Te Anau to Milford Sound: Wet and Wonderful

As we were planning our New Zealand road trip, we discovered that Milford Sound is a must-see destination on the South Island. Its reputation is similar to the fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein in South Germany. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is around 120 km, and we were wondering whether it would be worth it to make the trip.

Nestled deep within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also recognized as New Zealand’s most iconic tourist destination. An acquaintance who had visited Milford Sound before recommended that we add it to our itinerary.

While many travellers join tours in Queenstown to visit Milford Sound, we decided to start our journey from Te Anau instead. We’re curious about the reasons why most tours begin in Queenstown, and we’re wondering whether it’s worth the 120 km self-drive to see Milford Sound. Additionally, we’re interested in learning about any other activities or sights we could combine with our visit to Milford Sound.

Below is our experience of the trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound:

  • Save Time: Stay in Te Anau for Your Milford Sound Self-Drive Trip
  • Explore the Sites Between Te Anau and Milford Sound
  • Discover the Beauty of Milford Sound on a Tour
  • Is Milford Sound Worth Visiting?
  • Travel Tips for Your Ultimate Milford Sound Experience

Save Time: Stay in Te Anau for Your Milford Sound Self-Drive Trip

When planning our trip to explore nature sites in New Zealand, we considered making Queenstown our base. However, we quickly realized that it would be too much of a drive to visit Milford Sound and come back, as the one-way driving time alone would be four hours. Therefore, most tourists opt to join a Milford Sound Cruise Tour in Queenstown.

Fortunately, we found Te Anau to be a better option as it’s the closest town to Milford Sound. It only took us two hours to drive there from Te Anau, where we stayed at Aden Motel. The motel is conveniently located near the centre and offers lovely family rooms.

As mentioned in my New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, we had to drive to Dunedin the next day. From Te Anau, it took us only two hours to reach Dunedin, which was a perfect distance for us.

Explore the Sites Between Te Anau and Milford Sound

Driving on the West Coast of South Island was a breathtaking experience, and our journey between Te Anau and Milford Sound was no exception. However, the stunning scenery did add to our travel time, and to make matters worse, we had a minor accident at the start of the day, which delayed our trip even further.

The Department of Conservation website offers a comprehensive guide to 32 different sites between Te Anau and Milford Sound. We didn’t do any special planning but chose to stop and explore places that caught our eye as we drove along the road. Despite not having a set itinerary, we managed to visit some incredible locations that we highly recommend.

Mirror Lakes

The roadside mountain lakes offer exceptional reflective views of the Earl Mountains in calm weather. It’s a great spot to take a break and stretch our legs. We stopped here on our way to Milford Sound, as the mirrored view is only visible in the morning.

The Chasm

It is about the waterfalls carving through thick rocks, offering dramatic views. The sheer velocity of water shows the amount of rainfall the Milford Sound area receives annually.

Kea at the exit of the Homer Tunnel

To provide road access to Milford Sound, the Homer Tunnel cuts through the solid rock face at an altitude of 945 meters above sea level. Upon exiting the Homer Tunnel, we were welcomed by Kea, a rare bird species that is notorious for attacking the cars. As visitors snapped photos, they kept a watchful eye on their belongings and vehicles.

Lake Marian

The Hollyford Road car park is situated 1 km down an unsealed road. We crossed a suspension bridge at the start of the Lake Marian Track, then walked on a platform next to spectacular waterfalls for a few minutes. Beyond this, it was all uphill hiking. Unfortunately, the weather turned rainy and the ground became slippery, so we couldn’t make it to the lake.

Kea at the exit of the Homer Tunnel
playful seals at Milford Sound

Discover the Beauty of Milford Sound on a Tour

While we were waiting to depart on our cruise, my family and I decided to take a stroll on the Milford Foreshore Walk. This wooden boardwalk offers stunning, uninterrupted views of Mitre Peak and takes you right to the edge of the fiord. Along the way, we learned more about the area through the informative panels posted on the looped walking track. The walk itself took us about 20 minutes, but the memories we made will last a lifetime.

Our cruise set off in time, which was great news. According to the information the area rains around 182 days a year in the region, with December and January being the wettest months during New Zealand’s summer. Thankfully, luck was on our side in the morning as it wasn’t raining! Even though the sun was attempting to shine, it was still a little chilly outside.

Our cruise offered a blend of indoor and outdoor seating and viewing areas. Personally, I preferred to stay inside where it was warm and cozy while still being able to appreciate the breathtaking views through the window.

As we cruised through Milford Sound’s awe-inspiring landscape, we observed to a spectacle of natural wonders. Majestic rock formations, cascading waterfalls, towering cliff faces, native flora, and diverse fauna were all around us. During our journey, we spotted some local wildlife, including playful seals. Most of them weren’t so active except two, who seemed to be engaged in some amusing behavior.

Just before returning to the terminal, our captain announced that we were about to approach a massive waterfall. He took precautions to steer the ship underneath it, allowing us to experience the refreshing mist of the tumbling waterfall, made from pure glacial water. If we weren’t wearing waterproof clothes, we would have already been soaked.

As part of the tour, we were offered a pack of freshly made fish and chips. The snack was not only delicious but also filling enough to serve as a quick lunch.

Local wildlife on the rock of Milford Sound
The Chasm between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Waterfalls in Milford Sound

Is Milford Sound Worth Visiting?

Our visit to Milford Sound did not live up to our expectations of being a must-see site in New Zealand’s South Island. Perhaps the weather played a role, as it was a misty and overcast day that made it challenging to take proper photos.

Nonetheless, Milford Sound is still a beautiful place with stunning natural scenery. If you take a helicopter trip, you would likely have a breathtaking view of the entire area.

Furthermore, if you combine your visit to Milford Sound with several other sites between Te Anau and Milford Sound, you would have a fulfilling day. We had a lot of fun exploring the five sites above.

The road to Milford Sound boasts incredible valleys, mountain peaks, hiking trails, and waterfalls to discover. For outdoor enthusiasts, you could easily spend days exploring the 120 km stretch of road without feeling crowded, even during the summer season.

Travel Tips for Your Ultimate Milford Sound Experience

We have gained many valuable experiences from this trip, and I hope they will be helpful in planning your next adventure.

  1. For first-timers, I would suggest joining an organized tour rather than driving to Milford Sound on your own.
  2. Keep in mind that the cruise terminal does not have any dining options available. If you plan on having lunch during your visit, I would recommend booking a tour that includes a meal to avoid any inconvenience.
  3. As most tickets tend to be booked out in advance online, many cruise agencies will only open their counters for a brief period 30 minutes prior to departure to sell any remaining tickets. To better plan your trip and avoid any inconvenience, I highly recommend booking a tour online ahead of time.
  4. It’s always a good idea to grab a map that includes all the sites and attractions along the Milford Sound road. This way, you can plan ahead and determine how much time you’ll need to see everything on your list.
  5. There are no gas stations in either the Milford Sound area or along the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. To avoid any unexpected setbacks, I highly recommend filling up your gas tank in Te Anau before embarking on your journey.
  6. Because of the local climate, it’s essential to bring a windproof and waterproof jacket with you. This is especially important if you plan to explore the various sites along the 120 km stretch of Milford road. Additionally, you should wear proper hiking shoes for these excursions to ensure comfort and safety.

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