Hiking To Gertrude Saddle In The Snow | An Epic Adventure In Fiordland National Park

Gertrude Saddle is arguably the best day hike in Milford Sound and we whole-heartedly agree. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another day hike in Fiordland National Park that offers the same perfect blend of excitement and awe that you’ll find along the Gertrude Saddle Route.

It’s wild to think that such an incredible hike could get any better – but just wait until you witness the enchanting landscape covered in snow! For those with a high level of experience hiking in the snow, this is the ultimate adventure.

We visited Milford Sound during the middle of Spring after a wild snowstorm tore through the valley. It took us two attempts to make it to Gertrude Saddle, after having to return the first time due to a high risk of avalanches and unstable snow underfoot.

Having the luxury of time, we waited for the avalanche risk to decrease and on our second attempt, we started at the crack of dawn while the snow was hard-packed. This time was successful and worth every frozen step.

In this post, we will explain everything you need to know to hike the Gertrude Saddle Route in the snow. Included, you’ll find tips on how to determine the avalanche risk and additional gear that is essential for the snowy ascent.

Looking out of Gertrude Valley covered in snow

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Things To Know About Hiking The Gertrude Saddle Route In Fiordland National Park

Quick Statistics For Hiking The Gertrude Saddle Route In The Snow

Distance
8.2 km return

Time
4 – 6 hrs

Navigation Difficulty
Moderate – see details below 

Trail Difficulty
Hard (requires additional gear and avalanche awareness)

Physical Effort
Moderate

Elevation Gain
645 m

Highest Elevation
1,439 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Toilets, car park, information boards

Where Does The Gertrude Saddle Route Start?

Campervans parked at Gertrude Saddle car park

The Gertrude Saddle Route begins in the breathtaking Gertrude Valley, a glacially carved depression teeming with seasonal streams, waterfalls and an alluring alpine lake. The valley is located on Milford Road, 20 km south of Milford Sound, and is surrounded by rugged mountains soaring over 2,000 m above sea level.

At the Gertrude Valley Car Park, you’ll find a drop toilet and information boards providing additional information for the Gertrude Saddle Route. There is also a freshwater stream flowing by the car park that you can use to top up your water bottles – but remember to use filters or boil the water first.

How To Get To The Gertrude Saddle Trailhead

Directions from Queenstown to Gertrude Saddle Car Park

By Public Transport

Intercity provides a bus service that connects Queenstown to Te Anau, which operates year-round. But from Te Anau, it can be difficult to reach the Gertrude Saddle Trailhead – especially in the winter season.

During the summer season (24th October – 1st May), you have the option to take a return shuttle from Te Anau to Milford Sound with Tracknet. Their timetable provides sufficient time to complete the Gertrude Saddle Route. However, you will need to contact Tracknet to ask whether they will drop you off at or near the Gertrude Valley Car Park as it’s not a regular stop for them.

Unfortunately, Tracknet doesn’t provide this service through the winter months and there are no alternative options that allow enough time to complete the Gertrude Saddle Route and return within the same day. Therefore, the only choice available during this period is to drive yourself to the trailhead from Te Anau.

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By Car

The Gertrude Valley Car Park is located on Milford Road, 1 hour 20 minutes north of Te Anau and 25 minutes south of Milford Sound. To reach The Gertrude Valley Car Park, you’ll simply leave Te Anau via State Highway 94 – following the multiple signs to Milford Sound. Stay on SH 94 (Milford Rd) for 98 km until you arrive at the Gertrude Valley sign and turn off onto the short gravel road on the right-hand side.

Click Here For Directions To The Gertrude Valley Car Park

Check For Road Closures On Milford Road

Milford Road experiences adverse weather conditions consistently throughout the year. During winter, the road often closes following heavy snowfall or when ice poses a significant risk. Additionally, snow chains may be necessary during these months. 

Before departing Te Anau, it is essential to check for road closures on Milford Road. If the road is closed, it indicates that the Gertrude Saddle Route will likely be unsafe as well. 

We strongly recommend waiting a few days after the road reopens before attempting the track. However, don’t forget to check the avalanche advisory beforehand and adhere to their warnings.

Who Is The Gertrude Saddle Route For?

Standing on Gertrude Saddle in winter

The Gertrude Saddle Route is an exhilarating adventure for intermediate to advanced hikers, with mind-blowing panoramic views of hanging valleys, rugged peaks and the distant Tasman Sea. 

In fair weather, it is easily doable if you have a good pair of grippy shoes, a basic understanding of navigation and a good head for heights. There are steep and exposed sections, but you’ll find fixed chains to assist you there.

When the valley is covered in snow, additional experience and equipment are needed to ascend to Gertrude Saddle. We only recommend attempting the hike in these conditions if you have a high level of experience hiking in the alpine, understand the avalanche risk, and have crampons or microspikes.

When To Turn Back On The Gertrude Saddle Route

Hiking in the snow on the Gertrude Saddle Route

The Department of Conservation (DOC) strongly warns against hiking the Gertrude Saddle Route if there is rain, ice or snow. We agree with them that this should not be attempted if the trail is icy or there is a high amount of rainfall. In addition, we strongly advise against hiking the Gertrude Saddle Route if you cannot see due to dense fog – you won’t get a view anyway.

If you want to attempt the Gertrude Saddle Route in the snow, a great point to aim for is the waterfall at the 2.8 km mark. From there, the terrain becomes steeper and the avalanche risk increases. You can assess the situation before crossing the stream below the waterfall and determine whether the conditions are within your skill level.

Avalanche on Gertrude Saddle
Avalanche crossing the Gertrude Saddle trail

If you start feeling uncomfortable on the trail, don’t be afraid to turn back – regardless of the conditions. We’ve learnt from experience that going downhill can be more challenging than going uphill. So, it’s important to feel confident enough on the way up to avoid any difficulties on the descent.

Navigation On The Gertrude Saddle Route

Orage tipped poles marking the trail on Gertrude Saddle

Along the Gertrude Saddle Route, you’ll find orange-tipped poles and several rock cairns marking the trail. However, they can sometimes be few and far between – especially in the boulder fields before the waterfall – and the rock cairns are generally hidden under snow in winter.

While the route is quite straightforward, it’s essential to know where to cross the stream below the waterfall. There have been some fatalities due to people crossing too far downstream. We strongly suggest using an app like Alltrails to track your walk, this allows you to refer to your original path on your return to avoid getting lost.

Due to the open nature of the landscape, navigation becomes increasingly difficult in dense fog as you won’t be able to see the next trail marker. It’s best to find an alternative hike during these weather conditions – such as Lake Marian.

What To Pack For Your Hike To Gertrude Saddle In The Snow

Putting on microspikes to hike to Gertrude Saddle in the snow

The Gertrude Saddle Route generally takes between 4 – 6 hours to complete, but we suggest allowing a full day in winter as walking through snow is significantly slower. Below we have included a full list of essential items we recommend packing for the Gertrude Saddle Route.

Our Packing List For The Gertrude Saddle Route:

  • Emergency beacon – there is limited service in Milford Sound and an added risk for hiking the Gertrude Saddle Route in the snow
  • First Aid kit – most hiking first aid kits don’t include an emergency blanket, which we highly recommend adding to reduce the risk of hypothermia if you get lost
  • Waterproof hiking boots – there is a high chance your feet will get wet
  • Waterproof pants – you can also include gaiters for further protection from the snow
  • Crampons or microspikes – these are essential for hiking in the snow
  • Trekking Poles – having poles, especially with a snow basket, is incredibly helpful for balance
  • Gloves and a beanie – It can get extremely cold and windy on the saddle
  • A warm layer – we recommend packing a down jacket and a fleece jacket if you have the space
  • Rain jacket – in addition to keeping you dry, rain jackets work wonders at cutting out the wind chill
  • High-energy snacks and/or lunch – there are no shops nearby so you will need to pack all your food for the day
  • At least 2 litres of water – if you have a water filtration system, you can fill up in the streams as you go to reduce the weight of your pack
  • A comfortable hiking daypack – we recommend at least 28 – 32 litres for your backpack to allow enough room for all your winter gear

Best Time To Hike To Gertrude Saddle

Looking out over Gertrude Valley from the waterfall on the Gertrude Saddle Route

For the easiest conditions, the best time to hike the Gertrude Saddle Route is during the summer months (December – February). There is a much lower chance of experiencing snow or ice on the trail in summer, but rain is still common.

The best time to hike Gertrude Saddle in the snow is autumn or early winter. Late winter and early spring pose a higher risk of avalanches and should be avoided unless you have a good level of avalanche awareness.

Best Time Of Day To Hike To Gertrude Saddle

Hiking along Gertrude Saddle in deep frozen snow at sunrise

We recommend starting the Gertrude Saddle Route as early as possible for three reasons. Firstly, there will be fewer crowds, especially in summer. Secondly, starting early allows you to have more daylight hours and avoid walking in the dark. You can witness the incredible beauty of the mountains in the soft morning light.

Additionally, hiking conditions in the snow are better in the morning. We tried twice when the route was covered in snow. The first time, we set off in the early afternoon but had to turn back because the snow was soft and unstable. The second time, we left at dawn and had a much better experience with hard-packed snow, which was easier to navigate with microspikes.

Hiking up to Gertrude Saddle at sunrise
Hard packed and frozen snow, easy to walk on with the correct knowledge and gear
Hiking up to Gertrude Saddle in deep snow
Soft snow after a day of sunlight, difficult to walk on as you’ll constantly sink

Gertrude Saddle Track Notes

We have only explored the Gertrude Saddle Route while the majority of the track was covered in a deep layer of snow. We couldn’t even see any remnants of the chains or the rock slabs past the waterfall. Therefore, our notes will be quite different to others that have summited in summer and are most suited for those wishing to complete the hike in winter.

The Gertrude Valley Car Park To The Waterfall

The Gertrude Saddle Route starts to the north of the car park and immediately flings you into rough and rocky terrain. Soon after beginning, you’ll cross a bridged creek and walk into a tussock field flanked by beech trees and boulders.

Crossing the bridge at the beginning of the Gertrude Valley Track

You’ll pass across a dry river bed three times (which sometimes flows after heavy rain) before entering a band of trees. The root and mud-filled forest trail doesn’t last long and shortly after, you’ll pop out onto tussock plains peppered with boulder fields once more.

Hiking through the boulders on Gertrude Saddle Track

The trail markers through the Gertrude Valley are annoyingly spaced out, making it difficult to follow at times. However, if you keep an eye on the distant waterfall and stick to the left side of the valley, you’ll come across enough markers to stay on track.

After roughly 2 km, the trail begins to ascend the side of the monstrous Mt Talbot. This is where we hit snow, which became increasingly deeper as we gained elevation. You’ll steadily climb for 800 m, facing some steep rock slabs that require a little extra attention. This section is well marked, which was lucky as the trail was completely hidden the first time we hiked it.

Hiking up to the waterfall on the Gertrude Saddle Track in snow
Hiking up to the waterfall on the Gertrude Saddle Track in deep snow

The Waterfalls To Black Lake

At the 2.8 km mark, you’ll arrive at the stream crossing, which sits in the middle of two cascading waterfalls. There are plenty of markers here to help you cross in the safest place and even when the water was flowing, we managed to hop over the rocks without getting wet feet.

Stream crossing on the Gertrude Saddle Route
Stream crossing followed by deep untracked snow
Hiking in the snow during winter on the Gertrude Saddle Track
Stream crossing looking back down the valley

After crossing the stream, you’ll begin the steep ascent to Black Lake. The track climbs towards a giant triangular boulder for roughly 200 m. Just before you reach the boulder, you’ll veer left slightly to return closer to the stream’s embankment for the final 400 m climb to Black Lake.

Looking out over Gertrude Valley from above the waterfall

Note: It is at this point we turned back due to avalanche risk on our first attempt, from here you’ll notice an obvious change in images as on our next attempt we left before sunrise.

Hiking up the frozen snow on the Gertrude Saddle Track at sunrise
Gertrude Saddle attempt 2, hiking up at the crack of dawn

The snow was at least knee-deep on this side of the stream and remained that way for the rest of the hike, hiding the loose rocky trail beneath. If the trail markers aren’t buried, you can easily follow these to Black Lake. But if they are hidden, we advise using Alltrails or another GPS tracking app to ensure you stay on the right trail.

Right before you get to Black Lake, there is usually a wire rope to help you ascend beside a waterfall. But if you’re hiking in the snow, this is all covered and you’ll simply continue to climb the steep slope. Trekking poles and microspikes or crampons make this task much easier, helping with grip and balance.

Black Lake To Gertrude Saddle

Black Lake completely frozen in ice on the Gertrude Saddle Track in New Zealand
Black Lake completely frozen

Finally, after 3.4 km, you’ll find yourself standing on the banks of Black Lake – which was completely frozen when we visited. After admiring the deep blue alpine lake and the partially frozen waterfall tumbling from above, you’ll ascend north for 200 m before traversing to the east above the lake.

Traversing across the snow covered Gertrude Saddle Track at sunrise
Traversing above Black Lake

After another 200 m, you’ll begin the final steep ascent to Gertrude Saddle – which is usually a giant boulder field followed by a sheer rock slab with another wire rope to assist you. This section was quite steep and instead of shooting straight up, we chose to zigzag in order to lessen the gradient.

Hiking up the final ascent to Gertrude Saddle in the snow at sunrise

200 m later – or slightly longer if you decide to zigzag – you’ll clear the rise and step onto Gertrude Saddle and witness a view you’ll never forget.

Exploring Gertrude Saddle

Hiking on snow on Gertrude Saddle in Milford Sound, New Zealand

Nothing will prepare you for the impossibly beautiful view that awaits at Gertrude Saddle. The saddle is wedged between Mt Talbot and Barrier Knob, with panoramic vistas of the precipitous mountains rising dramatically from the forested Gulliver Valley. An ice-blue river meanders through the forested valley on its way to Milford Sound and ultimately, the Tasman Sea.

Unfortunately, the deep snow and howling wind prevented us from venturing too far from a small collection of boulders that provided a smidgen of protection. But on a calm day, you can wander along the vast saddle to find new perspectives of the magnificent mountain ranges encompassing the horizon.

Returning To The Trailhead

Traversing across Black Lake in snow while hiking back down the Gertrude Saddle Track

Once you’ve finished exploring Gertrude Saddle, it’s time to begin the steep descent back to the stream crossing. If the snow was soft enough, it’s easy to follow your own footsteps on the return. But if it’s hard-packed, you’re better off relying on your GPS tracking – or keeping an eye on the orange-tipped poles.

Take your time and remember to zigzag if you feel the gradient is becoming too steep. When you arrive at the stream crossing, double-check you’re at the right spot before hopping over the boulders to the other side.

All the hard work is done once you cross the stream and you can enjoy a relaxing walk back to the car park. The Gertrude Saddle Route took us roughly 5 hours to complete in deep snow, with a lengthy amount of time taking photos along the way.

Other Important Information For Hiking The Gertrude Saddle Route In The Snow

Be Prepared And Check The Avalanche Risk

HIking across an avalanche on the Gertrude Saddle Track

Hiking to Gertrude Saddle in the snow is a magical experience and honestly, the hike is somewhat easier in snow compared to the steep rock slabs and loose gravel tracks. But it does come with additional risks that must be taken seriously.

The avalanche risk becomes increasingly higher once you pass the stream crossing and move closer to the precipitous ridgeline between Barrier Peak and Barrier Knob. When we completed the route the second time, there was evidence of at least three small avalanches crossing the route.

It’s essential to know when to turn around or when to wait for a better day. If you don’t have avalanche awareness training, the best resource to learn about the current potential risk is the Avalanche Advisory. It’s strongly advised to only attempt Gertrude Saddle when the risk is Low.

Gertrude Valley from Gertrude Saddle Track

Leave No Trace

The Fiordland National Park is a truly wondrous destination that holds a wealth of untouched forests and unique landscapes. It is protected as part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area and needs our help to continue to thrive.

When you’re visiting Gertrude Saddle or any wonderfully wild place, please remember to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. It’s as easy as taking your rubbish with you – including food scraps and tissues, leaving the wildlife alone and sticking to the trail where possible. You’ll find a toilet in the car park and public rubbish bins in Te Anau.

Where To Stay Near Gertrude Saddle

Gertrude Saddle is 1 hour 30 minutes north of Te Anau, which offers a great base while exploring the various hikes in Milford Sound. Alternatively, if you’d rather stay closer to the trailhead, then Milford Lodge is a stunning option located right on the edge of the magical Milford Sound.

Camping Near Gertrude Saddle

Cascade Creek Campsite in Milford Sound
Cascade Creek Campsite

Our top suggestion for where to stay while hiking the Gertrude Saddle Route is one of the many campsites in Milford Sound. There are 10 campsites scattered along Milford Road – most of which are free with a DOC Campsite Pass. The best campsite to choose for Gertrude Saddle is Cascade Creek Campsite, which is a short 20-minute drive south of the trailhead.

Final Thoughts

Gertrude Saddle Selfie

The Gertrude Saddle Route was at the top of our list of hikes we wanted to complete in Milford Sound and it certainly did not disappoint. We loved every minute of the enjoyably challenging track and were blown away by the vistas at the saddle.

We hope to return one day soon to complete the hike in summer, so we can get a proper understanding of the usual trail conditions. But what we have learnt from our snowy ascent is that the valley can change on a dime and it’s imperative to adhere to the avalanche warnings.

On our second attempt at hiking to Gertrude Saddle, we felt comfortable after seeing the landscape in two vastly different conditions. But we still wouldn’t have continued past the stream crossing the second time if we didn’t have our microspikes and the avalanche warning hadn’t decreased.

Have you hiked the Gertrude Saddle Route in the snow? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below. Or if you have additional questions about the route that we haven’t covered, please feel free to reach out to us.

Happy Hiking 🙂