Scenic Ecstasy Along New Zealand's Milford Track

In 1908, the London Spectator described New Zealand's Milford Track as "the finest walk in the world." The title has since stuck, but rest assured, this is not a case of journalistic hyperbole. This 33-mile trek winds around lakes, down waterfall-festooned canyons, through fjords and beech forests, across suspension bridges, and over the moss-covered paths of Fiordlands National Park. In keeping with its superlative designation, the Milford Track transports more than its share of hikers—an average of 14,000 each year. But the remote location ensures relative isolation, even during peak trekking season, and the Kiwi Department of Conservation has taken considerable measures to keep the huts, trails, and bridges along the Milford Track in top form.

Start a few hours south of Queenstown at Te Anau Downs, where a short boat ride takes you across Te Anau Lake to the trailhead. The first stretch dips along a glacial valley at Clinton Canyon; next, a series of 13 switchbacks ascends 3,519 feet to Mackinnon Pass, the trek's highest point. Along the way, be sure to take the 40-minute side route to the three-leap, 1,900-foot Sutherland Falls, the fourth highest waterfall in the world and the chief geographical motivation for the Milford Track's creation. The last leg of the hike descends alongside the Arthur River, skirting Lake Ada to finish at Milford Sound, where a ferry ride takes you to buses that will shuttle you back to Te Anau or Queenstown.

Sampling the world's finest walk does take considerable preparation. Only 40 hikers are allowed on the track per day (which means you should request permits well in advance) and the route can only be traversed in one direction—restrictions established to add to the experience, not detract from it. You must complete the hike in four days and three nights, and stay at prescribed huts along the way—variation is not on the menu. Two types of huts exist en route: remote huts for the self-sufficient backpacker and hotel-like huts, complete with warm showers, beds, and fully prepared dinners and breakfasts. Those interested in arranging for a guide should know that outfitter options are equally limited. Solid rain gear is essential—the Milford Track sees as much as 828 inches annually. Don't be surprised if the locals scoff at your Gore-Tex and toss you a plastic poncho instead. The pesky sandflies are also a notorious ingredient of the trek. However, don't let the strict regulations and apparent hardships dissuade you. This is truly the best that trekking has to offer: easy, steady routes penetrating scenery that will leave you gorged and near-drunk on the best of New Zealand's natural delicacies.

Published: 28 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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