The Ultimate Guide To Milford Sound

No trip to New Zealand’s South Island is complete without a visit to Milford Sound. Famously described as the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound is home to some of New Zealand’s most breathtaking scenery.

Expect to find towering cliffs plunging into the deep dark fiord, glasslike waters darkened by the surrounding lush rainforest, gushing waterfalls, impressive mountain peaks, and some rather colourful local residents – the fur seals, penguins and dolphins.

What Makes The Milford Sound So Special?

While the stunning scenery that surrounds the Milford Sounds is a huge drawcard for visitors from all over the world, its true uniqueness lies in what’s under the water.

The Sounds are a combination of both seawater and freshwater. There are approximately 6-10 metres of freshwater sitting on top of the lower levels of ocean water. This unique combination of salt vs freshwater provides an interesting habitat for many of the Sound’s underwater residents by effectively blocking out natural light at relatively shallow depths providing ideal conditions for deep-sea marine life to thrive.

Is Milford Sound A Fjord Or Sound?

Technically the Milford Sound isn’t actually a ‘Sound’ at all, it’s a ‘fiord’. The difference being in the way it was formed. A fiord is a valley carved out by glaciers, while the flooding of a river valley usually forms a sound. Milford Sound was incorrectly named based on assumptions by early explorers to the area back in the early 1800s.

Glaciers actually carved out the Milford Sound fiord over millions of years. It has all the characteristics of a fiord with steep-sided cliffs on both sides and being deeper and narrower than it is wide. Interestingly, it is also the only fiord in New Zealand that is accessible by road.

Milford Sound FAQ

Have we piqued your interest? Need to know more? Here are the most frequently asked questions about Milford Sound.

How Much Rain Does Milford Sound Get?

The Milford Sound area gets an average annual rainfall of 6,412mm, with rain falling approximately 184 days of the year.

What Is The Closest City To Milford Sound?

Te Anau is the closest town to the Milford Sound. In fact, it’s known as the gateway to Milford and Fiordland National Park. Te Anau is located on the eastern shores of Lake Te Anau, approximately 2 hours drive from Milford Sound. Te Anau is a (very scenic) 2 hour drive from Queenstown and 3.5 hours’ drive from Dunedin.

What Is The Best Way To See Milford Sound?

There are a variety of ways to explore the beauty of the Sound, however, a boat cruise is the most popular. Travelling by boat allows you to see most of Milford Sound in an affordable and fun way! You could also choose to walk, kayak or catch a scenic flight in the area.

How Many Days Should You Spend In Milford Sound?

While some people manage to get in and out within 24 hours, this does make for a pretty big day (and night). It is best to allow a minimum of two days at Milford – preferably three. Plan to make it in for a scenic cruise around the fiord, and then get back to Te Anau in time for dinner.

Which Is Better Doubtful Or Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is generally the more popular choice for travellers as it is accessible by road. To get to the Doubtful Sound, you will need to go by boat. For this reason, Milford Sound is much more widely known than Doubtful Sound. However, they are both stunningly beautiful in their own right, you won’t be disappointed with a trip to either of them!

What Is The Best Time To Visit Milford Sound?

The Milford Sound is a popular tourist spot, generally speaking, the months December to March will be its peak visitor times. Visiting during the winter months will offer up the same breathtaking views, but with the added attraction of snow among the mountain tops and crisp, clear mornings. However, you will need some warm clothes!

How Many Waterfalls Are In Milford Sound?

There are two main waterfalls to look out for in the Milford Sound; Lady Bowen Falls at approximately 162 metres high and Stirling Falls at approximately 155 metres high.

How Deep Is Milford Sound New Zealand?

The steep rock walls that form the sides of the Milford Sound plunge deep beneath the water, reaching varying depths throughout the fiord. The exact depth of the Milford Sound reaches a reported maximum of between 291 and 512 metres.

Why Is The Water In Milford Sound So Black?

Heavy rainfall, lush rainforest and the freshwater/saltwater mix are what makes the water in the Milford Sound appear so dark. As runoff occurs from rainwater through the forest into the fiord, it becomes stained with tannins which, in turn, significantly darkens the colour of the water.

How To Get To Milford Sound

Yes, the drive to Milford Sound is a lengthy one – but it’s all part of the stunning journey, right! The road to Milford Sound is an extremely scenic drive with lush rainforest lining the road plenty of places to stop and explore and soak up the stunning landscape.

Milford Sound By Road

Choosing to drive to Milford Sound by car at your own pace is a rewarding experience, especially if you have a private vehicle available to you. You can also manage the drive in a campervan or by taking a tour bus. A 4WD or AWD vehicle is not necessary.

The road from Queenstown to Milford Sound is safe to drive year-round, assuming you drive carefully and to the conditions. The most difficult section of road is between Te Anau and Milford Sound, if you are worried, it is possible to take a bus from Te Anau.

Milford Sound Travel Times

  • Queenstown to Milford Sound – 4 hours
  • Queenstown to Te Anau – 2 hours
  • Te Anau to Milford Sound – 2 hours
  • Dunedin to Milford Sound – 5 hours
  • Dunedin to Te Anau – 3.5 hours
  • Invercargill to Milford Sound – 4 hours

Getting Petrol In Milford Sound

There is only one petrol station in Milford Sound. The service is limited to specific methods of payment and opening times, so check ahead of your travels. The good news is there are multiple fuel stations available in Te Anau, so fuel up there before heading into Milford.

Checking For Road Closures

The Milford Sound road is closed on average eight times per year, mostly during the winter months when harsh weather is at play. So it does pay to check the road conditions before heading out.

Milford Sound By Air

Travelling to Milford Sound by aeroplane or helicopter charter is also a popular option, especially for those short on time. Scenic flights are generally best sourced from Queenstown; however, they may be available from other centres such as Dunedin or Christchurch if you hunt around online.

One of the best options for travellers is to combine air and road travel by flying into the Milford Sound and travelling by bus for the return journey. – The best of both worlds!

Here are some of the available flight operators to Milford Sound:

Or take a look here for more information on booking Milford Sound flights and combo tours.

Te Anau – Milford Sound’s Closest Town

When making the journey to Milford Sound by road, you will pass through a number of small settlements, the largest and most populated of these places is Te Anau. Roughly 2 hours from Queenstown and three and a half hours drive from Dunedin, Te Anau is situated right on the shores of Lake Te Anau. It is a great little place to stop, refuel, grab a bite to eat, stock up on supplies or book accommodation for the night.

From Te Anau, you can explore the epic delights of the Fiordland National Park, cruise the Lake, go in search of the resident glowworms, check out the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, go jet boating and much more!

Lake Te Anau is a picturesque introduction to what this region has in store for you – complete with stunning scenery and an abundance of swimming, fishing and boating opportunities. Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island, and it is a prominent feature of the Fiordland National Park.

Accommodation In Milford Sound

One of the main questions people ask when planning a trip to Milford Sound is – Where should I stay? The short answer is Te Anau. While there are a couple of boutique accommodation options at Milford Sound, these are generally booked up (and quite pricey). Te Anau is the nearest town (2 hrs away), and it has a great choice of accommodation for all types of travellers. The bonus is Te Anau is a great base for exploring both Milford and Doubtful Sounds, as well as the Fiordland National Park.

Here are our top picks for accommodation in Te Anau:

  • Te Anau Lodge. Quiet and secluded, the Te Anau Lodge provides comfort and relaxation in a historical setting. Surrounded by breathtaking lake and mountain views, you will find your stay is well catered for with full breakfast services, guest library, complimentary tea/coffee and nibbles, mountain bikes for guest use, WiFi, TV and games.
  • Tasman Holiday Parks – Te Anau. The Tasman Holiday Park is perfect for the budget-conscious traveller with facilities for all ages and all weather conditions. Choose from a selection of villas, cabins and caravan sites, along with the standard non-powered tent sites if camping in Te Anau is your goal.
  • Radfords On The Lake. For a more up-market approach, Radfords on the Lake offers the traditional luxury 5-star lakefront accommodation. Their spacious apartment-style accommodation has excellent views over the lake and is centrally located for convenience.
  • Holiday Houses In Te Anau. There are also a number of holiday houses or baches available for rent in Te Anau. These homes are generally fairly well equipped with the essentials and provide that home away from home feel for families and groups.

5 Best Things To Do In Milford Sound

There are plenty of activities you can do in Milford Sound, and on your way there. Scenic cruises give you the best viewpoint for wildlife and the fiord, scenic flights give an amazing aerial perspective, there are glacier landings, kayaking, glowworms and hiking the Milford Track all on the list too – plus much more!. So let’s dive in and get a breakdown of the top 5 things to do in Milford Sound.

1. Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory

This amazing underwater observatory provides a glimpse into just what’s under the dark waters of the Sound – 10 metres under, to be exact. See the sea life up close as they go about their business, look out for the black coral, and other plant life under the sea. Learn a little about the history of Milford Sound and more!

The Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory is located in Harrison Cove. It is only accessible as part of a Southern Discoveries cruise or specific kayaking packages. Prices range from $95 – $150 per person. Set aside approximately 3 hours for the cruise/observatory and 4-6 hours for the kayaking/observatory experience.

2. Kayaking In Milford Sound

Kayaking is an adventurous way to see the fiord, it provides an up-close and personal aspect to the experience with a freedom to explore that is hard to beat. Kayaking the fiord is available to anyone over the age of 16 who feels comfortable with the water and has a moderate level of fitness.

Kayaking in the Milford Sound will set you back anywhere between $100 and $200 depending on the length of time you’re on the water and any add-ons you might like, such as a cruise or hike portion of the trip. There are multiple kayaking operators in Milford Sound – here are the top 2

3. Milford Sound Cruises

Cruising the Milford Sound is the most popular way to experience this stunning destination. It is affordable, comfortable and you get a front-row seat to the stunning wildlife, towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls and rugged rainforest of the fiord.

Milford Sound day (and night) cruises are offered by a range of operators and vary in length between 1 hour 45 minutes to 3 hours for the day trips and obviously overnight timeframes for the nighttime cruises. Milford Sound Cruises cost anywhere between $69 for the shorter day cruises right up to $200 or more for overnight cruises. Here are 4 of the main cruise operators in Milford Sound.

4. The Milford Track

A challenging hike even for the most seasoned trekkers out there, the Milford Track requires a certain degree of fitness and ability, but despite this, it remains one of New Zealand’s most popular walks. The entire walk will take 3 nights and 4 days in total and can only be walked in one direction.

There are very basic Department of Conservation huts along the way, which must be booked in advance (toilets but no showers). March, April and May are said to be the best months to walk the Milford Track as temperatures are still warm and it is less crowded. The track is well-formed and covers a distance of 53.5 kilometres (33.2 miles). There is no phone reception or WiFi on the Milford Track.

5. Scenic Flights In Milford Sound

Many visitors to Milford Sound choose to view the epic scenery with a scenic flight. Soar high above the beautiful Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound in the comfort of a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter and enjoy seeing the majestic Southern Alps, gushing waterfalls and pristine lakes from the best seat in the house!

Bear in mind that scenic flights are always going to be weather dependent, and booking ahead is essential. Refunds or rescheduling options will be provided if the weather isn’t on your side when you arrive. Departure time vary, as do flight times – check with your provider for specific details. Looking for something a little bit special? The team at Fiordland By Seaplane offer unique seaplane flights over Lake Te Anau, the Milford Track and Milford Sound.

Take a look here for more information on things to do in Milford Sound or Te Anau, or find out more about Milford Sound from the knowledgeable locals at the Te Anau Lodge.