The Milford Track is often called the finest walk in the world. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey in the Fiordland wilderness, through towering valleys and beneath snow-capped peaks.
The steep-sided valleys are perfect for photo opportunities, but in early-mid Spring they can also cause substantial avalanches. Flooding is common on the track through Spring too.
Hiking the Milford Track in early-mid Spring (in September and October, before the Great Walks season) can be an amazing adventure. However, there are some significant risks on the trip and in the wrong conditions it can be very dangerous.
In this blog post, a DOC ranger shares her tips for anyone considering an early Spring hike on the Milford Track – what to expect, what you need to know about avalanches, why a good weather forecast is essential, and where not to picnic.
Before planning an off-season Milford Track hike, make sure you understand the avalanche and flooding risks
The area around the Milford Track is complex avalanche terrain. This is the most difficult category of avalanche terrain, with multiple overlapping avalanche paths and few opportunities to avoid the danger areas.
There are over 57 avalanche paths along the track, including in Clinton Valley, Arthur Valley and on Omanui/McKinnon Pass. The last big year of widespread damage on Milford Track was Sept 2013, with a number of signs, toilets, bridge foundations and track washed out.
As Fiordland is so southern, the avalanche season extends later into Spring than in most parts of New Zealand. If you are hiking the track in September or October, it might feel like Spring on the valley floor. However, the temperature is very different 1200-1400 metres above you, where avalanches start – there could still be a lot of snow up there.
DOC manages the avalanche risk carefully during the Great Walks season. This includes monitoring avalanche conditions, closing sections of the track when the danger is too high, and in some years arranging helicopter transport over the closed sections (for a fee). Outside the Great Walks season, visitors need to assess and manage avalanche risk themselves.
Avalanches are so common that DOC removes 14 bridges from the Milford Track over winter, to stop them being destroyed. For example, in September 2021 avalanches caused extensive damage to the Milford Track, and would have destroyed 3-4 bridges if they had been in place. The bridges are only reinstated at the start of the Great Walks season, when the avalanche risk is lower.
This means the track has a lot of unbridged stream crossings in September and October. It’s common for these to rise, become dangerous to cross, and cut off hikers. In heavy rain, these stream crossings will not be passable. Even hot weather can cause streams to rise in the afternoon from melting snow further up the slopes.
Be realistic about whether you have the skills and equipment needed
Anyone who wants to hike the Milford Track before the Great Walks season needs good river crossing skills. You will be crossing many unbridged side streams that flood often, so you need to know how to judge when a stream is safe to cross and how to cross it. Learn more about river crossing skills on the Mountain Safety Council website.
If you plan to hike when there is still avalanche danger, you will need specialist avalanche skills. You need to know how to hike safely through complex avalanche terrain, as well as carrying and knowing how to use an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and a snow shovel. Ask the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre for advice on the current avalanche conditions and what gear you would need. Also check the Avalanche Advisory for the Fiordland region.
Plan flexibility into your trip, so you can hike during good weather
If you are comfortable with the risks outlined above and have the experience to manage them, then the next step in planning an early-mid Spring hike of the Milford Track is to build flexibility into your trip.
Everything is a bit more dynamic in the spring. There can be sudden flooding or severe weather, which can ruin long made plans.
The best way to have a safe hike is to ensure you can walk during good weather. Plan plenty of time in the Te Anau area, then look at the forecast near the time and select the best weather window.
If you don’t have the flexibility in your plans, then if it’s not a good forecast, do another trip. Don’t try and force it through on the Milford. No one should try and walk the track during a severe weather warning/watch, and it’s best to avoid it in early-mid Spring if heavy rain is forecast. You don’t want to end up in the situation of choosing between missing your flight and attempting a dangerous river crossing.
DOC recommends the short walks around the Milford Road (such as Key Summit Track) or an overnight trip to Luxmore Hut or Moturau Hut as good alternatives in wet weather. If there’s a heavy rain warning, it’s best to save the hiking for another day and explore Te Anau town instead.
Always check the forecasts (weather and avalanche) before you go
Stop in at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre and ask their advice on the weather forecast and avalanche conditions.
Avalanche zones aren’t good picnic spots – follow the no stopping advice
Avalanche paths on the Milford Track are marked with signs, indicating no stopping zones. Please read and follow these signs if you are walking the track. The more time you spend in an avalanche zone, the greater the chance of being hit by an avalanche or debris.
Many of the avalanche areas are nice clearings, tempting places to stop for a picnic or a photo. However, they are clearings for a reason – it’s because avalanches have destroyed the bush. It’s best to keep moving and save the snacks for another spot.
For most visitors, the Great Walks season is the best time to hike the Milford Track. If you’re considering doing the track outside the Great Walks season, talk to the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre staff for advice.
If you don’t have the right skills and experience for an off-season hike, there are lots of other fantastic adventures that allow you to see stunning Fiordland scenery – you could consider Key Summit day hike, Luxmore Hut overnight trip or a multi-day tramp on the Hollyford Track.