International National Parks

Milford Sound Visitor Guide

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Rudyard Kipling, the acclaimed writer of the Jungle Book and travel adventurer, once called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.  That is a sentiment that is shared by almost everyone who visits Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island.  Famous for its towering mountains that meet the ocean to form one of the most beautiful ocean sounds that you will find on this planet, Milford Sound continues to attract droves of tourists each year.

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Milford Sound can be a tricky place to visit because of its remoteness and the weather it gets, but I am going to help make sure you have everything you need to plan your trip.  In this guide, I am going to cover everything that you need to know to plan a trip to see this beautiful landscape.  Among other things, I am going to talk about how to get to Milford Sound, the different ways that you can see this beautiful place, where to stay while you visit, what times of year are best to plan your visit, what to pack, and what to do if nature gets in the way of your plans.

How to Get There

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While Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s prettiest landscapes, it is also one of the country’s most isolated.  It is located on the southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, near Fiordland National Park.  While much of the area surrounding Milford Sound is within the national parkland, Milford Sound itself doesn’t technically sit within Fiordland National Park.

If you are traveling to Milford Sound from outside of the South Island of New Zealand, there are international airports in Christchurch and Queenstown that you can fly into.  The best airport to fly into depends on your itinerary and what else you would like to see on the South Island.  Queenstown is certainly closer to Milford Sound if that is the primary location you would like to visit.

Milford Sound is isolated because there is only one road that can get you there.  The locals like to say it is the longest dead-end in New Zealand because it connects with no other roads.  State Highway 94, which is also known as the Milford Road, starts at the city of Te Anau and winds 158.1 miles (or 254.4 kilometers) along the mountains that make up Fiordland National Park before climbing into the mountains and to Milford Sound.

Traveling from Te Anau to Milford Sound by car will take you roughly 1.5 hours of driving with no stops.  It is a very scenic drive with a lot of great stops within Fiordland National Park along the way.  However, this route also traverses some very avalanche-prone areas that result in frequent road closures.  I have included some more details about this in the sections below.

If you are planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island and would like to see Milford Sound, there are a number of different options as to where you can stay.  If you are planning on driving the Milford Road yourself, I would recommend staying in Te Anau so that you can be as close to the road as possible to monitor road conditions.

However, if you are planning on taking a tour to get you to Milford Sound, you have a choice of staying either in Te Anua or in Queenstown.  There are Milford Sound tours that do hotel pickups in both towns.  However, I would personally recommend staying in Te Anau even if you are doing a tour. It takes roughly 3.75 hours each way to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown, so the drive is considerably shorter from Te Anau.

Milford Sound Tour Map

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Best Time to Visit

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Milford Sound is known for its immense beauty, but it is also known for its weather.  Being a coastal rainforest, it gets quite a bit of rain each year.  In fact, it rains more days of the year than it doesn’t at Milford Sound, so you should expect to get wet when you visit.  In order to help you plan the right time for you to visit, I have included some weather-related information below for you to review.

Average Temperature (°F)

During the winter months of June thru August, the low temperature at Milford Sound can drop to around freezing, so you should make sure you have warm clothes to wear if you are going to be visiting.  During the summer months of December thru early March, the temperatures are typically much warmer.  It is important to remember that the temperatures in the alpine areas surrounding Milford Sound can be much colder than the temperatures at sea level.

Average Precipitation (Inches)

If there is one thing you need to pay attention to when it comes to the weather at Milford Sound, it is the amount of precipitation that it sees throughout the year.  Milford Sound sees, on average, roughly 252 inches (or 6,412 mm) of rain throughout the year.  That is a staggering 21 feet of rain.  If you look at the graph below, the winter months of June thru August are typically the driest months of the year, but they are also the coldest.  If you are looking for a dry month to visit where the temperatures aren’t too cold, the end of summer in the month of February is probably your best bet.

Avalanche Concerns and Road Closures

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One of the biggest concerns that the weather around Milford Sound creates is the danger of avalanches.  The Milford Road is lined by some of the tallest mountains on New Zealand’s Southern Island and in places, the mountains are fairly close to the road.  What this means is that, when it rains or snows in the Milford Sound area, the snow that is on these mountain peaks becomes unstable.  When the snow becomes unstable, avalanches become a very real and very dangerous possibility.

Milford Sound Avalanche Zone Map

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As you can see on the map I have included above, there are areas of the Milford Road that are not safe to stop at.  Even though the scenery may be beautiful, you should never stop your vehicle in these areas as they are very susceptible to avalanches.  When I visited Milford Sound I heard accounts of cars that weren’t even hit by avalanches that were violently blown off the road just by the sonic percussion of the avalanche.  If you need to stop, there are several safe stopping areas within the avalanche zone of the Milford Road.

Best Ways to See Milford Sound

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Depending on how much time you have and how adventurous you are, there are a number of different ways that you can see Milford Sound.  On one end of the spectrum, you can take one of the world’s most epic multi-day hikes along the Milford Track to get to Milford Sound.  On the other end of the spectrum, the less adventurous can take a full tour where a guide will drive you to-and-from Milford Sound.  In order to assist you in determining which option is best for you, I have outlined the different ways in which you can see Milford Sound below.

The Milford Track

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For the most adventurous travelers, the Milford Track is without-a-doubt the most adventurous way to explore Milford Sound.  This epic four-day hike takes you thru some of the most beautiful terrains on New Zealand’s South Island as it winds its way thru Fiordland National Park towards Milford Sound.  If you have the time on your trip and are interested in hiking the Milford Track, I have included a link to my guide for hiking the Milford Track for you to review below.

Drive to Milford Sound on Your Own and Take a Cruise

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If you don’t quite have the time to hike the Milford Track or aren’t up for that long of a hike, but you still want to do some exploration of the area on your own before arriving at Milford Sound, then you can always choose to drive the Milford Road on your own.  This will allow you to explore Fiordland National Park at your own leisure before arriving at Milford Sound and taking a cruise.  You will need to book your own boat cruise if you choose to not use a tour guide, so I have included some of the most highly rated boat cruises of Milford Sound for you to review below.

Important:  Please note that the Milford Road can be an intimidating road to drive on during bad weather.  In fact, having chains for your tires is required to drive on the road during winter.  Make sure you are prepared to drive on the Milford Road before setting out.

Milford Sound Sightseeing Cruise including Optional Lunch
Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound Scenic Cruise
Milford Sound Nature Cruise
Cruise Milford NZ Small Boutique Cruise Experience
Milford Sound Cruise with Underwater Observatory and Lunch
Milford Sound Cruise with Optional Kayak Tour

Book a Milford Sound Tour with Hotel Pickup

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If you are worried about driving thru the mountains during bad weather and would prefer to have someone else drive you to Milford Sound, there are several Milford Sound tours that offer hotel pickups in both Queenstown and Te Anau.  While it is great to have someone who is familiar with the Milford Road drive you, the tradeoff is that you aren’t able to see everything that you might want to see in Fiordland National Park.  You have to go at the pace of the tour group.  If you are interested in taking a tour of Milford Sound that offers a hotel pickup, I have included a list of some of the most highly rated tours for you to review below.

Full-Day Milford Explorer Tour and Cruise from Queenstown
Milford Sound Cruise from Te Anau
Milford Sound Scenic Cruise from Queenstown, Te Anau or Milford Sound
Milford Sound Small Group Tour & Cruise from Queenstown or Te Anau
Small-Group Milford Sound Day Trip and Cruise from Te Anau
Milford Sound Cruise from Queenstown
Milford Sound Day Trip and Cruise from Queenstown by Luxury Coach

What to Pack

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NOTE:  This post contains references to products on my Amazon Store site.  I may receive a commission when you purchase these products from my store, though at no additional cost to you.   I hand-pick and recommend only the products that I am either familiar with or comfortable recommending.

Before you head to Milford Sound, you should make sure you are packed appropriately for your visit.  As I have mentioned in this guide, the weather at Milford Sound can be unpredictable and can be quite wet.  You need to be prepared to be out in these elements or else you will be quite cold during your visit.  To assist you in packing for your adventure at Milford Sound, I have included a packing list for you to review below.

Pro Tip:  Bring some snacks with you.  There are snacks available in vending machines at the Milford Sound docks, and many tours that you book will supply a box lunch.  However, these tours can be quite long and you can get pretty hungry.  If you pack some snacks in your bag you will be very glad that you did.

Breathable T-Shirt

When you visit Milford Sound, there is a very real possibility that it will be raining and you will get wet.  If you do get wet, you are going to want to have a moisture-wicking base layer so that you don’t get cold.  You should under no circumstance wear a cotton t-shirt as a base layer.  If you do, and you get wet, you are going to be very cold and uncomfortable.  If you would like to shop for some breathable T-shirts that I recommend, I have included a link for you to review my recommendations below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Base Layer (Top and Bottom)

In addition to a breathable T-shirt, you are also going to want to have a really good base layer as well.  A base layer that is moisture-wicking or is made of wool is the best because the chances are good that you will get wet when you visit Milford Sound.  Your base layer doesn’t need to be rated for below zero degrees Fahrenheit (unless you are visiting in the winter), but it should be rated down to freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit).  If you would like to review some base layers that I recommend, I have included a link for you below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Fleece or Nano Puff Down Jacket (One Jacket)

It can get quite cold in Milford Sound.  This is especially true early in the spring season and late in the autumn season.  Because temperatures can get chilly, you are going to want to have a warm jacket with you.  I would recommend bringing a lightweight nano puff down jacket or a fleece.  You may not wear it if the weather is nice, but it will be good to have with you should the weather turn for the worse.  For some of the jackets that I recommend, please refer to the link I included below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Rain Jacket and Rain Pants (One Pair)

Fiordland National Park gets a ton of rain each year.  In fact, it rains in the park roughly 50% of the days each year.  That means that it is very likely to be raining when you visit Milford Sound.  The last thing you want is to get soaking wet as you will quickly get cold and be at risk of becoming hypothermic.  Because of this, I would strongly recommend bringing a good hardshell (not softshell) rain jacket and pants with you when you visit Milford Sound.  If you aren’t quite sure about what type of rain gear to bring, REI has a great article about backpacking in the rain with some recommendations in it that you can review.  I have included some rain jackets and pants that I really like that are available on Amazon.com for you to browse thru below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Hat and Gloves (1 Hat and 1 Pair Gloves)

Hat and Gloves.png Because the temperature can fluctuate so greatly when you are in Fiordland National Park, I would strongly recommend that you pack a pair of warm gloves and a winter hat with you.  If the temperature drops, they can really go a long way in keeping you warm.  If you are looking for some suggestions on what type of gloves or hat to bring, I have included some of my recommendations below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Wool Socks

View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Road Closure Contingency Plans

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One of the toughest parts about planning a trip to see Milford Sound is making sure that you have built enough flexibility into your plans to work around weather-related road closures.  I cannot emphasize enough how important this is.  Because the road to Milford Sound is so avalanche-prone, for much of the year the road is closed every time there is significant rain or snow in the area.  This means over half of the day of the year the road to Milford Sound is closed.

One great way to ensure that your plans to see Milford Sound aren’t derailed by the weather is to build some flexibility into your plans.  You can wait to book your tour until the day of and you know what the weather will be like.  The downside of this approach is that your desired tour might sell out before you get to New Zealand.  You also have to take into account the fact that the weather in Milford Sound can be so unpredictable and change so fast.

Instead of waiting to book your tour, I would book ahead of time but have some contingency plans in place in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.  If you have the time on your trip, having a backup day that you can switch your tour to if the road is closed on the day you booked can be helpful.  If that doesn’t work, you can look to do a tour elsewhere if the road to Milford Sound is booked.

Doubtful Sound

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Doubtful Sound is every bit as beautiful as Milford Sound and is a good backup tour to book if the road to Milford Sound is closed.  It doesn’t have as big of mountains surrounding it, but it is more remote than Milford Sound so there is more wildlife viewable there.  More importantly, because you don’t need to use the Milford Road to access it, Doubtful Sound is still accessible even during bad weather.

Because of its remote location, many people choose to book an overnight tour in Doubtful Sound.  The boat will take you to Milford Sound during the night and then you tour the sound the next day.  However, if you don’t have two days to spare you can also book a single day tour of Doubtful Sound.  I have included a list of some of the most recommended tours of Doubtful Sound for you to review below in case you need to use this contingency plan.

Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Te Anau
Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise
Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Queenstown
Doubtful Sound Wilderness Day Cruise from Manapouri
Doubtful Sound Kayak
Doubtful Sound Cruise from Te Anau

Photographing Milford Sound

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Milford Sound is one of New Zealand, if not the world’s, most beautiful spots.  When you visit, make sure you have your camera with you because you will want to snap some pictures to remember your visit.  To help you make sure you get the beautiful photographs you want, I have outlined all of the top photography locations near Te Anau and Milford Sound in the guide below.

Photo Gallery

Speaking of photographing Milford Sound, I have included a gallery of just some of the many beautiful pictures I was able to take when I visited Milford Sound in the gallery below.

Milford Sound

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4 replies »

  1. Great guide as ever Josh, glad you got the opportunity to visit! Definitely a place that is on my bucketlist 🙂

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