Milford Sound, New Zealand is commonly referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Why? Because this ancient glacier-carved fiord is simply breathtaking. The sheer rock faces tower hundreds of meters high and waterfalls are everywhere you look. Mountains protrude out of the Tasman Sea and the entire landscape looks like something you’d only ever see in a movie. There is no wonder why hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Milford Sound every year.
In fact, for many, a visit to Milford is often one of their New Zealand highlights. The beautiful scenery, unique wildlife, and fun activities are just some of the reasons Milford Sound is so popular. So, if you ever wanted to visit Milford Sound for yourself, this complete guide includes all of the information you should know before you go!
History of Milford Sound
While Milford Sound is a popular tourist destination today, it wasn’t always. More than 1,000 years ago only the Maori people inhabited New Zealand. Milford Sound was a place for them to hunt, fish, and collect pounamu (New Zealand Greenstone.) Maori legend says that Tu-te-raki-whanoa (a godly figure who was in charge of creating the Fiordland coast) carved Milford Sound from the earth himself.
It wasn’t until 1823 when John Grono was the first European settler to “discover” Milford Sound. Milford’s narrow entrance from the Tasman Sea made it very easy to miss, and in fact, Captain Cook missed it himself on earlier expeditions!
Milford Sound remained uninhabited until 1877 when Donald Sutherland arrived and decided to make Milford Sound his home. He built the first hotel in Milford which catered to the many walkers who walked along what is known today as the Milford Track. This was the early beginnings of Milford Sound for tourism – and today Milford is recognized as a World Heritage Site called “Te Wāhipounamu” which means “the place of Greenstone” in Maori.
Getting to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is located on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
Milford Sound is very remote. In fact, there is only one road to get to Milford. This road begins in Te Anau and winds itself through the mountain valleys of Fiordland National Park. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes about 1.5-2 hours, but allow yourself longer as there are plenty of places to stop along the way including world-famous hikes and breathtaking lookouts. For those who don’t drive, there are plenty of tours available for day trips from both Te Anau and Queenstown.
The quickest option for getting to Milford Sound is to fly! As the crow flys, Milford Sound is only 71 kilometres away from Queenstown making it the perfect short (but scenic) flight. For those who are short on time, this is a great way to get to Milford Sound quickly and easily all while getting views from the air!
Related: If you book our 16-Day NZ Adventure Private tour, we actually bring you right to Milford Sound as part of our itinerary. We stop at all of the best places along the Milford Road and even have an overnight cruise in the fiord planned!
The Best Things to do in Milford Sound
Once you have arrived in Milford Sound there are actually a variety of different things you can do to explore. Some activities to consider doing are:
There are some incredible walking trails around Milford Sound. The Milford Track is a world famous 5-day hike that gets fully booked every single year. But there are also plenty of short day hikes such as the Chasm, a short stroll to a powerful waterfall; the Milford Foreshore Walk, a 20-minute loop track right along the shore of Milford Sound; or the Milford Lookout Track, which offers views of Milford from a hill behind the shore.
Milford Sound Cruise
Going on a boat cruise is one of the most popular ways to explore Milford Sound. Boat cruises depart from the Milford foreshore and will take you through the fiord between towering mountains and cliffs. A cruise is the best way to see most of Milford Sound as it will take you all the way out to the open sea, right up next to waterfalls, and past some of Milford’s most beautiful sights.
Cruises range from an hour long to overnight options. Most cruises have snacks and drinks available on board along with a guide providing live commentary. Expect to see lots of waterfalls and maybe even some wildlife along the way!
Related: Our 8-Day South Island Luxury Lodge Tour includes a boat cruise in Milford Sound!
For those looking for an active alternative to a cruise, kayaking in Milford Sound is also possible. There are various kayaking tours you can join each exploring a different area of the fiord. You don’t get as far on a kayak or see as much as a cruise, but you are able to get a lot closer. If you are lucky, you may even get the odd dolphin swimming up beside you!
From the air, you get a whole new perspective of Milford Sound. You can choose between a small airplane or a helicopter for a scenic flight around Milford Sound. As mentioned before, a scenic flight can double as a mode of transport between Milford and Queenstown.
The Milford Underwater Observatory is a unique thing to do in Milford. Here, you descend 10 meters below the water’s surface and can see what lives in Milford Sound’s waters. It is possible to see dolphins and even sharks! The rare black coral also lives here and you are guaranteed to see it!
Highlights of Visiting Milford Sound, New Zealand
There are a few special places in Milford Sound that many consider highlights. If you see these special places you are sure to be impressed. They are:
Mitre Peak is the famous mountain that is often pictured on the front of postcards of Milford Sound. This sharp mountain peak shoots out of the surface of the water and makes for the ultimate sight from the foreshore. The truth is, you simply cannot miss Mitre Peak when you visit Milford Sound and she’ll likely be the first mountain you see after arriving.
The Holmer Tunnel isn’t actually in Milford Sound, but rather the entrance to it. Before the Holmer Tunnel was built, there was no way to drive to Milford. This tunnel is a long, single-lane tunnel that vehicles must drive through in order to get to Milford. It in itself is an attraction.
Related: On our 14-Day South Island Wonders Self-Drive Tour you will get the chance to drive through the Homer Tunnel yourself!
Bowen Falls is one of the permanent waterfalls in Milford. It never dries up, isn’t seasonal, and is always rushing with tons of water. When you head out to the boat dock to board a cruise you’ll see this massive waterfall on your right.
No trip to Milford is complete without seeing some of the wildlife that calls Milford home. You are pretty much guaranteed to see Keas (a New Zealand alpine parrot) that will likely find you before you find them. These smart birds love to try and steal food off visitors and are often found trying to sneak their way into campervans!
Southern Fur Seals are also very common in Milford Sound. If you go on a boat cruise you will likely get to see a few seals sunbathing on rocks.
And, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see Bottlenose Dolphins or even Little Blue Penguins. Fiordland Crested Penguins also live in Milford Sound – but they are especially rare to see!
Milford Sound is an amazing place – really, there is nowhere else in the world like it! At The Road Trip we are very excited to show you this little piece of paradise! Contact us for more information on our guided tours where we will personally show you the very best that Milford has to offer, or our self-drive tours where we do the planning and you do the exploring!