Milford Sound Travel Guide for Kiwis
Milford Sound is probably the most recognizable view in all of New Zealand. People come from all over the world to see and experience “the Eight Wonder of the World”, as described by Rudyard Kipling in 1891. With so many Kiwis now exploring their own country, we’ve come up with this handy travel guide to help you plan your visit to Milford Sound on your next South Island trip.
We are MoaTours and we’ve been visiting Milford Sound on our small group tours since 1971 and over the years we’ve picked up quite a few tips. In this travel guide to Milford Sound, we’d like to share a few tips on visiting Milford Sound and answer some common questions.
Where is Milford Sound and how do I get there?
Milford Sound is right down in the South West Corner of New Zealand, in Fiordland National Park. It’s actually a fiord, not a sound, and is the most northern of the 14 fiords in that corner of the country. There’s only one road into Milford Sound, State Highway 94, and you have to go from Te Anau, it’s the only way. Most people go to Milford Sound from Queenstown, which makes for a pretty long day as it’s over a 500km return trip. But read on, we’ve found a much better solution to a 12 hour day.
Māori legends of Piopiotahi
The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, which is a reference to the extinct Piopio bird, it means “one piopio”. There are several powerful legends associated with Piopiotahi, one which we can never forget is the one about the atua Tu Te Rakiwhānoa who carved the fiords out of the rock with his adze, moving north perfecting his craft and Piopiotahi was his final masterpiece.
The other legend is about the infamous residents of Milford Sound, the sandflies. Legend has it that a goddess called Hine-nui-te-pō released sandflies at Piopiotahi to prevent humans lingering too long in such a beautiful place and becoming distracted from their work! Good news is that as long as you’re moving or out on a cruise they won’t bother you!
Māori artefacts have been discovered here over the years and it was a prized source of Tangiwai greenstone. Piopiotahi is part of Ngāi Tahu’s Te Wai Pounamu rohe.
European history of Milford Sound
Captain Cook sailed past Milford Sound twice on his first voyages to New Zealand in 1769 & 70, but it was not until 1812 when Welsh sealer John Grono was blown into the fiord during a storm which marked its true discovery by Europeans. Grono named it after his hometown of Milford Haven.
The first European settler in Milford was a Scotsman named Donald Sutherland, who settled there with his long-suffering wife in 1877 and stayed until his passing. In those days there was no road and no Milford Track so the only way in or out was by sea. But even in these early days the beauty of Milford Sound started attracting visitors and by 1888 the land route to the Sound was open (this was the famous Milford Track) and Sutherland and his wife were running accommodation at Milford Sound. Famous visitors such as Rudyard Kipling and poet Blanche Baughan started spreading the word and the world started coming to see for themselves.
The Milford Road
The completion of the Milford Road in 1953 made it much easier to get to Milford and in the post World War II world Milford Sound became one of the most popular scenic attractions in the whole world.
The Milford Road, or State Highway 94, is one of New Zealand and the world’s most stunning roads. From Te Anau you travel 120km through beech forest, past alpine lakes and through massive glacial valleys to cross the Southern Alps and into the stunning upper Hollyford Valley before the engineering feat of the Homer Tunnel and the steep descent into Milford Sound. The entire journey is through Fiordland National Park and South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, so this is a unique New Zealand journey.
Words don’t really do the Milford Road justice, so here’s a selection of pictures from some of our favourite views and short walks from recent trips into Milford Sound.
Milford Sound Cruise
Arriving into Milford Sound, you are greeted by the perfectly framed views of the Sound and Mitre Peak and getting out on the water is an absolute must. We prefer the smaller boat cruises, some of the larger vessels cram in hundreds of people but we’d rather go out in a smaller boat with our friends from Cruise Milford.
We explore one side of the Sound, getting close to the waterfalls and seal colonies, before heading right out to the open ocean of the Tasman Sea, before returning up the other side back in. If you’ve never been to Milford Sound it’s hard to describe the sheer scale of the place, even photos don’t do it justice, so you’ve just got to come and see for yourself!
Here are a selection of pictures from some of our recent trips to Milford Sound:
Milford Sound Scenic Flight
Now here’s the trick we’ve learnt after visiting Milford for decades, it’s a great trip in on the road and although most people do the drive - cruise - drive option to make it a 12 hour, 500km + day, we’ve figured out that jumping on a scenic flight from Milford Sound back to Queenstown is a win-win situation.
The views of the Fiordland, the Southern Alps & Lake Wakatipu from the air are unforgettable, you really get an appreciation for the type of country this is and how tough those early explorers must have been. You'll fly right over the Milford or Routeburn Tracks too, giving you a bird's eye view of these famous walking tracks.
You'll love arriving back into Queenstown mid afternoon (as opposed to 7pm if you have to drive) and being dropped off back to your accommodation with plenty of time to enjoy a walk around town or along the lakefront before dinner.
Our friends at New Zealand family business Air Milford (run by father and son team Hank and Anthony Sproull) will look after you, they’ve been flying our guests out of Milford for over 10 years now.
What is the best time to visit Milford Sound?
Good question. You don’t get all that stunning rainforest and striking landscape without some weather and you may have heard that it rains from time to time in Milford too. Which is true, Milford Sound has an annual average rainfall of 6,813 mm. (268 inches)
Yes it rains sometimes but we’ve been going into Milford Sound since the 1970s and we’ve never had a bad day in there. When it rains, the waterfalls, streams and rivers are amazing - you can even see waterfalls tumbling off cliff tops only to be blown away into the wind! Milford Sound is an amazing place, no matter what the weather, even our Kiwi Guides who have been visiting for years tell every day at Milford is different.
For a bit more empirical evidence, here’s a quick summary of average temperatures and rainfall in Milford Sound:
Milford Sound Average Temperatures:
• Summer, December - February. High: 68F, 20C. Low: 48F, 9C.
• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High: 64F, 18C. Low: 39F, 4C.
• Winter, June - August. High: 52F, 11C. Low: 34F, 1C.
• Spring, September - November. High: 61F, 16C. Low: 39F, 4C.
Milford Sound Rainfall:
The highest rainfalls months: September, October, November, December with an average of 16-18 rainfall days.
The lowest rainfalls months: February, July, June with an average of 13-15 rainfall days.
Why is now the best time to visit Milford Sound?
We all know what’s going on the world in 2020 and for a while at least, overseas visitors are not coming to New Zealand but Milford Sound isn't going anywhere and is still as much of an amazing place as ever.
Visiting Milford Sound in 2020/21 means you will experience it in a way not possible for a very long time, yes, you’ll be sharing the fiord with a few other visitors but nowhere near as many as the thousands per day who have been visiting in recent years.
Running these tours around New Zealand we feel so privileged to visit places like Milford Sound regularly and we're always reminded of this when many of our friends who aren't in tourism tell us they have never been or maybe only been once. So if Milford Sound is on your bucket list well now is the time New Zealand, take this opportunity to see your own country with very few people around, this may not happen again in our lifetimes. (and in many ways, we hope it won’t)
Frequently asked questions about Milford Sound
How long is the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
The distance by road from Queenstown to Milford Sound is 287 kilometres (178 miles). If you look up the journey on Google maps it will tell you it takes 3 hours and 45 minutes, but our guides who drive this all the time know it can take up to 5 hours once you build in stops (which you will want to!). This is one of the world’s most scenic roads which traverses the Southern Alps of New Zealand, which means lots of hills and corners. It’s a stunning road but very different from most roads you have probably driven on, so take care.
Can you see Milford Sound in a day?
Yes, you can visit Milford Sound in a single day and for most people this is the only way to visit as there is very limited accommodation there. The popular options for day trips to Milford Sound are from Queenstown or Te Anau. A day trip from Queenstown involves driving over 500 km and a 12 hour day, it’s a long day!
How do I get to Milford Sound from Queenstown?
There are two ways to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown (or from Milford back to Queenstown):
1. Drive from Queenstown to Te Anau on State Highways 6, 97 & 94, before continuing into Fiordland National Park all the way to Milford on SH94. The road finishes at Milford Sound.
2. Take a scenic flight between Queenstown & Milford Sound, which takes approximately 35 minutes and is an unforgettable experience as you fly over the fiords, Southern Alps, Lake Wakatipu and the Queenstown mountains. Flying one way on your Milford Sound day trip also means you save about 4 hours drive time too.
Is it safe to drive to Milford Sound?
The Milford Road (between Milford Sound and Te Anau) is a very scenic alpine road, which has lots of hills, blind corners, it passes under avalanche paths and is prone to flooding too. There can also be a lot of rental car and campervan traffic on the road. Many people drive themselves safely but if you’re going to drive you need to prepare and be aware.
For tips on how to drive safely on the Milford Road see this guide from Transit New Zealand.
What are the best things to do in Milford Sound?
If you’re going all the way to Milford Sound then you will get out on the water, cruising under the sheer rock walls of the mountains out to the open Tasman Sea is an absolute must. A scenic flight is another popular way to experience Milford Sound. Other options for more active travellers include sea kayaking or walking the Milford Track from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound!
Visiting Milford Sound with MoaTours
Milford Sound is a highlight on our Southern Beauty, 9 day South Island small group tour. This is an all inclusive 9 day tour visiting all the iconic spots of the South Island, Aoraki Mt Cook, Queenstown, Wanaka, Glacier Country, the West Coast and of course Piopiotahi Milford Sound.
On the tour we spend 3 nights in Queenstown and head out to Milford on the famous Milford Road for a scenic cruise before a stunning scenic flight over the Southern Alps back to Queenstown. This memorable day is all included in your tour package, our guests always tell us this was the highlight of their entire trip!