Cecilia Lindqvist© Cecilia Lindqvist
Cecilia Lindqvist

The Guide to Milford Sound & the Milford Road šŸ”ļø [2024]

© Cecilia Lindqvist
Article Single Pages© NZPocketGuide.com
Article Single Pages© NZPocketGuide.com
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What You Need to Know About Milford Sound and the Road to Milford Sound

If you want mind-blowing eyeball-popping tear-inducing scenery that New Zealand is oh so famous for, then Milford Sound is the number one choice. Ok, there’s a lot of hype around this particular fiord in the Fiordland National Park of the South Island. While some travel guides refer to it as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, you can only begin to imagine what you are about to lay your eyes on with a trip down to New Zealand’s national treasure. Indeed, Milford Sound is “effing” stunning, it can’t be denied, but like anything that is overhyped, visitors do go there expecting miracles to happen and become disappointed when their grandma doesn’t come back from the dead or they aren’t cured of leprosy.

We’ll go as far as to say that Milford Sound is an absolute New Zealand must-do either that or one of the fiords of New Zealand because they are similar in appearance. Milford Sound is the fiord on everyone’s lips because it is the most accessible with a great connection of the Milford Road/Milford Highway/State Highway 94, which is a beautiful experience in itself.

This guide to Milford Sound and the Milford Road will go through the entire journey, from road trip pitstops to what to do once you arrive in Milford Sound. If you have any more questions, they’ll probably be answered in The Complete Travel Guide to Milford Sound.

5 Fun Facts About Milford Sound

Because who doesn’t love a fun fact?

  1. Milford Sound is not actually a sound. It is a fiord created by glacial action that produced U-shaped valleys. It was named when the English and Welsh explorers were unfamiliar with fiords.
  2. Captain Cook sailed past Milford Sound twice without seeing it. It was later discovered in 1823 by John Grono who named it Milford Haven after his birthplace in Wales.
  3. Sutherland Falls, seen on the Milford Track, is the world’s fifth-highest with water falling 580 m (1,903 ft).
  4. The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, which means “single thrush”. According to legend, when Maui lost the treasure of immorality to the goddess of death, a thrush flew to this place of sorrow.
  5. Milford Sound gets 6,813 mm (268 in) of rain per year, making it one of the wettest places on Earth!

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How to Get to Milford Sound

Travellers usually make this trip from one of two places: Queenstown or Te Anau. We recommend starting your day trip to Milford Sound from Te Anau, as there is a lot to see on the Milford Road, which can feel rushed if you are day-tripping from Queenstown. Nevertheless, if you are strapped for time, don’t let the long return drive from Queenstown stop you from missing out.

Better yet, in the warmer months, make use of the campsites so you can explore this beautiful part of Planet Earth for longer and make use of the hiking tracks. Learn more about the campsites, as well as other ways to stay overnight in Milford Sound, using the 10 Best Accommodations in Milford Sound.

Drive Times to Milford Sound (Without Stops)

What are the driving times to Milford Sound? They might be longer than you think:

  • Queenstown to Milford Sound – 4 hrs
  • Te Anau to Milford Sound – 2 hrs 30 mins

Should You Take the Coach or Drive to Milford Sound?

This all comes down to preference. The Milford Road is windy, narrow and busy with eager tourists trying to make the long trip before the sun goes down. If this is something you can handle as a driver, then you’ll reap the rewards of being able to check out every single viewpoint and hiking track that you like. Remember to have enough fuel for a 240 km (150 mi) return between Te Anau and Milford Sound, as there are no fuel stations. It is also a legal requirement to carry snow chains between May and November.

For those who would rather throw themselves off a mountain than drive the Milford Road, there are more than enough coach services between Milford Sound, Te Anau and Queenstown. Many of which, like Southern Discoveries and Milford Sound Select and more (as listed in the 15 Best Milford Sound Tours from Queenstown & Te Anau), make stops at the shorter walks and viewpoints along the way. All the while, you can feel completely relaxed and take in the mountain views that tower around you.

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Essential Stops on the Milford Road

The road between Te Anau and Milford Sound is a destination in itself. Heading north from Te Anau on State Highway 94 is an alpine drive packed with walks and natural wonders. If you are doing just a day trip to Milford Sound, be choosey about what you see in order to fit it all in! However, if you make use of the campgrounds, you can even squeeze more hikes or a multi-day hike into your itinerary. All the sights and walks below are well signposted off the Milford Road.

Expert tip: Check for road updates and whether the Milford Road is open on the New Zealand Transport Agency website

Mirror Lakes (5-10 Mins One Way)

Probably the most popular stop on the way to Milford Sound, take this short easy walk along boardwalks on the shore of a vivid mirror lake with the mountains reflecting the water. You will emerge just a few metres away from the start. Find out more on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.

Lake Gunn Nature Walk (45 Mins Loop)

You may have noticed how the forest of Fiordland National Park is ridiculously dense with ferns growing out of everything and treetrunks are thick with the mossy goodness. A quick way to enjoy the forest is by taking the Lake Gunn Nature Walk, a wide and accessible track. Learn about said trees as you go on the information boards and spot birds. You’ll also approach Lake Gunn for more stunning photo opportunities.

Lake Marian Falls Track (20 Mins Return) and Lake Marian Track (3 Hrs Return)

Signposted just off the Hollyford Road a few metres off the Milford Road, take this easy walk over a swingbridge while seeing a series of waterfalls. If you are prepared for a longer hike, continue to the glacial Lake Marian above the forest and surrounded by majestic mountains.

The Homer Tunnel & East Homer Nature Trail

Access to Milford Sound would not be possible by land without this 1.2 km (0.7 mi) tunnel pierced right through a mountain. The Homer Tunnel was completed in 1953 and has almost remained the same since its creation. Before delving into the tunnel, check out the East Homer Nature Walk (at the Homer Tunnel parking area) for a change to see some cheeky kea!

The Chasm Walk (15 Minutes Return)

A super easy access walk, The Chasm Walk shows what the sheer force of water can do as you look over a bridge at the carved rocks below.

More Stops on the Milford Road

If you’re really hankering for more options, check out the 20 Best Stops on the Road to Milford Sound for way more options than you have time to do!

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Things to Do at Milford Sound

You finally made it: Milford Sound! Now, there are a number of ways to experience the fiord, from the relaxing short cruise to diving into the hidden depths. Look out for wildlife like dolphins, seals, kea parrots and the rare Fiordland-crested penguin. And that’s only what can be seen above the water’s surface…

Cruise

This is the most popular option for those taking day trips to Milford Sound, as it is the quickest way to see the fiord, seal colony, and have a refreshing blast of water under Stirling Falls. Most cruises will take you to the end of the fiord and back within two hours.

Milford Sound cruises are available with RealNZ, Southern Discoveries, Cruise Milford and more. Compare all of your options in the 10 Best Cruises in Milford Sound.

Kayak

Make yourself feel that much smaller in the fiord by taking a kayaking tour. Kayaking experiences vary from tours of Milford Sound, getting close to wildlife and exploring those places the cruise ships cannot, to a freedom kayak around Harrison Cove. You can combine a cruise and kayak to explore Milford Sound further towards the sea.

Kayaking trips are available with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks and Southern Discoveries.

Scuba Diving

The combination of freshwater sitting on top of the salty seawater has created some unique deep-sea life in Milford Sound’s marine reserve. The sea creatures that you would usually see at 100-200 metres can be seen in water less than 30 metres in Milford Sound. Whether you are a beginner or experienced, you can explore the native black coral trees and the diverse fish species. Learn more about this experience in The Luxury Travel Guide to Milford Sound.

Underwater Observatory

If you prefer a more dry approach to see what lies 10 metres beneath the water of Milford Sound, visit the underwater observatory at Harrison Cove. The large windows give you an opportunity to view the fish in their natural habitat.

Cruise and underwater observatory combos are available with Southern Discoveries.

Scenic Flight

Really treat yourself to a birds eye view of Milford Sound. Either take a helicopter or plane flight over the famous fiords. Depart from Milford Sound with Milford Sound Helicopters, Te Anau with Te Anau Helicopter Services, Wanaka with Siberia Experience, and Queenstown with Over The Top Helicopters.

Compare flights from Queenstown in the 10 Best Scenic Flights to Milford Sound.

Walks

There are some short walks to enjoy just to get those shoreside views of Milford Sound, like the Milford Sound Lookout Track (20 mins return) and the Foreshore Walk (30 mins return) both accessible from the main visitor car park. See a complete list of walks in the 20 Best Walks in Milford Sound.

For more activity inspiration, be sure to check out the 25 Best Things to Do in Milford Sound.

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Multi-Day Hikes in Milford Sound

The Milford Road is the beginning/end of many multi-day hikes in the Fiordland National Park, including the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, Hollyford Track and the Greenstone Walkway.

All of the above provide dramatic alpine views, bushwalks and more lakes than you can count. All of them also have their own little charms: an extra lake to see here; a magnificent waterfall to see there. These hikes are usually suitable for most travellers of average fitness yet an enjoyable and challenging experience like no other.

To check out how to access these hikes, take a look at 5 Incredible Multi-Day Hikes in the Fiordland National Park.

Great Walk Day Hikes

For those of you who are unable or unwilling to hike for days, try out a part of a great walk and return the same way. The following can be accessed from Milford Road from The Divide car park:

If you don’t have five days to spare for the full Milford Track, get a taste of the famous NZ Great Walk by hiking the latter part of the trail to Giant Gate Falls. Fiordland Outdoors Co. offers water taxi transport from Sandfly Point in Milford Sound to the end of the Milford Track. This section of the track is easy-going and family-friendly, accessible for most fitness levels. Alternatively, Trips & Tramps offer half-day and full-day guided experiences of the famous trail including transport.

For more about Milford’s awesome hikes, check out the 20 Best Walks in Milford Sound.

The Guide to Milford Sound & the Milford Road šŸ”ļø [2024]© Unsplash

Frequently Asked Questions About the Drive to Milford Sound on the Milford Road

Although the journey to Milford Sound on the Milford Road (State Highway 94) is as breathtaking as the destination itself, we know the long drive stresses many travellers out. With that in mind, here are some FAQs for those planning to drive this iconic route through Fiordland National Park.

What is the road like to Milford Sound?

The road to Milford Sound, known as the Milford Road (State Highway 94), is one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives. It traverses through diverse landscapes, including mountain ranges, native forests, and glacial valleys. The road is well-maintained but can be challenging due to its remote location, changes in elevation, and variable weather conditions. Drivers should be prepared for sharp curves, narrow sections, one-way bridges and occasional steep grades.

Can I drive myself to Milford Sound?

Yes, you can drive yourself to Milford Sound. This option offers the flexibility to stop at various scenic points along the way, such as the Mirror Lakes, The Chasm, and Key Summit (the latter not included in bus tours). However, it’s important to be well-prepared for the journey and check the weather and road conditions before departure.

Is it safe to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound?

Yes, it is generally safe to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, provided that you take the necessary precautions. The journey can take around 4 to 5 hours one way, depending on weather and road conditions. During winter months, the road can be more hazardous due to ice and snow. Always check the weather forecast and road conditions before setting out, and consider carrying chains in the winter.

Is the road to Milford Sound windy?

Yes, the road to Milford Sound features several windy sections, particularly as it approaches the Homer Tunnel. These winding stretches require careful navigation and reduced speeds, especially in adverse weather conditions or when visibility is low.

Is it hard to drive to Milford Sound?

The drive to Milford Sound can be challenging, especially for those unaccustomed to driving on mountainous roads or in variable weather conditions. Preparation and caution are key. It’s advisable to allow extra time for the journey, take regular breaks, and be prepared for any weather. During peak travel times, the road can also be busy with tour buses and other vehicles.

Is there a tunnel between Te Anau and Milford Sound?

Yes, there is a tunnel known as the Homer Tunnel. It is a single-lane tunnel that cuts through the Darran Mountains, linking the Hollyford Valley with the Cleddau Valley on the approach to Milford Sound. The tunnel is about 1.2 kilometres long and can be a unique part of the driving experience. Be prepared for potential waits at the tunnel entrance during busy times, as traffic is controlled by traffic lights.

Do you need chains to drive to Milford Sound?

In winter, carrying snow chains is strongly recommended, and at times, it may be mandatory to have them fitted to your vehicle. Conditions on the Milford Road can change rapidly, and snow or ice can make certain sections, including the approach to the Homer Tunnel, treacherous. Always check the latest road conditions and weather forecasts before embarking on your journey.

Driving to Milford Sound is an adventure that offers unparalleled opportunities to experience the stunning landscapes of Fiordland National Park. Being well-prepared and cautious will ensure that your drive is not only safe but also one of the most memorable parts of your visit to Milford Sound.

More Milford Sound Guides

Check out these guides to see what else you could be getting up to the outstanding Milford Sound:

Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in our guide, How to Plan a Road Trip in New Zealand.

Sources:

The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Laura S.

This article has been reviewed and published by Laura, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Laura is a first-class honours journalism graduate and a travel journalist with expertise in New Zealand and South Pacific tourism for over 10 years. She also runs travel guides for five of the top destinations in the South Pacific and is the co-host of over 250 episodes of the NZ Travel Show on YouTube.

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