A perk of being one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations is that there’s plenty of options to get out there and soak up the magic, even if you’re short on time. Here, Alex Samuels gives us the lowdown on the one and only Milford Sound.
Fiordland National Park is without a doubt one of the most iconic spots on New Zealand’s South Island. The rugged beauty of the place consistently draws people in and imprints everlasting memories that can’t be made anywhere else. Massive mountains dangle their lower halves below the clouds and poke their heads out when the sun starts to shine, while the lush, green forests below and waters rushing to and fro around the park create quite the scene.
Milford Sound is the main highlight of the region and most people make it their primary destination when they visit. The fiord (it’s not actually a “sound”) was created by glacial action that carved through the valleys, giving them their epic u-shaped formations. Along these mountains, you’ll see an endless number of waterfalls splashing down into the water below. Many of these have been flowing for thousands of years, with the exception of the smaller streams that only occur when it rains. For these reasons you’ll hear many people say that this spot is the “eighth wonder of the world” and you can see some of the best of it in just a day!
It takes 4 to 6 hours to reach Milford going one way if you’re starting in Queenstown. This factors in the occasional stop at some of the scenic view spots that are all along the road (which are definitely worth stopping for). Te Anau is about the halfway point between Queenstown and Milford Sound and the trip is cut shorter to just 2.5 hours one way if you set up camp there the day before. This makes the overall round trip time only 5 hours, versus the 10 hours it takes to conduct a day trip from Queenstown. Despite the lengthy travel time to reach Milford, the journey itself is one of the best parts of the experience.
From Queenstown and beyond, the road is generally well paved and can accommodate any vehicle type. If you’ve been touring the country in a van like many travellers, be prepared for windy roads and make sure you don’t go too fast. Obviously this is a general rule in New Zealand due to the nature of the roads, but heading out to Milford you’ll likely encounter more cars and buses because of the number of people that head out there every day.
At the time this article is being written, the road to Milford Sound was undergoing extensive repairs due to the rains late in 2019 and early 2020. Massive amounts of water damaged many of the roads so severely it trapped travelers for more than a week. The affected areas are almost exclusively the roads between Te Anau and Milford, meaning that you can still drive out to Te Anau from Queenstown.
Fortunately, road crews responded to the road issues quickly and they’ve since been able to repair roads enough to allow tour buses and some permitted 4WD vehicles through to Milford (from Te Anau). Access to the general public however still isn’t fully allowed and full repairs to the road are expected to take another month or more. So, before booking your transport, make sure to check on news updates about the state of the roads.
Bus or drive
Many long-term travellers either rent out a car or van to explore the two islands during their trip. So if that’s the case for you then you should strongly consider driving yourself out to Te Anau or to Milford (roads permitting).
This gives you the freedom to stop at some of the other scenic spots on the way there. There are lakes to hike to, valleys to wander around in, and unknown spots to stop and marvel at. The going is generally a bit quicker too if you’d prefer to spend as little time as possible in a vehicle. It should be noted though that there are no fuel stations between Queenstown and Te Anau, so make sure you manage your time well on the way out there and top up before leaving town!
Buses, on the other hand, can be useful as well. Mainly if you haven’t got a car to explore in. The tour operators will get you to your cruise on time and give out some great knowledge about the area.
Seeing Milford Sound in a day
It’s hard not to feel a bit humbled when you first see Mitre Peak towering off in the distance. Along with the seemingly endless number of mountains that also surround the area, it’s the type of sight that makes you want to forgo the cruise or kayak trip you have planned and just stand at the edge of the water viewing the sights for the rest of the day. Be patient though and get yourself out there! The mountains are better seen up close and the wildlife that includes dolphins, seals, birds, and more are waiting to be spotted!
The quintessential way to experience Milford Sound is by cruising around the bodies of water whilst on a boat. From the deck you have 360-degree views in every direction so you can see everything without limitation. Many of the cruises also make it their mission to get you the full feeling for the nature around you, mainly by backing up their boats straight up next to the thundering waterfalls. Just so you can feel exactly how cold that glacial water is!
If you’re mostly interested in seeing as much as you can and taking photos, booking a cruise could be the best way to go. It’s also the best option for groups of travellers, families, and for those on the hunt for more of a relaxing experience.
One of the main boat operators, GoOrange, consistently draws superb reviews from customers about expertise, punctuality, thoroughness, and how they offer up the best experience. With them, expect to pay $50-$60 for a cruise (if you’re already out in Milford Sound and don’t require a shuttle pickup), $130-$140 for shuttle and cruise from Te Anau, and $150-$160 for a shuttle from Queenstown.
These prices can differ compared to other operators, but reflect the general pricing for boat tours. Make sure to bring snacks (to survive the long day), a quality raincoat, and insect repellent. The fiord is still a wild place, but bring a couple of these items and they should mitigate some of the more common nuisances.
Sometimes the best way to experience a place is by immersing yourself in it. As mentioned before, the mountains around the fiord are staggeringly high. Get up close and personal with them and you’ll truly be feeling small in no time flat. If that sounds like something you want to make a part of your Milford experience, kayaking the fiord could be your best bet. You’ll also be able to go to certain parts of the area that the boats cannot, affording you more unique views of the landscape and the opportunity to view the wildlife more intimately.
Kayaking around the fiord isn’t too difficult and can be managed by just about everyone. Tour guides from GoOrange and Roscoe’s Kayaks, for example, have been taking people out onto the water for years and do a great job providing assistance where needed. Plus the guides know all the best spots to go, so you can expect to be whisked off to some great places like Harrison’s Cove. For almost all kayaking experiences, expect to pay between $150-$200 for 3-4 hours kayaking, wildlife viewing, and information on how to properly navigate the fiord.
Flying above Milford would no doubt be quite the experience. The chance to see the landscape from a birds-eye view would help you fully grasp the size of the mountains and fiords overall. Plus, many of the flights offer to pick you up in either Queenstown or Te Anau before heading out to Milford, giving you the chance to see some of the scenic spots from a completely different perspective.
While the idea of taking a plane sounds romantic, the price somewhat isn’t. Expect to pay between $350-$750 for 30-60 minute flights that include flying to and from your pick-up point, a touch down in Milford Sound, and a cruise if you find a deal that includes that.
Hiking in Milford
One of the biggest perks of getting yourself out to the region is that it allows you extra time to go on a hike in the area. There are multiple scenic hikes around that offer up views of both the fiord and of other Fiordland National Park gems.
The Mirror Lakes are stunning reflective bodies of water alongside the road. The 5 minute walk on the pathway next to the water is a great way to stretch your legs during the drive or bus ride. Looking down at the water, the Earl Mountains reflect right back at you. The sharpness of the reflections almost look Photoshopped and it often turns the heads of those driving on by. Much of the foliage can be seen winding down from above the surface into the waters below, creating an epic looking silhouette beneath the water.
The Key Summit Track is another quick hike that can be coupled with a day excursion to Milford. The hike is part of the famous Routeburn Track, which happens to be one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The summit hike is three hours round trip with a moderate uphill climb to reach the top. The difficulty to reward ratio tips quite heavily towards the reward side of things, mainly due to the superb views off the top, the serene feeling you’ll experience while walking through the forest (very Lord of the Rings), and the generally uncrowded trail, making this spot one of the best ways to maximize your day!
At the end of the day, there is no perfect formula for seeing Milford Sound and the other parts of Fiordland National Park. It would take months to fully cover the whole area and that’s only taking into account the already discovered nooks and crannies. However, most travellers don’t normally have that time on their hands because there are so many other spots in the country to visit! What you’ll likely be able to do though is get yourself out there for a very full day. If you stock up on food, gas, a list of things you want to see, and take a peek at road conditions you should be able to fit in enough to get the best snippets of the area. All in all a day trip to Milford Sound is definitely worth it!