, quite different to other walks where people do them over different periods and directions.
It attracts a lot more novices and internationals than the other Great Walks due to its fame and being physically (in terms of hills) the easiest Great Walk, other than the Rakiura Track and Whanganui Journey. It is however the wettest and probably riskiest Great Walk and is therefore very carefully managed by DOC. Given the amount of rainfall river crossings can quickly become dangerous. Hut wardens will advise when to leave the hut based on the forecast, and may in bad weather hold people back a day or even helicopter people off the track (more common to avoid avalanche risk areas of the track, helicopters aren’t too good in heavy rain and thick cloud).
Out of season (May to October) the huts are unmanned and DOC remove many of the bridges to actively encourage people not to walk the track unless experienced in walking in high avalanche risk areas. The bridges are removed after Queen’s Birthday weekend (early June) though so it is possible to walk the track in May without booking, at your own pace, and cheaper ($15 v $55 for each hut), but obviously at your own risk.