A four-day, three-night self-guided walk on the Milford Track rounded out our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. On this hike, we experienced some sun, a lot of rain, and more stunning views.
This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Our itinerary included:
- Christchurch and Akaroa
- Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park
- Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
- Lake Tekapo, Ohau, Blue Pools, and back to Queenstown
- Glow worms, Te Anau, and the Routeburn Track (Packing List)
- Milford Track – this post (Packing List)
Milford Track Day 1: Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, Glade Wharf, and Clinton Hut Thursday, 7 March
As was now our routine, we started the day with breakfast at Vudu Café & Larder for breakfast with me repeating the brioche French toast and Kyle repeating his orange zest pancakes. We also had one of their nice juice mixes, and picked up a chicken pesto sandwich for the bus ride.
Our shuttle picked us up at 10:45am for the two and a half hour drive to Te Anau. At the Te Anau Department of Conservation visitor center, we switched to another shuttle for the short trip to Te Anau Downs. There, we boarded a water taxi with five or six other travelers for the trip to Glade Wharf.
The whole day had been grey and drizzly, but the skies opened up as soon as we boarded the water taxi. It continued to pour throughout our trip along the lake. Waterfalls flowed spectacularly, though it was not always easy to see them through the rain.
Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut
The rain continued as we started our hike on the Milford Track at Glade Wharf, but the thick forest provided us with some cover.
As we approached Glade House–the first night’s stop for hikers on the guided walks–my parents met us along the trail. Back when we booked, we learned that we had each coincidentally booked the same start date for the Milford Track. They were on the guided trips with Ultimate Hikes; we were on the self-guided trip staying at Department of Conservation Huts. We said hello, expressed our disappointment that they didn’t meet us with a glass of wine, and continued our hike.
A total of 5km, mostly level, brought us to our first night’s stop: Clinton Hut. We found beds, changed into dry clothes, and went into the dining hut to get warmed up. The full drying racks highlighted just what a wet day everyone had–we would later read that it had rained 128mm in eleven hours. Soon, though, we had tea and struck up conversation with our fellow hikers.
After dinner, the rain let up. We had read that a nearby embankment was home to glow worms. A guide posted in the hut described how to reach them, and a short walk brought us there. While the scale of the glow worms was nowhere near what we had seen in the caves a few days earlier, we loved that we could get up close as we observed them, and we could use lights to better see where they lived–and to take pictures without disturbing others.
Milford Track Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut, and a trip to Mackinnon Pass Friday, 8 March
We started our day by backtracking briefly to a short wetlands loop. This loop provided views of the mountains and waterfalls far above us, and some birds. The best birding, though, was on trail back to the loop. Across the Clinton River, we saw a Paradise Shelduck, a Blue Duck (whio), and a bird we didn’t recognize–which late turned out to be a weka–feeding.
We were particularly excited to see the whio, which feed in fast moving water (though this one was on the banks). These ducks are native only to New Zealand, and, sadly, have been victims of stoats and other introduced predators. A 2010 estimate put the population at no more than 3000 ducks.
Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Our route for the day led up the Clinton Valley. At first, the valley walls and floor were in shadow – the steep sides limit the light that reaches the valley. Gashes of white on the shadowed walls marked waterfalls.
As we continued up the valley, we again saw whio, this time feeding in the Clinton River. We also passed many small tarns and streams. In several places, the Milford Track brought us close to the water.
At one of these places, I was admiring the Clinton River when I heard rustling in the grasses being me. I turned and saw an odd bird: a bird with a sharp beak, the waddle and legs of a chicken, and plumage of a female mallard. I had no idea what this bird was, and after getting over being startled, I enjoyed watching it.
As we continued up the valley, we would see several more of these birds. After we arrived at the hut, we learned these were weka, a flightless bird I knew of primarily through the machine learning tool named after it (and thus had never seen). When we encountered them, they seemed curious about us, which allowed us to get a close look at each.
Also along the way, we made the short detour to Hidden Lake. This was a lovely spot for a snack an a break, with small waterfalls flowing into the lake and valley walls reflecting off of it.
As we made our way further up the valley, the light increasingly reached the valley walls and floor, illuminating many stunning waterfalls. I think the only other time I have felt so surrounded by waterfalls was at Paso de las Nubes in Argentina.
We also got to see a kererū, or New Zealand pigeon. This bird looked like a caricature of a pigeon – large and blocky. The sounds of its wing beats were equally outsized.
While the views made us slow down and enjoy the hike up the Clinton River Valley, a sunny day–and forecast for clouds the next day–kept us moving. Trip reports we reviewed suggested that Mackinnon Pass would be particularly stunning in sun. With it being just a little past (but a good bit above) Mintaro Hut, we set out for the pass as soon as we had checked into the hut and eaten a snack.
The route to the pass uses 15 switchbacks to climb 500m, but we reached the pass faster than I expected – perhaps because we were no longer carrying our full packs. We had views of a stunning panorama of peaks, including Mount Balloon, Mount Elliot, Mount Hart, Aiguille Rouge, Mount Pillans, and many more.
The peaks rose above the pass’s golden grasses and blue tarns, and the valleys descended sharply on either side. We explored this landscape of tarns and grass, pausing to take in each vantage, for the rest of the afternoon.
We descended back to Mintaro Hut, made dinner, and turned in early, tired and content after a wonderful day.
Milford Track Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut Saturday, 9 March
In the morning, we made breakfast to the sound and sight of kea in the trees outside the hut. Compared to Lake Mackenzie Hut, they were not as close, but they were raucous and impossible to miss. Eventually the kea flew off, which was also our cue to head out.
We retraced the switchbacks to Mackinnon Pass in cloudier weather than the previous day, this time keeping an eye out for an Australian-shaped rock. We lingered along the pass in hopes the weather would clear, and on the chance that my parents–on their guided walk–would catch up.
Eventually we started down without any clearing or having seen my parents. After descending partway from the pass, the trail meets up with the Roaring Burn. The Roaring Burn parallels the trail with a lovely series of cascades, waterfalls, and blue pools. Because so many of the write-ups of the Milford Track focus on Mackinnon Pass for this day, the burn and its waterfalls came as a delightful surprise in the route.
In the valley, we reached Quentin Shelter. This is an overnight stop for the guided walks. For those on self-guided trips, the hut has a shelter to leave bags while taking the side trip to Sutherland Falls and get a hot or cold drink.
We left our bags and set out on the short side trip. Sutherland Falls cascades down from Lake Quentin in three large drops (751, 813, and 338 feet), a total of 1904 feet (580 meters). It is one of the tallest waterfalls in New Zealand. Both from the trail and up close, they are stunning. Up close, they are also soaking.
On our return trip from the falls, we ran into my parents, who were heading to the falls. We shared quick hellos and updates on our respective hikes. With another two miles to go, we soon continued back to Quentin Shelter, collected our things, and resumed our hike.
As we approached our night’s accommodations, a fellow hiker called out “Welcome to Dumpling Hut, or Sandfly Paradise.” They were not wrong. While the sandflies had not bothered us much during the hike, they set upon us as soon as we stopped moving.
Once we picked our beds and signed in, we went down to the river to clean up. If not for the sandflies, this would have been a lovely place to linger, with cool water and a beautiful forest. The sandflies ensured we did not linger. After a hasty wash, we returned the hut to make dinner. While we had sat outside or gone for walks on previous nights, no one wanted to venture from the hut. We also were happy to linger inside and chat with the others on the last night of our shared hike.
Speaking of our shared hike, we appreciated the social dynamics on our self-guided Milford Track. Each morning and evening, we would gather with the other hikers on our itinerary. We talked about each other’s experiences on the trail that day, swapped recommendations for other hikes and backpacking trips, and talked about other travels and where we each were from. One fellow hiker–familiar with European-style huts–had not packed any food (please pack food). The entire group pitched into make sure he was well-fed during the entire hike.
While we had this camaraderie at night, we each spread out during the day, hiking our own hikes at our own pace. This gave us the flexibility to take the side trips we wanted and linger at the spots that appealed to us most. Kyle and I each very much appreciated this balance between getting to know our fellow hikers and getting to spend our time on the Milford Track as we wanted.
Milford Track Day 4: Dumpling Hut Milford Sound Sunday, 10 march
The sandflies were no less vicious in the morning, making everyone’s departure from Dumpling Hut feel a bit rushed. Once outside, we did not want to stand still, or we would be swarmed.
Fortunately, once a bit further along the Arthur River, the flies abated. We passed lovely Mackay Falls, Lake Ada, and then reached Giant Gate Falls. With a comfortable pebbled beach and lovely waterfall to admire, we lingered here before covering the remaining three miles to Sandfly Point on a wide, level track.
On reaching Sandfly Point, we found that it was appropriately named, and so we waited in the shelter.
The boat soon arrived to shuttle us to Milford Sound.
When planning our trip, we had decided not to spend a night at Milford Sound. Our thinking went: if we’d just spent three nights on the Milford Track, did we need to use a day of our trip that way? The brief boat ride made me wish we had found a day to spend at Milford Sound, though. The landscape was different from what we’d seen on the hike. If planning your own trip, I recommend you consider building in an additional stop here.
As it was, we only had a short time at the terminal before boarding our bus back to Queenstown. We arrived in Queenstown around 7:30pm and checked into the JUCY Snooze one last time. We had a relaxed sunset dinner in the hotel’s rooftop bar and turned in early. In the morning, our shuttle arrived at 4:40am to take us to the airport for our flight home.