We recently had the chance to visit the gorgeous Milford Sound in New Zealands Fjordland National Park. We absolutely loved our trip down there as the landscapes are nothing short of stunning. However, you can certainly encounter some unpleasant surprises if you don’t come well prepared, as the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is generally a lot longer than most people think and there are a lot of stops along the way.
Getting From Queenstown to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a long way from anywhere. The most popular gateway is Queenstown, a beautiful lakeside town surrounded by mountains and also the adrenaline capital of New Zealand. Below is a snapshot of the time it takes and the route to go when travelling from Queenstown to Milford Sound on Google Maps.
As you can see, driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound will take you roughly four hours each way. Don’t forget you’ll also need to plan numerous stops along the way.
The closest option to stay is the little town of Te Anau, which is about halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound and thus roughly two hours from the departure point of the cruises. However, there is very limited accommodation options, and many people including us stayed in Queenstown.
If you’re travelling in a camper-van, it’s a different story. There are a lot of campsites everywhere along the route and you can choose to stay pretty much anywhere you like.
Scenic Sights Along The Way
The drive towards Milford Sound is almost as good as the actual place. That’s why you definitely have to plan extra time for stops along the way. Most stops are just viewpoints right along the road, but if you’ve got a bit of extra time, there are certainly some side trips on offer.
We left Queenstown at 8:30am in order to make our 2:45pm cruise. Then we got off the boat at 4:30pm and arrived back in Queenstown at 9:00pm. It was ideal, since we had enough time to stop at all the important stops on the way there, while we didn’t have to get up super early. Then just before arriving back in Queenstown, we saw a beautiful sunset over the green hills of Southland and Lake Wakatipu.
The following places are good stops if you’re going from Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound. They are all located along the final part of the drive, between Te Anau Downs and Milford Sound.
Eglington Valley: Just a flat green valley with mountain ranges either side. Parking spot right by the road, no walking required.
Mirror Lakes: This is a must. You park right besides the road and then a very short boardwalk takes you down to the three little viewing platforms. It’s no more than five minutes round trip walking, and the Mirror Lakes definitely make for some great views. Be sure to come with a wide angle lens though, which we didn’t.
Pops View Lookout: Parking is just off the Milford Highway, with great views over the surrounding valley and mountains.
Hollyford Valley Lookout: Literally a few hundred metres down the road from Pops View Lookout, but the views are quite a bit different. It might be a bit tricky to pull up into the small parking bay if it’s crowded, because it’s right on a bend. There’s a viewing platform right next to the parking bay.
Lower Hollyford Road: There is a gravel road that goes down the Hollyford Valley with a few more points of interest along the way. Near the end of the road there are the spectacular Humboldt Falls, but we didn’t have enough time to visit these as it’s a good hour roundtrip from the Milford Highway. We did go down the Lower Hollyford Road for just a couple of minutes however, where you can park and walk across a swing bridge with a beautiful clear stream underneath:
Falls Creek Waterfall: Next along the way is Falls Creek Waterfall, a small but pretty waterfall right besides the road.
Monkey Creek: Another car park by a little stream. Famous not only for the views but mainly for the alpine parrots which like to hang out around here.
Homer Tunnel: Soon, you’ll be at the highest point of the Milford Highway, the start of Homer Tunnel. A great piece of engineering, when you consider how long ago and under what conditions this tunnel has been built. It’s oneway only, so you might have to wait for a while before you can pass through. It’s spectacular on both ends, so you should use the waiting time to get out of the car for a few minutes.
The Chasm: This one does require a little bit of walking, it’s roughly a 15-minute loop track from the parking lot. The path leads up to a spectacular little chasm or slot canyon with large amounts of water rushing through it, especially during snow melt. The photo really doesn’t do it justice at all, because you’ll be looking down into it from an awkward perspective. It really is quite impressive though.
Tutoko River Bridge: Just a couple of kilometres before the little settlement of Milford Sound, you’ll be crossing the last major bridge of the journey, the Tutoko River Bridge. The river is quite large at this stage and the mountain backdrop provides a nice setting. The history of the old bridge (now for pedestrians only) is also very interesting. There is a little parking lot just before crossing the bridge.
In addition to that, watch out for all those scenic lookouts right by the road. It’s just so beautiful around every other corner!
Also along Lake Wakatipu (near Queenstown) there will be some great spots to stop at:
There are multiple cruise companies that offer boat rides through the iconic Milford Sound. Basically, the more people there are on your boat, the less expensive it is. If you’re after a good and joyful experience, you might be better off paying the NZ$95 for a trip with Cruise Milford. If you want to see the area for the least amount of money, go with a company like Jucy (or quite a few others), starting from about NZ$45 to 65, depending on deals.
You should park your car no later than 30 minutes before your cruise departure. Even if you’re not stopping along the way, do allow a fair bit of extra time for delays along the way (construction, slow traffic, etc). After parking your car, it’s a five minute walk to the ferry terminal.
Most companies offer multiple cruises each day. The most popular tours seem to be the midday ones, but we would suggest to go in the afternoon. Thus, you’ll have time to see all the scenic spots on the way out there and most people would have left by the time you get there. Alternatively, go very early before everybody else, and then do all the sights on the way back. That would definitely be a lot more tiring though.
The cruise itself is just insanely spectacular. There are so many different perspectives that you’ll see the fjord from, so it was really hard cutting down on the amount of pictures. You’ll be starting the cruise with this spectacular view of the surrounding mountains:
Looking back towards the hardly visible settlement of Milford Sound:
The cliffs lining this fjord are not only very spectacular above the water, but also reach down several hundred metres below sea level!
Even in sunny weather, there are several permanent waterfalls. In rainy weather, hundreds more will form on the cliffs.
Once we reached the open sea, a layer of clouds and a bit of rain had started to block out the sun:
As soon as we turned around though, the clouds quickly disappeared:
On the way back, we saw some seals bathing in the sunshine:
Some areas of the fjord are more sheltered than others, allowing for some kayaking or other activities:
Finishing the cruise with these views was a good ending to what had been one of the greatest things we’ve done in New Zealand.
We came on a perfectly sunny day, and according to the forecast, the few days before and after our visit also seemed very pleasant. But we soon realised how lucky we were: Milford Sound is not only the wettest place in New Zealand, it’s also one of the wettest in the world. 250 inches (that’s almost seven metres!) of rain per year is a perfectly normal amount here, and on average there are less than two sunny days per week.
The good news: Milford Sound is great in the summer sun and at least as good when it’s pouring down. A sunny day will reward you with incredible colours all around. A rainy day is going to trigger the hundreds of temporary waterfalls which then cascade down the cliffs. If you get a good breeze of wind with all that, you’re in for the full package.
Even during the two hours we were there, we experienced mostly sunshine, but also strong winds, clouds, fog and rain.
Queenstown Accommodation Options
Luxury: Matakauri Lodge
Mid-Range: The Rees Hotel & Luxury Apartments
Budget: Adventure Q2 Hostel – We stayed here and it was one of the best hostels we’ve been to! Extremely central location too!
Have you taken the scenic drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound? What is your favourite part? Or are you planning on going? We’d love to know in the comments!
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