When you've had an experience on your bucket list forever, can the reality really live up to expectation? I'd been wanting to hike the Milford Track ever since I was a little girl after hearing the stories of my dad and grandfather hiking it together back in the 1970's. Fast forward almost 50 years and it was finally my turn.
After hiking the Routeburn Track in summer 2019, the Milford Track was always going to be next in my sights. Though with its popularity, I wasn't quite sure if we'd ever be able to get tickets. But then COVID-19 hit and with the borders closed to all international tourists, the summer of 2020-21 seemed like our best chance to secure an elusive spot.
Even so, hut tickets for the season sold out in 20 minutes online, and despite attempting to book places in mid-January, we could only get tickets for late April - in the last week of the season. I had some trepidation about hiking at this time of year - how cold would it be? Would there be snow? Would it be wetter than usual? We were going to find out!
To get the low-down on all the logistics of hiking the Milford Track: booking, costs, transport, weather, gear, huts and other tips, then read on.
This is actually the HARDEST part - tickets for the Great Walk season (November to April) for Milford Track sell out in minutes. The year we booked (2020/21) we had hoped to walk in January, but we were only able to secure tickets for late April. I recommend having at least two people online at the same time trying to book the dates you want, and you have a grace period to cancel them if for any reason you end up with two bookings. Check the DOC Great Walk Booking site to find out the day and time tickets are being released (often around June), and make sure you are online ready and waiting to have the best chance of securing tickets.
There are only 40 spaces available each day on the Milford Track, and prices are (as of the 21/22 season) $78 per hut per night for New Zealand adults (kids under 17 are free but you still have to book a place for them) and $110 per night for internationals.
Hiking the Milford Track requires a degree of planning because you can only hike the track in one direction and there's boat transport required at either end, so you can't just wing it and hope for the best.
To get to the departure point at Te Anau Downs, you can either take a Tracknet bus from Te Anau/Queenstown, or drive yourself to the wharf. If you drive, you will have to organise a car relocation to Milford Sound or get the bus back to Te Anau Downs to pick your car. We used Trackhopper for our relocation (we also used them when we walked the Routeburn Track in 2019) and have always been very happy with the service.
We booked our boat transfers with Real Journeys, and found the 1 hour journey up Lake Te Anau informative with lots of useful information on the area, which helped to set the scene for our hike to come.
Because there is always a possibility that bad weather will mean you spend an extra day on the track (the rangers won't allow you to walk if it's unsafe which forces everyone in the huts to have to stay put for another night), it's also worth giving yourself at least one day's leeway with your return travel, particularly if you have flights booked out of Queenstown.
Excluding costs to get to the nearest city (such as Queenstown), this was the cost for our transport and hut fees for our group of four.
TOTAL: $2,100 / $525 per person (not including any food/gear costs)
We also chose to stay the night at Milford Sound Lodge afterwards which cost us $430 for the four of us in a 2 bedroom chalet with breakfast.
If we had decided to take the Tracknet bus option to/from Queenstown, the total cost for 4 people would have been $2,156, so it was actually cheaper for us to organise our own vehicle and relocation and gave us more flexibility on our timings too.
For the most part, the Milford Track is easy. Even the third day which has the most ascent and descent is OK so long as you have trained in advance with ascents/descents with some weight on your back. However, the days of walking are long - especially if you happen to be walking at the tail end of the season like we were with reduced daylight hours - we headed out each morning not long after it got light and were almost finishing in the dark on the biggest day (Day 3).
If there was one thing I would do differently to prepare, I would practice with longer days of easier walking as well. We trained for a lot of shorter, steeper walks which helped for the elevation on Day 3, but we did find ourselves quite tired by the time we got past the 6 hour mark as we hadn't done many hikes that tested our endurance that long.
Day 1: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut - 5km - flat
Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut - 17km - flat to ascending
Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (via Sutherland Falls) - 14km (though it becomes 20km if you include the side trip to Sutherland Falls), steep ascent and descent
Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point - 18km - flat
Most people would say that summer is a more ideal time to hike the Milford Track, however it can be hot and sticky and you WILL be plagued by sandflies. By contrast, walking in late April, it was cold (think less than 10 degrees during the day, and only 1-2 degrees overnight) but the upside was NO sandflies! I'll take wearing a few extra layers any day over not having sandflies in my face or trying to bite any exposed part of my body the whole time.
Being one of the wettest places on the planet, it's unlikely you will walk the full 4 days without any rain regardless of what month you hike. Four days of sunshine in a row can happen, but it's pretty rare. So you're best to prepare for a wet hike, and be pleasantly surprised if you get some fine breaks in the weather. Our forecast was pretty dire, but didn't end up being anywhere near as bad in reality. Personally, I loved having fresh snow on the peaks to add some interest to the scenery, and though we walked in torrential rain for 6 hours on the last day, luckily it WAS our last day so we were able to get warm and dry with fresh clothes and a hot shower.
The huts come equipped with bunks, mattresses, gas cookers, running water, flush toilets, heating and solar powered lighting. There are nightly talks by the DOC rangers which are very entertaining and informative and not to be missed!
This hut has two large bunk rooms (sleeping 20 in each room), and a dining room in a C-shape layout with the verandah separating the three. This is the night you'll probably get the least sleep sharing with the most people as there are bound to be snorers, but earplugs or headphones do help drown out the noise. The toilets are also located a short distance from the hut so you will get wet going in the rain. The helipad directly behind the hut also makes a really nice vantage point out over the valley.
As mentioned in my full Milford Track review, we were the 3rd group ever to stay in this new hut so we felt very fortunate. The new hut has been built further up the valley from the old hut, which was deemed a high earthquake risk in its previous position. The hut is an all-in-one setup with smaller bunk rooms, only 10-12 per room along a hallway. The large dining room has high ceilings and plenty of space to spread out, though we fond the swinging entry doors were a bit noisy every time someone walked in or out. The toilets are located under a short outdoor walkway up the hill, and from here you get a great view up towards Mount Balloon and Mackinnon Pass.
Again, the bunk rooms at Dumpling Hut are smaller and more intimate, only 10 per room, with four rooms in total. The dining room is in a separate building up a short incline, and the toilets are located a few metres behind the bunk rooms. There's a really good drying room at this hut which is very welcome if you have clothes/boots that have been wet for 3 days straight that need drying out. The setting here is also lovely, tucked right under a hill so you get a great view of the waterfalls if they are cascading down the cliffs.
There are some things we did well in preparation for this hike, and things I'd do differently if we did it again, so here are my tips for making sure you really enjoy the track:
For a more detailed list of gear to take, check out the DOC Gear List as a starting point.
Ultimately, your own experience hiking the Milford Track will be completely unique - and will depend on your mindset and fitness, your preparation, the personalities of the group you walk with, and the weather conditions you experience whilst hiking. Hopefully after reading this post, you will feel more prepared and informed to successfully tackle the Milford Track and to have a great time whilst doing it!
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