Updated on June 14th, 2021
Milford Sound is one of the most iconic sights of New Zealand & a must see for anyone visiting this outdoor adventure lover’s paradise. It was once touted as the 8th Wonder of the World & as you are dwarfed by the sheer size of the epic scenery surrounding you, it’s hard to argue. With more than one million tourists a year, there are lots of choices to get the most out of visiting Milford Sound. Here is my guide to finding the best option for you.”
Rudyard Kipling once said that Milford Sound was the 8th Wonder of the World. I have to admit that after a day trip in January 2020, it’s hard to argue with the legend who created the Jungle Book! Milford Sound was carved by glaciers that have left cliffs rising from the water of epic proportions. No matter how you decide to visit, you will feel dwarfed by the scale of your surroundings & aware of the very small space you occupy in the world.
In addition, you have waterfalls 3 times higher than Niagara, a unique marine ecosystem & the best hike in the world. It is easy to see how Milford Sound has become the most iconic & famous site in New Zealand.”
Everything you need to know before visiting Milford Sound
So, if you are in New Zealand, visiting Milford Sound should definitely be part of your itinerary. The Sound itself welcomes 1 million visitors per year so there are numerous choices depending on your time, budget & interests. I have provided this guide to give you everything you need to plan your perfect trip.
What time of year is best to visit Milford Sound?
You can visit Milford Sound throughout the year but will have more choice over how you do it during the summer months (October to April). At any time of year, don’t be put off by the 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. After precipitation, the landscapes are at their best. Rain means waterfalls. Some will appear before your very eyes; others will become even more epic in proportions.
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.
If you can, avoid February due to sheer numbers of tourists, especially the two weeks around Chinese New Year.”
What are the highlights of a visit to Milford Sound?
Mitre Peak images have made Milford Sound one of the most famous & photographed sites in New Zealand. The view of the peak is iconic as it rises like an almost perfect triangle 1692m above the water.
With a drop of 151 metres, Stirling Falls is three times higher than Niagara. However, as the water cascades from the 1.3km high mountain behind, it is hard to get a perspective on how high this fall really is. We were told that if the spray hits your face, you will look 10 years younger. I ensured I had a soaking, but I can’t claim it worked! ;). Stirling Falls is only one of 2 permanently visible waterfalls on Milford Sound.
Harrison Cove is the location of the Underwater Observatory which is only accessible by boat. You can learn more about the geology & wildlife of Milford Sound & get a chance to observe the rare black coral growing in its natural habitat.
Milford Sound has a unique ecosystem where fresh glacial water sits on top of the warmer water from the sea. It creates conditions that are loved by the marine life which call this body of water home. On most boat tours you take a short trip into the choppier waters beyond the heads.
On my visit we were lucky to be followed in by a pod of dolphins who chose to perform a few tricks for us. I never fail to find seeing wild dolphins a thrill! Apparently, we were lucky as you only get this once every couple of weeks. If you are even luckier you may spot a rare Fiordland crested penguin.”
Not far from the entrance from the Tasman Sea is Seal Rock, a popular basking spot for the local seal population. We also spotted a few playing in the water throughout the Sound.
Close to the start & end of any boat tour, Bowen Falls is the most visible of all the waterfalls on Milford Sound. It is also the highest at 162 metres & the source of all electricity & drinking water for the township of Milford Sound.
Best Ways to see Milford Sound
The sheer popularity of this UNESCO World Heritage Area means that you have all manner of options to view this awe-inspiring landscape from every foreseeable angle. Your only limitation will be your time & your budget.
The best way to see the drama while visiting Milford Sound is on a cruise & there are numerous companies offering to take you onto the water. If you have a choice, opt for one later in the day as these will be quieter. The coach tours tend to time their trips for the lunchtime cruises so these are always busier. There will be more people on the boats, more boats on the water & more traffic along the route. If you go later, you may also get a better deal on the price. Smaller boats (think 75 people maximum) allow you to get closer to the waterfalls & the wildlife. Nature cruises tend to be a little longer & will have a nature guide on board so bear this in mind if you have a particular interest.
There are lots of suggestions below.
Paddle a Kayak
If weather permits & you are keen to get even closer to the action, then a kayak tour sounds like an amazing opportunity. I can think of nowhere better to be at one with nature & feel how small you are in the world. For experienced kayakers, there are excursions the full length of the Sound or others take you under epic Stirling Falls. For beginners, there is the option for a shorter 2-hour paddle, maybe with a hike added in for good measure.
Take a Hike
The best views of Milford Sound are from either the air or the water, however, if you fancy a short hike as well, then try the Foreshore Walk. It’s an interpretive 400m loop walk, which will take 30 minutes to complete & begins close to the terminal. Some of the cruises also offer the opportunity for a few short walks along the way or in summer a 2 ½ hour hike from Key Summit on the Routeburn Track.
For really serious walkers though, the Milford Track is a multi-day hike which is said to be the finest walk in the world. You can only take on this spectacular journey if you book ahead & each year the track sells out quickly.”
Alternatively, take a shorter hike along the route with some cruise options too.
Get Under the Water
The conditions of Milford Sound create one of the most unique diving experiences in the world. Descend Scuba diving offer tours that include 2 dives where you can see the rare black coral & over 150 species of fish in this fascinating ecosystem. Alternatively, if you book one of the kayak tours or certain cruises, you get the option to stay dry while visiting the Underwater Observatory at Harrison Cove.
Stay overnight on the water
Another alternative for visiting Milford Sound is to stay overnight while you cruise. In addition to everything else, you have the perfect vantage point for both sunset & sunrise with this spectacular backdrop. There is no more peaceful way to wake up than being so close to nature in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage Area. Staying overnight will also enable you to enjoy your surroundings even further with a hike &/or kayak, should you wish.
Take to the Air
Scenic Flights or helicopter tours are the other way of visiting Milford Sound for a different angle on this epic scenery. Along the way gaze in awe at glacial lakes, forested deep valleys & stunning waterfalls. Flights leave from Queenstown & also offer cruises as part of the package. Helicopter tours include an amazing opportunity to experience a glacial landing (weather permitting).
The best way to get to Milford Sound for me is to drive. However, it is not a journey for the fainthearted! There is only one road in & out & 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. But it also one of the most spectacular road trips anywhere in the world. If you fancy experiencing the drive for yourself, check out my guide with everything you need to know before you take on the Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive.
Scenic Bus Tour
If you are travelling solo, then probably the best option is to take a scenic bus tour, of which there are plenty to choose from. These leave from either Queenstown (13 hours in total) or Te Anau (9 hours). Many have glass ceilings to observe the full splendour of your surroundings. They will stop at all the main viewpoints along the journey, & deliver you safely for your boat tour, usually around midday.
For the best experience, opt for a small group (11-15 people).”
From Te Anau
Scenic Flight & Cruise
A scenic flight can either fly you both ways or you can opt for a flight, cruise, bus option, depending on your time & budget.
Where to stay at Milford Sound
There is only one place to stay locally & that is the Milford Sound Lodge, hence why most options will be day trips. They offer either rooms in the lodge itself or on one of the more luxurious chalets near the water. Alternatively, you can opt to stay in either Te Anau or Queenstown. I chose the excellent Radford’s on the Lake, in Te Anau but there are loads of options for all levels of budget. Check the box below.
In Queenstown, I stayed at Peppers Beacon which was in a great location with views of Lake Wakatipu & The Remarkables. For your perfect bed for the night, check the box below.
What to pack for visiting Milford Sound
Expect four seasons in one day on a visit to Milford Sound & pack accordingly.
- Warm layers. When I visited, we had strong icy winds, sunshine & showers. Expect everything & come prepared with plenty of layers.
- Waterproofs. If you take the boat, you can opt to stay inside, but why be in nature & not experience it in its raw form? Even if it doesn’t rain, don’t miss the chance of feeling the spray from the waterfalls on your face, hence why you need your waterproofs!
- Warm hat. The wind can be cold on your ears so keep them protected if you can.
- Insect repellent in anticipation of a sandfly attack.
- Sunscreen, even if the sun isn’t shining.
- Your camera, with plenty of battery life & memory space.
When visiting New Zealand, you cannot miss a trip to Milford Sound. The sheer scale of the awe-inspiring landscape will take your breath away. I hope I have provided you with everything you need to make it the perfect day to create memories to cherish for the rest of your life.
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