New Zealand: Top 8 Things to do in Milford Sound
Top 8 Things to do in Milford Sound:
After being in New Zealand for about 6 months, Hilary and I finally decided that a trip down to Milford Sound was long overdue. Milford Sound is the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand and yet, after seeing nearly the entire country, it was one of the last places that we had not visited. I’ll be honest, before getting there, I had a pessimistic feeling in the back of my mind that it would be a little bit more overrated than all of the hype that it gets. This definitely wasn’t the case.
We had a few days off of work from our jobs in Wanaka and headed to Milford for 3 days and two nights. There aren’t many places to stay in Milford Sound itself, besides the Milford Sound Lodge and a few hotels, but there are 4 or 5 DOC campgrounds along the road between Te Anau and Milford. You could also stay in Te Anau as well and drive the 90 minutes into the park from there. We are lucky, however, and have a camper-van so we stayed at the Cascade Creek campground (this is the closest DOC campground to the sound itself) for $13.00 each per night. It’s then about a 40 minute drive to Milford Sound (or two hours if you’re like us and find yourself stopping every chance you get to look around). There isn’t much at all at these campgrounds except a toilet, a place to park or set up a tent, and a few picnic tables, so the prices seem a bit exorbitant for this, but they are very strict and freedom camping is definitely not allowed in the park.
In terms of things to do, we were able to cover everything that we wanted to see in 3 days without having to rush. Of course, there is always more to see and do and you could spend weeks in this area trying to see everything and do every walk available, but the main sights are easy to cover in a few days.
Our 8 favourite things to do and see in Milford Sound were:
1. Go on a Cruise through Milford Sound:
Likely the most popular thing to do in Milford Sound is to take a cruise. This is the least expensive and most efficient way to see more of Milford Sound (your other options are to kayak or to take a flight) besides what you can see from the shoreline or the road.
Of course, it would be nice to be able to do everything, but if you’re able to choose just one of the above options, I think going on a cruise makes the most sense because it’s really cool to be out on the water with the steep walls of the fjords towering above you and the perspective that it offers is really unique.
Now, there are several companies that you can go on a cruise with and I really don’t think that there is much difference between any of them, so don’t get stressed about choosing which one to go with. We decided to book with Go Orange because we found a good deal online which made the cruise $45.00 for each of us and the cruise itself lasted about 2 hours. So, my recommendation would be to go onto Book Me and find the best deal for the time that you want to go.
In terms of the cruise itself, I think that a lot of what you might see is very weather dependent. If it is rainy and wet weather then you are likely to see waterfalls every you look streaming from the high wall of the fjord. And if it’s windy, you might see some spectacular shows from falling water being blown sideways (or even upwards!). It might also be foggy and misty or completely clear and sunny. So, my point is that every experience on a cruise will be unique so you can just hope for the best, and no matter what you’re bound to see something awesome.
On our particular day, it had rained overnight and there was a thick fog in the morning that was just lifting as we got on the boat at 10:30 in the morning. Because of the recent rain, the waterfalls were quite large and there were small streams falling everywhere that we looked. We were able to see a small pod of bottle-nosed dolphins and some seals. The boat also stops at waterfalls like Fairy Falls and Sterling Falls where they get very close with the bow of the boat so that the spray from the falls splashes everyone near the front.
The boats usually go to the entrance of the fjord where you can see out to the wide expanse of the Tasman Sea where the next point of land would be the east coast of Australia. The water gets noticeably rougher at this point and you get a glimpse of what the first explorers of this area would have seen from the open water. This is where the boat turns around and makes its way back through the fjord and back to the shore.
2. Visit Mirror Lake:
There isn’t much to see at Mirror Lake, and the lake itself is more of a marshy pond, but as the name suggests, the smooth surface of the water reflects the mountains on the far side of the valley in an almost perfect mirror. Because it’s just off of the road and only amounts to about a 15 minute stop, I would definitely encourage you to check it out, but if you’re strapped for time it’s an easy one to skip.
3. Driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound:
The real highlight in visiting Milford Sound for us was the drive itself. This was quite surprising because I usually don’t really enjoy driving, but this area is incredibly beautiful and around every corner seems to be a new spectacular view. So, I would recommend giving yourself some extra time to make the drive from Te Anau to Milford because you’ll likely be inclined to make lots of stops. If you think ahead, you can also stop in Te Anau for a bathroom break and then sneakily convince someone else to take over the driving for next section of road so that you can have the freedom of looking around at the views.
Soon after leaving Te Anau, you enter a few sections of thick beech forest where the trees have extended their branches above the road so that it feels like you’re driving through a green tunnel.
And, speaking of tunnels, at one point during the drive you have to cross through a single lane tunnel that takes you directly through the base of a mountain. You leave one impressive valley basin and emerge from the other side to a completely different valley and view (the view on the far side of the tunnel was one of my favourites). It feels a bit dicey driving through the tunnels and remind me a lot of some of the roads in the Faroe Islands.
The drive also takes you across expansive flat valley bottoms (like Eglington Flats below), beside lakes and rivers, and through areas where you are directly below steep valley walls with waterfalls pouring down them. And just when you’ve thought that you had seen the best of it, the road keeps winding and twisting ahead of you to take you to something even more unexpected and awesome.
4. The Chasm:
Just like a few of the others that I’ll mention here, the chasm is a really quick stop along the road to Milford Sound. You really only need about 15 or 20 minutes but I think it’s definitely worth it. It’s a bit tough to explain and pictures don’t do it justice, but it’s really just a deep cut in the rock that the river drops into and flows through.
There are a couple of bridges across the chasm so you can walk right above it and look at the water pouring, rushing, and swirling down below you. Just above the chasm, you also get a look at a section of the river edged by thick beech forest before it drops into that chasm.
5. Eglington Flats:
There actually isn’t much to see at Eglington Flats, but it’s unique because you are driving through a thick section of beech forest and then it suddenly ends and you are in an impressive flat valley bottom with nothing but the golden grasses ahead of you. The transition from the deep green to warm golden grass is so sudden.
It’s hard to get any perspective on Eglington Flats from road level but I took my quad up to get a better view from above. From this view you can better see the expanse of the flat with the small thread of the road winding through it.
6. Walking to Humbolt Falls:
This is another one that isn’t worth the stop if you’re pressed for time as it’s about 18 km’s down a gravel road. It’s then a quick walk up to a viewpoint where you can see the waterfall cascading from afar. It’s a very impressive waterfall but loses a bit of its prowess by not being able to get closer to it or have a better view. You could walk up the creek bottom but that would be a bit of a mission. We actually went to this one by mistake as I had a different waterfall in mind and got the names confused. Either way though, we crossed this one off of the list and you could too if you have some extra time.
7. Hiking to Lake Marian:
The walk up to Lake Marian was our most active endeavour on our trip to Milford Sound as it’s about 3 hours of walking. The start to the trail is about 2 km’s off of the main road so it’s easy to get to.
About 10 minutes into the walk, you reach a point where you are directly beside the river flowing from Lake Marian which is particularly cool. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that even if you’re not interested in climbing up to the lake itself, you should definitely take a few minutes to stop and walk up to the waterfalls.
Just past the waterfalls, the trail starts to get a bit rougher and more difficult to talk and begins to head away from the river. It takes a little bit over an hour to get to the lake from here and you walk through thick beech forest and are constantly walking along rough rock, hopping between roots and trying to cut through the bush to dodge mud holes. It’s a nice trail, but it definitely isn’t the highlight.
When you finally reach the lake, you find it tucked between two steep valley walls with an imposing glaciated peak standing at the far end of the lake. It’s a really cool location and you can actually see where the lake sits from the road to Milford Sound.
On our visit to Lake Marian, the water level in the lake was very low but the skies were clear and there was no wind at all. Because of this, the surface of the lake perfectly reflected the peak at the end of the valley. It was the end of May when we were there and with the valley in the shade we got quite cold quickly so we didn’t stay much more than 40 or 50 minutes before heading back down the trail, but the location is really incredible and peaceful. So, if you’re looking for a bit of exercise and have a few hours, Lake Marian is a great choice while you’re in the area.
8. Taking Photos at Milford Sound:
The last thing that you should make sure that you do while in Milford Sound is to take pictures of the fjord from the shore. The tide changes a lot here so it can look totally different between high tide and low tide. From the main parking lot there is a pathway, however, and walking along that will take you to a few different spots where you can get good views out to the fjords and the iconic Mitre Peak. If you go far enough out, you’ll also be able to see Bowen Falls off to your right.
So, I know that this one is fairly obvious, but make sure that you give yourself some time just to walk around and take some photos when you get to Milford Sound. There isn’t much when you arrive there besides the cruise terminal, the parking lot, the air strip, a cafe and a few other buildings, but spend some time walking around the shoreline and soaking up the scenery. If you’re ambitious, you can also around early or late in the day to catch the soft morning or evening light (unlike the harsh afternoon light that I got below).
Hopefully that gives you a good idea of how we spent a few days in Milford Sound and encourages you to go here to see if for yourself.
If you have more time in the area, you could also look at one of the Great Walks that you can do in this area. They are all somewhere between 3 to 4 days long and your options would be the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track (this one is at the top of my list still), or the Kepler Track (closer to Te Anau and a good option if you want to avoid shuttling vehicles). All would be exceptional but they require a bit more organization and time commitment that what I’ve mentioned above.
I’ll also add a link to another helpful resource for information on Milford Sound in case you want to do some more reading.