Risk versus reward. Acclaimed as one of the most beautiful day hikes in New Zealand, Gertrude Saddle, located in Fiordland National Park has been on our list of must-do’s for a while now. However, this particular walk has been known to come with its own set of challenges. According to the Department of Conservation website, the trail is considered an “expert track” which is suited to more experienced hikers due to the lack of a proper track along much of the way. The track conditions also vary greatly depending on the weather. People have also died while doing this (due to inclement weather) and it’s a quite scary to think about it, so it wasn’t an easy decision for us to do it. This was one of those hikes that Jon and I really had to make sure we had planned well ahead. We did a lot of research about the route and we made sure we had the right conditions before we proceeded. We also asked information when we got to Milford Sound about the current conditions (knowing that other people have successfully done the hike in the past few days is always good news) but we still had to remind ourselves to be sensible and willing to turn back should the conditions be too difficult. Do not attempt to do this hike in winter due to high risk of avalanche.
Jon and I had an early start, with the goal to reach Gertrude Saddle and return safely before it got dark. The track begins with an easy and flat walk along Gertrude Valley. The vast open views are pretty impressive here. While we walked along the lush green valley, we were surrounded by rocky, snow-capped mountains, some of them with cascading waterfalls. This area truly captures some of the unique landscapes at Milford Sound.
Gertrude Valley is well-marked compared to the rest of the trail so it’s not hard to find your way. You can also see the general direction of where you are going, with Gertrude Saddle on the left of the trail. If you start to notice the conditions are getting too tricky as you start your ascent, it’s a logical place to turn back. This section of the track is also good short walk on its own should you find that you don’t have enough time for the whole day hike. If there is rain or snow, it’s probably best to start considering heading back.
Start of the Ascent and the Waterfall
At the end of Gertrude Valley the steep climb begins. It’s straight uphill from here along rocky sections and some uneven terrain (make sure to wear decent hiking boots with good grip). Parts of the trail are fine but other sections require scrambling along rocks so make sure to watch your footing. There is also a shallow river crossing — be cautious in this section of the walk as people have died by crossing the river at the wrong point. There are orange poles to keep you on the right track so don’t be afraid to backtrack should you lose your way. Also, make sure to always assess the situation before you cross the river.
Past the river, we saw a spectacular waterfall ahead. Behind us, we saw an expansive view over Gertrude Valley. We saw some hikers approach the waterfall closer but we could see it well enough from the distance and did not risk walking along some slippery rocks. We still saw the waterfall as we headed up though, so that’s all good.
The track continues along one side of the waterfall, still along rocky and uneven terrain. From here, there are less orange poles to mark the way. We did notice some cairns (piles of rocks) left by previous hikers on our way up, which definitely gave us some hope that we weren’t going the wrong way! We did have to, a few times, work our way back to find better places to cross or walk. So don’t be too stubborn should you find you are straying too far from a track with better footing.
Crossing Snow and More Steep Rock Slabs
After a steep and steady incline, we reached harder terrain. This time, steep rock slabs and some small sections with settled snow on the ground. This part of the track is a lot harder as you can pretty much go from anywhere since there are no clear tracks (and it’s this case all the way to the top). We had to choose our path wisely and make sure we didn’t stray too far or lose our footing. Past sections of snow, we had to slowly climb huge rocks. There are sections where you are assisted by steel cables so it’s handy to have gloves with you to avoid rope burn. Jon didn’t use any but I made full use of mine.
Past another steep section, which we had to use the steel rope for safety, we were greeted with magnificent views of Black Lake. Some people do swim here but I imagine it would have been freezing. Pretty cool spot to do it though! We rested here for a little bit and enjoyed the views but we knew we weren’t too far from the real score.
More steep sections and rope climbs lay ahead. This is probably the hardest part of the climb. A certain level of bravery is required when ropes are involved. I’m glad it wasn’t my first time to go up steep rock slabs with ropes. My experience climbing Mount Kinabalu, with similar terrain at the top, definitely helped control the jitters of being so high up. It was mixed emotions actually, by this stage I was filled with so much thrill and excitement, I forgot how dangerous the climb really is!
The Final Ascent
A few more snow crossings and scrambling over boulders laid ahead. While the track is challenging in these parts, the views are wonderful throughout the climb. The open views of the Gertrude Valley and Black Lake were just behind us.
Finally, we reached Gertrude Saddle and were rewarded with incredible views of the other side of the valley below and Milford Sound from afar. The snow-capped mountains are simply spectacular!
We made it! We finally made it to Gertrude Saddle! Jon and I rejoiced while taking in the spectacular scenery in front of us. Gertrude Saddle is definitely one of the best day hikes we have done in New Zealand. Despite the difficulties involved, it’s well worth it! I really enjoyed the challenges of the hike, the variety in the trail and of course, the enchanting views along the track and at Gertrude Saddle itself.
If you haven’t seen keas, there are a few of them at Gertrude Saddle. Pretty amazing creatures unique to alpine terrain. Don’t feed them though!
The Way Down
I wouldn’t go into detail about the return trip as it’s the same way (if you can find your previous track) as the way up. The descent is hard on the knees so do take your time. Do make sure to check your footing on uneven ground and avoid slipping on loose rocks! Remember that going down can be just as risky!
Travel Tips for Your Hike to Gertrude Saddle
- We did the Gertrude Saddle hike in December (summer in New Zealand) so we had a good amount of time to do the hike. We did it in 5.5 hours return including taking photos along the way and a quick lunch at the top. The Department of Conservation (DOC) website notes the hike takes about 4 to 6 hours return so make sure you give yourself ample time to return with decent light.
- Make sure to do the hike at the right time of the year, summer (late December to March) is the best season to do this hike to get the best conditions. It is not recommended to do this hike in other seasons as the conditions will just be too dangerous.
- Before you go, check out the latest weather information for Fiordland National Park and get the latest alert information from the Department of Conservation in their website or visit the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.
- The trail is also exposed to the elements so make sure to wear the appropriate clothes to keep you warm and dry for the hike. Gloves and a hat will come pretty handy too.
- Bring enough food and water with you.
- Travel with a partner. Having another person with you will definitely help should you need any assistance while doing the hike.
- A personal locater beacon may also be a good idea to have while doing this hike.
Do you have plans to do the Gertrude Saddle hike? Let us know.