The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most fascinating places in New Zealand that needs to be on everyone’s New Zealand itinerary. Milford Sound is the only Fiord in New Zealand that is accessible by road. It is located in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island of New Zealand. It takes time and effort to get to Milford Sound but it is something you cannot miss on your New Zealand trip. Start planning your Milford Sound adventure using this guide which will walk you through how to get to Milford Sound, where to stay, and the best things to do in Milford Sound.
How to Get to Milford Sound from Queenstown
Fly to Milford Sound
The fastest and easiest way to get to Milford Sound is by plane. If you don’t have much time in Queenstown but really want to visit Milford Sound this is a great option. A tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound by plane only only takes about 4-5 hours total so you will still have time to fit in more activities in Queenstown that day. It’s also nice because you don’t have to change your accommodation and can do this trip straight from Queenstown. It takes about 4 hours each way to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound so by flying you can can cut down on the 8 hours of driving and get a scenic flight in.
This Milford Sound Flight and Boat Cruise from Queenstown offers a unique experience to fly over the Southern Alps and see Milford Sound from the air and water. On the flight you will see panoramic views of waterfalls, lakes, valleys, and snow-covered peaks. The scenic return flight is via a different flight path so that you get to see even more astonishing views.
Take a Bus to Milford Sound
A cheaper alternative to flying to Milford Sound is to book a bus and cruise combination such as this Milford Sound Coach and Cruise Day Trip. The benefit is that you won’t need to rent a car or drive the long drive on your own, instead you can relax on the bus and enjoy the views. However, you won’t have the flexibility to check out specific spots along the road to Milford Sound or do any hikes on your day in Milford Sound. It will be convenient to return to your Queenstown accommodation that night, but the 8 hours on the bus will make for a very long day.
Drive to Milford Sound
If you have time and are planning to do a road trip from Queenstown then I recommend self driving as it gives you the most flexibility and time to explore Milford Sound. Reserve a rental car ahead of time on Discover Cars, where you can compare car rates across rental companies and find the best fit for you. Having a rental car will allow you to do hikes of your choosing along the road to Milford Sound and spend more time in Milford Sound since you won’t be restricted by a tour departure time.
Where to Stay When Visiting Milford Sound
If you only plan to spend one day in Milford Sound but are self driving, you should consider staying in Te Anau. Te Anau is a small town located only two hours from Milford Sound with a number of accommodations, restaurants, and stores. You can search for and book accommodation in Te Anau on Booking.com. Although the town is small it is a great spot to base yourself while visiting Milford Sound. It is located on the biggest lake in South Island and cuts down the driving time on your day visiting Milford Sound in half.
The only accommodation option in Milford Sound is Milford Sound Lodge. To stay in Milford Sound Lodge you have to book far in advance. Staying in Milford Sound overnight is a great option if you want to have more time to hike, take a boat cruise, kayak, and more. It is also the best place to stay if you want to spend more than one day in Milford Sound.
Another must-visit destination on the South Island: How to Visit Mount Cook National Park in One Day
What to Bring on Your Milford Sound Adventure
- Daypack: Bring a comfortable bag to carry your camera, food, and water for the day. This REI Co-op 25 pack has the perfect amount of space for a day trip to Milford Sound.
- Camera: While your phone is always convenient, a camera can capture this place on another level. You can probably tell which photos on this guide were taken with a camera vs phone. I use the Sony A7RIII with the Tamron 28-75 lens.
- Reusable Water Bottle: Make sure to bring a water bottle with you which you can refill at the visitor center.
- Food: Bring food with you for the day so you don’t have to spend extra money on food at the visitor center.
- Sun Protection: If it is a sunny day you will want a hat for the boat cruise and hiking trails. Also don’t forget sunscreen!
- Rain Jacket and Hiking Shoes: It is known to rain in Milford Sound, with a mean of 6,813 mm of rain a year. Make sure you are prepared with a rain jacket and waterproof shoes so that you can make the most of your day.
- Extra Clothes: Bring layers for the morning and evening hours when it gets cool. Also don’t forget a change of close in case you get wet from the rain, boat cruise, or kayaking adventure.
Things to Know Before Visiting Milford Sound
- Be prepared for sand flies. Wear long pants to reduce sand fly bites and bring bug spray. Keep moving around to prevent sand flies from biting you. The bites are extremely itchy and can last for a long time, especially if you keep itching
- There is no cell reception in the park. If you need access to the internet you can find wifi at the Milford Sound Lodge. They provide a small amount of complementary data and if you want to use more you can purchase a plan.
- The only food in Milford Sound is located in the visitor center and it is overpriced. Bring lunch and snacks with you for the day to save money.
- There are a couple of options for parking near the boat terminal. The free option is about a 20 minute walk to the boat terminal. Alternatively, if you are running short on time, there is a parking lot across the visitor center which is a 10 minute walk from the boat terminal. This parking lot costs $20 for up to 5 hours, and there is no option to pay for less than 5 hours.
- Make sure to fill up gas on the way to Milford Sound in Te Anau as there is no gas until Milford Sound where it is expensive and limited to certain credit cards with a pin.
Best Things to Do in Milford Sound
Explore Destinations Along the Road to Milford Sound
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes about 2 hours. Note that there can be road work on Milford Road which can lead to additional time as parts of the road turn into a one-way with a light. Along the road there are incredible places to stop. Popular spots that you shouldn’t miss are Mirror Lakes, Lake Gunn, Lake Fergus, Hollyford Valley Lookout, and the Chasm.
Hike in Fiordland National Park
There are countless hiking trails in Fiordland National Park. If you want to prioritize hiking in Fiordland National Park and only have one day to visit Milford Sound you should choose either the kayak experience or the boat cruise as you won’t have time to do all three. Another option is to stay at Milford Sound Lodge and spend an extra day hiking trails in this scenic area. Popular day hikes in Fiordland National Park include sections of the Routerburn Track, Lake Marian Track, and sections of Kepler Track. Make sure to wear waterproof hiking shoes so your feet don’t get wet!
Kayak in Milford Sound
The best way to experience Milford Sound, the size of the mountains, the foliage, and the animals is to kayak in the Fiord. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks offers a 2 hour paddle option (Milford Cruiser) and a 3 hour paddle option (Sunriser Classic). We did the Sunriser Classic which is about 10 km kayaking in 3 hours. There were two guides with a fairly small group of people which made it a very intimate experience. We got to learn more about the history of Milford Sound, the plants, and Maori stories about Milford Sound.
Being able to get so close to the mountains, trees, and plants was an incredible experience. It was also nice to be out on the water early when the sun first starts shining into the Fiord. We got to kayak near Bowen Falls, which at 162 meters is taller than Niagara Falls.
Keep in mind that if you book the Sunriser Classic you will need to get to the kayak spot very early. In the summer the tour starts as early as 8 am and it is a 2 hour drive from Te Anau. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks provided us with thermal clothes to keep us warm. You will also get a spray skirt which should help you stay dry, but bring a change of clothes just in case.
If you are interested in kayaking in Milford Sound but want to do a short trip that is combined with a boat cruise you could book this Cruise and Kayak Tour with Southern Discoveries. Unlike the Sunriser Classic with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks, no prior kayaking experience is required for this tour. You will have about 90 minutes to explore Harrison Cove in a group of up to 8 kayaks including a nature guide who will share information about fiord features and wildlife. By booking this experience you will get to do a boat cruise, visit the underwater observatory, kayak, and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Read More: Abel Tasman National Park Day Trip
Take a Boat Cruise in Milford Sound
One of the must-do activities in Milford Sound is a boat cruise. If you are already doing a kayaking trip in Milford Sound the boat ride is a great addition since you will see a bigger part of the fiord on the boat as it goes further and you can relax and enjoy the views.
There are several boat cruises that you can choose from with varying size boats and number of people. We did this Small Boat Cruise which I highly recommend! The boat only has up to 75 people with plenty of space to sit or stand outside. If you book a time such as 2 pm or later you are more likely to get a boat with less people. This boat cruise also offers coffee, tea, and biscuits that you can enjoy on your cruise. Since the boat is smaller it can get closer to the wildlife and mountains than the bigger boats.
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