Milford Sound is part of the Fjordland National Park, and the whole region became World Heritage Site in 1990. The Fjordland was formed by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The best time to visit Milford Sound without the crowds and enough daylight is on a morning cruise tour around 10 am. The best season is autumn as temps are mild (9-14°C). To experience this wet place with a sunny blue sky, you must monitor the weather forecast a couple of days before you visit.
Milford Sound is just mesmerizing and also one of the wettest regions on earth with up to 9 meters of rain each year. It's one of the most visited places in South New Zealand. Depending on the season you plan to come, we provide you with lots of useful tips. Continue reading to get the insights we got told by local rangers or get answers to your questions by using our quick navigation (most popular are the 7 Must-Know Tips):
- Essential Cruise Tour Tips
- Driving Tips from Te Anau
- Monthly Weather & Crowds | Best Times
- Hotel Booking Tips
- Scenic Flight & More Cruise Tours
- 7 Must-Know Tips Before You Visit
- A Perfect Day | Milford Itinerary
- Hikes and Walks
Milford experiences a minimum of 200 days of rain, 7 meters of rain on average each year. One of the few places where rainfall is measured in meters. Usually, it rains 2 days in 3. In 2017 the precipitation was even 9 meters, and on the opposite, the summer in 2018 was pretty dry even accompanied by forest fires. Nevertheless, rain occurs quite often throughout the year. With a high amount of rainfall, the fjord is full of awesome temporary waterfalls, and the existing ones are at its peak. It’s spectacular when waterfalls thunder down from the cliffs.
We wanted to experience the sound on a clear day, and we did. We just monitored the weather forecast and booked our tour just two days before. We drove 10 hours from Christchurch to Te Anau and another two for the 120 km from Te Anau the next morning before sunrise. Yep, that sounds a little crazy, but we got rewarded with fantastic views and a sunny blue sky. It was worth the strenuous drive.
Essential Cruise Tour Tips (Crowds & Booking)
Milford is the most popular place in New Zealand with more than 500.000 visitors each year. If you like to go on a cruise at midday advanced booking is recommended. These tours are frequently fully booked, that's why you must book these in advance, regardless of the season! During peak season, every tour should be pre-booked. In shoulder and low season, you may book the early morning and afternoon tours on the spot, as they are less crowded. Our favorite cruise is this one: Milford Sound Nature Cruise. To make sure you get on a cruise we recommend, book at least one or two days before. There are different tours being offered at different times. The first starts around 8.30 am, but at this time of the day, there is still not enough light for taking a good picture in the sound. It improves a lot an hour later. However, you should always arrive early at Milford Sound. Why? Read on below:
How to Get to Milford Sound (With Tips for the Drive)
You should (or must) drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound: Google Maps - Te Anau <> Milford Sound. It's one of the most gorgeous drives we've done! Start early and arrive around 8 latest 8.30 am at Milford Sound parking from December to March. This ensures you don’t need to park far away and have to take the shuttle to get close. The shuttle is offered at the busiest time of the year only. The two different parking areas fill up soon.
It takes about 1 hour 45 minutes from Te Anau very early in the morning. If you start later schedule two hours minimum for the drive plus half an hour for the shuttle. The sunrise in the morning and the sunset on the way back were breath-taking. Keep in mind there isn’t any gas station or fuel stop along the Milford road just an un-manned in Milford. Between May and November, snow chains are required. The Homer Tunnel at an altitude of 945 m above sea level is just one narrow single lane, 1.2 km long, and traffic is controlled by a traffic light.
Update March 1 for the Hiking Season in 2020
Due to significant damage from the weather event, the Milford Track was closed. A part of the Milford Track called Southern Milford-Mackinnon Experience got reopened. Walkers have to depart from Glade Wharf in Te Anau. This hike lasts three days and two nights. The last part of the Milford Track is closed for the rest of the hiking season; too much got destroyed. It takes lots of time to repair the last 7 km of the track. Unfortunately, the entire Routeburn Track is closed for the rest of the season, too. The track needs considerable repair work. Day visits to the sound are not affected. Most of the day hikes are open to the public.
Read our detailed Milford Sound weather guide for every season and month below. We also included information about peak tourist times with possible crowds and less busy periods.
Spring (September/October - November)
It’s still chilly in the night, but days tend to be warmer and longer. It’s the shoulder season, less crowded and overrun. There are hundreds of waterfalls gush down from rocky cliffs due to the spring rain and the melting snow. The countryside is covered with wildflowers. In November and December, the rata and the pohutukawa trees are in full bloom. These trees are also called Christmas trees. Mountains are still snow-capped. The Fiordland Crested Penguin can be seen until November or December by the latest raising the cheeks.
Summer (December - February)
December and January have the highest amount of precipitation but these months are also the warmest and busiest. The average temp is almost 20°C, and it can increase up to 28°C. In turns of sun and rain, the humidity is quite high. The Christmas Trees are in bloom until December. A shuttle service from the overflow parking is offered from December to March.
Crowds thin a little bit out and the shoulder season starts around mid-March. There are still many hours of daylight. The temps may be still close to 20°C at daytime. Nights become already chilly. It's the best time of the year for hiking. Waterfalls are not at their peak. There is a slightly higher chance to experience Milford on a clear day as we did at the end of March.
Winter (May - August/September)
That's the low season, and it’s less busy. Snow is common on the road to the Milford Sound, especially in higher altitudes. This makes the mountains even more photogenic. Seals and especially penguins are more active during colder temps. The Fjordland crested penguin comes to the same beach for mating each year. They lay their eggs in August and cheeks fled between November and December. The downside the road to the sound can be closed due to avalanche warnings although the roads are accessible. Often the rangers get asked for the reason for closing the way. There is a team monitoring the mountains and snowfields if they ascertain a high risk for an avalanche the only route to the sound can be closed for days. Hiking isn't possible everywhere. Avalanche-prone bridges get removed to prevent destroying by flooding or debris avalanches. The average daily temp is around 4°C. This makes the cruises pretty cold outside on the deck. Most of the ships offer indoor and outdoor seating and viewing area.