A SOLO HIKE UP NEW ZEALAND'S GERTRUDE SADDLE
Around dawn, I peeked my head out from the thin blanket I had spread across myself in the backseat of my compact rental car. The night had lingered in the mid-40s, but my many layers kept me warm through the late summer night on New Zealand’s South Island.
I already knew my plans for the day, but I had little information as to how I was going to accomplish it.
After my plane failed to land in Queenstown, I was rerouted to Christchurch and then bused eight hours through the New Zealand countryside. By the time I arrived back at the Queenstown airport, it was nearly two in the morning. I had prepared to sleep on the floor until I could pick up my car rental at 7 am until a kind gentleman from the states visiting his daughter welcomed me to sleep at their Airbnb. I had told his daughter I was interested in scenic hikes near Milford Sound when she brought up the Gertrude Saddle hike. She and a friend had attempted the hike a few weeks prior but were quickly turned around by a flooded river.
“They say it’s pretty hard, but it’s known to have the best view around Milford Sound.”
That was enough for me.
The Gertrude Saddle hike gains roughly 2600 ft in just over two miles and ends on a scenic saddle giving a tunnel view through drastic mountains toward Milford Sound, a spectacular fjord framed by towering peaks and hundred-foot waterfalls. Although older articles will discuss the lack of trail markers, the trail is well-marked to the summit. In early summer and winter, the hike poses a high risk of avalanche danger. In the summer, the route requires no technical gear or mountaineer experience.
Other regional hikes dwarf the length of the Gertrude Saddle Hike. The nearby Milford Trek is over 50km one-way. My short three-day stopover in New Zealand didn’t allow for such a journey, so this short-but-sweet hike seemed like the perfect fit for my tight schedule.
My biggest concern was my comfort level doing it solo. The route contained class III scrambles (I hate scrambles). My last-minute recommendation on the hike mixed with minimal time connected to strong-signaled Wi-Fi had made my attempt at research sub-par. One of the few articles I successfully loaded warned of the dangers, and I had begun to believe my newfound dream would be crushed as quickly as it began.
The following morning I waited for the visitor center to open in Te Anau, the last town before the 120km drive to Milford Sound. Inside I asked about information on the Gertrude Saddle hike. She looked surprised I was alone (it doesn’t help I look 16). I asked if she would consider it safe to do it as a solo hiker and if she could tell me where to park.
Hesitant, she said the hike was rated as strenuous and should only be hiked by experienced hikers. I knew this classification of hikes was often vastly overrated to scare off the average tourists who expect gravel paths and a washroom at the summit.
I left and headed out for the hike, still unclear exactly where the starting point was. My goal was to begin the trek by 10 am and make it back to the car by 1pm, with enough time to finish the drive and catch a scenic boat tour through the fjords of Milford Sound.
I parked at a gravel parking lot just before the main MS tunnel. No signs indicate a hike of any kind at the parking lot. I wandered down a path and found a sign that introduced the Gertrude Saddle Trail, which again warned it was a strenuous hike that has resulted in death. I was glad I had found the right spot.
I followed the trail jumping over sections of water that flooded the path. Soon I realized the trouble the other hikers had. Roughly five hundred feet into the hike I was met by knee-deep water approximately 20 feet wide.
The next day was my flight back to the states, and my shoes would never dry in time. For a moment I contemplated giving up. Maybe it was a sign I shouldn’t try the hike this time. I hadn’t passed anyone else going toward the summit. Maybe there was a reason why.
But I’m stubborn, and before I could even finish the thought both feet were making way across the near-freezing water. Wet shoes would have to do for the next couple of days.
I waded and crossed the river again and again and again, following markers and cairns to guide my path. Eventually, I came upon a couple and reassured my insanity wasn’t in solitude.
The river-wading subsided quickly and the path was well marked and flat for the first mile. I looked at the walls in front of me and wondered which section would be the climb. Everything looked near-vertical and towered thousands of feet above me. Eventually, the path veered left, and I noticed two small black dots roughly 800 feet above on the cliffside.
I soon realized that although the hike was short, the true grit appeared in the last 1.2 miles. Nearly all of the 2600 ft of elevation gain is in that mile.
The trail is steep but is not nearly as daunting as internet articles made it out to be. In fact, I felt almost too comfortable on my way up. I thought I should feel scared based on the build-up, but instead, I couldn’t help but run up the side and take in the mountains around me. About halfway up the cliffside cables are implemented in various spots to ensure hiker security.
After one final pull up a cable, you top out into a large grassy plain. About twenty feet further the entire world opens below you — a true representation of heaven on earth. Above you, occasional tourism planes fly around. You almost chuckle thinking about how much they paid for a flight when you have this section of heaven all to yourself (and with no time limit).
I had made the hike in roughly one hour and forty minutes. It’s a different world up there. Down in the valley, hundreds of tourists flocked onto tour buses — scenic pull-offs clustered with vacationers.
Up here it was quiet.
I laid in the grass on the cliff edge and watched dozens of birds launch themselves from the ridgeline and over the thousand-foot drops to the valley floor. How free they must feel, and what a home they claim.
Eventually, I knew I must leave, even though my heart didn’t want me to. I could see Milford Sound in the distance, but I had yet to claim my journey as complete. I scrambled down the path and made the round-trip finish in three-and-a-half hours, including nearly 45 minutes at the top.
I made it to Milford Sound just in time to register for the last boat of the day. The fjords were beautiful, but I couldn’t help but gaze back up toward the peaks. There I felt at home.
Our boat was nearly empty. Waiting until late afternoon to arrive at the valley was the best decision I had made. Every tour bus comes in the morning and departs by afternoon. Milford Sound only houses one hotel (that proves very difficult to get a reservation at), so by evening, nearly every tourist has left to make the two-hour drive back to the next closest set of hotels and campgrounds.
I chased the last summer light back through the winding roads, occasionally stopping to stand among the mountains. No other cars, no other people.
And as I pulled back into my exact parking spot at the campground from the night before, I parked and ate cold spaghettios straight from the can. I had to be up around 6:00 am to head back to Queenstown and begin my journey back to the States. But I couldn’t sleep. The world was too beautiful.
Final thoughts on the Gertrude Saddle: It’s easy. As long as you are comfortable hiking and keep on the trail, you are absolutely fine. It’s like a slightly less-crowded and more-rewarding Angel’s Landing. I 100% believe they increase the danger of the hike to keep large crowds who visit Milford Sound off the trail. It makes sense and it’s a smart decision, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you’re up for a bit of adventure.
Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.
In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.