Milford Sound on your New Zealand itinerary? We hope so! This incredible site is as breathtaking as you’ve heard. And if you’re on the South Island, you need to clear some room for it. Read on for our Milford Sound itinerary and getting it done in a day.
I’m standing at the front of our boat, jostling for a position right next to the waterfall. As the boat inches closer towards the jagged rocks, the cascading water starts to hit me. It’s an exhilarating feeling as the ice cold water envelopes you.
I knew that a drenching was likely included in our Milford Sound itinerary today. I’m a planner and brought along my trusty waterproof jacket. But as I’m twirling under the waterfall I realised not everyone was as prepared as me. In fact, I was the only person left at the front of the boat. The 50 or so others, including Jeff, had hurriedly scampered backwards. Too afraid of a soaking in the unpredictable Fiordland weather no doubt.
As the boat moved back from the waterfall, the captain congratulated me on my ‘bravery’. I felt like an imposter, but took the compliment anyways.
This was one of the highlights of our day driving to Milford Sound.
The beautiful Milford Sound: What is it exactly?
Mountains, waterfalls and wildlife are three words that sum up Milford Sound for me.
Located in the Fiordland National Park of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist spots in the country. That’s because it’s touted as “New Zealand’s most stunning natural attraction.”
Milford Sound is a fiord that was carved out by glaciers back in the ice age. One of the best things to do here is to take a boat cruise out along the fiord. Here you’ll glide out across the water with the imposing sheer cliff faces surrounding you. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the local seals and dolphins too.
The waterfalls I mentioned earlier are one of the most beautiful aspects of the fiord. There are two huge waterfalls on Milford Sound, Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls. However, Milford Sound is one of the wettest areas in all of NZ. For this reason, lots of smaller waterfalls often appear trickling down the mountains.
How to get to Milford Sound
For all its popularity, Milford Sound is actually quite a fair distance from other attractions on the South Island. Looking straight at a map, it doesn’t appear to be too far away from Queenstown. However, there are some big, beautiful mountains in between. For this reason, you’ll have to drive the long way around.
From Queenstown, it takes around 4 hours one way to get to Milford Sound. If all you can fit into your itinerary is a day trip from Queenstown, consider taking an organised tour. That way, you can leave the hassle of driving to a professional.
However, if time allows, I’d highly recommend a self-drive trip to Milford Sound. The best way to do this, is to base yourself in the nearest town, Te Anau. In this post we’ll show you what’s possible with a suggested Milford Sound itinerary.
Basing yourself in Te Anau
Te Anau is a pretty little town situated directly on a lake front. Being the closest town to Milford Sound, it caters well to tourists. Here you’ll find a great array of accommodation, restaurants and grocery shops.
From Te Anau, Milford Sound is still about 2 hours away. In our view, this is the perfect amount of time for a day trip. As you’ll see below, there are lots of stops to make along the drive to Milford Sound.
We stayed in Te Anau for 2 nights at the Fiordland Lake View. This small motel is situated in a wonderful spot right across from the lake. Our room was apartment sized, with a large living space with kitchen. The bedroom had a queen and a single bed, which is great if you’re travelling with kids. The best part was the outdoor balcony area. Here we enjoyed some drinks in the evening watching the sunset over the lake. It will bliss!
Fiordland Lake View was one of the most luxurious properties in Te Anau. However, there are loads of other options. The lakeside street where it is located is filled with lots of great little motels with beautiful lake views. If you’re looking for something cheaper, there are many motels in the back streets of the town too.
Preparations for your Milford Sound day trip
Milford Sound is a very remote region of New Zealand, so it’s important to plan ahead.
Book your cruise
There are multiple different companies that cruise Milford Sound. They all take off from the same cruise terminal and run very similar schedules. The key differences tend to be size and quality of the boats, and the lunch offerings. We chose to go with the Jucy Premium Cruise and would recommend it. There was ample indoor seating, and importantly, lots of room outdoors up front. This enabled us to really experience Milford Sound and get close to the waterfalls.
I would suggest booking your cruise in advance, so to avoid disappointment. If you’re heading from Te Anau, you’ll need to leaveabout 2-2.5 hours before your scheduled cruise.
Most day trippers from Queenstown tend to be on the cruises setting off around 1-1:30pm, so this is the busiest time. I suggest aiming for the 11:30am or 3pm cruises.
Fill up your petrol tank
Te Anau is the last stop for fuel. You’ve got a lot of driving ahead of you, so make sure you fill up your tank. We did this the night before we left, so we didn’t have to worry about it in the morning.
Enjoy your last moments of mobile service
There is no network coverage after you leave Te Anau. Make any final calls/texts/tweets and consider downloading offline Google Maps. It’s one road and you shouldn’t get lost, but I always love to see where we are on the map.
Pack water, lunch and some snacks
There are no service stops along the way. Make sure you’ve filled up your water bottles before you leave. Some cruises include food and there are limited options at the cruise terminal. But I’d recommend making some sandwiches and bringing some snacks too. There are 2 grocery shops in Te Anau where you can grab supplies.
Pack insect repellent
Milford Sound does have some pesky sand flies. So if you have some insect repellent, make sure you pack it and apply before you get to the cruise.
Take some warm clothes
Even if you’re visiting in summer, and it’s warm in Te Anau, take some warm clothes. Better yet, pack a waterproof jacket. It can get quite cold out on the water. We had a gorgeous sunny summers day, but we still had to wear our jumpers to stay outside on the cruise.
Visit the tourist office
The tourist information centre in Te Anau is a wonderful resource. Make sure you grab the one-page map, which has loads of useful info. You should also check in on conditions before you leave (the road can shut due to adverse weather conditions).
Driving to Milford Sound from Te Anau: key stops and highlights
The drive to Milford Sound and back is just as wonderful as the cruise itself. The one mistake you’ll make today is not to stop off at some of the scenic views and short walks.
In this Milford Sound itinerary, I’ll suggest some stops you should make on your way to the cruise, and then some on the way back.
We booked ourselves on the 11:30am ferry with Jucy Cruises. Our accommodation recommended we leave no later than 8:30am, to allow for traffic and a few stops. We left at 8:10am and whilst we did have a little wait for the cruise at Milford Sound, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave much later than this.
Te Anau Downs
The first stop we made just outside of the main town was at Te Anau Downs. Here you’ll have a great view of the Murchison Mountains. The morning light reflecting out across the still water of the lake was divine.
The name says it all. Here you’ll find a super still lake that reflects the Earl Mountains surrounding it. It’s a beautiful and peaceful stop, providing you time your visit in between the tour coaches.
It is best to visit the Mirror Lakes in the morning, on the way to Milford Sound. You’ll only need a maximum of 10 minutes here. There is a long stretch where you can pull over on the left hand side.
Along the drive you’ll spot a number of scenic viewpoints on the left hand side of the road. Make sure you stop off at a few to really take in the beautiful scenery around you. Monkey Creek is a particularly picturesque spot.
About halfway through the drive the landscape really changed. Expansive meadows were left behind us as it got more mountainous. Clear skies turned cloudy and we started to feel the intensity of the alpine winds. See if you can spot the moment it really changed!
The Homer Tunnel is a 1.3km tunnel that cuts through the Darran Mountains. Built in 1953, it was this tunnel that opened up Milford Sound to visitors by cars. It feels a lot more ancient than 1953, and less sophisticated than tunnels you’ll find in most parts.
The Homer Tunnel is quite narrow. Lights operate in peak times to only let one side through at a time. This tunnel is what mainly causes congestion on the drive to Milford Sound. You may only need to wait a minute or two, or you might find yourself at the end of a very long queue. Typically you’re advised to allow 20 minutes to pass through the tunnel, but we only needed to wait about 5 minutes.
Parking at Milford Sound
There are two parking bays at Milford Sound, free and paid parking.
The free parking lot is a park and ride option. Located a fair distance from the cruise terminal, it’s not really possible to walk from here. We were advised that this parking lot would be full by around 8:30am. When we drove past just before 11am it was full. If budget is a concern, you may want to try and get here extra early.
The paid parking is within a short walking distance to the terminal. It costs $10 per hour and you need to pay for your parking in advance. Signs in the parking lot advise that you’ll probably need to pay for 3 hours. This was spot on for us. So unless you arrive at the cruise terminal way before your scheduled cruise, you should expect to pay $30. From the parking lot it’s a 5-10 minute walk by a nice boardwalk to the ferry terminal.
The ferry terminal has toilet facilities and the offices for all the cruise ships. Whilst we did book our cruise online ahead of time, we needed to visit the office to pick up a paper pass. There’s seating and a picturesque spot to grab some photos.
The Milford Sound Cruise
The Milford Sound cruises all typically run for around 1 hour and 40 minutes. I initially thought that this was way too short. However, it turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore the best of the fiord.
Whilst all the cruise ships are different, they all tend to have indoor and outing seating. If it is a nice day, I recommend sitting up front on the outside of the boat. Here you’ll get the best views.
The cruise makes its way around the fiord. As you glide on the water, the mossy peaks surround you. The imposing sheer cliff face is something we’ve only ever seen in Norway. It’s so unique and really stunning.
Waterfalls and wind
There had been a lot of rain in the weeks leading up to our Milford Sound cruise. For this reason, there was lots of little waterfalls that had formed around the mountains. What looks like a little trickle of a waterfall, becomes so much more impressive up close. The boat will get nearer and you’ll be right where the cascading water hits the lake. It’s a surprising rush of water. The light is mesmerising, as the water shimmers with the colours of the rainbow
The Stirling Falls drops from around 150m. It’s the most impressive of all the falls along the Milford Sound. This is the waterfall where I showed my bravery, being the only person to withstand the drenching. One a warm summers day, it’s an exhilarating experience. If you’ve brought your wet weather jacket, make sure you put it on as the boat approaches the waterfall!
As you cruise around the fiord, you’ll notice as it gets narrower the wind appears. Hold onto your hat!
If you’re lucky you might even see some playful dolphins and seals. The dolphins showed us the way at the front of the boat for a good ten minutes.
Milford Sound to Te Anau
After the cruise, you can take a more leisurely pace back to Te Anau. There are some wonderful short walks you can do if you want to stretch your legs. Below are the stops we recommend.
Tutoko Suspension Bridge
This lovely old bridge was built in 1940. Today it‘s for pedestrians only, running parallel to the more modern bridge. Stop here to take a short walk over the bridge. You’ll feel it move under you if there are a few other people on the bridge at the same time. It was a really pretty spot with a flowing river running underneath.
There’s a small section to stop on the left before the bridge, but a larger space after the bridge if it is full. Make sure you have a read of the info panels to give you a sense about how hard it would have been to build this.
Time to properly stretch your legs! The Chasm is an easy 20 minute loop walk to see some waterfalls. A boardwalk will take you around near the waterfalls, as they thunder down below you. It’s amazing to feel the force of the water. It’s like 1000 stampeding bulls coming at you.
The Chasm is located on the right hand side as you head back towards Te Anau. It’s easier to pull in as you’re on your way to Milford Sound. But if you’re running out of time like us, save it for the way back.
Also keep a look out for some kea in the car park. The kea is a mountain parrot, native to New Zealand. This endangered bird is a unique sight and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot one or two on this trip!
About 10km after the Chasm you’ll hit the Homer Tunnel again.
Falls Creek Waterfall
This waterfall was not marked on the official Milford Sound Tourist Map, but it was one of my favourite spots. Here the cascading river hugs the roadside. A little pedestrian bridge will give you an awesome view of the waterfall. There was the most beautiful blue water at the bottom of the waterfall.
Falls Creek Waterfall is marked on Google Maps. So you could save this into your location and use offline maps to ensure you don’t miss it.
Cascade Creek and the Lake Gunn Nature Walk
If you want some more exercise and love a nature walk, make sure you stop here. This well-marked walk will take you under a canopy of trees. There are huge trees that have fallen over, covered in moss. The path is generally clear though, and covered in leaves. The signs said it would take about 45 minutes, but it was slightly less than that, even going slow and taking photos.
On the way back, just after Cascade Creek, was a spot with lupins. If we had of been here just a few weeks earlier, we would have seen them in all their glory.
Not too far out from Te Anau is Lake Mistletoe. It’s a short 10 minute walk to get to the lake. To be honest this stop was probably the least impressive of the stops. There’s a table and chairs by the lake if you’re in need of a place of a place for a pit stop.
Dinner at Te Anau
Arriving back to Te Anau around 6pm, it was the perfect time to grab an early dinner. We ate at the Pizzeria Paradiso, where the oven-fresh baked pizza was really good.
By the end of dinner we were completely buggered. But it was an amazing day driving to Milford Sound and exploring the beautiful Fiordland National Park!
Other notes for your Milford Sound itinerary
If you’re an avid hiker, you could also look at doing the 3 hour Summit Trek. Part of the famed Routeborn Track, the path starts just over 80km away from Te Anau. It’s a long way to back-track, so if it’s a beautiful day and you’re keen, make sure you set off early to fit it in.
We hope you have a wonderful day driving to Milford Sound. If you’ve been, we’d love to hear about your trip in our comments below. Is there anything else you’d add to a Milford Sound itinerary?