A sunny summer's day in Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of the most sought after places to visit amongst travellers to New Zealand, and it’s a ‘bucket list’ experience for people all over the world. Milford Sound is in the heart of Fiordland, New Zealand’s biggest national park, at 1.25 million hectares (12,500km2). The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its cultural, historical, and scientific significance, and is protected by international treaties.

The Naming of Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a fiord in the southern region of the South Island’s west coast. Confusingly, the sound has been incorrectly named – it is a glacial valley, rather than a river valley, that has been flooded by the sea. The name Milford Sound was chosen by the first Europeans to visit the area, Captain John Grono and his crew, in 1812. Grono named it after his hometown of Milford Haven in Wales. However, the Maori population on the South Island referred to the wonder as ‘Piopiotahi’ (meaning one Piopio, a thrush-like bird), a name which has since been imparted alongside the European name, so the full title today is Milford Sound/Piopiotahi.

Where is Milford Sound?

Located in the heart of Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is located at the southern end of the West Coast of New Zealand. It is a 287km (178 mile) drive from Queenstown, which takes slightly under 4 hours one way. See the map below.


Milford Sound location and driving directions from Queenstown:

The Road to Milford Sound

The driving distance to Milford Sound from Te Anua is relatively short – only around 120km (75miles). However, the driving time is longer than expected (usually around 2 hours) due to the nature of the State Highway 94, leading in to Milford Sound.

Man sits in grassy valley looking at mountains

The road enters Fiordland National Park almost immediately after leaving Te Anau, and passes Te Anau Downs on the shores of Lake Te Anau, from where the boat service to the start of the 3 night 4 day Milford Track departs. The road continues to wind through some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery. Eglinton Valley is one of the highlights, and looking down to the far end you can see the Disappearing Peaks, a group of mountains that never seem to get any closer even as you drive towards them. You’ll also pass Mirror Lakes – a short boardwalk alongside some beautifully reflective water (when conditions are right!) – Key Summit on the Routeburn Track, and the Hollyford River, before arriving at the divide, and the Homer Tunnel.

Construction of the Milford Road began in 1926, as part of a work relief project, and road construction arrived at the Divide in 1935. The Divide – today the entrance to the Homer Tunnel – was a significant point in the construction process. Over the course of the next 18 years, punctuated by the labour shortage caused by the second world war, and some very difficult weather conditions, a group of men carved out the 1240m long tunnel through the granite foundations of the Gertrude Saddle, at a falling gradient of 1:10 – and broke through on the western side in February of 1953.

The road on the west side of the Homer Tunnel

What the Milford Road, and Homer Tunnel represent today is achingly tough manual labour, in extremely difficult conditions, to arrive at the goal – Milford Sound itself. The construction process had many setbacks, and cost a handful of young men their lives. But that traditional can-do Kiwi attitude still resonates today here, and aside from their legacy as some of the world’s toughest men, the Milford Road builders have left us with one of the most impressive engineering feats of modern times.

As you can imagine, the drive in to Milford Sound itself is often one of the highlights of our guests’ trip. It is unimaginably stunning – you’ll want to be sure your camera batteries are charged!

Visiting Milford Sound and Things to Do

Visitors to Milford Sound go there for a number of different reasons, but none would deny the magic of the place. The draw cards of Milford Sound include: the world famous Milford Track, the stunning, sheer granite mountains jutting straight out of the ocean, a number of beautiful waterfalls (a number which multiplies dramatically during heavy rain), the incredible diversity of wildlife including whales, dolphins, penguins, birds, and fish, and the breath taking scale of the surroundings. In Milford Sound itself you can go for a day cruise or an overnight stay on the fiord, kayak below the majestic Mitre Peak, explore the underwater observatory, or go for one of several manageable day hikes to appreciate the natural beauty of the place.

A visit to Milford Sound with New Zealand Walking Tours offers a unique perspective of a place visited by so many – most of whom take a bus in and out again like clockwork without really taking the time to experience the majesty of the place. Author Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as ‘The eighth wonder of the world’. We’ve come up with itineraries which let you take your time, escape, and indulge, and really experience it without the throng of tourists present in the middle part of each day.

Mitre Peak above Milford Sound

Timing a Milford Sound Visit Just Right

On our ‘Pristine New Zealand’ and ‘Beautiful South’ trips we’ll arrive into Milford Sound as the procession of tourist coaches drive in the opposite direction – we are lucky enough to be able to spend the night at Milford Sound’s only accommodation provider, Milford Sound Lodge, and it’s absolutely stunning.

On our way to Milford Sound we’ll walk a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. By the time we show you to your gorgeously appointed, exclusive mountain-view chalet for the night, you’ll have wined and dined on local New Zealand specialities, and be ready to recharge your batteries for tomorrow’s leg-stretch on one of the world’s most famous trails, the Milford Track. To top off your Milford Sound experience we’ll take a cruise on the fiord, 15km out to the Tasman Sea, and back again.

Timings on Our ‘Elegant South’ trip are slightly different, but we’re still careful to avoid the busy periods. We’ll depart Te Anau in the morning, and stop for several short walks and lunch in Eglinton Valley. We’ll be arriving in Milford Sound for a cruise on the fiord mid-afternoon, after the majority of the crowds are on the move back to Te Anau and Queenstown. In the evening we’ll have dinner at Milford Sound Lodge, and retire to our immaculate mountain-view chalets.

A helicopter flies across the front of a waterfall

When you wake up the next morning you’re in for an experience of a lifetime, and one that few people in the world can say they’ve had – a helicopter flight over Milford Sound, and out to Martins Bay on the rugged West Coast. But first, once we’ve had breakfast, we’ll take a short boat journey over to the Milford Track, for a morning of walking on the ‘Great Walk’ trail before boating back to Milford Sound for our flight. When we land we’ll have a delicious lunch at Martins Bay before a two-hour walk to the lodge where we’ll spend the night. The following morning it’s a jet boat ride along Lake McKerrow to walk a section of the Hollyford Track, before heading back to Queenstown for a farewell dinner.

Milford Sound is undeniably beautiful, and the magic of the place is only accentuated by its serenity during the time frames that we’ll visit. However you choose to experience Milford Sound, be sure to take your time, and indulge in the natural beauty of the place, because you’ll never experience anywhere quite like it again.

Recommended Trips

Pristine New Zealand – 13 days, Auckland to Queenstown.
Elegant South – 11 days, Nelson to Queenstown.
Beautiful South – 10 days, Queenstown to Queenstown.

Mia Gordon
22:28 22 Jul 18
I went on an 8 day tour with these guys and I thought I had already seen the best of New Zealand. I was wrong! Stunning, absolutely stunning scenery and the nicest guides. Their hospitality and professionalism was unparalleled and we got to see parts of New Zealand I had not seen. I am a Kiwi who was an avid hiker and adventure seeker growing up and in my twenties. I am in my forties now and I got to experience the best of NZ with my daughter which was awesome! Highly recommend New Zealand Walking Tours for anyone who loves being immersed in the most breathtakingly beautiful places on the planet with the nicest people guiding you.read more
jeanne costello
22:31 15 Feb 18
Our New Zealand Walking Tour was absolutely fantastic and our best tour ever. Our guides were extremely knowledgeable and fun and took complete care of us, including making some wonderful picnic lunches and an amazing Christmas dinner. The places we visited were highlights on the South Island and we were able to hike, do a couple of boat tours, visit other interesting sites, and stay in some great places. This tour was the perfect combination of activities and I can't recommend it highly enough. A once in a lifetime adventure!read more
Roxanne Theriault
05:27 02 Nov 17
Amazing company, everything is top notch and they take care of you from start to finish! Always friendly, helpful, personable and professional - what kiwi hospitality is so famous for! You won't regret going on a walking tour with these folks and you'll definitely be planning your next trip, once you're back home! Highly recommend!read more
Miriam Houliston
05:19 02 Nov 17
Paul McDonald
21:13 30 Oct 17
I wanted to find a guiding company based in in New Zealand, with local guides. When I found out that New Zealand Walking Tours is part of the Active Adventures family, I was super confident to go ahead and arrange my trip. Exploring the Abel Tasman National Park by day and Awaroa Lodge by night was a massive highlight! I'll be back for sure.read more
Will Appelman
21:07 30 Oct 17
My wife and I are avid hikers, and New Zealand Walking Tours gave us the chance to explore a wide variety of New Zealand’s hiking trails – including amazing sections of the 9 Great Walks, and be rewarded with accommodations that are a step ahead of the competition, delicious locally sourced food and a tipple of New Zealand's finest local wine! But on our free day in Queenstown we met loads of local ‘Kiwis’ who hadn’t even heard of some of the trails we hiked along the way – it actually made us feel like the locals! In the same time it would have taken us to hike the Milford Track from start to finish (like we planned) we hiked an amazing section of the famous track, while also taking a boat cruise on Milford Sound and getting flown by helicopter from Milford Sound to the most incredible and isolated luxury lodge in the Hollyford. We then jet boated out across a lake before a beautiful walk back to civilisation on the Hollyford Track. Before our trip, Fiona worked out exactly the perfect trip to suit what we were looking for, and Lynette was an amazing help getting us ready to depart - making sure we packed everything we need, and not so much of what we didn't need. Highly recommended!read more
Joe Sutheran
20:52 30 Oct 17
I had a great time in New Zealand with my parents, travelling with New Zealand Walking Tours. I know my parents were so happy they found this company, the activity level was spot on for them, and accommodations, food etc was never less than outstanding. I didn't have much to do with the company pre-trip, but I know my parents were extremely impressed with the communications, and preparation advice from the team behind the scenes. What I can say is that when it came to the trip itself, the guides were just a joy to be around, extremely enthusiastic, interested in their guests, and very knowledgeable. Being a bit younger than much of the group, I was a little apprehensive that I might not enjoy it, but I don't know what I was worried about! Spending time getting to know the others on the trip, as well as the guides, was a delight - but what meant the most to me was spending time with my parents without the burden of the 'real world' on any of us, just enjoying the moment and each other's company. Thank you New Zealand Walking Tours for showing us the best of your stunningly beautiful country, and giving all three of us happy memories we'll never forget.read more
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Road leading to a tunnel entrance in a hillside

Approaching the west side entrance to the Homer Tunnel it’s clear to see the magnitude of the task of burrowing through the mountainside.

Kea on a car roof

Meeting the local population of kea at the Homer Tunnel entrance.

Waterfalls cascade off a granite rock face

With around 7m (23ft) of precipitation per year, the conditions in which the road builders worked, relentlessly, were treacherous – avalanches are common here.

Milford Track winding through jungle

The Milford Track is regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful multi-day hikes.

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