All You Need to Know About Milford Sound | New Zealand

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Last updated Feb 27, 2024

The history of Milford Sound is a fascinating mix of Māori legends and stories and anecdotes from European settlers. Regardless of its history, its stunning alpine scenery and lush rainforests attract over a million visitors a year. Knowing all you need to know about Milford Sound before visiting is crucial for you to fully enjoy this natural wonder.

In this post, we will share all you need to know about Milford Sound whether you are a first-time or returning visitor. It will help you plan your visit and understand the best ways to explore the area. Everything from hiking, scenic flights, scuba diving and different cruise options.

Milford Sound and a drive to Milford Sound tops the list of must-see and do things in New Zealand. It can be hard to fit in because of its remoteness and limited accommodation options but even a day visit will leave you in awe.

All you need to know about Milford Sound
Milford Sound | All You Need to Know About Milford Sound



Legend of Milford Sound

In Māori legend, Milford Sound was formed by a godly figure who hacked at the mountains with his axe to carve rigid cliffs and valleys called Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). The beauty of Piopiotahi didn’t go unnoticed and when one of the Māori goddesses visited the sound, she proclaimed it so beautiful that humans did not deserve to enjoy it. Her idea of keeping everyone away was to release sandflies.

Whether the legend is true or not, sandflies are still unbearable for anyone visiting Milford Sound. Oddly enough if you are moving you do not feel them or see them at all. But the minute you stop they swarm all over you. Make sure you bring plenty of bug spray with you.

History of Milford Sound

Until the mid-1900s the only way to see Milford Sound was either by walking or water. The first settler in the Milford Sound, Donald Sutherland, and his wife built the first hotel for the walkers to stay at when visiting. After he died in 1919, she sold the hotel to the government.

The government eventually realized that Milford Sound was very popular with visitors and decided to build a tunnel for easier access. From 1935, in very tough conditions workers started drilling the Homer tunnel to allow road access to Milford Sound. It was finally completed in 1954. Today Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand.



Milford Sound or Fiord/Fjord?

Milford Sound was mistakenly named a sound by the first visitor, John Grono. Milford Sound is actually a fiord. It was created by the erosion of ancient glaciers. Where the sound is created when river valleys are flooded by the sea. To compensate for the mistake, the area where Milford Sound is became Fiordland National Park.

And according to our kayaking guide, Kiwis couldn’t spell very well and misspelled it Fiordland instead of Fjordland.

Where is Milford Sound

Milford Sound, tucked in between towering peaks, is in Fiordland National Park in the southwest regions of New Zealand’s South Island. You can get to it by water, multi-day walk or by driving on long and narrow road which can close pending the weather conditions or road construction.

It takes approximately 3.5 – 4 hours to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound. However, the drive is very beautiful and there are many areas to stop for a quick photo or rest. From Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound is only 75 miles but it can take up to 2 hours of driving time.

All you need to know about Milford Sound
Gertrude Valley Lookout | All You Need to Know About Milford Sound

Most people visit in their cars, campervans or on a tour bus. A few lucky ones that book the huts on time, take a 4 or 5-day Milford Sound Trek from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound.

It is not an easy place to get to, but its jaw-dropping views are worth the effort.



Where to Stay at Milford Sound

The remoteness of Milford Sound is what makes it so unique and preserves its beauty, which makes options for staying at Milford Sound very limited.

Milford Sound Lodge is the only hotel-style accommodation in the depths of Milford Sound. It is a treat to stay there. Beautiful accommodations in the wilderness of it all with high-quality restaurant and accommodating staff. We were lucky enough to find availability for two nights here during our time in New Zealand. It is pricy and hard to find availability, but it was definitely worth the expense to us.

All you need to know about Milford Sound
Milford Sound Lodge | All You Need to Know About Milford Sound

Milford Sound Lodge also has 20 powered campervan sites which can be reserved. The lodge has the only campervan sites in Milford Sound and reservations are required.

Another lodge located in the Milford Sound is Ultimate Hikes – Mitre Peak Lodge which is used by Ultimate Hikes to accommodate hikers.

Most visitors stay at Lake Te Anau and drive to Milford Sound. The campervans have more site options along the road to Milford Sound.

When to Visit Milford Sound

One of the many beauties of Milford Sound is that you can visit it year-round. The summer months are high season as those are generally the most popular months for visitors all around New Zealand. Spring, fall and winter are less popular months to visit Milford Sound and tour options may be limited however, that brings its own magic. I would imagine snow-capped peaks in Milford Sound have their special appeal.

Spring and fall see more rain and most people think that’s when Milford Sound is the most beautiful. Waterfalls spring from every nook and cranny and the already existing ones get larger than life. On average, Milford Sound has close to 200 days of rain, which you can see in summer and winter as well. Fortunately or unfortunately, when we visited in January we had 3 beautiful but rainless days.

Be sure to check the road conditions before heading out in the winter. Road closures are very common for road/tunnel construction/maintenance.



Amenities Available at Milford Sound

There is not much in Milford Sound, so it is best to stock up on supplies in Lake Te Anau. Because of its remoteness try to minimize any waste you leave behind including glass products as they have no way of disposing of it.

For gas, there is one gas station in Milford Sound, available for visitors.

For food, there is a Pio Pio restaurant at Milford Sound Lodge and cafeteria-style food at Discover Milford Sound Cruises Information Center & Café. Water, snacks and other beverages are available there too. There is no grocery store in Milford Sound.

For parking, there are two public parking areas. Deepwater Basin Parking & Bust (free for now) – you will park here for the kayaking tour, or at Milford Sound Public Carpark – most people park here as this is closer to the cruise terminal, and it is a flat rate of $25 (NZ dollars) for 5 hours. If you park at Deepwater Basin Parking, it is an approximately 20-minute trail walk to the cruise terminal.



Ways to Explore Milford Sound

Once in Milford Sound, options are endless as to what to do.

The most common attraction in Milford Sound is a day cruise. The day cruise takes you out to the Tasman Sea and back, skirting the cliffs so you can see the waterfalls and possibly wildlife – sea lions, dolphins and whales. Depending on the tour company, and there are few, it can take anywhere from 1 hour and 45 minutes to 3 hours. The day cruises start later in the day, allowing visitors to make their way from Queenstown or Lake Te Anau.

Another option and on many accounts a better option is an overnight cruise in Milford Sound. It leaves the cruise terminal around 4 pm and arrives back by 9 am the next day. This option allows you to enjoy the serenity of the Milford Sound after everyone leaves and you get to see the sunset and the sunrise here.  

There are only two cruise companies that offer the overnight cruise: Fiordland Discovery and RealNZ. Fiordland Discovery is the more luxurious of the two and of course more expensive. It only takes 20 passengers on board, so it sells out quickly.

Kayaking is another great water option to explore Milford Sound and our favorite experience during the New Zealand trip. Rosco’s Milford Sound offers a variety of kayaking tours to choose from. We did Twilight Wind & Waves, the kayaking adventure that starts at 4 pm and lasts for about 4 hours and it was a blast. We kayaked underneath the glacial waterfall, watched the sun set behind the sheer cliffs and enjoyed the complete serenity of being the only 4 kayaks in the water at the time.

All you need to know about Milford Sound
Kayaking in Milford Sound | All You Need to Know About Milford Sound

Guided scuba diving is another way to explore the deep water of Milford Sound. This experience is available for first-timers and experienced divers. The sheer cliffs prevent sunlight from penetrating through the water allowing coral to thrive.

If you would rather see the Milford Sound from up above, you are in luck. There is an airport right by the water which offers different scenic flight options by plane or helicopter. These are very popular. Since we were staying at the lodge, close to the airport, we kept seeing planes and helicopters constantly taking off.

All you need to know about Milford Sound
Milford Sound Airport | All You Need to Know About Milford Sound

The plane flights offer encompassing views of Milford Sound and the surrounding area. The helicopter flights have many options without landing, or with one or more landings. One of them being, landing on the Tutoko Glacier. I am not going to lie, that sounds like a great adventure if I wasn’t so afraid of flying.

Lastly, you can also walk the Milford Sound. There are many different day trails inside of Milford Sound to explore. Everything from short Milford Sound Foreshore Walk to Milford Sound Lookout to Tutoko Valley River Hike. And then a king of them all a 5-day Milford Sound Trek. The multi-day hike, however, takes some planning ahead as the huts book up quickly.

All of these options are a great way to explore Milford Sound, you just have to choose what fits your schedule and your budget.



If planning to visit New Zealand, your visit would be incomplete without a stop in Milford Sound. It’s not an easy place to get to, logistics can be overwhelming but you will not regret the effort put in to enjoy this one-of-a-kind place.

Other helpful posts…

New Zealand Itinerary – Epic 15 Days in North & South Island
Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Best Day Hike in New Zealand
Kayaking in Milford Sound

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