The hike to Gertrude Saddle takes you through the Gertrude Valley, and on a long, uphill climb to a collection of the most stunning alpine views overlooking Milford Sound.
- Saddle view over Milford Sound
- Swimming in Black Lake
- The Gertrude Valley
- Stunning road trip along Milford Road to the trailhead
Welcome to Fiordland National Park
365 days a year, tourists and Explorers set out for a long journey to visit the iconic Milford Sound (Piopiotahi), in Fiordland National Park. Over a million visitors a year take a boat trip through the fiord, surrounded by waterfalls, peaks, rainforests and wildlife.
Sadly, an incredible adventure en route to Milford Sound is missed by hundreds of people every day.
Gertrude Saddle is, in my opinion, the best day walk in New Zealand. However, at 4-6 hours long, with some steep uphill and vertical drops, it’s not ideal for everyone. The DOC (Department of Conservation) rates the hike as ‘expert’ due to the terrain and lack of defined trail in most areas.
But with some navigational skills, the right gear and a decent level of fitness, this hike is definitely doable, and 100% worth it! The main concern is the weather – only attempt Gertrude Saddle in summer/early autumn, and only on days with a limited chance of rain.
Check out Gertrude Valley
We started our journey from Queenstown. After a visit to Fergbaker for a delicious veggie pie and coffee, it was a 3.5 hour drive along the beautiful Milford Road. This is the only road into Milford, and even though I’ve driven it five times, I’m still not sick of it. The trail begins at Gertrude Valley carpark, located right before the infamous Homer Tunnel.
Hot tip! This is your last chance to use the bathroom before the hike begins (and there aren’t many private places to pee on the walk!).
For the first 20 minutes you’re walking through the bush. Make sure you follow the orange triangle trail markers, as some of the route isn’t super clear. Both times I’ve done this walk we’ve lost the trail around this area (woops).
We spent the next hour walking through the insane Gertrude Valley, surrounded by sheer rock walls on either side and in front of us. As I was hiking with three English people, all I heard for the next hour was ‘I feel like I’m in The Lord of the Rings’. Even if you don’t want to walk all the way to the saddle, it’s worth doing this short part of the walk to check out the valley.
Following the orange pole markers, the track leads you left, uphill from the valley, mostly following a river along the way. This is the point where my friends looked up, saw the endless uphill, and started quietly resenting me.
You can’t see the saddle for the entire duration of the walk, until you reach the top. It’s quite a tease, and my friends kept questioning why they decided to join me for this never-ending uphill battle. However, the walk is dynamic and consistently stunning, so you should be well-entertained throughout the journey (luckily this realisation turned my friends’ resentment into gratitude).
A couple of tips for this section of the trail; cross the river where DOC has indicated with trail poles, and be careful of the uneven and rocky terrain. This is the most hazardous part of the track – people have even died here.
Take a Dip in the Black Lake
After a hot and tiresome hour or two, we happily reached Black Lake. This is a good half-way lunch spot. To get up this section, you have steep rock that you have to climb up, with the aid of ropes if you need. This might be scary for some but just take your time – it looks a lot more daunting than it is!
To give our bodies a break and freshen up after some serious sweating, we decided to go for a swim. This was the idea of the English, since New Zealand’s ‘hot’ probably felt like a heatwave for them. Hikers passing by definitely thought we were crazy, but swimming in that lake was wonderfully refreshing. This is also one of the last easy-access water spots.
Scrambling up Gertrude Saddle
The trail from Black Lake is basically steep granite rock slabs. Although you don’t have to worry about falling off a cliff here, rain or ice would make the rock incredibly slippery, so please only attempt it on a clear day like we did.
For the next 45 minutes as we trekked uphill, we passed many satisfied and proud hikers claiming ‘You’re almost there!’. As we still couldn’t see the saddle and felt like we’d been walking for days, it was hard to believe that we were ‘almost there’. But then out of nowhere, after a couple long strides to get up the last slump, we were blessed with the most amazing views on the saddle, overlooking Milford Sound.
We spent about an hour soaking in the well-earned views and wishing we could climb all the magical peaks around us.
Hot tip! Look out for the native alpine parrot; the Kea. They’re beautiful creatures, but notorious for stealing food and car keys – there’ve even been reports of them locking people in toilet huts! This area is also very exposed and can have very high winds, so be careful not to stray far from the track.
The walk back down is the same route as the walk up, so you get to see the same views but from a different perspective. Be careful on your way down and go at your own pace – the descent is always more dangerous than the ascent. Don’t forget to keep following the trail markers.
We didn’t want the journey to end, so found a sweet as swimming spot along the river. Stop here for another dip, sit back, enjoy the view and live out your infinity pool dream on the most beautiful walk in New Zealand.
How To Get There
To get to Gertrude Saddle, drive along the 94 (Milford Sound Highway), almost the whole way to Milford Sound. Homer Tunnel car park, is where you want to be and it’s on the right as you’re coming down the mountain, just before Homer Tunnel, and about 25 minutes before Milford Town.
New Zealand’s weather is unpredictable and erratic, and even on a day walk you need to be prepared for a change in conditions. The Fiordland is wild and remote and gets 200 days of rain a year, so be prepared for all weather types, even in summer.
- First aid kit equipped with a survival blanket
- Drink bottle with 1-3 litres (there’s relatively easy access to water on the hike)
- Lunch and snacks
- Togs and a quick-dry towel
- Camera to snap all the beautiful views
- Personal locator beacon (there’s no reception in this area)
- Waterproof and windproof raincoat
- A warm mid-layer (such as a fleece or wool top)
- Beanie and gloves
- Hiking boots with ankle support and grip
- Warm socks
Medium/Difficult – it depends how confident you are climbing up and down steep terrain. Anyone with an average level of fitness can do this hike, you just have to tolerate some uphill.
7km return, 4-6 hours walking, 700 metre ascent
- Make sure you know what you’re looking out for to navigate the route; orange triangles in the bush, but when you’re not travelling through bush, orange poles indicate the trail. Sometimes they’re far apart, so always keep a lookout. There are also rock cairns which show the safest route, when the orange poles are absent.
- Remember to always tell someone where you’re going – there’s no reception in Fiordland National Park.
- Pack in, pack out. New Zealand is committed to our Tiaki Promise – caring for the people and the place. Keeping New Zealand clean and pollution-free is an essential aspect of our promise, and it is expected from all visitors. Any rubbish that you see, please take it back with you.
- If you see any Keas (the native alpine parrot), please do not feed or harm them. They’re an endangered species. Also hide your car keys, food and any loose items from them – they’re sneaky buggers.