Milford Sound is a must see when visiting New Zealand’s south island! You could join a tour bus with dozens of other people… or hire a car and do it yourself.
I opted to self-drive for the freedom of being able to stop where I wanted, spend as much time as I liked at each stop, avoid all the tourists on the boats during peak times and have more opportunities for better photos.
The road to Milford Sound
There are plenty of palces to stop at on the way to Milford Sound. I recommend:
- Mirror Lakes
- Cascade Creek
- Eglinton flats
- Monkey Creek
- Homer Tunnel
- The Chasm
- Cleddau Valley (after you pop out of the Homer Tunnel)
There are plenty of short walks (about 30 min return) along the way that you can do as well.
Tips for visiting Milford Sound
- Avoid lunchtime boat tours – this is when all the buses from Queenstown arrive. I took the 3pm – half the boat was empty 🙂
- The boats all take the same route so I don’t think it really matters which tour company you pick
- Do all of the stops on the way to Milford Sound – most of the parking and signage is on the left so you may miss it on the way back coming from the other side
- It’s one of the wettest places on Earth (hence all the waterfalls!) so make sure you pack a raincoat
- It’s cold. Even in the middle of summer. When I visited it was 11 degrees (I’m someone that feels the cold so was wearing 2 jumpers and a raincoat and nearly needed a scarf as well… and I visited in summer)
- Bring snacks as there’s only one cafe at Milford Sound and it’s super expensive
- You can take backpacks on the boats (so fill it with snacks and warm clothes!)
- Keep in mind that it’s about a 10 – 15 minute walk from the carpark to the terminal. If it’s peak season you’ll be directed to an overflow parking and need to get a bus to the ferry terminal so be sure to factor this into your departure time
Mirror Lakes – I visited both in the morning on the way and in the evening on the way back. The lighting was better on the way back.
This is why I chose to pay extra to self-drive (well my dad drove I was the passenger / photographer). You can rarely get these ‘road in front of you’ type photos from a bus!
Waiting for the Homer Tunnel… there were some Kea birds landing on the roofs of cars while we were waiting in the queue
To the right of the photo above:
The view after you pop out of the Homer Tunnel. There is a stopping bay where I took this photo – keep on the lookout so you don’t miss it – there’s only one chance to stop!
Once You Get to Milford Sound
If you get there early up near the cafe (about 10 – 15 minute walk from the terminal) is a small track that leads up to a lookout that’s worth it for a view down into Milford Sound that you won’t get once you’re in it.
Apparently the waterfalls are 150m + high (3x the height of Niagara Falls) and the highest peak (Mitre Peak) is 1692 metres!
The boats are double story and even if you have a middle seat you can get up and move outside. I chose to sit in the very last row for quick exit outside to get the best photos.
From gloomy weather in Milford Sound…
… to blue sky and sunshine on the way back to Te Anau
- 8:30am Fill up with fuel & get some breakfast
- 9:00am Depart Te Anau
- There are plenty of things to see on the way but the must have’s would Mirror Lakes, Englinton Flats, the last flushing toilet before Milford (refer to the top of this post for a full list of places to stop at)
- 1:45pm Arrive at Milford Sound and find a park
- 2:00pm Lookout behind the visitor carpark for a view of Milford Sound
- 2:20pm Walk to the terminal and check in for your ferry, have a snack before getting on the boat (or if you’re pressed for time just eat on the boat)
- 3pm boat tour
- 4pm Most of the tours are 1hr long
- Head back to Te Anau stopping at any of the places you missed on the way there. I recommend stopping at Mirror Lakes on the way back to break up the driving and see if the lighting is showing more of a Mirror effect at a different time of the day
- 7pm Arrive back in Te Anau
If you visit in summer it’ll be ‘warm’ I..e not freeze your ass off weather but you’ll still need at least 2 jumpers. Plus it gets dark quite late (around 9 – 10pm at night) so you could switch up the schedule and drive straight to Milford and do the stops on the way back. Just keep in mind that it seems they’ve designed the exits with tour buses in mind. I.e. signs and exits are shown when you’re driving towards Milford Sound and you may miss them on the way back.
Milford Sound Vs. Doubtful Sound
If you’re thinking about doing Doubtful Sound I’ll be doing a post on the day trip I did there as well.
There’s only one boat that does Doubtful Sound whereas Milford Sound almost operates like each boat is on a train track. There’s never a moment where you can’t see 1 or more boats in front or behind you.
If it’s busy you may even queue for the part where each boat sticks it’s nose under the waterfall. They all follow the same route. Some may go a bit farther out to the egde of the sea but in my opinion they all appeared to do the same course and left / arrived back at the terminal within 5 – 10 minutes of each other.
If you’re budget conscious then go for Milford Sound – as there’s so much competition between the tour boats it’s a lot cheaper. Bus tours would be better suited if you’re only visiting Queenstown, not road tripping around the rest of the island.
If you’d rather have more stops on the way instead of spending all day on a boat or bus then again, go for Milford Sound.
More New Zealand South Island
- Favorite stationery shops in New Zealand
- New Zealand South Island 10 Day Self Drive Road Trip Itinerary
- Travel Planning: 50 Things to consider when planning an itinerary