Kia Ora and welcome to my guide on the amazing Milford Sound
Firstly Milford Sound is not actually a Sound it’s a Fjord.
Sorry to burst your bubble like that. But it had to be said. What’s the difference I hear you say? Well you will have to head to the fun facts section of the blog to find that one out. But when it was discovered the explorers didn’t know the difference between a Fjord and a Sound. Since it’s naming the whole area has been called Fiordland to rectify this.
Milford Sound is a Fjord located in the South West corner of New Zealands South Island in Fiordland National Park.
“Established in 1952, Fiordland National Park is now over 1.2 million hectares in size, and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. The National Park is administered by the Department of Conservation.”https://www.fiordland.org.nz/about-fiordland/fiordland-national-park/
Why go to Milford Sound?
Good question. And I think there’s a pretty obvious answer. I mean. Have you seen the pictures? It speaks for itself. There’s a reason it’s considered one of the natural wonders on Planet Earth!
With its towering peaks, natural waterfalls, dense bush, deep ocean and an abundance of wildlife you start to understand why people love this place. Mitre Peak must be one of the most photographed mountains in New Zealand and equally Bowen Falls must be one of the most photographed waterfalls.
Are you still asking why you should go to Milford Sound?
Another good reason is that it is stunning in both glorious sunshine and pouring rain. I’ve been lucky enough to experience both. In the sunshine you get rainbows and blue skies. In the rain you get thousands of waterfalls. It’s a win win really.
How do you get to Milford sound?
If you go by car and drive yourself please be careful. The road is steep and windy and you will be distracted by the view every 5 seconds. So take your time and try to keep your eyes on the road. An advantage to driving however is that you get to stop more frequently along the way and get to do some awesome things which I have listed below. The drive is around 119km from Te Anua so make sure you fill up your petrol tank before setting off.
Unfortunately I haven’t been to Milford by Coach but I do have friends who have! I asked my friend Ulrike what she thought of the experience.
“If you’re getting the bus from Queenstown, you’re in for a very long day. The journey to Milford takes about 5-6 hours but the incredible scenery (visible through the glass roof of the coach and on several stops along the way) and the always entertaining stories from the drivers pass the time quickly. You don’t get any time to explore the area around the cruise terminal but if you don’t have a car, the day tour is a perfect way to see the jaw-dropping Fiordland and Milford Sound.”
Ulrike Pehlgrimm, Berlin, Germany
Via The Milford Track (walking)
I’ve not done this yet. But I’ve heard it’s amazing and it’s one of my top things still left to do in New Zealand. I can imagine once you’ve finished a 4 day tramp a lovely cruise to view the Fjord would be well deserved. You can read more about it on the official DOC site here.
That’s right, you can fly in to Milford Sound. I can imagine this option is one of the most breathtaking ways to see and enter this beautiful place. I’ve been on a few scenic flights in my time and trust me it’s an amazing way to see a place. I haven’t done this yet but if you want to read more about this option you can do here.
What is there to do on the way?
As mentioned there are loads of things to do along the way and the scenery is simply stunning. You can do short walks. Day hikes. Photography stops. Or just drive all the way through (I don’t know why you would, but you can) Here are my top 5 things to do on the way to Milford Sound
1. Hike to Lake Marian
Is an alpine lake in a hanging valley formed by glacial action, in one of the most beautiful settings in Fiordland. The lake is above the bush line and is surrounded by mountains with magnificent reflections if the weather is calm. The hike takes around 3 hours return and is quite challenging but well worth the effort. More info here
2. Hike the Key Summit Track
Offers views of Fiordland National Park. The return walk is around 3 hours but easier terrain than Lake Marian. A friend and I did both in one day on our way to Milford Sound. So it is possible. Once up there, there is a self guided nature walk which is well worth the excursion. The track is actually part of the Routeburn track (which I’m also yet to do) and connects it to the divide. More info on the track here
3. View The Chasm
When I first saw The Chasm I was awestruck. Just a short 20 minute walk from the car park. This amazing natural wonder can be viewed via two footbridges which cross the Cleddau River. By looking straight down you get dramatic views of powerful waterfalls and water sculpted rock faces. For more information check here
4. Admire The Homer Tunnel
You actually have no choice with this one. You have to drive through it to get to Milford Sound. The tunnel is 1.2km long and was opened in 1953. The tunnel took 18 years to complete! Just sitting waiting to go in to the tunnel is amazing. Sheer cliffs either side. And if it’s a rainy day, waterfalls everywhere.
5. Take perfect mirror images at Mirror Lakes
An easy 10 minute walk. The Mirror Lakes offer reflections of the Earl Mountains. To find out more click here
What to do in Milford sound and Which cruise do you pick?
It really depends on what you want to see. The first time I went to Milford Sound I chose a wildlife based tour because that’s what interests me. The second time I went I chose one where I could kayak on the Fjord as that also appealed to me. There are other options though, you can go on a scenic flight, scuba dive or choose another cruise or kayak package. I have been lucky enough to visit Milford Sound three times. Twice on my own and once with my family. I’ve only had experience with two of the major cruise operators but I am lucky enough to know people who have been on the other cruises and one of my friends even scuba dived in the Fjord! Read about mine and their experiences below.
Milford Sound Nature Cruise (on my own and with my family) Operated by Real Journeys
A great way to see the whole Fjord on this leisurely cruise. The guides were informative and knowledgeable about the local fauna, flora, mountains and seas. I love listening to these sorts of talks so I always make sure I’m sitting or standing near one of the speakers. The first time I went on this cruise it was pouring with rain. The second it was lovely and sunny. So just be careful and wear appropriate clothes.
To book this cruise click here.
Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak. Operated by Southern Discoveries
When I told my Aunt back in the UK that I was going to New Zealand she told me I had to kayak at Milford Sound and tell her all about it. So I did. I love kayaking and since I first visited the Fjord I’ve always wanted to do it. So when I got the opportunity to go back I booked the Cruise and Kayak Tour with Southern Discoveries. It was amazing. I drank from the Fjord (the top layer of water is fresh! See the fun facts below), I kayaked up to the rock faces, I got bitten by sandflies and experienced an underwater observatory!
To book this cruise click here.
Milford cruise operated by Go Orange
“My Milford Sounds cruise was a kind of ‘lucky accident’. After my overnight kayaking of Doubtful Sound was cancelled due to the famous ever changing weather of Fiordland, we were placed onto both a Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound cruise instead. Whilst we had originally chosen Doubtful Sound for a quieter experience, let’s just say Milford exceeded expectations. The Go Orange team were amazing! They knew everything you could possibly want to know but were actually entertaining to listen to. Whilst I didn’t pay for the cruise, if you chose to do this its pretty cheap and whilst its is pretty busy (as to be expected) it was incredible value for money for a two hour cruise of the beautiful Milford! (And free refreshments!)”
Paige Varney, Birmingham, UK
Coach | Cruise | Coach with Mitre Peak cruises
“Probably one of the most common trips to Milford Sound and I will tell you why. They offer you a pickup from Queenstown with a small van. This saves you time and stress of driving all the way up to the Sound. Along the way the lovely guide will talk you through the history and facts about Fiordland. They stop at every spot you need to check out such as the Mirror Lakes. It’s important to know they only have small groups which makes you feel really humble to be surrounded by the majestic Sounds in only a small group. You see several larger boats cruising through the Sounds, while Mitre Peaks delivers you quality with an intimate group and a dedicated captain who engages to save the biodiversity in the Sounds. If you go to the Sounds with Mitre Peak, don’t hesitate to have a chat with him! Various reasons to recommend this trip!”
Yordi Mariën, Antwerp, Belgium
Scuba diving at milford sound with Descend
“I decided to spend two days scuba diving in Milford Sound. A day of diving costs about the same as a day cruise on the sound, but it provided a much more diverse and intimate experience than the big cruise ships.
I contacted Descend Scuba to grab a spot on their boat for a couple of days between Christmas and New Year’s, and they fitted me in without a problem. We were kitted up and briefed for the dive at the harbor before boarding the dive boat. I was given a wetsuit for the first day of diving: two 3mm vests beneath an 8/7mm wetsuit, so I had 14mm around my core. With water temperatures at 12-13* C, I would need every bit of neoprene I could get, and by the end of the second dive, I was shivering. The next day, I was very happy when the wonderful folks at Descend offered me a dry suit upgrade.
On the boat ride back, the skipper told me stories about dives where dolphins had swum with her. She told me about orcas and other whales that have been spotted in the waters. It’s an incredibly rare experience to see them, and I wasn’t lucky enough on either day, but I can’t complain. The weirdness and the beauty of this underwater world is unlike anything else on the planet.”
Lee Steenbergen, Tennesse, USA
Top 6 Photography spots in Milford Sound
This one is pretty obvious I think. But just look at it. Why wouldn’t you want to take a picture of it. Both time I stayed in Milford it rained overnight so I missed the sunrise/sunset opportunities but if you get a chance you should definitely get shots at both of these times.
2. Stirling Falls
Best seen on one of the cruises. This majestic waterfall is one of the permanent waterfalls in Milford, so it can be seen on any day. It’s Milford’s second highest waterfall at 151m. The sheer drop of the falls allows boats to get up close and personal. So when on the cruise you can get very wet and use 151m worth of glacial water as a revitalising shower.
3. Lake Marian
After a long tough hike there is nothing better than being rewarded with an amazing lake to photograph. My one regret is not taking my swimming shorts up with me to have a dip in this lake.
4. Bowen Falls
The highest of Milford’s waterfalls at 162m. You can see the falls from the shore or from a cruise. Why not do both? Bowen falls are vital to Milford Sound as they provide the sole source of power and water for the tiny village, which consists of the visitor center, boat pier, two restaurants, an air strip, a campground and a lodge.
5. The Swing
This is located on the Milford Foreshore Walk (30 minute loop). I didn’t actually know about this one until I went with my family and my sister took me there. It’s great for a photo opportunity and great for sharing on Instagram.
6. Eglington Valley
Located on the drive to Milford Sound. Why isn’t it in the ‘Things to do on the way’ section? I hear you ask. Well it’s a very minor pit stop and I think it fits in to this category better as the views are just stunning. I mean come on. Look at them.
Where Should I stay?
This will depend on your budget and what you want to experience. As I’m a backpacker I have only stayed in the dorm rooms at the lodge but below I have given a few options
Milford Sound Lodge offers powered camper van sites within the rain forest setting (yes Milford Sound is classed as a rainforest). Great if you are in a camper! The camp site offers a communal kitchen, dining area and bathrooms. So you won’t be stuck in your camper if it’s raining. There will be space to stretch your legs.
The lodge also offers dorm rooms which is where I have stayed. The beds are comfortable and the facilities are good. And lets be honest you aren’t there to stay in your room. It is what it is and it works. Again, same as with the camper van sites, you have access to the communal facilities which allow you to cook your own meals and warm up with a nice hot shower.
The lodge also offers various levels of accommodations such as luxury chalets which offer a private and cosy place to stay on those wet nights. This would be a perfect option for a romantic getaway or if you are a family without a camper van.
Check out the lodges website here.
Real Journeys offer an overnight cruise which allows you to spend the night in one of their purpose built ships. I haven’t done this particular cruise but I have done the same cruise on Doubtful Sound which was one of my top experiences in New Zealand. Read about that here.
10 Fun Facts about Milford Sound
What list would be complete without some awesome facts. Here are my favourite facts about the natural wonder that is Milford Sound
- Milford Sound isn’t a Sound. It’s a Fjord. Fjords and sounds are both valleys that have been filled with seawater. However a sound is formed by the flooding of a river valley whereas a fjord is formed by glacial retreat.
- Beneath the water of Milford Sound the mountains continue to plunge down as sheer rock walls until they reach the floor at depths of 100-400m.
- A layer of fresh water sits on top of the salt water. This varies in depth but it means species that are usually found at very deep depths can be found a lot higher up. This is known as deep water emergence.
- On that note, there is an underwater observatory in Milford Sound. This is exactly how it sounds. You go down in to a big tank and look at the fish and plant life!
- It is named after a place in Wales. Milford Haven is a town in Wales which is where John Grono, the European explorer was from.
- The Maori name for the sound is Piopiotahi. They named it after the pippin bird which is endemic to New Zealand but unfortunately is now extinct.
- It rains a lot! And I mean A LOT!. It rains for over 50% of the year and is considered one of the wettest inhabited places on Earth. With almost 6.5m of rainfall in an average year. But with rain means there are more waterfalls! So really you are lucky if it rains for you.
- It is New Zealand’s most visited tourist attraction with over 2700 every day on average visiting the site. That’s over 1 million people a year! Only around 1% of those visitors however star overnight! I’m glad to count myself in that 1%.
- It’s a wildlife haven. It’s possible to spot seals, penguins, dolphins, whales and even sharks here. You can also see Kea, an alpine parrot, which will try and attack your car.
- In 1891 Rudyard Kipling, the famous author, named Milford Sound the Eight wonder of the World. And really, I can see why.
Thank you for reading my guide to Milford Sound
I hope you enjoyed my comprehensive guide to the amazing Milford Sound, a natural wonder. Let me know what you think in the comments below. And if you want me to create guides for anywhere else in New Zealand please let me know!