Updated on March 19th, 2023
Milford Sound in New Zealand is said to be the 8th Wonder of the World & the journey to get there is one of the most spectacular drives on the planet. But it is certainly not one for the faint hearted! This post is packed with everything you need to know before you take on the epic road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound.”
Milford Highway, Fiordland, New Zealand
One of the most spectacular sights in the whole of New Zealand is Milford Sound. Rudyard Kipling once referred to it as the 8th Wonder of the World. One of my last trips before the pandemic was to return to New Zealand, 20 years after I visited the first time. I spent most of my time in Queenstown, but as I was so close, how could I resist going to visit one of the earth’s wonders?
The prize is magnificent & awe-inspiring Milford Sound, but the adventure is in the journey to get there. I have been lucky to take some epic road trips through my 30 years of travel, but the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound was one of the most spectacular I have ever witnessed. Here is everything you need to know, should you decide to experience the road yourself.
Is it worth driving to Milford Sound?
100% YES! However, the 120km drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound throws everything at you. There are switchbacks, corners, inclines, avalanches, traffic, tunnels & in the winter, ice on the roads. This is not a journey for nervous drivers. It is also not one to embark on in a hurry. Without stops, the trip will take you 2 ½ hours. But, the joy is in stopping wherever the mood takes you & marvelling at the natural beauty you are lucky enough to cast your eyes over.
Can I drive the Milford Highway as a woman alone?
Much as I hate to admit it, there are some activities that I would not promote for us as solo female travellers. Unfortunately, this drive would be one of them for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a long drive & a long day. You will need your wits about you at every twist & turn.
There is only one road in & out of Milford Sound, which means 240km driving alone. In itself, that’s not a problem, but add in the potential for needing snow chains in winter, avalanche risks & no phone coverage & for me it is a step too far.”
The good news is that there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the trip which will be much more relaxed. There are many coach tours to take you from Te Anau to Milford Sound with stops at all the top photo locations. For the best experience, I would opt for a small group. Watch this space for more recommendations for visiting Milford Sound itself.
I was lucky to have my friend Vikky to share the driving & the awesome experience with.
What can I see on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound?
Here are my top 11 places not to be missed on this spectacular journey. In order, from Te Anau.
Te Anau Downs is one of the first stops on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It is the starting point of the Milford Track, touted as ‘the finest walk in the world’. The track itself is 54km long & needs to be booked months in advance. But a short stop here is a great place to take in the view of the Murchison Mountains.
Straight out of Lord of the Rings, Eglinton Valley offers a picturesque drive along the river, flanked on either side by the imposing & impressive mountains. Pullover at any of the stops & you will not be disappointed.
Mirror Lakes is quite simply spectacular! The lakes are small tarns by the side of the road which when still, give perfect reflections of the Earl Mountains beyond. The view is mesmerising.
4. Knobs Flat
As the last flush toilet before you get to Milford Sound, this is a stop worth knowing about!
5. Cascade Creek & Lake Gunn
If you have time for a short hike, Lake Gunn Nature Walk comes recommended. It is an easy loop walk into the tall beech forest which will take you around 45 minutes to complete.
6. The Divide & Key Summit
The Divide marks the lowest east-west pass across the Southern Alps. It is also the start of the Routeburn and Greenstone & Caples Walking Tracks. Both of these I tackled over 5 days back in 1995. I would thoroughly recommend the hike & would love to do it again. If you have 3 hours to spare, however, & are looking for spectacular views of the Fiordland National Park, then take the walking route here to Key Summit.
After this, the road becomes windier & narrower so please take care when driving.
7. Hollyford Valley Lookout
Look out for Pops View for amazing views of stunning Hollyford Valley.
If you have some time, I thoroughly recommend a detour to Humboldt Falls. The return trip took us an hour (by this point we were a little rushed). The trip is more of a dirt road but don’t miss a stop at the footbridge over Moraine Creek. The bright blue fast-flowing rapids beneath will take your breath away. At the end of the road is a 30-minute walking track to view the falls themselves. We practically had to run up it by this stage, powered by determination & slight panic that we were running late! The only way back is along the same track.
9. Monkey Creek
I missed this one, but the view looks stunning as you can see the Hollyford Valley snaking its way before you. The water here is cold but pure enough to drink so use it as a chance to fill up your water bottle.
10. Homer Tunnel
The Homer Tunnel is 1.2km long & looks dwarfed as it pierces the sheer rock face ahead. There are traffic lights that control the entrance, but it is one of the most picturesque traffic jams you will ever sit in! At busy times it can take 20 minutes to get through the tunnel so please factor that into your timings. Once you exit the tunnel, the vista changes as you take multiple switchbacks down the valley. By the time we got there, it had started to rain & we could see waterfalls popping up all around us. It was magical!
While waiting on the return journey we were entertained by keas going car to car begging for food. If you see the same, no matter how tempting DO NOT FEED THEM.”
Not to be missed, The Chasm is an easy 20-minute loop walk (we did it on the return journey). To reward your efforts, you will find a gorge with rapids on either side. Wonder at the force of nature as you see the sheer volume of water that passes through the small gap.
Important preparation for the Te Anau to Milford Sound road trip
- The drive is around 120km long & there is only one road between Te Anau & Milford Sound. That’s 240km there & back in a day.
- Google Maps says it takes 1 ½ hours but between the twists & turns, the sheer volume of traffic, coach trips & traffic lights, it will take a minimum of 2 ½ hours, without stops. But the sheer beauty of the drive will make you want to stop along the way for photos. When I drove, we took 5 hours. We didn’t manage any real hikes & were still feeling rushed towards the end.
- Fill up with petrol in Te Anau as there is nowhere else en route.
- Conditions can mean that the road could be closed at any time. Check this page before you go or call 0800 444 449 for the latest updates. Also, when you are in Te Anau, visit the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre for all the most up to date information.
- There is not any phone coverage on the highway, so download anything you need before you hit the road.
- Be aware that in winter you will need to travel with snow chains or risk a NZ$750 fine. These can be hired from any of the petrol stations in Te Anau.
On the road
- If there are “Avalanche No Stopping” signs in place, please obey them. They are there for your safety.
- You may be lucky enough to see some kea (especially begging at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel). DO NOT feed them.
- Be a courteous driver. If you are causing a queue, pull over at a convenient spot & let the traffic pass. Also, park with consideration to maximise the spaces for fellow travellers.
Finally, if any road closure stops you from getting all the way to Milford Sound, then still take the journey as far as you can. The scenery along the way will not disappoint you.”
What to bring on the road trip
- Expect four seasons in one day & take plenty of layers for warmth & waterproofing, especially on the boat.
- Pack insect repellent as you may encounter sandflies.
- Pick up some snacks & sustenance for the journey before you leave Te Anau. There are very few places along the way to buy food. I would recommend a visit to Sandfly Bakery to stock up.
There are a number of factors that should come into play when you are planning your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
- Book a cruise later in the day to maximise your time for the journey. Mine was at 3pm which was perfect.
- The coach trips aim for the midday cruises, so try & avoid those.
- At busy times there is a convoy of coaches heading to Milford Sound. Being stuck behind them could impact your enjoyment so either leave Te Anau at 8am to stay ahead, or after 11am to avoid them altogether. I left at 10am & it was actually perfect.
- Leave plenty of time to park. Again, an advantage of booking a later cruise means that there should be more space in the car park. Check-in for a cruise is 20 minutes before departure & it is a 10-minute walk from the car park to the Visitors Terminal. Parking in the car park costs NZ$20 & you can pay by credit card.
If you would prefer to save the money, then you can park for free on Deepwater Basin Road. However, it will take 25 minutes to walk to the terminal from there.”
- Allow for possible delays at the Homer Tunnel & anywhere else along the route. Waiting at the tunnel can lead to delays of up to 20 minutes or more at busy times.
- Leave plenty of time for your journey. We took 5 hours but still felt rushed towards the end.
What time of year is best to visit Milford Sound?
Advice from a local is that the perfect time to visit Milford Sound is in August & September. These months will give you good weather, fewer tourists & snow on the peaks of the mountains. The worst time is February due to the sheer numbers of tourists, especially the two weeks around Chinese New Year.
If you do intend to take the trip between May & November be aware that the drive will be slower & weather makes things unpredictable. You may be required to attach snow chains for the journey.”
Don’t be put off by the rain as this can be when the landscapes are at their best, especially Milford Sound itself. Rain means waterfalls. Some will appear before your very eyes, others will become even more epic in proportions with rain. Fiordland National Park can get up to 7 metres of rain per year. It would be very rare to visit Milford Sound on a day when there is no rain at all. Hence, after heavy rain the risk of avalanches is real.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a long day so I recommend you stay overnight in Te Anau. There are loads of options. I chose the excellent Radfords on the Lake, but check the box below to find your perfect place for the night. For food, I recommend the Fat Duck in Te Anau, either reserve a table or arrive after 8.15pm.
The prize at the end of this spectacular journey is Milford Sound itself. The best way to see it is on a cruise. There are numerous options, but a nature cruise will be more informative & a little longer. Smaller boats can make the experience seem even more epic. There is also an underwater observatory visit which is offered on a few tours. Watch this space for more details on how to get the most from your visit to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is said to be the 8th natural wonder of the world & who am I to argue? However, the whole experience of visiting the Sound is only amplified by the epic journey to get there. I hope I have now given you everything you need to make the most of this unforgettable day.
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