Monday, November 10, 2008

Milford Track

Snow in late spring is not usually the making of good weather for a hike.

My Milford Track hike started just like all of my other hikes - bad weather. On the ride from Christchurch to Queenstown it rained and we left nice weather behind. They were predicting snow though so it seemed like we were doing alright. Unfortunately, that predicted snow finally came down that night. On our two hour ride to Te Anau, where we could catch a boat to the start of the trail, we just looked at the inches of snow piled up everywhere. Brian and I were both trying to go as light as possible which meant shedding some gear for extreme situations. We were both a little worried we wouldn't be prepared.

Arriving at the start of the Milford Track.

After a lot of second guessing ourselves, we caught the boat to the start of the track. It drizzled or snowed on and off the entire way out there with intermittent bouts of sunshine. It was really weird weather. Amazingly though, the weather all managed to clear off when we reached the start of the trail. I'm not kidding. The last snow or rain we saw that day came down just about ten minutes before we got to the trail head. The next photo was taken about an hour after we started hiking.

On the other hand, maybe snow in spring is the makings of a good hike.

The first day of hiking was pretty short. I think we got started around 4pm and we were done by 7pm. We followed a river up the Clinton Valley. Up the entire valley (the first and second day), we were given views of the mountains around us. They rose almost straight up to 5,000 feet above of us. The tallest was around 6,000 ft. They were so big and close that it was hard to ever get a picture that truly epitomizes the scene. All of them were snow capped from the previous night's snow which made them stunning. Additionally, the sun was melting that snow which made hundreds (not an exaggeration) of small waterfalls run down the mountains around us. Inspiring.

Our first hut warden.

The Clinton Valley.

B-Nelson in front of a waterfall.

The Clinton Valley from top to bottom.

While hiking on the Banks Peninsula, a local told me that I should consider hiking up to Mackinnon Pass after dropping my stuff off at the hut if the weather was clear because it might not be clear the next day. Following his advice, Brian and I set off up the pass. We had to gain 600m in just 2 miles. The very first part of the hike up the pass was through a forest that was dropping its snow as it melted. Brian described it best when he said we were in a snowball fight with the forest and we couldn't win.

Snow in a tropical forest.

The next day's hike down the Arthur Valley from Mackinnon Pass.

Mackinnon Pass.

The hike up the pass, while arduous, did not fail to deliver when we got to the top. The views were simply amazing. We had a great view down the Arthur Valley where we'd be finishing our hike out and the glaciers around us were simply amazing. I can't say enough about it. The only bad part might have been that the next day it was JUST as beautiful. I couldn't believe we had two beautiful days in a row after dreading snow on the way out to the hike.

Trekking poles save lives, or at least knees.

Mackinnon Pass.

More Mackinnon Pass.

The Arthur Valley from Mackinnon Pass.

A Kea (parrot) on Mackinnon Pass.

Keas are a parrot of sorts. Apparently, they have the intelligence and manners of a human two year old. They are smart enough to cause lots of trouble and have no problem doing it. At a couple huts, you couldn't leave anything on the ground outside because it was expected that a kea would come destroy it with their curiosity. I heard rumors of them eating windshield wipers and even tires (spelled tyres in NZ)!

More from Mackinnon Pass.

Back up the Clinton Valley.

OK, enough photos from Mackinnon Pass. I think you get the point. Beautiful. Amazing. Come hike it or you could even come take a helicopter through the area. However, as a hiker who didn't love hearing the helicopters roar through the valley, I think you should hike.

A waterfall on our way down the Pass.

On our third day after a wonderful Oregon Chai break at a shelter near the top of the pass, Brian and I descended 970m in 3 miles. It wasn't pretty. It was steep, slippery, and wet. We had to take an emergency route down that was more of each of those due to avalanche danger above the normal route. On the way down, we didn't get too many great views due to the forest. However, every once in a while something would spring up to catch our eye - especially the waterfalls and the clear water.

Another waterfall through lush forests.

A weka tries to eat out of my shoe, while I'm WEARING IT!

There are two sets of huts on the Milford Track. One set is for independent or freedom walkers. The other set is for guided walkers. At one of the guided walk huts, Brian an I tried to take a break to eat lunch. Unfortunately, there was a weka (flightless bird) that wouldn't let us. It tried to eat everything we put on the ground, including my shoe while my foot was inside it!

Sutherland Falls.

The Milford Track guide says that you can walk behind the 1904 foot Sutherland Falls. I don't think Sutherland dormitory at Pitt was anywhere close to that high, maybe not even towers. I bet TallE knows the answer. Brian was all about getting behind the falls and I tentatively followed him in. I don't think I got within 50 feet before I got so wet and cold that my diver's reflex kicked in (where it feels like you can't breath). Brian made it a little farther, but also turned back. It might have been a warm day, but it was really, really cold.

A VERY well marked trail (for possible floods where the trail is underwater).

Yeah for mountain reflections in the water.

Our fourth and final day was a little hohum in comparison to our first three days. We followed the river out, but didn't have many views of the river or the mountains. We were mostly in the trees. They should look into cutting a few more of those down so I can have a good view without having to work for it.

Some of the bluest and clearest water I have ever seen.

The big trick on our last day was to make it to Sandfly Point where the boat would pick us up with as little time to spare as possible. The point is very aptly named. Sandflies are the day time equivalent of mosquitoes. Their bites might not itch as long, but you'll probably get more bites because there are so many more of them. Brian and I walked pretty hard in the morning, but tried to make the last three miles take three hours. It didn't work, but I think we stretched it to two wonderful hours and a short nap in the sun.

The end of the road.
At the end, the waiting wasn't too bad. The sandflies were. Soon enough the boat was there and, I kid you not, the drizzle immediately started coming down. I have no idea who we have to thank for starting and stopping the rain when we started and stopped the hike, but we owe them big. Apparently, the chance of getting 3.5 beautiful days on the Milford are about as good as winning the lottery. I feel lucky.

Rain and fog rolled in as soon as we got to the sound.

Milford Track (53.5 km) by the numbers:
Day 1
  • Launch cruise from Te Anau Downs (1.25 hours)
  • Glade wharf - Clinton hut: 5 km
Day 2
  • Clinton hut - Mintaro hut: 16.5 km
Day 3
  • Mintaro hut - Dumpling hut: 14 km
Day 4
  • Dumpling hut - Sandfly point: 18 km
  • Boat ride to Milford Sound: 20 minutes


  1. the Cathedral comes up a bit short. 535 feet ;)
    The US steel building downtown is only 841

  2. WOW WOW WOW WOW. I can't say enough about the beauty surrounding you during your hike! *breathless*

    OK, Mackinnon Pass is now on my list of things to see before I die. :-)

    One of the pictures is now set as a background on my work remind me to relax for just a second. :-)

    Second is over. Gotta go! Miss ya.