Known as one of New Zealand’s most beautiful natural sights, taking a trip to Milford Sound is a must-do for everyone visiting the country.
So, what’s the best way to visit Milford Sound from Queenstown? In this article, we break down all of the options and look at the best - and most sustainable - ways to visit Milford Sound.
First things first, it’s good to know that Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is one of many places in New Zealand to have been given a dual name. While the European name is based on a natural harbour in Wales, Great Britain, Piopiotahi is significant to both Māori and Pākehā New Zealanders - it’s named after the piopio bird which flew into the fiord after Māui's death.
The 15km inlet from the Tasman Sea was formed by the surrounding glaciers of Fiordland National Park over millions of years.
Today, Piopiotahi / Milford Sound Marine Reserve, Fiordland National Park, and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site form the largest protected area in New Zealand. Visitors can expect to see steep mountainsides, cascading waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, seals, Fiordland penguins, humpbacks and southern right whales.
How long does it take to travel to Milford Sound from Queenstown? It takes around 4 hours by car via state highway 6 and 94, making it a lengthy 8 hour drive if you choose to visit in a single day. If you have more time, there are some interesting stops along the way if you want to break up the Queenstown to Milford Sound drive.
Stop for a look around the closest town to Milford Sound, Te Anau, visit glow worm caves, or hike the Kepler Track. Staying overnight in Te Anau is a great option as the fiord is just a 1.5 to 2 hour drive away and you can fit a lot more into your experience.
If you are short on time, and want to take a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown, the best way is to take an organised tour on a coach. That way you won’t have to worry about driving long distances, limited parking, and weather conditions on the day - plus it’s easier on the environment.
Taking a day trip on an eco-friendly coach tour to Milford Sound is the easiest option, it takes the hassle out of organising a trip and driving. You will get picked up from your Queenstown hotel, go on a Milford Sound cruise, have a quick shower under Stirling Falls, and get an included lunch on this 12-hour round trip. But it is by far the most popular option; there are many other ways to experience the fiord.
If budget isn’t a concern, or if you’re short on time, you can travel from Queenstown by air instead. Flying certainly isn’t an eco option, but it cuts the tour down to just half a day (4.5 hours). It makes the short journey by light aircraft, taking in the amazing views of Milford Sound from above, then takes you on a small-craft boat cruise with naturalist guides who will help you to get a better understanding of the vast area.
But for us, the best option is to take a little more time, stay nearby and take a ‘Milford Sound Nature Cruise’, or eco friendly tour of Milford Sound. The ‘Gem of the Sound’ is a premium glass-roof catamaran run by Pure Milford. This eco-certified tour focuses on wildlife, with passionate local guides and plenty of space on board (it’s way less crowded than many other Milford Sound cruises). These tours begin near the Milford Sound Visitor Centre and last for around 2 hours.
If you’ve ever dreamed of cruising through epic fiords, watching dolphins breaching at the bow, and keeping an eye out for a whale fluke on the horizon, then Milford Sound is for you.
Don’t be put off by the fact that it rains here for over 200 days of the year - that’s what made this place so phenomenal in the first place. Carved out by the mountain rivers and the glaciers of Fiordland, the deep inlets are overshadowed by the steep sides of the snow-capped Southern Alps.
It’s hard to get a good photo here as the scenery is too monstrous and the light throws huge shadows over the water. But these views will stick with you long after the social ‘likes’ fade. Drink in the fresh air, feel the cold spray from the gushing waterfalls, and take in the timeless wildness that surrounds this place.
The 5,560 feet Mitre Peak, or Rahotu in Māori, juts out as a singular icon of Milford Sound, but it is, in fact just one of many breathtaking peaks in Te Wahipounamu, a World Heritage Site as declared by UNESCO.
Translated as "the place of greenstone", this vast area has been revered for generations as an important source of pounamu greenstone or jade - used for making Māori tools, weapons, and jewellery. The peaks, waterfalls, and inlets that you see on the cruise are all part of the rich history of Fiordland and its people.
If you really want to escape the crowds and have the place all to yourself, why not try something a little smaller? Kayak Milford Sound on a guided tour to get a completely different perspective. Roscos Milford Sound Kayaks have been operating for over 30 years, offering several different tours to suit all ability levels. They also have an extremely helpful Milford Sound Map to help plan your adventure.
For hikers, the Milford Sound Track is a huge draw. The 4 to 5 day hike takes in some of the best scenery of Fiordland National Park and has been dubbed ‘the finest walk in the world’ and is generally thought of as the best hike in New Zealand. After getting dropped off by boat at the head of Lake Te Anau, the 53.5 km track winds its way through ice-carved valleys, expansive mountain passes, and glacier-blue rivers. The end of the hike at Sandfly Point, named after its winged inhabitants, is just a short boat ride away from Milford Sound.
Another way to experience the fiord in a different light is by visiting the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory. Milford Sound has unique underwater life including black coral, normally found at much darker depths, here they are visible due to a phenomenon known as ‘deep-water emergence’. Here deepwater species can survive at much shallower depths due to the freshwater from the mountains mixing with the seawater. The underwater observatory is only accessible by boat and is exclusive to Southern Discoveries.
For scuba divers, Descend Scuba Diving offer some of the most unique dives in the world. Expect to see huge coral trees, and over 150 different fish species, with large marine life like dolphins, seals, and sharks. Previous experience in cold water is an advantage.
Spend more time in Southland, and Fiordland National Park, by basing yourself in the town of Te Anau. The walking capital of New Zealand is just a two hour drive away from Milford Sound.
Avoid the laborious journey from Queenstown and take the time to see the other sights in the area including the Mirror Lakes, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, and the Chasm. There’s also some great hiking in Fiordland, like the 3 hour out-and-back hike to the teal waters of Lake Marian, the panoramic views of the Key Summit Track (also 3 hours, but is only really good on a clear day), and the shorter Lake Gunn and Homer Tunnel nature walks.
As the only accommodation provider in the immediate vicinity, Milford Sound Lodge is the place to be if you want to stay right next to Milford Sound. There’s a variety of options when it comes to accommodation with everything from budget-friendly backpacker dorms to luxury riverside and mountain view chalets.
You can eat at the onsite Pio Pio restaurant and for camping there’s the Rainforest Campervan Park. The lodge is careful with its footprint too, recycling, repurposing, and only using eco-friendly cleaning products to ensure the fragile landscapes that draw so many people here aren't negatively impacted.
Eglinton Valley Camp is located on Knobs Flat, about halfway in between Te Anau and Milford Sound. They offer basic double rooms with kitchenettes as well as tent pitches. During your stay you can get involved with local conservation projects like habitat restoration, recycling, and energy reduction.
Nearer to town, Fiordland Eco Retreat offers a touch more luxury with a solar-powered hot tub, filtered Fiordland rainwater, and 100 per cent New Zealand wool carpets. In fact, everything here has sustainability at its heart, from the house's thoughtful construction, and its innovative power solutions, to the native plants in the garden.
Since the dramatic 2020 decrease in visitors to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand's main tourist sites, the government is working to reduce the “significant pressure” from the previous 550,000 to 1 million annual visitors. It’s now more important than ever to consider how we choose to visit these beautiful places, in order to keep them pristine for future generations.
One such measure is a hefty $25 fee to park in the Milford Sound car park. One way to avoid this (and to reduce emissions) is by getting the Intercity bus from Te Anau or Queenstown - handily, bus times coincide with most cruise ship departures. You can also make your money count; choose to support eco-tour operators, hotels, and other local businesses.
However you choose to visit Rudyard Kipling's “eighth wonder of the world”, Milford Sound / Piopiotahi will leave a lasting impression. Make sure to make time on your trip to Queenstown for this unforgettable adventure.