Milford Sound | A Complete Guide
If you are planning or dreaming about a trip to New Zealand, chances are you’ll have heard about the mystical fiord nestled in the depths of Fiordland National Park, by the name of Milford Sound. It is part of Te Wahipounamu, the UNESCO World Heritage site. A well-deserved title, it is the most iconic of the New Zealand fiords (or fjords; we most commonly use ‘fiords’ in New Zealand) and the unofficial ‘eighth wonder of the world’. We promise it will take your breath away. Here is our guide to the most famous of the New Zealand fjords, these are the best things to do in Milford Sound.
Fun facts about Milford Sound
- Milford Sound is not actually a sound but a fjord. The area was carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago.
- It rains here roughly 182 days of the year, boasting an annual rainfall of around 6,813mm. This makes it not only the wettest place in New Zealand but also one of the wettest places in the world. Lucky for you, it’s just as magical in the rain, some say the rain makes it even more beautiful!
- Milford Sound’s most iconic peak is known as Mitre Peak, and it is one of the most photographed mountains in New Zealand.
- There are over 700 plant species growing here that can only be found in Fiordland!
The history of Milford Sound
The Māori people first set foot in Milford Sound over 1,000 years ago. They used it as fishing and hunting grounds, plus a chance to collect pounamu (greenstone found in New Zealand that is highly valued by the Māori). The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, named after the piopio (a now extinct native bird). In Māori legend, Milford Sound was formed by the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa who cut the rock with his toki (adze).
Milford Sound flora and fauna
Milford Sound is home to many majestic creatures and plant life, both above and below the water. The sheer quantity of rain makes for a rather unique habitat, whereby the top layer of water is freshwater and the bottom is saltwater from the Tasman Sea. The rainwater running through the forest is tinted with tannins, giving it a dark brown colour, almost like a strong tea!
In and around the waterways you’ll (hopefully) be greeted by bottlenose or dusky dolphins/terehu, plenty of New Zealand fur seals/kekeno, the little blue penguins/kororā, Fiordland crested penguins/tawaki (one of the rarest penguins in the world) and the blue duck/whio.
As for plant life, beneath the surface of the water over seven million colonies of coral thrive – from the 60 varieties of black coral (antipathes fiordensis), to rare red corals and bubblegum coral. On land, there are over 700 plant species that can only be found in Fiordland. The native beech forests are especially mesmerising, ask your guide to point out the rimu, miro and totara trees when you’re there.
Best time to visit Milford Sound
The weather in Fiordland National Park is rather unpredictable, making it tricky to pinpoint the right time to visit this stunning location. Winter can be great to get away from the peak of tourist travel, however, in the depths of winter, the road into Milford Sound can sometimes be closed due to the risk of avalanches. The peak season here runs from November to March, therefore optimum times to avoid the crowds are during the shoulder season, April to May and September to October.
Things to do in Milford Sound
If you are looking for things to do in Milford Sound, one of the purest and easiest ways to explore the area is on foot. There are plenty of walks in the area but the most well-known one is definitely the Milford Track. It is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It stretches for 53.5km (33.2 miles) from the head of Lake Te Anau to Sandfly Point. It will take you three to four days to complete. For other Great Walks in Fiordland, there is the Routeburn, Hollyford and Kepler Tracks. Other shorter walks of note are Humboldt Falls, Lake Marian, and Lake Howden.
There are a few cruise options on Milford Sound. Southern Discoveries has a spacious catamaran where you can relax on the open air viewing decks and enjoy 360º views of the incredible area. Real Journeys also run cruises; you can even spend a night on the water on their overnight boat!
The Milford Deep Underwater Observatory
While cruising Milford Sound, you can visit New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory. In the middle of Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, you’ll get a glimpse of the magical underwater world without getting wet! It’s a special aquarium where the fish are free to come and go as they please!
To really embrace the elements and see Milford Sound from the very best perspective, get out on the water in a kayak. You’ll get to explore all the nooks and crannies that people on the catamaran won’t get to see. You’ll experience the native wildlife in a much more intimate way, plus it’s super eco-friendly!
Milford Sound transportation: How to get there
The drive into Fiordland National Park is one of the most scenic in the world, so no nodding off! You have a couple of options to get here. You can hop on a coach. There are loads of Milford Sound tour packages from Queenstown or catch an InterCity bus that drops you there and you can go explore yourself. It is recommended to book your activities in Milford Sound before going as you do not want to risk arriving and everything is fully booked.
Driving is another option. From Queenstown, it’s roughly a four-hour drive (288 km/ 179 miles), or two-hour drive (121 km/ 75 miles) from Te Anau. Or the most spectacular way to reach the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ is by air. You can fly to Milford in a small plane or helicopter! But of course, we reckon the best way to see New Zealand is to go on a guided adventure tour with New Zealand Trails!
Milford Sound accommodation: Where to stay
Your options for staying a night at Milford Sound are very limited. You are not allowed to freedom camp and there is only one public accommodation available, Milford Sound Lodge. They have accommodation options ranging from their luxurious riverside chalets to camping sites. The other Milford Sound accommodation option is to stay overnight on the fjord on an overnight cruise. You can also spend the night on board a boat on Doubtful Sound too! If you just want to do a day trip to the area, then you can stay in either Queenstown or Te Anau.
Other New Zealand fjords worth visiting
There are a few other notable and beautiful New Zealand fiords that you may not have heard of.
Keep an eye out for future articles about some of these lesser-known New Zealand gems.
Visiting Milford Sound with New Zealand Trails
On all of our South Island trips, we’ll take you to explore Milford Sound. On day eight of our World Heritage Walking Tour, you’ll spend a morning cruising on Milford Sound before seeing it from the air when you fly over the fiord and into Martins Bay. On our Kiwi Classic, Masterpiece and Pure South, you’ll spend the day in Milford Sound cruising around waterfalls by boat. Both are truly memorable ways to experience it!
If you want to find out more about the incredible 5-14 day hiking tours we run in New Zealand, you can request a free copy of our brochure here.