You could very easily spend a week exploring the Milford Sound area, by car and on foot – as well as by kayak, boat and plane! There’s a good reason it has been judged the world’s top travel destination (TripAdvisor 2008 Travelers’ Choice Destinations Awards) and the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling. We’re cramming as much as we can into one long day, as we make our way from a week in Queenstown, to our second week in Dunedin. We’ve pre-booked a two-hour nature cruise, and I’m keen to do as many of the short walks as I can fit in one day…
A word of caution: allow plenty of time for the drive. There’s a lot to see along the way. And there are a lot of people that probably shouldn’t be driving (or are not used to New Zealand roads): expect to get stuck behind campervans doing half the speed limit, and cars pulling out onto the highway without checking for traffic. Patience is a virtue, as they say 🙂
Milford Sound walks
I’ve got an hour before our cruise to do a couple of the shorter walks around Milford Sound, while the rest of the family orders lunch at the busy Discover Milford Sound information centre and kiosk.
Milford Sound Viewpoint (15min)
The first one is the very short Milford Sound Viewpoint Walk. Don’t bother with this one. The walk starts near a sign commemorating Donald and Elizabeth Sutherland; he was a Scottish immigrant and the first European to make Milford Sound his home in 1877. He married Dunedin local Elizabeth, and they lived in Milford Sound until their deaths. From this interpretative sign the path soon reaches a viewing platform, overlooking Milford Sound.
It’s an OK view, but the path keeps going so I’m expecting more impressive views from further up the hill. The path quickly gets muddier, before it abrubtly ends. I figure the viewing platform must have been the end of the walk, and head back down.
Milford Foreshore Walk (20min)
The Milford Foreshore Walk is a much better option, following the edge of the fiord and offering views from different perspectives of the surrounding mountains. The boardwalk begins near the information centre, with views straight down the fiord: Mitre Peak (Rahotu) is to the left, The Lion (Mt Kimberley) straight ahead and Cascade Peak to the right.
As the track follows the the edge of the small promontory that juts out into Milford Sound, there’s a great view of Mitre Peak (1,623m asl), with the Footstool (835m asl) in front of it.
Finally, a view of Cascade Peak, with Bowen Falls cascading down to Cemetery Point.
The boardwalk loops back through the forest to finish where it starts, near the information centre.
Milford Sound Cruise
There are many Milford Sound cruise options, all following a similar circuit of the fiord. Most cruises leave in the early afternoon (allowing time to travel from Ta Anau or Queenstown); if you are staying locally the morning cruises are likely to be less full. You’ll get the best deal by booking online before you arrive at Milford Sound, although you can purchase a ticket on arrival. We pre-booked the Real Journeys Nature Cruise, which was slightly longer than their “scenic cruise”. It was also on a smaller boat (the Milford Wanderer), which I much prefer to some of the cruises that had hundreds of people on board.
One of the first sights from the boat is the 162m-high Lady Bowen Falls (or just Bowen Falls), the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound. It was named after the wife of one of New Zealand’s first governor, and provides both water and hydroelectric power to Milford Sound. The falls are known in Maori as Hine Te Awa meaning ‘girl on the river’, as the lower third of the falls resemble the plumage of the Te Kereru bird (NZ Wood Pigeon). I can see people around the base of the falls: there is a track to the waterfall, which requires a boat transfer (bypassing a short section of track that was closed in 2003 due to the risk of rockfall).
On the opposite side of the fiord to Bowen Falls and to the left of Mitre Peak is U-shaped Sinbad Gully. Within this remote valley the rare native kakapo bird, thought to be extinct, was discovered in the 1970s.
In the distance, Stirling Falls comes into view: it drops 146 metres (479 feet) from a valley between The Lion (to the right) and The Palisades (to the left), two imposing mountain peaks. (In Māori, the falls are called Wai Manu or ‘cloud on the water’). The waterfall was featured in the movie Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman leapt off the falls into the water.
On the return journey down the northern side of Milford Sound, the boat noses right into the base of the falls, to give you an idea of their power and the volume of water cascading down the cliffs.
About halfway down the fiord on the southern side are the Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Behind these waterfalls are a chain of 1600m-high peaks.
On the opposite side of the fiord are the Palisade Falls, a typical ribbon waterfall which is approximately 80m high.
The Milford Sound meets the Tasman Sea at Dale Point, where we do a short loop before returning along the northern side of the fiord. The guide points out a rainbow which often forms above the boat, as a result of the high humidity.
We’re now heading back to the head of Milford Sound where we started, and looking back down most of the length of the fiord. On the left is The Palisades, where our guide explains how glacial action formed the enormous circular craters in the vertical cliffs.
Our next stop is Seal Rock, one of the only rocks along the coastline that the native New Zealand fur seals who live in Milford Sound can clamber upon for a rest and some sun. New Zealand fur seals spend up to 8 days at sea feeding frenzy, before they come ashore (haul-out) for 1-2 days to rest and feed their young.
As we cruise past Harrison Cove, which is also the location of the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory (a floating building), we see a group of kayakers in the water. Behind them is Mount Pembroke (2015m), the Pembroke Glacier and Mt Te Hau (1703m). the kayaking tours are mosrly an hour, but there are a few companies like Go Orange that offer 4-5 hour paddles.
From here we are just about back at Freshwater Basni at the head of Milford Sound, where we disembark, and get back in the car for the drive to Te Anau, and onto Dunedin.
Milford Road (Milford Sound to Te Anau drive)
We decided to drive more or less directly to Milford Sound in the morning, and to take out time driving back. This was partly because we’d booked a cruise we needed to get to – but mostly because all the tour buses stop in the morning, and every attraction was swarming with selfie-stick-toting tourists. Here are some of the “must see” stops on Milford Sound Road (aka Milford Road and State Highway 94).
A short distance from Milford Sound is the last remaining steel suspension bridge on the Milford Road. Built in the 1940s, the 75m Tutoko Suspension Bridge features steel towers and a steel bearing frame with timber deck and sides. It was replaced by a more modern road bridge in 1984, but the original bridge was retained as a pedestrian bridge.
Below the bridge is the fast-flowing Tutoku River, named after an important rangatira (chief) who lived in the region
The Chasm (500m return / 20min)
A short nature walk from the well signposted carpark, which initally follows a gravelled track through the forest before turning into a long elevated walkway. The destination is a narrow, rocky gorge carved by the Cleddau River. The loop walk crosses the river twice, with both bridges offering an impressive view of the Cleddau River, before it narrows and plunges into The Chasm.
For more information on this walk, there’s a separate post on The Chasm Walk.
An essential part of the Milford Sound to Te Anau road project (State Highway 94), the Homer Tunnel pierces the Darran Mountains under the Homer Saddle. Construction started in 1935, and the 1.2km long tunnel was not opened until 1953. Construction was slow due to the challenging conditions, including the risk of avalanches in winter (which killed three workers during the almost two decades the tunnel was built). The Engineering NZ web site explains the fascinating history of the Homer Tunnel construction.
The unlined granite tunnel was for some time the longest gravel-surfaced tunnel in the world. The road is now sealed, but remains fairly narrow: in the busier summer months, traffic lights operate so no traffic needs to pass inside the tunnel.
As we’re waiting for the light to turn green so we can enter the tunnel, a kea (the cheeky New Zealand parrot) wanders past the waiting cars, probably hoping for some food.
Just after the tunnel is the Gertrude Valley Lookout, with a view up the Gertrude Valley to the snow-covered peaks of the Darran Mountains, including Marian Peak. There’s a steep walk from here up to Gertrude Saddle (7km / 4-6 hours); it’s regarded as one of Fiordland’s best day hikes, but one which should only be attempted in good weather.
A bit further is Bakehouse Creek, from where there’s a nice view up Cirque Valley to Mount Crosscut.
Monkey Creek, allegedly named after William Henry Homer’s dog, Monkey, is one of the more popular stops along Milford Sound Road (we also stopped on the way down to Milford Sound in the morning, when the skies are clearer). Behind the creek are the snow-covered peaks of the upper Hollyford Valley.
As Monkey Creek is fed by a glacier high in the mountains, the water is pure and you can safely fill up your water bottle here.
Falls Creek & Christie Falls
Another popular stop is Falls Creek. On one side of Milford Sound Road is Christie Falls, a picturesque waterfall (sometimes incorrectly referrred to as Falls Creek Falls, cascading over moss-covered rocks.
On the other side of Milford Sound Road is the Hollyford River, which eventually reaches the coast at Martins Bay, at the end of the Hollyford Track.
Less than two kilometres further is the junction with Lower Hollyford Road, which leads to many short walks and the world-renowned Hollyford Track. (I’ll have to come back another time to explore these).
- Lake Marian Track (3.1km / 2-3 hours). Spectacular series of waterfalls (after 10 minutes) on the way to an alpine lake in a hanging valley formed by glacial action.
- Deadmans Track (3km / 3-5 hours). A challenging tramping route from the Hollyford Road up the steep slope, meeting the Routeburn Track near Harris Saddle.
- Hollyford Track (56km / 4-8 days). A popular and spectacular multi-day hike, from the mountains to the sea at Martins Bay, with six backcountry huts along the route.
- Humboldt Falls (1.2km / 30min). From the end of Holyford road is a well-graded walking track that climbs through rainforest to a lookout over the impressive 275m-high Humboldt Falls.
Hollyford Valley Lookout (Pop’s View)
You almost don’t need to leave the car to see the views from Hollyford Valley Lookout (also known as Pop’s View), where there are sweeping views from a raised platform. As well as looking down the Hollyford Valley, directly ahead are two unnamed peaks, with Mt Lyttle between them.
Behind the Hollyford Valley and Hollyford River are some more snow-capped mountains, which form part of the Ailsa Mountains.
The lowest east-west pass of the Southern Alps at 531m (1,742 feet) above sea level, The Divide is also the starting point for the Routeburn Track (which I completed yesterday) and the Caples and Greenstone Tracks. The shorter Key Summit hike (6.8m return / 3 hours) offers panoramic views over mountains and alpine lakes on a clear day.
Lake Gunn / Cascade Creek
There is a DOC campsite here, the scenic Cascade Creek Campsite (no booking required), next to Cascade Creek at the southern end of Lake Gunn.
Located nearby is the Lake Gunn Nature Walk, a short hike through red beech forest, with glimpses of the birdlife of the Eglinton valley, Lake Gunn and the surrounding mountains. Although I don’t have time to do the walk, we have a short break here admiring the fields of lupin. The fields of lupin are framed by Mount Eglinton and the Earl Mountains, which rise above the broad meadow. (Lupins flower from mid-November to December, in varied and stunning colours. However, they are considered an invasive species, an introduced species of Lupin called Russell Lupins.)
A bit further down Milford Sound Road is the Earl Mountain Tracks Carpark, the starting point for a couple of short but challenging walks. Both tracks follow a creek up through beech forest to the river flats:
- Hut Creek Track (2.7km / 3hrs one-way)
- Mistake Creek Track (5km / 3hrs one-way)
Upper Eglinton Campsite
The Upper Eglinton Campsite is another scenic camping area (no booking required) – it’s much smaller than the Cascade Creek site. We stop briefly to take some photos of a few more lupins, with some of the peaks of the Eglinton valley behind them.
The valley is now much wider and the road a bit straighter as we reach Knobs Flat. Mount Eglinton (1,854m asl), the highest peak of the Earl Mountains, looms over the valley.
At Knobs flat there is another DOC campground (Kiosk Creek) and Knobs Flat Accommodation, a small eco-tourism accommodation venture (six studio units and a camping ground).
Mirror Lakes (400m / 20min)
Mirror Lakes is another short (400m) loop walk that’s worth stopping for… A timber boardwalk leads down from Milford Sound Road to a series of small lakes, with a nice reflections of the Earl Mountains.
One of the lakes has a sign deliberately “mirrored”, so that the name “Mirror Lakes” is shown correctly in its reflection.
The Mirror Lakes were formed when the Eglinton River shifted its course long ago, cutting off two river bends to form ‘oxbow’ lakes. They are home to water fowl (New Zealand’s smallest duck, the scaup or pāpango, and the grey duck or pārera), eels, trout and wetland plants.
The Eglinton Valley is another popular stop on the Milford Road – in the morning the fields were swarming with people, and multiple tour busses were queued on the side of the highway. By late afternoon, there was no-one here.
The Milford Road runs through the valley alongside the Eglinton River; it’s one of only a few road-accessible valleys in the whole of Fiordland National Park. The wide valley was carved out by glaciers, and is surrounded by steep rocky mountains covered in native beech forest.
The Eglinton Valley is also one of the first, or last, attractions of the Fiordland National Park. There are another few campgrounds and the challenging Boyd Creek Track (which goes from the Milford Road up the Boyd Creek Track to the tops of the Countess Range) before the Fiordland National Park Entrance is reached.
Te Anau Downs
The Milford Road reaches Lake Te Anau at Te Anau Downs, and there are some nice views of the the Kepler and Murchison mountain ranges on the western side of the fiord.
At Te Anau Downs there is accommodation, and a jetty providing boat transport to the start of the Milford Sound Track and Lake Te Anau cruises. Between Te Anau Downs and Te Abau, the Milford Road curves along the shores of the lake, with occasionl dramatic mountain views.
The town of Te Anau, on the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau, is considered the “gateway” to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. There’s lots to do around Te Anau, including visiting Te Ana-au Caves, kayaking, cycling, jet boat riding, fishing and hunting, farm tours and seaplane/helicopter sightseeing. There are many options for accommodations, as well as a range of restaurants – we had dinner here before continuing our journey to Dunedin.
0.0km Milford Sound 4.4km Tutoko Bridge 10.2km The Chasm carpark. The Chasm walk (400m/20min easy walk). 17.5km Homer Tunnel 20.1km Gertrude Valley Lookout. Gertrude Saddle (7km/4-6hr hard walk). 24.3km Monkey Creek 29.0km Falls Creek / Christie Falls. Falls Creek (21km/1-2 days) 30.8km Hollyford Road junction. Lake Marian walk & Hollyford Track 32.2km Hollyford Valley Lookout (Pop's View) 34.3km The Divide. Routeburn, Greenstone, Caples & Key Summit tracks 43.1km Lake Gunn / Cascade Green 47.0km Earl Mountain tracks. Hut Creek / Mistake Creek tracks 49.1km Upper Eglinton campground 55.1km Knobs Flat 61.0km Mirror Lakes Walk (400m / 20min easy walk) 65.3km Eglinton Valley 72.7km Fiordland National Park Entrance 98.3km Te Anau Downs Jetty (start of Milford Sound walk) 118.0km Ta Anau
When to visit Milford Sound
The most popular months are November to March, when Milford Sound has up to 2,000 visitors a day – visiting off-season has the advantage of cheaper accommodation and no crowds. The main disadvantage of the winter months are shorter days, and you won’t be able to do any of the alpine walks.
- Temperate climate with mild summers (Dec–Feb) and cool winters (Jun–Aug).
- Rainfall heavy year-round, but particularly during Dec–Jan
- July is the driest month (393.9mm of rain over 13.8 days)
- Penguins and seals more active in the cooler months (Jun–Aug)
Milford Sound Cruises has a weather and climate page which has more information on weather and the best time to visit.
Accommodation in Milford Sound
You can stay at Milford Sound, with the Milford Sound Lodge offering chalet accommodation, as well as campervan sites.
If this is booked out, Te Anau, is the nearest town, which has range of accommodation options. It’s about a 1:30min drive from here to Milford Sound.
|Location||Milford Sound is a fiord in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island within Fiordland National Park.|
|Distance||118km one-way from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Allow at least 1.5 to 2 hours (windy road and delays getting through Homer Tunnel). 288km from Queenstown to Milford Sound (4 hours).|
|What to do||