Milford Sound Trek 02/25/15-02/28/15

Trailhead: Glade Wharf Min El. : 0 m Max El. : 1,154 m
Duration: 4 Days El. Gain: 1,900 m El. Loss: 2,250 m
Distance: 63.5 km (side trips included) Difficulty: Moderate Off Trail %: 0%

Days Nights Note:
Day 1: 5.0 km Night 1: Clinton Hut Waypoints above are sparse.
Day 2: 21.5 km Night 2: Mintaro Hut Trail is better shown by
Day 3: 19.0 km Night 3: Dumpling Hut clicking on Map->Terrain.
Day 4: 18.0 km

Overview: The Milford Sound is absolutely breathtaking. Especially when it rains. We thought it was purely magnificent during the first three days, which were bone dry. But on the fourth day, after it had rained all night long, the landscape was taken to a whole new level. It looked like the mountains were crying. Waterfalls were erupting from everywhere along the valley walls.

Normally, when an extended backpacking trip is drawing near, I watch the 10 day forecast and pray for good weather. But if I was to do Milford Sound again, I would be begging the heavens for at least one day of rain. Not too many, though. Why? Well, it's actually a double edged sword. Although the scenery is taken up a notch with the rain, the conditions of the huts you stay in become significantly worse. There aren't many good places to hang things to dry and the mugginess inside the bunkrooms might make the smell of your unbathed bunkmates almost intolerable.

I don't usually do trip reports about very popular trails since there is already so much information available on the internet about them. However, in this case I think it's appropriate because none of the reading I did adequately prepared me for what we'd experience on the trek. It's not my intention to discourage anyone from doing this trip because I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. But I do want to provide a non-sugar coated rendition of the trek so you can make the decision if you'd rather pay the extra money for the nicer guided tours they offer. I know my girlfriend would have been a lot happier if we had gone that route. And if you don't want to fork over that dough, there are certain strategies you can take to make your stay in the huts more pleasant.


Important Notes:


Getting There/Planning: Getting to the Milford Sound Trek trailhead involves a good bit of planning and traveling. Unless you're going to tent camp at least 500m from the track (which would be pretty difficult due to how narrow all of the valleys are, not to mention very unpleasant due to the sandflies), you need to book a spot in the huts way ahead of time. Word is that they book up fast.

You'll also have to book a spot on the boat to take you from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf to start the trip and a spot on the boat going from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound at the end of the trip. And from there, you'll have to get back to Te Anau Downs on a bus (or Queenstown if you didn't park at Te Anau Downs). Thankfully, the DOC makes this pretty easy and all bookings can be done on the DOC website.


Elevation Profile (courtesy of http://www.doc.govt.nz)

Day 1 : Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut Min El.  : 200 m Max El. : 250 m
Night 1 : Clinton Hut El. Gain : 100 m El. Loss : 0 m

The day of our trek, we woke up to some pretty cold weather and a rather dismal forecast. It was calling for a greater than 60% chance of rain on three out of the next four days. Lucky for us, weather forecasting in the Milford Sound kinda sucks (it seems like a very difficult place to predict conditions), and it wouldn't rain until the last day of our trip.

We were staying at the Explorer Motel and Apartments. Really great place. The manager was this awesome lady that seemed genuinely concerned about the fact that we were driving all the way from Blenheim the morning before. She had left the key out for us, and when we finally started to pack up, she came around and chewed the fat with us for a bit before we left.

Our first order of business was to head over to the Fiordland National Park visitor center to pick up our tickets for the boats, bus, and the huts. It was a pretty painless process. The rangers, like almost everybody else we had met in New Zealand, were incredibly nice to us while explaining the details of the trip. The sum-up was that sand flies would be bad, we should have make sure we brought adequate rain protection, we didn't really need a water filter, we didn't need personal stoves because they had them in the huts, and we had to make sure to not lose our tickets.

Our first order of business was to head over to the Fiordland National Park visitor center to pick up our tickets for the boats, bus, and the huts. It was a pretty painless process. The rangers, like almost everybody else we had met in New Zealand, were incredibly nice to us while explaining the details of the trip. The sum-up was that sand flies would be bad, we should have make sure we brought adequate rain protection, we didn't really need a water filter, we didn't need personal stoves because they had them in the huts, and we had to make sure to not lose our tickets.

After leaving the visitor center, we headed downtown to pick up some last minute supplies. The main street in downtown had a few recreational gear stores and a couple of markets where you can pick up pretty much everythin you might forget.

Getting to the boat launch in Te Anau Downs was pretty easy. When we arrived there, we did some last minute packing and then got on the boat. I was pretty surprised when I saw how big peoples' packs were. Cassie and I had 35L and 40L packs. Other people were tossing 60L or 70L packs onto the boat. I'm not really sure what they needed all that volume for since we were staying in huts and we didn't need stoves or food protection. But hey, being overprepared isn't a bad thing, right?

The boat ride was absolutely spectacular. We passed by several fiords that just blew me away. As we cruised, the captain gave us a good deal of information about the geography and history of Milford Sound. I was very impressed by the bushwhacking ability of the first explorers of this area. Even from hundreds of meters away, I could tell that these beech forest were thick as hell. Trying to hike through them would not be fun.

The boat ride took a bit over an hour and fifteen minutes. We had to wait near the dock for a bit while a helicopter dropped off supplies, which was pretty fun to watch. Before they let us off, they did an inspection of our shoes. Turns out that there is an invasive algae called Didymo that they're worried about. It looks like some pretty gnarly stuff, so I completely understand where they are coming from.

Once we had collected our packs, it was every man for himself. It was pretty cold, especially since we had been sitting on a boat for the last hour. Cassie bundled up in all of her clothing and so did I.

The first thing we passed was the Glade House. In retrospect, I wish we had paid the extra money to stay there. It looked pretty nice. The only downside is that it was only a stone's throw away from the dock. So that first day we wouldn't have really had a chance to hike if we had stayed there.

The trail to the Clinton hut was pretty great. It follows the Clinton River (which was as smooth as glass at the outset.

The initial 5 km along the river is about as easy a hike as you could possibly imagine. Pretty much no up and down whatsoever. There is a cool bridge that you cross, along with some interesting sand and gravel bars along and in the river.

About a kilometer before the Clinton Hut, there is a short side loop trail that you can take. We decided we'd drop our gear in the hut first and then return later. When we arrived at the huts, we took a look around and then plopped our stuff on one of the mattresses in the rear hut. A lot of people were already in there napping. They had taken the earlier boat. There was a big dude in the corner of the hut who was snoring at about a 60 dB level, which I should have taken as a warning sign, but I didn't. I figured his girlfriend would wake him up during the night so he didn't bother people. Boy was I wrong.

We hung around the huts for a bit until the daily nature talk that takes place around 1600. The guy giving it was the ranger stationed at the Clinton Hut at the time: Ranger Ross (he's the one standing near the door; unfortunately that's the best picture I got of him). Apparently this guy is pretty legendary. Just do an internet search for him and you'll see what I'm taking about. After listening to his talk, I could tell why. He told us all about the flora and fauna, the history of the Milford Sound, and just about everything else you could think of. And that wasn't the end of it. Later that night he would go into graphic detail about the birds in the area and all the attempts that the DOC is making to conserve these rare species.

During the talk he led us down the trail toward the river, showing us some of the plants and trees we'd be encountering. There was one particular bird that kept pecking at his shoe, which I thought was pretty hilarious. That thing was bold and fearless. I forgot exactly what species it was, but I'm sure you'll see it at some point if you do this trip.

After he finished talking, Cassie and I headed down to the shore of the river, which was looking about as heavenly as anything I've ever seen in the setting sun. We also took some shameless selfies (at my girlfriend's request).

Once we had gotten our fill of the river, we headed back south along the trail to the little nature loop (I have forgotten the exact name of the trail, but you can't miss it). It was pretty neat. There is a boardwalk that takes you over some marshy grassland and into a clearing where you have some terrific views of the surrounding mountainscape.

Shortly after we returned to the hut, we had dinner with some of the other trekkers. At our table, we had people from the UK, Australia, and Israel. I must say, that one of the really great things about the trip: interacting with people from all around the world. When people were finishing, Ranger Ross gave us an ~hour talk about what we should expect the next day, along with a detailed summary of all the notable animals we might encounter.

The absolute highlight of that first day came after most people had gone to bed. Ross had told us about a little dirt overhang just north of the hut where we could observe some glow worms. I didn't really know what to expect, but I was curious enough to find out what it was all about. Finding the exact area was really easy because it's right next to this plastic white pipe on the trail. About ten minutes after getting to the spot and turning off my headlamp, I was in complete awe of what I was seeing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these tiny white lights speckled the dirt wall in front of me. I felt like I was either on LSD or I was staring up at the sky on a clear night. I must have stood there for a half hour at least. Totally worth the 10-minute hike from the hut.

When I got back to the hut, I expected to find everybody asleep. What I found instead was a cacophony of sounds coming from every bunk. The dominant one was the brutal snorer; the others were people whispering about what to do. My girlfriend hadn't been able to fall asleep because of the rocket-engine snoring this guy was doing, even with earplugs. So after about ten minutes we took our mattresses out of the hut and put them in the kitchen. We had it all to ourselves, and we ended up getting a pretty good night's rest after all.


Day 2 : Clinton to Mintaro Hut Min El.  : 250 m Max El. : 1150 m
Night 2 : Mintaro Hut El. Gain : 950 m El. Loss : 1000 m

We woke up the next morning before anyone had come into the kitchen to cook breakfast. Cassie's idea was to get an early start so that we could get to the Mintaro hut first and find the best place to sleep. Well, we would end up getting to the hut first, but we actually ended up choosing the worst place to sleep. More on this later.

After a small breakfast, we set out on the trail. As you can see in the elevation profile, the next kilometers or so are pretty flat. It's very easy walking. This is good because the surrounding sights really deserve your undivided attention.

While there hadn't been any rain over night, there was plenty of condensation in the form of a low-lying mist that coated the valley. The temperature was surprisingly cold. I had gloves in my backpack, but I didn't want to put them on because I kept thinking it would warm up soon. I kept thinking the sun would peak over the ridge to the east any minute, but by the time it did my fingers were pretty good and numb.

Cassie and I took plenty of pictures over the next two hours, but I won't inundate you with details of each one. The landscape and the towering walls are just so stunning, though. There were a few active waterfalls, but plenty more stretches of rock where there looked like there should be water flowing, but wasn't. Well, if it had rained the night before, every single one of those things would be gushing.

There is a point where the trail splits off: one direction heads along the center of the valley and the other, slightly longer path, heads towards Hidden Lake. The extra length is worth it. Hidden Lake is a beauty. The reflections and mist coming off of it had me totally transfixed.

Not much further down the trail comes a sign for Prarie Lake. Again, this is a slight detour that is worth every second of travel. Since it hadn't rained in a while, the lake was about as calm as any lake I've ever seen. The benefit of this was that the reflections of the moss-coated walls behind the water were out of this world. But the bad part was that the waterfalls feeding the lake were at their feeblest.

Once we had enough of this incredible beauty, it was back to the trail. Within a kilometer or so, we were back under the cover of the beech forest. At this point, the trail begins to intermittently peak out from under the trees and cross some incredibly dramatic talus fields. In several spots, there are signs warning you not to spend too long crossing these rockfall areas. But it's kind of hard not to. The views up at the enclosing walls are just spellbinding. Again, I wish I had seen these same areas after a good downpour. I can only imagine how the water would flow!

With about four or five kilometers left to Mintaro Hut, the trail begins to climb ever so gradually. There are some more impressive waterfalls and beautiful views back into the valley. Really, there just wasn't any point at which I wasn't amazed by the landscape.

We reached Mintaro Hut right around 1230. Since we were the first ones there, we had our pick of any bed in the whole structure. Our thinking was that we should get into as secluded an area as possible so we could avoid the wrath of The Snoring King (I really can't over-exaggerate how loud this guy snored; I'm sure any seismology equipment in the area picked up on him). So we chose an area on the top floor of the hut near the very back.

Now, in hindsight, this was an incredibly bad idea. The problem with this spot was that it was in an area with absolutely no airflow. Nobody wanted to open the windows up there because there were so many holes in the screens that the sandflies would have just eaten us apart. No airflow meant the stench of our bunkmates had absolutely nowhere to go. And believe me, the stench was filthy. I gross myself out enough after getting in a single-person tent with dirty socks and underwear after three days on the trail. But add in the scents of twenty other people to the mix and you've got the recipe for disaster.

If I was going to do this trip again, I would have grabbed the little room right next to the kitchen area. People go to sleep so quickly after dinner that we wouldn't have to worry about noise. Plus, it was about 10 degrees (F) colder and there was some good airflow. Alas, we didn't know this at the time.

Once we had dumped all our stuff, we ate a quick lunch and then set out on the journey up to McKinnon Pass. There were two reasons we wanted to do the pass that day. One, it was forecast to be very foggy and overcast the following day, so today would be the best opportunity to get some clear views of the surroundings. Two, the hike up to that point wasn't really that strenuous and we both wanted to get a good workout in to counteract the weeks of beer drinking and eating we'd done in New Zealand so far.

And so began our first trip up to the pass. At first we were under some nice shade, only catching glimpses of the valley we were climbing out of. But then the trail brought us out into open and offered some views of the vast landscape enclosed by the towering fortress of rock.

Near the apex, the path flattens a bit and you catch your first glimpse of the towering structures on the other side of the pass. When we finally reached the top, we stared in awe at the valley floor on the other side. It's quite a precipitous drop-off, I must say.

A group of Australian women we had made friends with were not far behind us, and when they got to the top, they were nice enough to take some pictures of us. We were trying to enjoy ourselves as much as possible, but within minutes, the sandflies had honed in on our signal and they began to unleash their fury. We both applied some of the repellant we had bought, but it was only marginally effective.

The next guy that came up the trail was someone we hadn't seen before. He turned out to be the ranger stationed at the Mintaro Hut. Very nice guy, but I can't recall his name. Anyway, he told us that while we were up there we absolutely had to check out the Clinton River Valley since tomorrow the view might be nonexistent.

Taking his advice, we began our journey up to the "real pass" (it turns out that there is still some climbing left to do before you can begin your descent into the northern valley). He was absolutely right that the views back into the Clinton River Valley were worth the extra hiking. There are also several pools of water on the way that provide some immaculate reflections if the conditions are right.

At the real pass, there is a shelter where you can take refuge from the sandflies, and that's exatly what we did. We filled up our water bottles (there is a water source there as well) and had a quick snack with the Aussies in the shelter. They were pretty funny the way they joked around with each other.

The hike back down to the hut was pretty quick. Once we arrived, we were pretty thoroughly tired out. We ate a nice dinner that consisted of Ramen noodles, beef jerky, and tuna. Can you get any better than that?

As I stated before, the remainder of the night was not so enjoyable. The guys directly across from us were sleeping in nothing but their tighty whities, and the smell of ass crack pervaded our tiny corner of the hut the entire night. Oh well, it could have been a lot worse, right? At least we had a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep on.


Day 3 : Over Mackinnon Pass Min El.  : 100 m Max El. : 1150 m
Night 3 : Dumpling Hut El. Gain : 600 m El. Loss : 1000 m

We woke up very early the next morning—before the sun had risen—at the advising of our ranger. Our best chance to avoid bad weather on the pass was to get up their early, so that's what we aimed to do. We scarfed down a quick breakfast of oatmea and dried fruit and then got on our way.

So far no rain had fallen. There were plenty of clouds looming over the valley, and they made for some amazing photos. We made it up to the "sub-pass" in around 45 minutes or so, and when we did, we were greeted by our favorite species that we had encountered in Fiordland National Park: the kea.

I haven't mentioned much about the wildlife we'd seen so far on the trip. That's primarily because I don't know much about ornithology. I did see a blue duck along the Clinton River and a whole variety of other small birds that I thought were very colorful (although the Australians claimed their colors paled in comparison to the bird in Australia). But these keas stuck out like a sore thumb. They hang around the huts and attack anything they can get their claws on. They are the reason that you're supposed to keep your boots inside at night. Cassie couldn't get enough of their antics. They hop around like they are mentally challenged or something. Just very funny to watch. This guy in particular was being pretty hilarious wobbling back and forth on the rock he was perched on.

The sky to the north and above the pass was actually somewhat clear. The precipitation that was present was an enthralling mist that was quickly being guided up the slopes below. Watching it curl over the shallow pools and play with the surviving sunlight was better than going to the cinema, in my opinion.

Once we had gotten our fill of watching the fog, we began to head up to the true pass. The blanketing fog made it appear that you would be dropping off into some sort of ethereal void if you were to stray to close to the edge.

The route down the northern side of the pass was every bit as enjoyable as the way up. The coat of green below the roof of fog made me feel like I was taking part in a scene in Braveheart.

It didn't take long to reach the valley floor and soon enough we were back in the grasps of the beech forest once again.

If you are a trail-building afficionado and you are going to do this trip, the next several kilometers is a stretch you will no doubt appreciate. First of all, the surrounding brush is so dense that I can't imagine getting through without a machete. Second of all, the terrain falls steeply next to a series of jaw-dropping cascades that provide plenty of barriers for easy passage. But somehow they have managed to put perfectly designed, ornate staircases topped with rubber traction along the entire way.

My photos do not do justice to this part of the hike. They really don't. There are little side-paths where you could probably venture to better spots for photo-taking, but they are borderline dangerous because of how slick the rocks are. Just imagine how difficult

When the waterfalls finally end, you're let out into the open once again. Our next decision was whether or not to go to Sutherland Falls. So far, it had not rained at all. We figured that even if it did start raining, we'd be in decent shape since the remaining route to Dumpling Hut was pretty flat.

The side trip didn't take very long: less than an hour. And when we finally saw the falls, any fatigue I was feeling melted away. We ate lunch near the base while we watched the shear power of the water smash down upon the rocks. Again, we were viewing this waterfall after a lack of rain. I imagine that it would be a little harder to get close if that wasn't the case.

On the way back from the falls, we decided to stop in the small shelter near the turn-off from the main trail. We found it packed with our fellow hikers, and many of them were curious to know whether the extra trip was worth it. My answer was a resounding, "Yes!". The shelter had coffee and tea, which was a very nice touch.

When we started moving again, it didn't take long at all to get to the Dumpling Hut. It was all downhill on a very nicely carved path. Again, we were the first to arrive. And this time there were three buildings to choose from, all of which seemed about equal in terms of pros and cons. We got very lucky with the one we picked because we didn't have the loud snorer or any smelly people. In fact, despite the fact that it would be very humid all night, Cassie and I both slept very well. So I'm pretty sure that the negative hut experiences we had might not present themselves at all if you have the right bunkmates on your trip.

I decided to take a quick swim in the river while Cassie read a book. The water was extremely pleasant. However, as soon as I lifted myself out of it, there was a cloud of sandflies that turned the experience into an unpleasant one. I basically ran from shore all the way back to our hut, and then got inside before I dried off.

When we headed over to the dining area for dinner, it started raining. And it seemed like it was only seconds before the water began to flow down the mountains behind the hut. Dinner was very pleasant that night. Everyone was happy to be done with the toughest part of the trip, and some people had brought a bit of booze, which added to the festive atmosphere. Add to that the nice sleeping conditions we had and it was easily the best night of the trip.


Day 4 : Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point Min El.  : 0 m Max El. : 150 m
El. Gain : 250 m El. Loss : 250 m

If there's one word I would use to summarize the last day of our trip, it would be "wet". It rained almost the entire night, and that rain would persist almost the entire day. Parts of the trail were immersed in a foot of water, easily.

The ranger for the Dumpling Hut during our stay was a really funny, hippyish lady whose name I can't recall. She had told us the night before that she would be giving us an announcement at dawn about whether or not we could proceed on the trail. Turns out that they can easily get so much rain overnight that the trail is basically completely flooded. If that happens, you just have to wait it out at the hut until it's safe to proceed (if you miss your boat, I guess you take the next one out).

We got lucky, though, and the trail was deemed safe to walk. So after a very long breakfast and shooting the breeze with other folks, we set off. The first thing that struck my eye was how the mountains across from the hut, which were dry the day before, were now gushing water. I can't emphasize enough how cool it was to see streams of water erupting from every nook and cranny on those mountainsides.

Our gameplan today was going to be very different. While we had been hiking at a fast pace the previous few days, today we wanted to go as slow as humanly possible. The reason being that once we got to Sandfly Point, we would have to simply wait for the boat. That meant either standing outside in the rain and the domain of the sandflies, or waiting in a shelter that would no doubt be packed with 30-some soggy, smelly people (ourselves included). We thought it would be better to patiently stroll down the trail and enjoy the abundance of water

The first part of the trail after Dumpling Hut is a flat stretch with some cool bridge crossings over the sweeping Arthur River.

At several kilometers in, you'll come upon Mackay Falls, which is utterly spectacular. The turquoise colors were pretty much nonexistent for us due to the lighting conditions, but the shapes and dynamics of the waterfall were still as impressive as ever.

After watching the water flow for a good while, we continued along the trail, stopping as frequently as possible to take in the countless water sources. There are certain sections of trail where you get right up next to them. Again, if you do this trip, just pray that it rains at some point so you can witness this miracle of moisture firsthand.

We did stop at both shelters along the way that day. But despite our urge to take it slowly, the sandflies made it very difficult to sit still for any length of time (neither of them are enclosed).

The last mighty site we took in before getting to the boat launch was Giants Gate Falls, another amazing cascade.

Cassie and I had timed it pretty nicely, arriving at the boathouse around 1:40, just about 20 minutes before the boat was due to arrive. Pretty much all 38 people were inside there, making it as crammed and smelly as possible. Some people had booked the 3pm or 4pm boat, and they were hoping they could get on the 2pm boat instead. My recommendation would be to book the 2pm boat if you do this trip, because even if you're as slow as molasses, you'll be able to make it there by 2pm if you want. And waiting at Sandfly Point is not great.

We got in a few last selfies near the boatlaunch right before it arrived. The rain had subsided a good bit, but as soon as we boarded the boat, it picked up again. While we were waiting to start moving, the sandflies were infiltrating the interior of the boat. I had thought they would disperse once we got out onto the open water, but no, they just stuck around.

The boat ride to Milford Sound was short and sweet, and within 30 minutes of docking, we were aboard a comfortable, luxurious bus destined for Te Anau Downs. While the trip was nothing short of phenomenal, it felt so good to sit in a cushy bus seat and just relax, not having to worry about swatting a sandfly off of my hand. And even though the scenery was spectacular on the bus ride, Cass and I were so tired that we fell asleep for most of the ride.