The Milford Track
The Milford Track, New Zealand
According to Edmund Hillary, "The Finest Walk in the World"
According to me, "The Most Beautiful Place on Earth"
Hiked Length of Trail: 2011 and 2013
I have hiked and climbed on 6 continents and nearly 50 countries and I have found that visiting the Milford Track has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Fern-covered forests, snow capped mountains, waterfalls that are impossibly high and numerous, absolutely pristine and clean, with (thanks to the New Zealand government), only a handful a visitors at any one time, and all these sites within a few miles of each other.
The Milford Track is a 33 mile footpath that starts near Te Anu with a boat ride to get you to the trail-head. Access is strictly controlled and I believe there are only 50 people per day allowed onto the track. All hikers are required to travel in one direction, from the trail-head near Te Anu to the terminus at Sandfly Point, 33 miles down the trail.
In order to HIKE the Milford Track, you have two, and only two options...either with an "unescorted" or an "escorted" trip. For both trips you must obtain a permit in advance (well in advance) which grants you access to the Milford Track on a particular day (for unescorted) or book a tour with the sole tour agent, Ultimate Hikes (which takes care of the permit for you). Both trips will take 5 days. The unescorted hikers stay at a series a "huts" which provide some basic services such as water, toilets, and even some cooking facilities. The escorted hikers stay at a different set of huts, that are more like hotels. I opted for the escorted hike, so the balance of my "blog" here will talk about that option.
After confirming a place on the escorted hike (many months in advance), you will meet the night before the hike at Ultimate Hike's Queenstown office where they will brief you on what to expect, make suggestions on how to pack, and provide the opportunity to purchase any last minute items (such as bug repellent!!!). Hikers meet at their location early the next day for the departure bus that will take you on the ~4 hour bus ride to the boat departure for the hike. The bus ride has some stunningly beautiful sections as you get closer to Te Anu and does make 2 stops along the way.
When you arrive at the boat, your permit is checked and you take a pleasant 20 minute boat ride to the trail-head. Ultimate Hikes has been running these tours for decades and has everything figured out to the last detail. You need not carry anything more than a day-pack (which they will loan you), and personal toiletries and a few changes of clothes. Upon arrival at the trail-head you are in an absolutely pristine wilderness. In fact, they mention that ANY water source within or adjacent to the track is drinkable without a filter! To keep the wilderness unspoiled, there are common-sense rules which people have no problem adhering to (e.g. don't bush-wack off trail, etc.). They also sterilize your hiking boots in a disinfecting solution before you even step off the boat.
Upon arrival you take a very short walk to the "Glade House", which will be your "hut" for the evening. Glade House is actually more of a wilderness hotel. There is no television or cell signal, but there is electricity until about 10:00pm when they turn the generator off (bring a flashlight!), showers, etc. There are two options for accommodations at these huts...the first is a "bunk" in a shared room with 5 other hikers and a common bathroom. The second is a private room with two beds and a private bath (there are a VERY limited number of these rooms). Although the second option is more expensive, indulge yourself if you can afford it. Each night at the huts you will have a rather nice dinner, plus open time in a communal space for games, reading, etc. People come from all over the world and you will be amazed how many countries are represented among the cohort that you will be walking with. There will also be a brief lecture each evening detailing what to expect the following day, and provide some history and facts about things you will see on the next day's travels.
The following morning, breakfast is served and you pack a lunch from the sandwich and fruit options that they provide for you. You also tell them your dinner choice for that evening which they arrange to fly in to the next hut and prepare before your arrival. The selections are quite good (lobster or steak, etc., and always a vegetarian option) and there is a nice selection of wines, beer and soft drinks (they keep a tab for what you order and you "settle up" when you return to the mainland). You then leave any time you want (within reason). There is only one path, so you can't get lost. There is a guide at the "front" (e.g. before the first person leaves), at least 2 guides amid the walkers, and one that follows the last hiker. You should note that since people leave at any time they choose, you can opt to walk completely by yourself, or tag-up with some new friends for a portion of your walk...it is completely up to you.
You will be walking about 10 miles a day and there will be a designated "lunch spot" where you can get cookies, water, hot tea, etc. each day. It is optional if you want to eat there or not. Some people enjoy sitting at a riverbank or perched on a rock to enjoy the views. At the conclusion of your day's hiking you will arrive at the next hut, and they will direct you to your room (or bunk-bed) and the process is repeated.
Since every hiker (escorted and unescorted) is required to travel in the same direction, and stay at a particular hut on a particular night, you can actually walk all 33 miles and never pass or see another hiker. Weather changes quickly in this area of New Zealand so you could literally be walking in 70 degree weather, then in a snowstorm, then wading waist-deep over a flooded path! During my first trip it was sunny and pleasant every day...one of the guides told me that in 10 years he has never experienced a 5 days trip where it has not rained, so expect rain and prepare for it.
I did both of my hikes in late November and highly recommend this time of year for several reasons. First, this is still considered "off season" so it won't be as crowded and the rates are generally less expensive. Also, the mountains will still be snow-capped and the waterfalls will be flowing with furious force. The only possible downside is that there may still be a risk of avalanches, so they may divert the route slightly to avoid these hazards.
Over the next few days you will travel through spectacularly beautiful fern-covered forests, canyons where you are surrounded by more waterfalls than you can count, mountain peaks with unrivaled views, and pleasant shade-covered valleys. You will cross hanging bridges, walk alongside raging rivers, and rest in shady fern-covered forests. Finally, at the end of the 4th day, you will end up at the aptly named "Sand Fly Point". This is where the bug repellent is absolutely required, as you await the boat that will take you back to Te Anu.
Once back on the mainland, you stay at a hotel that Ultimate Hikes Owns. It is a good chance to catch up on your emails, enjoy an (included) celebratory dinner, do a load of wash (free washers and dryers are available), and receive an achievement certificate and copy of a group photo. The following morning the tour concludes with a boat trip on the stunning Milford Sound before loading you up on the bus back to Queenstown.
On the boat heading to the trail-head of the Milford Track
At the Glade House hut where you will spend your first night
At the start of the path
One of many hanging bridges to cross
Another view of the path
A quiet area to relax by the river
Views along the way as you near MacKinnon Pass
View which heading up MacKinnon Pass
Atop MacKinnon pass
View from MacKinnon Pass summit
A waterfall along the path
Nearing Sand Fly Point
Mission Accomplished! At Sand Fly Point...the trail-end