Thousands of years ago, glaciers carved a fiord into the mountains, creating steep cliffs that plunge deep into the sea. Today Milford Sound is popular with visitors to New Zealand because of its rugged scenery and the wildlife that flourishes in one of the most beautiful national parks in the world.
I’ve visited Queenstown several times, and on my visit last year, I decided to take a day trip to Milford Sound.
Visitors can explore Milford Sound by boat, kayak, or walking trails around the shore. On a cruise around the sound, the boat got close enough to the cliffs for me to see rainbows in the waterfalls and feel the spray. I spotted fur seals lying on the rocks at the base of the cliffs and penguins flapping water off their wings. Sometimes dolphins follow the boat, although there weren’t any that day.
Milford Sound is part of Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site because of the unique plants and animals found there. Te Wāhipounamu covers four national parks with many remote areas only accessible to hikers. Milford Sound is one of the most accessible spots in this world heritage area, so visitors can experience the wilderness and see native birds and marine life even if they are not active outdoor adventurers.
Once upon a time, Milford Sound was only accessible on foot. The Māori people formed trails over the mountains as they searched for greenstone, a type of jade. When tourism began after European settlement, early visitors walked several days along the Milford Track from Te Anau through to Milford Sound. It’s still possible to do this today, but now there are faster and easier options by road and air. Milford Sound is often visited as a day trip from Queenstown, a major tourist hub with a wide range of accommodations and attractions. Some tours start from the small town of Te Anau, which is closer and more appealing to nature lovers.
Many companies offer tours to Milford Sound, and when I visited, I looked at five different ways to travel there.
A coach is comfortable, as you’re able to stand and stretch and the ride is smooth. With the seats being high above the ground, it’s easy to see over roadside vegetation to get a good view. Several tour companies offer tours from both Queenstown and Te Anau, and it’s the most economical option.
As Milford Sound is about a 4-hour drive from Queenstown and a 2-hour drive from Te Anau, it can be a very long day trip. Pickups in Queenstown are as early as 7 a.m., returning around 7 p.m. Some people choose to take a coach to Milford Sound and then return by plane or helicopter to make the day less tiring.
Coach tours stop along the way to Milford Sound, with the guide providing commentary.
Leaving Queenstown, I enjoyed the scenic views of Lake Wakatipu on the way to the first stop at Te Anau for coffee. Along the Milford Road, stops included the Eglinton Valley where a scene in the Fellowship of the Rings movie was filmed, and the Mirror Lakes, home to rare aquatic birds.
The final stop was at the Homer Tunnel, where kea, native mountain parrots, flew overhead. The stops depend on the driver being able to find safe parking, which can vary according to road conditions. On my trip, we enjoyed seven scenic stops.
We reached Milford Sound in time for the afternoon cruise and had lunch aboard the boat. The return trip had no scenic stops, just a coffee break in Te Anau.
2. Minivan Tour
A minivan tour is great if you prefer being with a smaller group of people or you are a group that wants a vehicle for your exclusive use. As with coaches, there are several companies offering minivan tours from Queenstown and Te Anau. Some offer luxury vehicles with more upholstered seats and tinted windows, although space in minivans is more confined than in coaches, which may be an issue for those who like to stretch their legs.
Minivans also make scenic stops on the way to Milford Sound. They are often more flexible about where they stop, being able to park in tighter spaces along the side of the road. The smaller group size means getting in and out of the minivan is quicker than a coach, maximizing the time at each stop.
Like coach tours, minivans will get you to Milford Sound in time for an afternoon cruise. Returning by air is also an option for those wanting a less tiring day. The cost of minivan tours runs slightly higher than coach tours, but it is still cheaper than the air options.
3. Rental Car
Visitors who have a rental car may think of driving themselves to Milford Sound, as they already have transport and the cost of the additional gas seems economical compared to a tour. There are several things worth knowing about before doing this.
- If you want to drive, it is best to stay in Te Anau and drive from there, instead of trying to drive to and from Queenstown in a day.
- Check the Milford Road conditions before you go, as it’s prone to avalanches in winter and spring, and there may be road works along the way.
With some planning, you can enjoy a relaxed journey at your own pace.
Self-driving offers flexibility for people wanting to stop and spend more time exploring the scenery. There are short walks along Milford Road that moderately active people can comfortably do.
If you want to take your time exploring along the Milford Road, it is possible to stay overnight at Milford Sound. This means that you could go on a morning boat cruise, which is less busy than the afternoon cruise. You would also have time to go walking or kayaking at Milford Sound.
Flying to Milford Sound in a small plane appeals to people who don’t have a lot of time. It’s the fastest way to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown as it’s possible to fly there and back in half a day or even less.
While flying saves time, it costs more than tours via road. Flights are also more likely to be canceled in bad weather than a coach or minivan trip.
Some plane trips just fly over the sound, while others land at Milford Sound airport so passengers can join a cruise. The flight follows a different route from the road journey, flying across the mountains. This gives a bird’s-eye view of the alpine scenery, meaning you can see clear blue lakes and glaciers in remote valleys.
Pro Tip: Taking a coach or minivan tour to Milford Sound and flying back means you can enjoy the scenery from all angles.
Some flights take in other parts of Te Wāhipounamu, traveling to Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound, which are less visited than Milford Sound, or flying over Franz Josef Glacier, another popular tourist sight. This maximizes your sightseeing opportunities in the area.
Helicopter is another fast option for time-poor visitors. Similar to small planes, helicopters fly a scenic route over the mountains to Milford Sound and also through valleys, affording passengers close-up views of waterfalls, forests, and mountains.
They can land in beautiful remote scenic spots, by a lake, on a glacier, or on a beach. Some helicopter flights offer a gourmet picnic in pristine surroundings far away from the usual tourist crowds. For a family or small group, this would be a special way to experience the wilderness, part of the trip of a lifetime.
Helicopter is the most expensive option, but with helicopters carrying only a few passengers, it’s possible to tailor a tour to your own requirements. The helicopter flight can be combined with a cruise at Milford Sound and visits to Doubtful Sound or to Lord of the Rings filming locations.
Mobility Note: Due to the rugged nature of the helicopters’ remote landing spots, they may not be suitable for people who have limited mobility.
Helicopter trips can be canceled in bad weather, so it’s recommended to schedule the trip early in your visit to Queenstown to allow for rescheduling as needed. Cancellation policies vary between companies, so check what they allow for.
More Milford Sound Pro Tips
- Weather: Milford Sound has high rainfall, with rain falling on more than 200 days a year, but don’t let this discourage you. On rainy days the waterfalls are spectacular, gushing off the cliffs, and the mountains are dramatically fringed with mist. On fine days, the sea is deep blue and it’s easier to spot wildlife. Whatever the weather, you’ll experience beautiful, wild scenery. Just check the weather forecast before you go.
- Packing: A rain jacket is recommended at any time of year as the cruise boats get very close to the waterfalls, and sunscreen is useful even on cloudy days.