A guide to visiting the majestic Milford Sound in New Zealand
With 182 days of rain per year, Milford Sound in New Zealand is famous for being one of the wettest places in the world, it is a mission to get to and its swarming with sandflies, yet it attracts a million visitors a year. Why?
In short - because it is absolutely freaking stunning! Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Te Reo Maori), and the drive through the Fiordlands to get to Milford Sound absolutely tops the list of must-see things in New Zealand. Imagine hundreds of waterfalls, lush rainforests, steep fjords, minimal light or sound pollution, the prettiest sunsets and sunrises, and that’s only the start!
Where is Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is nested in the heart of Fiordland National Park on the South-West of New Zealand's South Island.
While Queenstown and Milford Sound are only 70 km away from each other in a straight line, a massive mountain range separates the two. If you want to drive to Milford Sound, the only option is still to go all the way around the Humboldt and Eyre mountains.
Milford Sound is actually a fiord, not a sound. A sound is formed by the flooding of a river valley, whereas a fiord is a valley formed by glaciers that later filled with sea water when the glaciers melted. This technically makes Milford Sound, despite its name, a fiord and not a sound.
How to get to Milford Sound
There are a number of different ways of getting to Milford Sound from Te Anau, Queenstown or beyond and not all of them include driving.
1. Do a road trip to Milford Sound
If self driving to Milford, we recommend you spend the night in Milford Sound or in Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. This is the starting point of the Milford Road and the drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau is absolutely stunning, you will want to have the time and energy to stop and explore along the way.
No matter which direction you’re coming from, the road past Te Anau is the only road into Milford Sound.
2. Take a guided bus tour of Milford Sound
Instead of driving yourself you can do a Milford Sound guided tour from Queenstown or Te Anau. These Milford Sound coach and cruise tours are great value, super easy and the guides are very knowledgable so you'll learn a lot about the area. Milford Sound tours run daily and come with bus transport that stops at some of the nicest points along the way, a Milford Sound cruise and often include lunch as well.
The downside? There's not much flexibility to be had with bus tours like these. They run on a tight schedule and you're always surrounded by at least the 40 people from your tour. That's less than ideal if you want that perfect insta shot of you standing in front of Mitre Peak or simply want to enjoy an afternoon snack while sitting on the shore and admiring the view.
3. Join a (semi) private tour to Milford Sound
If driving to Milford sound on your own isn't an option and you don't feel thrilled by the thought of the bus experience you might want to consider a small group or private tour.
Best Milford Sound tour from Queenstown: This private tour from Queenstown is limited to 12 people and a lot more flexible than the big group tours. Lunch, drive, stops and cruise included.
Best Milford Sound tour from Te Anau: There is also a much cheaper private tour from Te Anau (you can get there by public transport). Again, it's a small group with plenty of stops along Milford road, the cruise and you have the option to hike up Key Summit.
4. Hop on a scenic flight to Milford Sound
For the ultimate experience consider flying in with a scenic plane or a helicopter. Opt for a flight & cruise package so you get to explore the fjord on water as well, or a coach, cruise & flight tour so you get to explore more of Fiordland National Park.
Flying to Milford is much faster and a great option if you don't have much time in New Zealand.
Te Anau to Milford Sound scenic drive
Fiordland National Park is one of the most scenic areas of New Zealand, and half the appeal of going to Milford Sound, is the drive and the stops along the way.
Below are the absolute highlights on the way to Milford, but there is so much more to see that we wrote a whole blog on this scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound so make sure to check it out.
Best stops along the Milford Road
Eglinton Valley: The Milford Road takes you straight through the Eglinton Valley. As you drive out of the forest the view suddenly opens up into the wide and flat valley floor, covered with golden green grassland and surrounded by steep rocky mountains. You can park alongside the road to walk into the valley and take in the view.
Mirror Lakes: These small tarns are famous for (you guessed it) the way they reflect their surrounding scenery. On a calm day the lake shows a breathtaking reflection of the surrounding forest and mountain ranges. If you’re into photography, this spot is a photographers wet dream come true.
Lake Gunn: This mountain lake is a nice spot for a break. Either stop at the roadside Lake Gunn Viewpoint to just have a look at the lake and its surroundings, or do the 45-minute long Lake Gunn Nature Walk. A walk that takes you through a beech forest with massive moss-covered trees and to the stony beach shore of Lake Gunn.
The Chasm: Just before reaching Milford Sound you should take a stop at The Chasm. The Chasm is a series of waterfalls gushing through, well, a chasm. What’s so interesting about these waterfalls is their unbelievable force. You stand there watching massive amounts of water thunder into the deep below you thinking “I do not want to be kayaking/swimming/diving in there!”.
Fiordland National Park hikes: There's plenty of trekking options on your way to Milford Sound, including three of the Nine Great Walks; Routeburn, Kepler and Milford track. There are also many day hikes for you to choose, our favourite ones are Key Summit, Gertrude saddle and Marian Lake.
Best things to do in Milford Sound
As mentioned earlier, Milford Sound is famous for being one of the wettest places in the world. In fact it gets so much rain that they measure the annual rainfall in meters instead of millimeters, like in the rest of the world. On average, Milford Sound gets almost 7 meters of rain per year, whereas the worldwide average is 990 millimeters, or less than a meter per year.
But as much as we all hate rain on our adventures, you should actually hope for a bit of rain during your visit to Milford Sound.
So check the Milford Sound weather forecast before setting off. Visiting Milford Sound on a rainy day makes the experience so much better because rain is the weather that this environment thrives in. New waterfalls spring form everywhere, the already existing ones become a lot bigger and the valley gets covered in a mystical fog, which only adds to the moody and dramatic feel of it all. A scenery that's sure to give you goosebumps.
1. Cruising Milford Sound
Arguably the most appealing part of coming to Milford Sound is to explore the fjord on water.
The most straightforward way to see Milford Sound is by going on a boat cruise.
On our last visit we opted for the Southern Discoveries morning cruise including breakfast. The departure time worked perfectly for us and after our sunrise photo mission that delicious breakfast was well and truly needed. The great part about cruising with Southern Discovery is the access to the underwater observatory.
We really enjoyed our cruise but if we had a bigger budget or more time we probably would have chosen this overnight cruise.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the smaller the boat, the closer to the edge it can get which can make the fiords look even more impressive, and the splash from the waterfalls a lot bigger. If this is the kind of experience you're after, then this small boat cruise is the right pick for you.
Regardless of the type or length of the cruise you pick, most boats follow basically the same route, taking you the whole 16 km length of Milford Sound and back, for an average of 2 hours on the water.
It’s generally best to book your Milford Sound cruise in advance if you travel during the high season.
What will you see on a Milford Sound cruise?
You’ll start from the wharf and go past the Lady Bowen Falls as the boat leaves the wharf, which with its 162 meters is the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound. Then you’ll continues on past the foot of Mitre Peak, and as you make your way towards the Tasman Sea, you’ll go past a number of waterfalls sliding down the rock faces.
The number of waterfalls you’ll be able to see highly depends on the amount of rain Milford Sound had in the previous days, as some waterfalls only exist after heavy rainfall.
Depending on the conditions on sea, your captain might decide to take you onto the open Tasman Sea for a bit, after which the boat turns around to go back.
On the way back you’ll go past seal rock on which heaps of seals rest and sunbathe. You might also see other wildlife like bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, or if you’re lucky even a whale or the extremely rare Fiordland Crested Penguin.
Then most cruises will show you the 146 meter high Stirling Falls, and will even go close enough to put the bow of the ship straight under the waterfall, giving everyone who is on deck at that moment a massive shower.
Depending on the company you are cruising with, additional items might be highlighted too, like Southern Discoveries’ underwater observatory that shows you what’s going on beneath the surface in Milford Sound.
Once you’re on the boat you’ll see that the water has an almost inky black colour. That’s partly because Milford Sound is hundreds of meters deep, but also because the water is a mix of sea water and freshwater. Rainwater drips down into Milford Sound from its surrounding forest-covered mountains and takes with it sediment from the ground, giving the water its dark colour.
2. Milford Sound kayaking
Seeing the fjords while cruising on a boat is one thing, but seeing them from water level, getting up close and even touching them ... now that puts things into perspective! On a Milford Sound kayak tour you get to paddle under waterfalls, as close as you dare and you feel small in the best way possible.
A boat cruise and and kayaking provide two completely different experiences so we recommend you try them both. We've found the perfect Milford Sound cruise and kayak package that includes a boat cruise, the underwater observatory, kayaking and even lunch!
3. Milford Sound diving
Diving in the Milford Sound fjord will give you a chance to explore the Piopiotahi marine reserve and Milford’s underwater world. Due to Milford Sound's heavy rainfall, mixing fresh and salt water on the surface and the huge mountains casting shadows over the waters, enough light is blocked to bring the deep-water ecosystem into the shallows.
While diving you may also see Octopus, Stingray, Sharks, Eels, Crayfish, Nudibranch and many, many different fish species. One of the highlights are also the black coral trees.
4. Milford Sound scenic flights
Why drive all the way around when you can fly into Milford? This Milford sound flight and cruise package is perfect for you if you're crunched for time. It includes a scenic flight to Milford Sound and back, and a boat cruise there which gives you the perfect opportunity to take in the views from the water and from a birds eye perspective.
But honestly, the drive on Milford Road is so beautiful that we wouldn't wanna miss it. If you feel the same way, then this coach, cruise & flight tour is the perfect solution for you. This small group trip includes absolutely everything you might want out of your Milford Sound experience - plenty of stops on the way there, a boat cruise with lunch and a scenic flight on your way back.
There a more options for flights from Queenstown to Milford sound without landing or cruise. But while seeing the fjord from above is a spectacular sight, we feel like we'd be missing out if we didn't get to explore it on land/water as well.
5. Milford Sound helicopter flights
So why would you opt for a helicopter rather than a scenic flight by plane? Simple, because of the glacial landing! Don't know about you, but that's a massive selling point for us.
We love this tour with helicopter flight from Queenstown, Milford Sound cruise and a glacial landing on the way back. Sounds pretty perfect, doesn't it?
6. Milford Foreshore Walk & Milford swing
The Milford Foreshore Walk is a short 15-minute loop walk that takes you to the waterfront. It starts from the car park, goes past the shore, through the woods, and ends at a lookout point with an unobstructed view over the water towards Mitre Peak. This spot is especially beautiful during sunrise and sunset.
To find the Milford swing keep right at the fork and jump off the track as you reach a little sandy beach. You'll see some sort of spit towards the warf. Walk over the rocks for about 100 meters to get to the swing. From the swing you’ll get beautiful views over the bay and Mitre Peak.
Milford Sound & Milford swing map
7. Milford Sound Lookout Track
The Milford Sound Lookout track begins from the Southern edge of the carpark behind the cafe at Milford Sound. This is a short walk up some stairs to the lookout which boosts spectacular views over Milford Sound. Keep in mind that you will be walking through the bush where sandflies are plentiful and extremely hungry.
8. The photogenic Mitre Peak
One of Milford Sound’s most iconic features is the impressive Mitre Peak. This mountain with its distinctive shape rises 1692 meters straight up out of the water, and it is the first thing that draws your attention as you approach Milford Sound.
Mitre Peak is so iconic, that it is actually the most photographed mountain in the country, even more than New Zealand’s highest mountain; Mount Cook.
Because Milford Sound is hundreds of meters deep, a large portion of Mitre Peak and the connected mountains is submerged and hidden underwater*.* For Mitre Peak the depth is 420 meters, and other nearby mountains go to depths of 512 meters under water!
9. Watch the sunset and sunrise
Most people do Milford Sound as a day trip but in our opinion the real beauty of this place comes to life after everyone's left and all you can hear is the gentle splashing of the waves and birdsongs.
First make your way to the swing to watch the sunset. There's something magical about the way the sun sets behind Mitre peak and creates a beautiful display of sun rays behind the peak.
Then wake up for the sunrise and watch the first light hit the calm waters of Piopiotahi.
10. Marvel at the stars
The stars shine brighter in Milford Sound and there’s many more of them too! Or at least thats how it feels like.
Milford Sound is so remote that there is almost no light pollution in the area. When you look up at the sky you’ll see a display like no other.
Best time to visit Milford Sound
Milford Sound is best experienced in the rain, luckily there is very consistent rainfall year round.
The Best time to visit Milford Sound is a rainy day in late Spring or Autumn. Summer is high season and a place this small gets very crowded very fast and in winter there is risk of road closures due to snowfall or avalanche, plus it's just really really cold!
If you're a photographer then you'll love Milford Sound in spring and autumn as the days are just a little bit shorter than in summer which is perfect for sunrise and sunset photo missions and the temperatures are still bearable even when the sun goes down.
Where to stay in Milford Sound
Accommodation in Milford Sound is very limited. If you want to stay the night in Milford Sound there is only one real option and that is the Milford Sound Lodge. They have 3 different kinds of chalets available that usually book out quickly, especially in high season. You must book your chalet in advance.
There is also the option of taking an overnight cruise and spending the night on the boat. If you chose to do so, we recommend you book this overnight cruise.
Camping in Milford sound
Officially the only campsite in Milford Sound is the Rainforest Campervan Park operated by Milford Sound Lodge. This campsite fills up even quicker than the lodge itself so again, make sure to book your spot in advance. We learned that from experience.
When we got to Milford Sound in early evening there were no accommodation options left for us. Not feeling tempted to drive all the way back in the dark, we started asking around a bit and were told that we could stay the night in our campervan in the Milford Sound carpark as it was high season, and that somebody might come in the morning to collect a camping fee of $20.
No one came to collect the next morning and we can’t find any information about it online, so if you decide to stay the night in the carpark, do so at your own risk. Alternatively, you can stay in one of the DOC campsite along the Milford Road.
Is Milford Sound really worth it?
Absolutely! Many people say that Milford Sound is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen and it is often dubbed the 8th wonder of the world. It might sound like a tourist trap, but it's a tourist trap you should not avoid.
We’ve spent over a year exploring all of New Zealand’s corners, but still whenever we hear that somebody else has been to New Zealand, the first spot we ask if they’ve been to is Milford Sound.
Getting to Milford is a massive and expensive detour from any route, but it is worth every second and every cent.
The drive to Milford Sound through Fiordland National Park alone is already so incredibly scenic and worth it on its own. Milford Sound is certain to be a highlight you’ll talk about for weeks, and it should be in every New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Which is better Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
The choice between cruising Milford or Doubtful Sound can be tough. I've done them both and can enjoyed them both, however, if i had to choose one it would be Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is a lot more accessible than Doubtful Sound. The road to Milford is beautiful and diverse, while the trip to Doubtful Sound, although an adventure, fairly quickly turns into more of the same. The fjords in Doubtful Sound are less steep than Milford and there's not as many waterfalls.
But doubtful Sound has one big thing going for it - the wildlife! While it is possible to see dolphins and penguins in Milford sound, the chances are fairly slim. In Doubtful Sound the wildlife is plentiful - I'm assuming because there's less people and less boats to disturb them. We got the pleasure of spotting two playful Fiordland Crested Penguins and a pod of dolphins on our cruise.
And, as a parting thought, I'm leaving yo with the words of our Doubtful Sound cruise captain when we asked him which fjord does he prefer.
Milford Sound is the hot girl everyone wants. Doubtful Sounds is the cute girl next door. It really depends on what you're after.
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