SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., April 23, 2013—There’s a reason the Milford Track is popular, luring approximately 14,000 hikers each year: the awe-inspiring landscape. Throughout the glacier-carved valleys, lush forests of beech, fern, and moss give way to granite canyons with cascading waterfalls. It’s almost enough to make you forget you have a pack on your back.
There are two ways to hike the Milford Track, which stretches for 33.5 miles from the head of Lake Te Anau to near Milford in New Zealand’s south island. Independent trekkers go it alone, packing food and necessities for the entire journey, and stay in basic huts with bunkrooms. Those who want a little more pampering can choose to take a guided hike with Ultimate Hikes, a company that takes care of all the food and beverage essentials, and provides separate lodges with both bunkrooms and private en-suite rooms. Either way, the breathtaking scenery is the same.
The track may only be walked in one direction, Glade Wharf to Milford Sound, during the walking season (late October to late April), with a maximum of 40 independent walkers permitted to start the track each day.
Since Quintin MacKinnon pioneered the route in 1888, everyone from novices, sporting their first pair of boots, to hardened trekkers have taken up the challenge of the Milford Track. The first non-guided “freedom walkers” hiked the track in 1964.
My trip with Ultimate Hikes consisted of a group of walkers from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Canada, and the United States. On our first night at Glade House, I learned that the Milford Track was on many people’s Life Lists. Others planned to add the Routeburn Track, a three-day hike, onto the end of their Milford adventure.
The first day was by far the easiest, with less than a mile to walk to Glade House after a boat ride across Lake Te Anau. After a short nature walk around the area, guides cautioned the group not to be too relieved at the short distance, because the next day’s walk would be 10 miles.
The second day began with breakfast and packing lunches, a schedule we’d get used to over the next few days. From Glade House, the trail was flat and wide and passed through wetland and beech forest before climbing to enter the west branch of the Clinton Valley. Looking up to where the rock walls towered overhead, I spied the Mackinnon Pass, where I’d cross the next day. But after passing Hidden Lake, where I lingered to gaze at rock patterns reflected in the water, the trail disappeared into a beech forest again, until I emerged at Pompolona Lodge.
Everywhere around the lodge were signs reminding hikers to take their gear, even boots, inside — so the Kea, New Zealand’s largest parrot, wouldn’t destroy things. To illustrate, lodge staff had nailed a hiking boot outside on the deck to show what would happen. The only thing left was the rubber sole.
The third day began early, in order to make sure everyone had time to climb the track to Mackinnon Pass and down again, to the next lodge by dinnertime. The trail ascended past the upper reaches of the Clinton River and zigzagged up the canyon wall before reaching the pass. Waiting at the top in the mist was a guide with hot chocolate — a good reason to have chosen the guided walk.
The downhill section from Mackinnon Pass had some of the most scenic views of the track thus far, but it was also some of the hardest walking. After the day’s stretch of nine miles, I reached Quintin Lodge and struggled with the choice of whether to pick a hot shower or a Kiwi beer first.
With the difficulty of the previous day behind us, it was easy to hike the final day, even though it was the longest distance of any previous track days. The trail meandered through a rain forest, punctuated with crashing waterfalls — including beautiful Mackay Falls, in one of New Zealand’s wettest areas. So I wouldn’t arrive too early to catch the afternoon boat from Sandfly Point (the end of the track) to Milford, I had a leisurely lunch break at Giant’s Gate Falls. Any opportunity to be spared the bites of sandflies was the right choice.
One of the best views of the entire four-day hike was at Sandfly Point, however. Watching my hiking companions take turns posing for photos next to the sign marking 33.5 miles was the ideal way to end the hike, even though I had to wave away sandflies to do it.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill is an avid kayaker and owner of Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
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