If you’re visiting the South Island of New Zealand, the number 1 thing that should be the top of your list to do is a trip to Milford Sound. I can honestly say that rain or shine, this is one of the places that really lives up to the hype! There’s just nothing as spectacular as the drive down to the sound through deep glacial valleys, passing hundreds of waterfalls (especially if it’s raining), plunging into a dark tunnel that cuts right through the mountain side, and ending your drive on rocky beach with one of the top 5 views I’ve ever seen. Make sure to plan an entire day for this adventure as there are many incredible stops along the drive, and you won’t want to miss a cruise out to the sea.
Tips for visiting Milford Sound:
- Don’t fret about the weather, in fact if it’s raining and cloudy you might get less mountain peaks, but the waterfalls more than make up for it.
- Rent a car, drive yourself, book your own boat. There’s so many great stops along the way that tour buses can’t stop at, and the boats you get put on are packed full of people. Do yourself a favor and DIY this day and book your cruise with Mitre Peak cruises if you want a more intimate cruise experience.
- If you have the funds book an overnight cruise on the sound, and/or a helicopter flight
- Pack some lunch/ snacks for the drive. The only eating option once you’re down there is a mediocre over priced café.
- Park in the FREE lot (the first parking lot as you get to the sound) and take the free shuttle to the cruise terminal/ visitor center to save a lot of money on parking.
- Plan on wearing long pants and long sleeves or bring heavy duty bug spray. The black sand flies at Milford Sound are no joke- they will leave itchy welts on your skin for weeks and they love the rocky shores of Milford.
- The closest place to stay (unless you have a campervan) is Te Anau.
- The afternoon/ sunset is the best time to photograph the sound and surrounding peaks. Afternoon/ evening cruises will also be cheaper and less crowded than afternoon cruises.
- It’s at least a 1.5-2 hour drive without stopping from Te Anau to the end. Plan your cruise time accordingly.
- 100% pack a rain jacket.
Which boat tour company to choose?
I can’t recommend Mitre Peak cruises enough. The boat might be the smallest of the Milford Sound cruise boats, but it’s actually the only one designed specifically for the conditions in the sound. It’s the fastest and most maneuverable boat, meaning if foul weather cropped up- it’s going to be the best boat to be on for getting back safely. While other boats can fit 400 people on multiple decks, the Mitre Peak boats max out with around 80 and they specifically try to keep booking at around 40 people to make their tours more comfortable.
They provide complimentary tea and coffee during the whole cruise, have amazing staff that took group and individual photos for EVERYONE that wanted one in specific spots, and really comfortable lounging seats. No matter where you sit on the boat you’re guaranteed great views, but the 2nd deck was our favorite spot. Like all tours, they take you all the way out to the sea and right up close under 2 waterfalls. (Stirling falls will SOAK YOU TO THE BONE. Only stay out on the bow or back if you desire to be completely wet) We also saw seals AND dolphins on our tour with the crew lingering near the dolphins so we could enjoy watching them for longer. Best of all, their pricing is competitively on par with all the other cruises- so there’s literally no reason to not book your cruise with this company.
Best stops along the Milford Sound Road
While we weren’t able to do either of the must-do hikes along the road due to heavy clouds and rain, we did pull over at multiple small lakes/ turnouts/ valleys to take photos and the Chasm was a fabulous walk even in the rain. So with that here’s my suggested must do stops, but keep in mind, you’ll want to stop in just about every pull out to enjoy this incredible drive.
53km along the Milford Sound Road from Te Anau
An easy and quick stop with lots of parking just along the roadside. The entire route is photogenic, but there’s something about this valley with towering snow capped mountains surrounding and a tranquil river ever changing as it makes its way through.
The Divide – Hike to the Key Summit
This is a great stop to hit the facilities and break up the drive. If you’ve got a clear day, the hike to Key Summit is a must do hike and offers an elevated perspective on the surrounding glacial valleys- and isn’t too challenging of a hike. From the summit, you’ll have great views of the Routeburn track (which bonus, you’ll walk a short portion of) and Hollyford Valley, even glimpsing Lake Marian across the way in a high hanging valley. This is a popular, graded hike though, so don’t plan on having it to yourself.
Trailhead: The hike begins at the Divide stop along Milford Sound Road, starting on the Routeburn Track as it heads to the Lake Mackenzie Huts.
Distance: 5 miles/ 8 km roundtrip
Elevation gain: 1389 feet
Time: 3 hours
Marian Lake Hike
Just past the Divide on Hollyford road is the Lake Marian carpark. Rain or shine this hike ends in a beautifully reflective lake and odds are you’ll have it to yourself. You’ll also get to experience crossing a very photogenic swing bridge and enjoy views across to Key Summit and the surrounding valleys. Be warned, while the first part of this hike is rather easy, the trail steeply gains up toward the end to reach the hanging valley and will require good balance and potentially use of your hands.
Distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1434 feet
Time: 3 hours
If you aren’t much of a hiker but still up for a nature walk, the chasm is a fantastic 15-20 minute loop walk through vivid green rain forest culminating at a rushing river that drops steeply down into “the chasm.” Rain or shine, this walk doesn’t depend on expansive views and offers a unique look at the tree canopy and rivers that make up the rainforest of Fjordland National Park.
*There are no facilities at this stop.
Where to park at the end of the road
Once you pass the Milfrod Sound Lodge and Piopio café, the next left turn is into the free lot. (It’s right along side the river and hard to miss) Then you’ll pass the turn in for the Airport and see another parking lot across from the visitor center/ another small café. The parking lot there has packing machines that cost us $27 (41 NZD) for 4 hours- and there is a minimum of 3 hours that you have to pay for (if you are doing a cruise). The free parking is only a 10 minute walk and has a free shuttle as well. (Save your money)
You can’t drive down to the cruise terminal but it’s a pretty 10 minute walk or so (part of it covered if it is raining) with several little photogenic beaches along the way. The shuttle also goes to the terminal so no matter which parking lot you park in, you can catch the shuttle if you need to down to the terminal. Once in the terminal, find the specific cruise desk you want to do and either exchange your online voucher for tickets, or purchase once there. From there they will load you onto the boats and sail away you go.
Bonus: While the scenic boat cruise is a must do, you should also consider the short and easy walk from the info center down to Sandfly point. (10-15 min each way) It has some of the best unobstructed views of the sound while keeping your feet firmly on solid ground. Just be sure to bring your bug spray if you’re in shorts or short sleeves.
Where to stay near Milford Sound:
Te Anau lakefront Backpackers– A great budget friendly spot in Te Anau, 1.5 hours from Milford Sound
Articles for the surrounding area:
Guide to Te Anau