Everything you need to know before you go--here’s how to plan the perfect trip to New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
Anchoring the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, the scenic Fiordland Region is often thought of as the end of the earth. The area’s untouched hinterland is home to chiseled cliffs that have been the backdrop for many a film—from the Lord of the Rings to this summer’s Mission Impossible 6—and Rudyard Kipling dubbed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Within the wild and rugged region, the mighty Milford Sound is the most frequented destination. This extension of the Tasman Sea lures nearly 1 million travelers a year from all over the world to admire its waterfalls, wildlife, and imposing mountain scenery. For almost any traveler, the South Island seems to be at the opposite end of the world, but it’s well worth every hour of transit—and then some.
Where is it exactly?
The Milford Sound is located on the western coast of Fiordland National Park, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that stretches across the southwestern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It truly feels like you’re exploring the edge of the earth—not only due to its distance from civilization but also because of the immense landscape. While the region is full of fjords, Milford Sound is easily the most famous. It might have something to do with the heroic scenery: Formed thousand of years ago by glaciers, the fjord is hugged by steep cliffs on either side, some cascading with waterfalls, and Mitre Peak looming in the distance.
When was it discovered?
Local Maori tribes have inhabited the region for more than a thousand years. The existence of Milford Sound wasn’t made public to foreigners until around 1812, because most explorers either missed the narrow entrance or were deterred by the sharp cliffs and strong winds. Captain John Grono happened upon the fjord while on a sealing expedition and named it “Milford Haven” after his hometown in Wales. The name evolved to “Sound” later, but that’s actually a misnomer—in geological terms, it’s more accurate to call it a fjord due to its formation.
How do I get there?
Getting to the Milford Sound is all part of the adventure. You can drive, hike, or even fly—with a choice between a Cessna or a chopper. The drive will take at least five hours each way from Queenstown, the closest major city, but it’s glorious, with sinuous roads taking you through the mountains. To enjoy aerial views, Cessna flights take roughly 30 minutes each way and pass over myriad craggy peaks and glacial lakes. Helicopters are the most flexible—and convenient—enabling travelers to park atop glaciers or by an Alpine Lake for a champagne picnic.
Is it possible to see it all in one day?
If you’re short on time, we’d recommend booking a scenic Cessna flight, combined with a two-hour cruise around the Sound. This option will not only reward you with magnificent mountain scenery, but you’ll also enjoy the relaxing cruise around the water. During the trip, you’ll likely see fur seals, penguins, and the thunderous 532-foot-high Bowen Falls—where you’ll get close enough to stand in the mist for a “glacial facial.” But if you plan to tackle the five-hour drive from Queenstown, it’s best to pace yourself and get an early start. Book an early cruise before spending the rest of the day driving around and exploring.
Can I stay overnight?
Yes! There are a few options: camp in the national park, book an overnight cruise, or stay at the Milford Sound Lodge, which caters to everything from camper vans (a popular way to explore New Zealand) to premium river chalets. In spring, summer, and autumn you can take an overnight cruise and wake up in paradise.
Where can I go hiking?
Hiking enthusiasts will likely want to visit Milford Sound via the Milford Track. This four-day hike weaves through the mountains, stopping each night at a well-appointed lodge where you’ll warm up with wine and a multi-course dinner. Many consider the experience the highlight of a lifetime. If you don’t have quite that much time, you can squeeze in a hike with ease. You can find everything from 20-minute scenic walks to mutli-day backpacking adventures. One of our favorite hikes is a short detour to the Chasm, a series of cascading waterfalls about halfway between Milford Sound and the Homer Tunnel.
What kinds of wildlife will I see?
No matter what the time of year you visit, you will likely see a variety of rare fauna. The list includes seals, bottlenose dolphins, penguins, whales, and various birds. Penguins are known to breed in the area, and you can usually see them from a distance on the Milford Sound cruises. Fur seals inhabit the fjord year-round, while humpback whales can be seen around migration season in October or November. Fiordland crested penguins are often seen during breeding season from July to November.
How can I experience the Milford Sound from a different perspective?
While most people admire the Sound from the surface level, or up in the mountains, you can duck into the Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory for another vantage point. Located on the northern side of the fjord, the observatory takes travelers 32 feet into the belly of the sea. It’s here where you can admire black coral trees, octopus, stingray, and hundreds of species of fish. To take it one step farther, first-timers and experienced divers can suit up with Descend Scuba Diving and plunge underwater to explore the marine reserve.
What else can I do in the area?
Milford Sound is in the heart of the Fiordland region, which means there’s an endless list of activities for nature lovers. There’s canoeing, kayaking, biking, sailing, fly fishing, camping, overnight cruises and, of course, hiking. Some of the best hikes include Key Summit, Lake Marian, and the Gertrude Saddle, with pristine waterfalls and unbelievable views.
What movies have been filmed here?
The Fiordland region—and Milford Sound, in particular—have playing a starring role in numerous blockbusters. The impressive list includes The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Alien: Covenant and Mission Impossible 6.
Does the real-life "Home of Middle Earth" stack up to the silver screen?
No! It’s better. While CGI (computer-generated imagery) might beef up the scale of the landscape, a TV screen can’t possibly capture the ethereal atmosphere and vivid colors. With sheer cliffs and pristine water, the landscapes here are some of the most dramatic in the world.
What's the weather like?
Given that it’s one of the wettest places in the world, with rain 182 days of the year, it’s best to bring a raincoat and layers no matter what time of year you visit. But even in the rain, it’s still beautiful. If you’re hoping for warmer weather, aim for New Zealand’s spring and summer—from November to April. While highs can get up to 75 degrees during these months, it’s highly recommended that you bring warm clothes—gloves, hat, and socks—in case of wind. The cruises around the Sound, in particular, can get really cold due to powerful gusts from the Tasman Sea.
Keep in mind that the summer (winter in the US) tends to be the wettest. But that’s not to say that you should write off the season entirely: when it rains, there are thousands of waterfalls.
How much time should I spend there?
Many travelers visit the Milford Sound on a day trip—combining a Cessna flight with a cruise before flying back—but nature and adventure lovers may want to spend a few days in the area. To make the most of the experience, we’d recommend taking on the Milford Track, which traverses the most beautiful areas of the Fiordlands.
Do I need a visa?
Americans can stay in New Zealand for up to three months without a visa. There are no restrictions to visiting the Milford Sound. However, the country is very careful when it comes to customs—do not attempt to bring in any foreign agricultural products or food items, as it could introduce diseases or insects that may endanger the natural habitat.