The distance from Te Anau to Milford Sound is about 120 km. During the planning of our New Zealand road trip, we have learned that Milford Sound is a must-see place in New Zealand South Island. It would be like going to South Germany without seeing the fairy tale castle, Neuschwanstein.
The narrow-mouthed inlet deep within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. An acquaintance, who has been there already, also strongly suggested we add it to our itinerary.
Many travellers visit Milford Sound by joining a tour in Queenstown. Why did we start our journey from Te Anau, not Queenstown? Is it worth to self-driving 120 km to see Milford Sound? Is there anything else to do in combination with the Milford Sound tour?
Below is my experience of the trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound:
- Stay in Te Anau to save driving time
- Visit sites between Te Anau and Milford Sound
- The Milford Sound tour
- Is it worth to visit Milford Sound?
- Travel tips and information
Stay in Te Anau to save driving time
Many travellers choose Queenstown as a base to explore other nature sites. But, it would be too long to drive to Milford Sound and back, the one-way driving time would be four hours. Most tourists would join a Milford Sound Cruise Tour in Queenstown.
Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound, and it would take us two hours to drive there. Our accommodation was Aden Motel, which is very close to the centre. It has nice family rooms.
If you have read my New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, you would know that we had to drive to Dunedin the next day. From Te Anau, it would take us only two hours to drive to Dunedin.
Visit sites along the road
Much like the driving on the West Coast of South Island, the beautiful scenery between Te Anau and Milford Sound made our drive longer. Besides, at the beginning of the day, we had a small accident, and the whole journey took even longer than planned.
On the Department of Conservation website, you will find a detailed description of 32 sites between Te Anau and Milford Sound. It comes down to personal preferences about what to do and see.
Small mountain lakes on the roadside provide outstanding mountain reflective views of the Earl Mountains in calm weather. It was a good place to stretch our legs. Since the mirrored view could only be spotted in the morning, we stopped at this site on the way to Milford Sound.
It is about the dramatic views of a series of powerful waterfalls carving their way through thick rocks. The sheer velocity of water gives an appreciation of how much rainfall the Milford Sound area receives per annum.
The Homer Tunnel, at an altitude of 945 m above sea level, pierces the sheer rock to allow road access to Milford Sound.
At the end of the Homer Tunnel, we greeted Kea, a type of bird that is notorious for attacking cars. Visitors tried to guard their belongings and cars while taking photos of these rare birds.
The car park is 1 km down the unsealed Hollyford Road. At the beginning of the Lake Marian Track, we crossed the suspension bridge. After a few minutes of walking, we found ourselves walking on a platform right next to the spectacular waterfalls.
From there, it is all hiking uphill. The weather turned to rain, and the ground was slippery. We couldn’t reach the lake.
The Milford Sound tour
While waiting for the departure of a cruise, we did a Milford Foreshore Walk. It is a wooden boardwalk that takes you to the edge of the fiord offering uninterrupted views of Mitre Peak. The looped walking track has information panels along the way. It took around 20 minutes for the walk.
Our cruise set off in time. According to the information the area rains on average 182 days a year. The two rainiest months are December and January during the New Zealand summer. We were lucky that in the morning it wasn’t raining! The sun was trying to come out, and it was a bit chilly out there.
Our cruise has a mixture of indoor and outdoor seating and viewing areas. I preferred to stay inside and keep warm while still being able to enjoy the remarkable views out the window.
The rock formations, waterfalls, cliff faces, native plants, and wildlife have made Milford Sound so spectacular and thus so popular. On some rocks, there were some local wildlife like seals. Most of them were actively moving, other than two, which were making funny actions with each other.
Shortly before we returned to the terminal, our captian announced that we were soon very close to a big waterfall. He took precautions to drive under a waterfall so that we could feel the mist of the tumbling waterfall made from pure glacial water. If we did not wear waterproof clothes we would be wet already.
The tour also included a pack of fish and chips. The snack was freshly made and tasted delicious. It was also enough as a quick lunch.
Is it worth to visit Milford Sound?
Milford Sound did not match our expectation of being a must-see site in New Zealand’s South Island. Perhaps it was because of the weather. It was not a sunny day and misty. We had limitations in taking proper photos. And, we have seen other fjords around the world, such as fjord of the national park in Thailand.
However, it is still a beautiful place with amazing nature. If you take a helicopter trip, you probably would have a wonderful picture of the whole area.
Besides, if you combine the visit of several sites between Te Anau and Milford Sound, you would have a satisfying day. We have a lot of fun visiting the five sites above.
The road to Milford Sound boasts incredible valleys, mountain peaks, hiking trails, and waterfalls to explore. If you are an outdoor adventurer, you could literally spend days on this 120 km stretch of road! It is not a crowded area, even in the summer season.
Travel tips and information
We have gained a handful of experiences from this trip. I hope they will help you to plan your next trip.
- If you are the first-timer, I would suggest you join an organized tour instead of driving there on your own. The Key summit on the Routeburn Track is very popular but we didn’t have time to do that. There are many tours in Te Anau. Take a look at this tour which combines the Routeburn Track as well.
- The cruise terminal has no eatery. If you want to have lunch, make sure to book a tour including lunch.
- Since most tickets were already booked out online, the cruise agencies open their counters 30 minutes before the departure to sell the rest tickets. To plan your trip better, you should better book a tour online.
- Don’t forget to get a map including all sites along Milford Sound road so that you can plan ahead what to see and how many hours you need.
- Neither in Milford Sound area nor between Te Anau and Milford Sound has a gas station. It is suggested to fill in your tank in Te Anau.
- Due to the local climate, you should bring wind and waterproof jacket with you to cope with the situation. Especially, if you want to visit the sites on the 120 km stretch of Milford road. You should also wear proper hiking shoes to visit those sites.