No trip to New Zealand’s South Island would be complete without a visit to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. This World Heritage site lies just over the Southern Alps mountain range from Queenstown, no more than 50 km away, but because the terrain is so rugged, it can only be accessed by a 295km loop via Te Anau.
My friends and I were on a tight schedule and so we opted for a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown with the local family-owned Milford Sound Select. The tour included early morning pick-up from our hotel in Queenstown, an amazingly scenic drive to Milford Sound, Milford Sound cruise and return drive to our hotel.
Queenstown to Te Anau
I personally find that there is merit in taking at least one guided tour during your time at a new destination. It gives you an opportunity to learn more in a short period of time than you would from reading volumes of guide books and blog posts. Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown was the case in point.
Our guide/driver provided live commentary for the entire 4 hours of the drive to Milford Sound. I have learned more about New Zealand’s natural history, Maori and European settlers’ history, local legends and cultural idiosyncrasies on this drive than I had while doing research for the trip. So while I prefer to explore new places independently, I do like the high volume of information that can be effortlessly learned from a single guided tour in a new country.
As we headed out of town along the northern half of Lake Wakatipu, we watched the sunrise over the peaks of the mountains. It was a dramatic start to the day, but as the darkness lifted, we saw that it was going to be an overcast and rainy day. Not that it mattered much for a visit to Milford Sound, where it reportedly rains 90 percent of the time.
After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived in Te Anau – a town most notable for Te Anau lake – a large glacial lake framed by towering mountain peaks. While my fellow day-trippers stretched their legs at the tourist centre, I went to the lake for a look around and found a few Black-billed gulls and a rainbow.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
The 119km Te Anau to Milford Sound drive is a remarkable journey in its own right. You pass through tunnels cut through the mountains, past lakes, rainforest and towering mountains of Fiordland National Park. As part of the Milford Sound day tour, the coach stops at some of the most notable places of interest for a short visit.
First up, were the Mirror lakes, known for their still surface that provides outstanding reflective views of the Earl Mountains. We happened to reach the lakes during a brief period of sunshine and were treated to fantastic views as a result.
The walkway from the road to the lakes meandered through some red beech forest, where seemingly every surface was covered with moss and lichen. And as promised by the driver, a New Zealand fantail swooped in from the treetops to check us out. The return track to the lakes from the car park is only 400 meters, but it provides a stunning opportunity to stretch your legs during the drive.
Monkey Creek and Lyttle’s Flat
Soon after we left the Mirror lakes, the sky darkened and it started to rain. We passed Knob’s Flat and Lake Gunn without stopping or even knowing that they were there beyond the veil of rain. The next point of interest was Monkey Creek and Lyttle’s Flat. Despite the rain, we stopped, mainly so that people could fill their water bottles with crystal clear mountain spring water from the creek. I was so impressed with the moody scenery of Lyttle’s flat that I decided to miss out on the spring water and take some photos instead.
Monkey Creek is rumoured to be a popular place to spot wildlife on the Milford Road. The rarities like whio (blue duck) and kea, New Zealand’s alpine parrot are said to frequent the area. Of course in the pouring rain spotting these native birds proved to be impossible.
The last stop was at the Chasm. By the time we got there, the rain was coming down quite heavily. The walk to the Chasm took us along a loop trail through the fairytale scenery of red beech forest. And as cold and unpleasant as the rain was, it was amazing to see this forest in its element. Tall trees wrapped in thick layers of moss, vines and ferns enveloped in mist, droplets of rain running down the leaves of hanging moss gardens. The scene had a sense of an ancient, primeval world to it.
Another positive side effect to experiencing these sites in adverse weather is that only a small percentage of visitors choose to leave the comfort of their coaches, giving those that do a rare opportunity to enjoy these places with a degree of intimacy.
And to my huge delight, as I was walking back to the coach a kea landed on a mossy tree stump in front of me. This was the only time I saw this beautiful endangered New Zeland’s alpine parrot during my time on the island. Of course, my telephoto lens was safely tucked in on the bus, so all I could grab was a wide shot of the bird amid its dramatic primeval habitat.
Milford Sound Cruise
When we arrived at Milford sound, the fiord was concealed by the thick mist, which lent an element of mystery to an otherwise well-known site. Fiordland National Park is one of the wettest places on earth, with Milford sound averaging more than 6 meters of rain a year. As our boat took off towards the Tasman sea the fiord was barely visible in the mist.
The powerful scenery of the fiord was completely otherworldly. Twelve-hundred meter high sheer cliffs rose out of the still dark water, covered in lush temperate rainforest and streaming with waterfalls. The rain was creating more temporary waterfalls right in front of our eyes. Some of them were so small that they never reached the bottom of the fiord, being blown into oblivion by the wind.
Is Milford Sound a fjord?
Yes! Milford Sound is not actually a sound, but a fjord. It was misnamed as a sound by its European discoverer, Captain John Grono in 1812. What’s the difference you might ask. Well, it’s all to do with topography.
Both sounds and fjords are formed when a valley is filled with seawater. However, a sound is a flooded river valley, while a fjord is a flooded glacial valley. The sound typically has a more gentle topography, like a riverbank, but the valleys of the fjords are cut by glaciers. Fjords, therefore, tend to be narrow, flanked by the steep mountain sides, just like Milford Sound.
Milford Sound Waterfalls
The reason Milford Sound is at its best on a rainy day, apart from the otherworldly misty scenery is that the rain steams down the walls of the sound in a multitude of temporary waterfalls. But there are a few permanent waterfalls that can be seen year-round.
As you head out on your Milford Sound Cruise, the first waterfall you see is the Bowen Falls. At 162 meters in height, it is Milford’s highest waterfall. You can see it from the shore but the view from the water is more dramatic. Bowen falls provide water and electricity for all of Milford Sound. Without it, there would be no cruises.
The second of the two permanent waterfalls at Milford is the Stirling Falls, located about halfway along the fjord on the same side as the Lady Bowen Falls. It is also the second tallest of Milford’s falls tumbling down 151 meters along a steep cliff face. Because the cliff is so steep, the boats are able to navigate right underneath the falls. So make sure you bring a rain jacket if you would like to feel the spray of the thundering glacial falls on your face.
The waterfalls that empty directly into the ocean are quite rare. There are only 47 of them around the world. The only one I saw is Curracurrong Falls in Sydney’s Royal National Park.
Stirling falls may look a little familiar to X-Men movies fans. They were used as a filming location in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film.
Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls are semi-permanent falls that are at thier best after the rain. They flow opposite Seal Rock – the favourite snoozing spot of New Zeland fur seals that live on Milford Sound.
Next to Bridal Falls, Fairy Falls is a smaller and more flowing waterfall that appears after a few days of rain. When we reached Fairy falls, the wind picked up even more and was blowing the elegant falls across the cliff face. You could hardly tell whether the water was falling down or sideways. Some cruises go underneath these falls and let the passengers fill their glasses with the glacial water. In our case it would’ve taken the whole day to catch the water in your glass!
Four Sisters Falls
There are also Four Sisters Falls that appear after the rain. They are made up of four falls in a row that fall from about the same height. On our cruise, though the weather turned really foggy for a while and we could barely make out the falls through the mist. On the plus side, this rain created hundreds of little falls so the walls of the fjord seemed to be seeping water.
Milford Sound Wildlife
Milford sound support and the surrounding Fiordland National Park are home to an impressive array of wildlife species. Most species were too hard to spot through the rain, but the New Zealand fur seals were quite happy to relax on their usual rock, seemingly unaffected by the weather. We also spotted a couple of terns, that I thought were Crested Terns, flying through the rain.
Here are some species you can spot on a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown
- Dolphins: Milford Sound is home to more than 60 Bottlenose dolphins that can sometimes be seen riding the bow wave of cruise ships. There are also Dusky dolphins, distinguished by white bellies and two-toned (black and white) dorsal fins. Although they are not encountered as often.
- Seals: the one animal you will have no trouble spotting are the New Zealand fur seals. They are usually seen snoozing on the rocks at Seal Point
- Penguins: Milford Sound is home to two species of penguins: Little Blue penguins and Fiordland Crested penguins. While Blue penguins are quite common, Fiordland Crested penguins are one of the rarest penguins in the world. So keep your eyes peeled for these attractive birds with bright orange beak and bushy white eyebrows
- Kea: New Zealand’s only alpine parrot and an endangered species, kea are quite common along Milford road and around Milford car park.
- Kiwi: New Zealand’s most well-known bird, Kiwi is harder to spot since they are active mainly at night. If you stay overnight at Milford Sound Lodge, you might be lucky to spot one after dark.
Milford Sound Filming Locations
It is not surprising that the spectacular and otherworldly scenery of Milford Sound is popular with Hollywood filmmakers.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
In fact, it is the moody weather of Milford Sound that inspired the creators of the Alien: Covenant movie that was filmed at Milford Sound. The alien planet where the story is set is a stunningly beautiful but harsh world with dramatic clouds, vibrant green vegetation and mountains that appear and disappear in the clouds. If you have seen the mover, the scenery is immediately recognizable.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The Stirling falls were featured in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). It is the falls that Logan, Hugh Jackman’s character, jumps off during his dramatic escape from the sinister ‘Alkali Lake’ facility.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Fjordland National Park also provided the scenic backdrop for the scenes of Site B or Isla Sorna in The Lost World: Jurassic Park film.
Lord of the Rings
The surrounding Fjordland National Park was used as a filming location for scenes on Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings movies. South Island is practically Middle-earth itself – the vast majority of the LOTR and Hobbit trilogies were filmed on the island.
Milford Sound in rainy weather
The wet weather was a perfect addition to Milford Sound experience, as it created a sense of discovery, of heading into the unknown. The visibility was so low, that we couldn’t see what lay ahead and as one cascading waterfall after another floated into view, it was still very difficult to see where they began – the tops of the cliffs were often lost in the mist.
Once we reached the Tasman Sea we could feel the turbulence of the open water. The boat turned around and headed back the same way, though none of us could recognize any of the features of the landscape as they emerged out of the mist and then disappeared back into the ghostly white unknown.
Milford Sound Underwater Observatory
There is another cool place to visit on Milford Sound – an Underwater Observatory. The Discovery Centre and the observatory are located in Harrison Cove and can only be visited as part of Southern Discoveries cruise or with some kayaking tours. Unfortunately, Southern Discoveries cruise doesn’t open pick-ups in Queenstown, so you’d have to make your own way to Milford Sound.
Best time to visit Milford Sound
As I mentioned, Fiordland National Park, where Milford Sound is located, is one of the wettest places on earth. It can rain absolutely any time, so you can’t plan to avoid the rain. In winter (June-Aug) there is the additional challenge of snow which could make the drive to Milford an extreme sports activity. Or the road can simply be closed.
Summer (Dec-Feb) is the peak season in New Zealand and the island may get quite crowded. The temperature stays around 18-20 degrees Celsius with occasional highs of up to 27 degrees. Make sure to book your accommodation in advance, if you plan to visit during the summer peak season.
Autumn and Spring may be the best seasons for visiting Milford Sound. It is quieter than in summer and not as cold as in winter. We did our Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown in March and it was neither too crowded nor too cold. Just very wet.
Having said all this, Milford Sound is such a spectacular location, that no matter in what season you visit it, it will be an extraodinary experience.
How to get to Milford Sound
Milford Sound can be visited on a very long day trip from Queenstown, like we did, or on a much more relaxed day trip from Te Anau.
If you are visiting from Queenstown, a day tour might be a better option, otherwise, you will be driving back tired at night. If visiting from Te Anau, self-drive will be a better option – you will want to stop and explore every few kilometres. The 120km drive from Te Anau will take approximately 1.5-2 hours, but add at least an hour for the frequent photo stops.
Is Milford Sound worth it?
YES! Milford Sound is worth every penny you spend to get there. If there is one place that is an absolute must on any South Island trip, it’s Milford Sound. This may sound a little ambitious, but trust me, Milford Sound will leave some of the most enduring memories of your time in New Zealand. It is easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.