The Milford Track

hiking in the clouds: the last stretch up to the pass

Mandy hikes through the clouds on the way up to Mackinnon Pass

The Milford Track is one of the world’s legendary hikes.  The four-day backcountry trek is limited to forty hikers per day and the slots generally fill one year in advance.  A year ago we hoped that we’d make it to New Zealand, but that’s about as concrete as our plans get.  Now that we were here, though, the Milford Track was clearly something we couldn’t miss.  Unfortunately, with all available places already reserved, there was only one way that we’d be able to experience it for ourselves–get lucky.  We checked the NZ Parks website religiously.  About ten days after we arrived in NZ, two spots opened up and we booked them immediately.  A few days later, we finished off our South Island Motorhome Tour.  It was time.

We had an extremely long day ahead of us, but we weren’t complaining.  We dropped of the motorhome, picked up our rental car, then spent a few valuable hours stocking up on food and purchasing sleeping bags, hydration packs, wool socks, head lamps, and dry bags in Christchurch.  Ready to roll, we jumped back in the car and made the eight-hour drive to Te Anau.  It was 1am when we arranged our supplies and made final preparations before finally passing out in bed.

pre-hike gear check (at 1AM)

late night, pre-hike gear check: rain gear and dry bags are essential.

After a few short hours of sleep, we woke up to complete one last important pre-hike ritual: making the trail-mix (or as they refer to it in NZ, scroggin).  Rather than buying something already made, prior to each hike we consider the terrain and climate, factor in local culture and ingredients, and assess our mood before we assemble a special one-of-a-kind trail mix uniquely tailored to the time and place.  Since we were in New Zealand, we began with chunks of dried kiwis, before adding pineapple and mango, threw in both peanut and regular M&M’s, and then went heavy with cashews, almonds, and peanuts.  If it seems like we put too much thought into it — maybe we do, but we never regret it on the trail.

time for some delicious Milford Track Scroggin

time for some delicious Milford Track Scroggin

With Mandy’s favorite part of hiking complete, we packed up our bags and left for the visitor center to catch the shuttle that would leave us at the dock.  There we boarded a ferry for a scenic one-hour cruise into the fjords, before disembarking at the trailhead around 3PM.

the shuttle that brought us from the Visitor's Center to the ferry

the shuttle that brought us from the Visitor’s Center to the ferry

and our ferry to the trailhead

and our ferry to the trailhead

Milford Track trailhead

Milford Track trailhead 

It was only a short three-mile hike before arriving at the Clinton Hut.  That night, Mandy and I relaxed around a meal of dehydrated lamb, noodles, and potatoes before heading out for some of the best stargazing in the world.

The Milky Way (stargazing at the Clinton Hut)

The Milky Way (stargazing at Clinton Hut) 

The next day the real hiking began.  It was incredibly dry by New Zealand standards, but the forest was still lush, mossy, and unbelievably green.  After a few miles, the tall trees disappeared revealing a stunning blue sky with mountains towering over us on each side.

We continued though the valley while keeping our other secret mission in mind: we were trailing a family of six that were the worst snorers we’d ever heard.  Mandy (and many other hikers) had been kept awake most of the night in our shared bunkroom.  Today, we planned to arrive just behind them, wait to see which bunks they chose, and then head to the opposite end of the hut, preferably in a different cabin altogether.

Unfortunately, our strategy backfired.  We finished our hike just behind the Snorers as intended, but by then the only bunks left were upstairs….together.  It didn’t matter.  It had been a warm day and we’d been out in the sun in full packs for over nine hours.  Everyone slept soundly.

Day #2...we're off.

beginning Day #2…

An arrow nailed to the trunk of a tree marks the route through a rockslide

An arrow nailed to the trunk of a tree marks the route through a rockslide

the trail begins to open up

tall grasses growing overhead

nearing the end of Day #2...a look back down into the valley

nearing the end of Day #2…a look back as we begin to climb above the valley

Day #3 is the Milford Track at its most epic.  After a steady ascent to end Day #2, we began the following morning at an elevation of ~1500 feet.   Soon after leaving the Mintaro Hut, we hit a section of switchbacks that zigzagged up towards Mackinnon Pass.  As we climbed, the trees became shorter and more stunted, before giving way completely to thick, sturdy alpine grasses.  We were hiking through thin layers of swirling clouds, which glowed white around us and silhouetted the mountains as the sun burned through their thin, wispy veil.

Finally, we neared the crest of the pass and the skies cleared as we moved out onto an exposed ridge.  Unconsciously, we slowed our pace to avoid leaving the jaw-dropping panorama behind too quickly.  After a leisurely break for lunch at the top of the pass (3800 feet), we began our descent back to sea level.

hiking in the clouds: the last stretch up to the pass

Mandy ahead of me on the ridge leading up to Mackinnon Pass

windy at the top

windy at the top

by the time we reached the top we had an amazing  view

the sky cleared and we had an amazing view

Mandy descends through a steep section below Mackinnon Pass

Mandy descends through a steep section below Mackinnon Pass

Going down was just as difficult as the climb.   At times the path was covered by rock slides and the stones frequently gave way underfoot.  Our muscles and joints began to ache from the unrelenting downhill.  As we descended further, the vegetation grew tall and thick once again; our path was choked by encroaching ferns and layers of moss and lichen.

Numerous waterfalls cascaded down alongside us into a river draining the entire valley of its excess rain and glacial runoff.  At a deep bend, the river formed a small, frigid swimming hole that acted simultaneously as a shower and an ice bath for aching bodies at the end of the day.

a waterfall cascading down a cliff next to the trail

a waterfall cascading down a cliff next to the trail

more unbelievable forest

more unbelievable forest

a suspension bridge over a dried river

a suspension bridge over a dry river bed

to the swimming hole!

to the swimming hole!

Day #4, the last day, was a cool down.  The hike may have been twelve miles, but it was flat on a well-maintained trail.  Plus, the knowledge that a hot meal, warm shower, and clean bed await, always makes the going easier.  The scenery was just as stunning as the previous days.  For the majority of the hike, we were enclosed in spectacular trees as we traversed forests surrounding secluded mountain lakes.

Milford Track

Milford Track

another waterfall along the trail

another waterfall along the trail

Even near the end Mandy was still feeling pretty fresh, so she decided to lend a hand with some trail work

Mandy was still feeling pretty fresh, so she lent a hand with the trail work

Our last view of the Milford Track before boarding the ferry.

Our last view of the Milford Track before boarding the ferry.

After catching the waiting ferry to Milford Sound, we changed our return bus ticket so that we could take a sightseeing cruise in the fjord.  As we headed out into the open water we were afforded an unobstructed view of what is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Not only was it spectacular, but the sheer scale of the mountains left us awestruck.  As we moved deeper into the sound, the massive cliff faces towered over the boat, swallowing us up in the huge expanse of vertical space.

The End.  We did it.

The End. We did it.

The ferry that brought us to Milford Sound

The ferry that brought us to Milford Sound.

Milford Sound: to give a sense of the scale, the white dot in the lower left is a 200 passenger boat.

Milford Sound.  To give a sense of the scale, the white dot in the lower left is a 200 passenger boat.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Now it was time for our post-hike ritual….FOOD.  We headed into town and met our fellow trekkers and friends, Noa, Or, and Naked John (of anti-TSA activism lore), for pizza and a bottle of wine.  It was a great end to an amazing hike, and another unforgettable experience from our year on the road.

Milford Track-81

Enjoying good pizza, good wine, and good company. From left to right: Noa, Or, John, Mandy, and Me

Full Gallery, click on images to enlarge:

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3 thoughts on “The Milford Track

    • It’s logistically challenging (getting the reservation), but totally worth it. There were a lot of great people on the trail. My biggest disappointment about NZ was that we couldn’t do the Routeburn track as well.

  1. Hi Chris and Mandy,
    I’m writing from Australian adventure travel magazine, Australian Geographic Outdoor.
    Just wanted to get in touch about the possibility of publishing a couple images from your trip in our magazine in an upcoming story on the Milford Track.

    If you could please get in touch with us regarding this possibility that would be great.
    I’ve supplied an email contact when writing this comment but please do comment back if you haven’t received it.

    Thanks,
    Filip
    AG Outdoor.

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