There are places you hear so much about, with hundreds of travel blogs boasting about them. But once you’re there they just don’t live up to the hype.
Well, that’s not the case with Milford Sound in New Zealand.
In this detailed guide, we will reveal the very best of Milford Sound! A complete list of must-do activities, popular tourist attractions and top free & fun things to do!
The ancient history of Milford Sound
Milford Sound’s history goes back millions of years as glaciers and tectonic activity carved it.
In Māori tradition, Milford Sound was the most spectacular work of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, an atua (demi-god) responsible for shaping Fiordland. Chanting a powerful karakia (prayer) he carved cyclopean land masses out of shapeless rock using his toki (axe), named Te Hamo.
The Māori have long-established seasonal camps for harvesting food and mining takiwai, a rare greenstone used for tools, weaponry and ornamentation.
The first post office of the fjord was a tiny island. A rum barrel was hung on a tree where mail was posted and a white flag was raised to indicate unsent mail. Passing ships would then stop and browse the mails. If any were addressed to a location they were heading then they would take it with them!
Why you need to visit Milford Sound
Pictures and travel guides speak for themselves so I am going to keep it short and sweet! In case you’re still sceptical here are the top reasons to visit Milford Sound.
- The landscape is impressive – I know, you’ve heard the word “dramatic” too many times, but trust me; you haven’t seen anything like this. Ever.
- The unique wildlife – New Zealand is home to extraordinary species due to its remoteness. Now imagine that Milford Sound is isolated as well. We are talking about an isolated region in an already remote country. What kind of species could have survived?
- The massive waterfalls – not only they are incredibly beautiful, but there are also hundreds of them after long sessions of rain. Good news for you! Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth!
- There is a hike for everyone – from short walks (up to 30 mins) to longer tramps (4 days), Milford Sound is here to provide you. Don’t leave without attempting at least one. See all hikes here.
- Spend the night in one of the best stargazing spots of the southern hemisphere – when was the last time you saw Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Star?
Best things to do in Milford Sound
Milford Sound can be enjoyed in many ways depending on the season, your available time and your… fitness level.
You will be amazed by how picturesque Fiordland is and by the number of available things to do and see; glacier valleys, crystal lakes, snow-peaked mountains and lush vegetation will have you reaching for your camera at every turn.
#1 Head out for a day adventure
There are numerous hikes and short walks you can take while you are visiting the area. Below you will find some of the best.
Local tip: To escape the crowds head riverside at Little Tahiti, near the Milford Sound Lodge. This quiet and little-known spot of Cleddau River has awesome views of the 2.723 m. Mt. Tutuko, Fiordland’s highest peak. If you are lucky enough you may also see the rare blue ducks, a species native to New Zealand’s wilderness areas.
Milford Sound Foreshore Walk
A short & sweet walk that starts at the car park, passing through the forest and the sandy foreshore. Enjoy the sea air and get some spectacular views over Mitre Peak.
- Difficulty: Very easy
- Accessible to wheelchairs: Yes
- Total Distance: 400 m
- Estimated Time: 30 mins.
- Trail Type: Loop track
Milford Sound Lookout Track
A great option for those without much time to spare. The trail wanders through beautiful vegetation and offers wonderful views over Milford Village. Make sure you don’t miss the grave of Donald Sutherland, a soldier and explorer.
- Difficulty: Easy
- Total Distance: 400 m
- Estimated Time: 20 mins.
- Trail Type: Out and back
Key Summit Track
A longer, yet easy track, with great views of Fiordland. Beech forests, alpine tussock, meetups with native species; this walk has it all. Enjoy breathtaking panoramic views, south to Lake Te Anau and north past Mt Tutoko.
- Difficulty: Medium
- Total Distance: 6.8 km
- Estimated Time: 3 hours
- Trail Type: Out and back
Gertrude Saddle Route
The hike offers gorgeous views of Milford Sound and the surrounding valley. Discover hidden waterfalls, cross rivers and the mysterious Black Lake near the top.
- Difficulty: Expert (climbing experience needed)
- Total Distance: 7 km
- Estimated Time: 6 hours
- Trail Type: Out and back
Best time to do the hikes
Peak season: If you are planning to visit during the New Zealand summer (December – January), make sure to book your accommodation well in advance (e.g. lodges & huts). Expect average temperatures between 18°C to 20°C.
Best season: During autumn the local wildlife, including seals and penguins tends to be more active. Besides, March – April are ideal for those seeking fewer crowds and temperate weather.
You will also enjoy: Hiking the sacred Hooker Valley!
#2 Paddle at your own pace with a kayak
If you feel adventurous enough you can go kayaking on the fjord.
In an instant, the landscape takes gigantic proportions and you are dwarfed into insignificance. Thundering waterfalls crushing nearby and huge cliffs surround you from every direction. You also get the chance to meet the local wildlife from up-close, curious dolphins, seals and penguins.
There is truly something special about seeing the fjord from the water level. That’s the reason kayaking in the fjord is definitely one of the best things to do!
When to go kayaking?
- sunrise – early riser or not, kayaking the fjord with the first daylight is a magical experience
- sunset – if you spend the night in Milford Sound a twilight kayak tour offers the much-needed serenity after a tiring day
You can start your kayak trip from Harrison’s Cove, a sheltered cove protected from waves and the wind.
Keep in mind: You are in open waters. Pay close attention to the weather forecast and watch for boat traffic.
#3 Squeeze into a wetsuit and go diving
Surely the first thought that crosses your mind when you see those dark, empty waters is not to get into.
That’s where you are wrong!
Beneath that creepy surface, you can see more than 150 species of marine life, in a colourful environment. The water is clear and easy to see through with the help of a torch.
Diving is a unique way to explore this spectacular marine reserve.
While it’s not your typical tropical diving destination, the thriving wildlife and underwater vegetation are unlikely to be met elsewhere in the world; dolphins, stingrays, black corals, seals, cods, sharks, octopus, crayfish, nudibranch, eels and many more!
Under this unique mix of fresh and saltwater, there is another world with its own fauna and flora.
#4 Get under the water without getting wet
If hiking, diving or kayaking sound too adventurous, try Milford Sound’s floating underwater observatory.
Get some amazing views of up to 10 meters below sea level and find yourself in a fascinating world.
- observe the colorful marine wildlife of the fjord
- discover the unique species of black coral (usually found at a depth of 50 meters)
- get informed about the history of Milford Sound and the construction of Homer Tunnel
- hear tales of the early European settlers and Māori explorers
- learn about the ecology and geology of Milford Sound and view video footage of brutal avalanches
The Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory is accessible only by boat. Therefore, you need to book the “cruise + observatory” tickets from the various cruising or kayaking operators.
#5 Go fishing
Fan of the sport? Great news!
Fishing in Milford Sound is permitted and there is a great variety of fishes in the inky depths of the fjord. Depending on your equipment you can catch kingfish, broadbill, tarakihi, hapuka and tuna.
When planning your fishing trip make sure to check the DoC website for more information – how can you access the boat ramp, where and how can you fish etc.
Tip: Fishing is not allowed anywhere inside the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. Learn more about the reserve area and the fishing restrictions.
#6 Tramp the finest walk in the world
The most famous of the 9 New Zealand Great Walks, The Milford Track, is for all those who want to experience everything the Fiordland National Park has to offer.
From valleys carved by glaciers to ancient rainforests and cascading waterfalls to hidden mountain passes, The Milford Track has it all. The highlights of the track include the stunning panoramas from Mackinnon Pass, the jaw-dropping Sutherland Falls (580 m.) and the emerald waters of Clinton River.
If you got the time and fitness level then hiking The Milford Track is easily one of the best things to do!
- Difficulty: Medium
- Total Distance: 53,5 km
- Estimated Time: 4 days
- Trail Type: One way
- Best time: October to April
#7 Do a boat cruise
Undeniably, one of the best and fastest ways to discover Milford Sound is going for a boat cruise. It’s a great way to experience up close the spectacular wildlife and geology of Milford Sound.
A boat cruise gets you through all the major highlights of Milford Sound, in more or less, 2 hours.
With so many types of cruises and boat tour operators available it can be hard to choose. For that reason, we have prepared a detailed guide that will help you select the best boat cruise.
#8 Set sail with your own boat
If you pride yourself on being a captain, then exploring Milford Sound on a sailboat is a romantic & thrilling experience. Traveling under sail in such a pristine environment, just as the early settlers did, will definitely blow your mind!
To better prepare for your Milford Sound sailing trip, you should visit DoC website.
Tip: Milford Sound is a marine reserve; therefore, there are special rules when it comes to interacting with the fjord’s marine life.
#9 Get a bird’s-eye view of the fjord
Another breathtaking perspective of Milford Sound you can get is from the air! It’s the best way to get a sense of the remoteness of Fiordland. You can either:
- Board a small aircraft for a scenic flight and unparalleled views of the region.
- Get in a helicopter flight. In this one, you will get the chance to land on glaciers and mountains in the Southern Alps.
Both experiences will become the highlight of your visit to New Zealand, provided you have the budget!
There is a number of airlines offering scenic flights in the area.
- Air Milford
- Glenorchy Air
- Milford Sound Scenic Flights
- Milford Helicopters
- Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters
- Aspiring Helicopters
#10 Visit The Lord of the Rings filming locations
If you are a true fan of Lord of The Rings and Tolkien’s Middle Earth, then you will be glad to know that several locations in Fiordland were used in the movie trilogy.
Further Reading: More famous movie sets and film locations!
Make the most of your LOTR experience in New Zealand and visit them! Below, you may find the coordinates of each film location. Simply copy and paste them into Google Maps.
Misty Mountains: The rocky Eglinton Mountains above Lake Gunn, were used in The Fellowship of the Ring, depicting the Misty Mountains. It’s where the fellowship walked along a mountain path, with the Key Summit clearly seen in some distance.
Coordinates: 45°03’36.4″S 167°59’48.1″E
South of Rivendell: Located in Mavora Lakes Park, it’s where the fellowship can be seen moving south out of Rivendell. The filming crew shot helicopter footage near an unnamed lake on a mountain called St Paul’s Dome.
Some other landmarks you can use to find it are the remote Silverlode Falls and Freeman Burn Hut (also known as North Arm Hut). This is an unmarked trail and challenging spot to reach, be ready.
Coordinates: 45° 25.358’S 167° 20.800’E
Anduin River: The famous opening shot of The Fellowship of the Rings featuring the forested banks of the Anduin River. Waiau River, as it is called, can be best accessed through Rainbow Reach Rd (make a left turn on Manapouri Te Anau Highway when you see the Rainbow Reach car park sign).
Coordinates: 45° 29.755’S 167° 40.159’E
Dead Marshes: That’s where Gollum saved Frodo as he fell under the spell of the dead floating inside the swamp. In order to see the Marshes, you need to drive down Mount York Road (turn right on Manapouri Te Anau Highway), past the Barnyard Backpackers. The area is a massive string bog called The Kepler Mire.
Coordinates: 45°30’26.8″S 167°42’03.0″E
Dead Marshes and Anduin River are extremely close, so you can hit two birds with one stone.
Nen Hithoel: It’s the spot where the fellowship moored their elven boats at the end of their trip down Anduin River after leaving Lothlorien. It’s also the spot where the hobbits hid from the Uruk-hai.
An amazing spot, with a beautiful lake and spectacular viewpoints. Just the place to relax and read your LOTR book. The spot can be accessed by Mavora Lakes gravel road. Watch out for the Orcs!
Lakeside: 45° 15.993’S 168° 10.410’E
Hiding: 45° 16.024’S 168° 10.500’E
Fangorn Forest: A carpet of green moss and old trees, just as you would have imagined the ancient Fangorn Forest. It’s where Aragorn, Legolas and Gilmi met Gandalf the White. It can be easily accessed through Takaro Rd. and then by following the gravel road. The forest is called Snowdon Forest.
Coordinates: 45° 21.087’S 167° 54.477’E
More LOTR locations
The New Zealand Road Spiral Atlas (HEMA, ISBN13 9781877302367) features more Lord of the Rings locations.
#11 Enjoy a rainy day out
The day you so eagerly expected has finally arrived! It’s time to visit Milford Sound!
You look at the weather forecast but you realize it’s going to rain.
Maybe you should change your plans?
Nope! In fact, your trip to Milford Sound just got better!
Hundreds of temporary waterfalls are everywhere. Snaking down the vertical walls of the fjord, dropping from glacier valleys and racing their way down from sheer rocky cliffs.
Just make sure you get your raincoat!
Always be prepared for rain. Milford Sound averages 184 rainfall days.
#12 Free things to do in Milford Sound
Having this wonderful place (almost) for yourself is the ultimate tranquil experience! Spend the night in Milford Sound, experience the magnificent sound of silence and do some amazing free things!
- Listen to the Bellbird chorus at dawn; there isn’t any better alarm clock than the beautiful song of the Bellbird calling to its mate.
- See Milford Sound lighting up; walk to the foreshore and witness the first sunrays creeping into the fjord, without the crowds.
- Watch the sunset; the best spots are the ferry terminal, the foreshore walk, or the end of Deepwater Basin from where you can see the sun diving behind the mountains.
- Discover the glowworms; get up and close with the famous creatures that use their lights to lure prey into their webs. Look for them in trees or caves, after dark.
- Stargaze at the best night sky you’ve ever seen; stare up into one of the most star-filled skies of the world. No lights, no towns, no shops – the darkest display of Milky Way is yours!
- Search for native birds – kea, kaka, South Island robin, Fiordland penguin, weka, tui and kakariki. If you plan on tramping the Milford Track you might even spot some local kiwi or tokoeka.
Save your time researching accommodation, there’s only one place to stay!
The spectacular wildlife of Milford Sound
Because of its remote location, Fiordland is a remnant of pre-human New Zealand.
That’s why you can find endemic species that have disappeared from the rest of the country.
Moreover, Milford Sound is home to peculiar creatures, so you better don’t get too distracted by the impressive geology, otherwise, you’ll risk missing them.
Penguins: if you are lucky enough you might spot one of the rarest New Zealand’s penguins, the Fiordland crested penguin. With only a couple thousand left, this beautiful creature can be seen swimming towards the sea to feed. You will easily recognize them from the yellow eyebrow-stripe extending over their eyes. Another species living in the fiord is the little blue penguin.
Dolphins: flipping out of the water, bottlenose dolphins can be seen swimming alongside boats & kayaks.
Seals: look for a jutting rock outcrop; it’s really popular among the local Southern Fur Seal population. Most of the time, they are lazily basking on the rock, soaking in the amazing views. Seal Rock, as it is called for obvious reasons, is a photo stop for most boat cruises.
Orcas & Whales: don’t get your hopes high with this one. There might be whales and orcas feeding in the deep waters of the fiord but you need to get exceptionally lucky to see them.
Kea: this notoriously curious alpine parrot loves to play and eats anything that gets into its way (the rubber of car windows, your food and even your shoes). They are incredibly intelligent and love to experience new things. Take photos but make sure all your belongings are not exposed and your car is closed.
Seeing Kea in the wild
Two of the best places to see Keas as you are driving towards Milford Sound are near Moneky Creek and next to the Homer Tunnel.
How to get to Milford Sound
The fjord is located in one of the most remote and least populated regions of the country, Fiordland National Park. You can get there either by air or by road, depending on your budget and time.
Getting to Milford Sound by road
Milford Sound is 287 km (178 miles) from Queenstown and 117 km (72 miles) from Te Anau.
The road takes you through unspoiled mountain landscapes and into the Hommer Tunnel, before emerging into a rain-forested canyon.
- Bus: There are numerous tours departing from Queenstown and Te Anau. If you are also opting in for a boat cruise, make sure you book it from the same operator so that you don’t risk missing it, if there is any delay with the bus. Day trips are available; it takes 7 to 8 hours from Te Anau and 12 to 13 hours from Queenstown.
- Self-drive: If you’d prefer going at your own pace, then car rentals are available in Queenstown. Ιn this case, Ι would suggest against attempting to do the drive in one day. Consider a 2 to 3 days rental, with an overnight stay at Te Anau. There are several famous attractions along the way – sights, photo stops and short treks that are definitely worth a visit.
Be prepared: During winter, the road is prone to avalanches and closures, so plan accordingly. Make sure you carry chains if you are visiting in wintertime and fill up in Te Anau (fuel is more expensive in Milford Sound).
Getting to Milford Sound by air
Flying with a helicopter or a small plane is a quicker option to visit Milford Sound, but comes at a cost.
The flight takes you on a scenic trip over the Southern Alps – lakes, waterfalls, valleys and rainforests. It’s pricey (at least $300 – $400 per person), but it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Combine it with a Milford Sound Boat Cruise and be back in Queenstown in less than 4 hours.
Milford Sound Accommodation
Οne day is surely not enough to experience Milford Sound to its fullest. Spending the night under the tranquil southern night sky is an experience itself!
- Milford Sound Lodge: The only available accommodation in the area is Milford Sound Lodge. It offers a variety of options to suit all budgets; from campervan sites (Rainforest Campervan Park) to shared dorms and luxurious riverside chalets.
- Overnight Cruise: Another great option is to spend a night onboard. The overnight cruise lets you experience the fjord without the crowds.
- Huts: If you are planning to hike you will most likely spend one or more nights on the road. Booking is required with more details available on the DoC website.
Hotels near Milford Sound
There are numerous accommodation options in both Queenstown and Te Anau. A campsite is also available within the beautiful Eglinton Valley, Knobs Flat.
Helpful info for visiting Milford Sound
Yes, Milford Sound provides limited accommodation options, so make sure το book in advance. Learn more here!
There’s a ton of activities and things to see in the fjord, free or paid. Learn about the best things to do in Milford Sound!
Do you prefer snow or rain? Warmer or cold temperatures? Short or long days? Each month provides a different experience. More info about the best month to visit!
The fjord is located within a national park and a UNESCO heritage site, therefore free camping is strictly forbidden. Learn about the available accommodation options in Milford Sound!
The fjord is sheltered and the water is calm, therefore, there are no spots available for surfing. If you are a fan of water sports try diving, kayaking or taking a cruise. View more adventurous things to do!
Even though there are numerous skydive companies in nearby towns, there are no drop zones over Milford Sound. However, there is a way to see Milford Sound from the air!
Mountain bikes are not allowed on any of the tracks within Fiordland National Park. However, there are some tour operators offering cycling tours in Milford Sound. Find more adventurous things to do in Milford Sound!
Yes, there is a small café by the information center from where you can grab snacks & coffee. However, if you are on a coach+cruise tour you won’t have time to visit as you’ll go straight from the bus to the boat. Alternatively, you can have lunch on board. Learn more about it!
Yes, but only at Deepwater Basin Road, around 25 mins away from Visitors Terminal (on foot). Learn more about its cost!
Milford Sound can be reached in several ways, by road or by air. Learn about all the available ways to get to the fjord!
Absolutely! It’s when it rains that Milford Sound is most impressive. Learn why!
Is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound?
Last but not least, the million-dollar question: is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound? Weirdly enough, Milford Sound is actually a fiord, named wrongly as a sound by the early settlers.
So how can you say the difference?
A sound is formed when a river valley gets flooded by the sea forming a large extended ocean inlet. However, Milford Sound was formed by retreating glaciers; they firstly carved through the rocks and eventually receded flooding the valley.
Māori named it Piopiotahi, after the extinct native Piopio bird. In 1812, however, Captain John Grono renamed it, after Milford Haven, in Wales.
Pristine beauty in cyclopean proportions
Milford Sound is a stunning destination. With so many activities all year round there never be a shortage of activities & things to do.
This remote little corner in the South Island, hours from the nearest town, is an unapparelled marvel of nature formed aeons ago.
They say no day in the fjord is ever the same. Everyone gets to experience the fiord in his own unique way.
My advice is to go out there and explore this wild side of New Zealand at its absolute best.
Recommended films about Fiordland
- Ata Whenua – Shadowland (2008): This short local film brings you the parts of the Fiordland that you would otherwise never see. The 32-minute tribute was filmed across all seasons using different techniques & perspectives. More info here.
- Journeys in National Parks: Fiordland (1987) – In this episode of the Journeys in National Parks series, presenter Peter Hayden looks at the primeval, remote wilderness of Fiordland National Park. Watch it here!
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