Milford Sound, one of the wettest regions on earth with up to 9 meters of rain each year is one of the most visited places in South New Zealand. To figure out the best time for your visit depends on the season you plan to come. Continue reading to get the insights we got told by local rangers.
Milford experiences minimum 200 days of rain; on average 7 meters of rain each year. One of the few places where rain 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.
Kayaks in front of Bowen Waterfall
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.
Crowds on a Cruise
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. The morning and afternoon tours are often less crowded but to be sure of getting a cruise we recommend to book at least one or two days before. It’s a long drive but one of the most beautiful ones in the world to get there. There are different tours at different times offered. The first starts around 8.30 am, but at this time of the day, there is still not enough light for a good picture in the sound. It improves a lot an hour later.
Tip If Traveling by Car to Milford
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 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.
Weather and Crowds by Season
Spring (September/October until November)
Photo by Timothy Chan on Unsplash
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 latest December raising the cheeks.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Photo by Simon Bowles on Unsplash
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 of closing the road. 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 day temp is around 4°C. This makes the cruises pretty cold outside on deck. Most of the ships offer indoor and outdoor seating and viewing area.
Warnings for Hiking
The Fjordland experiences a high amount of precipitation and rapidly changeable weather. Be prepared while hiking for heavy rainfall cold temps, even snow, and wind at any time of the year. Check the road information to Milford first
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. Milford is the only fjord in New Zealand accessible by road. Milford Road, State Highway 94 is one of the most scenic and spectacular drives in the world.
John Grono was the first European settler who came here in 1823 by ship. He gave Milford Sound its name. The sound remembered him to an Inlet on the Welsh coast. The work of the Homer Tunnel began in 1935. It took almost 20 years to get it finished, and tourism started. Before the tunnel opening, only hikers came on the Milford Track to the sound.
Milford Sound is roughly 16 km long until the open sea and up to 400 m deep. Actually, it is a fjord which got created by ancient glaciers. The most iconic peak and seen in most pictures is Mitre Peak 1.692 m above sea level. Many plant species can only be found in the Fjordland due to the remote location and the wet weather.
Wildlife and Birds in the Milford Sound
You may spot bottlenose dolphins, occasionally dusky dolphins, and often fur seals. Little blue penguins inhabit the fjord while the endangered Fjordland crested penguin is only found here and on Stewart Island. It is likely to spot keas an alpine parrot on higher elevations.
Hiking (Short Hikes, Half Day, Day Hikes)
To experience the outstanding lush rainforest with ancient trees hike at least one of the many trails and make a couple of photo stops along the Milford road. The following trails are our favorite ones listed from the Milford Sound back to Te Anau:
- The Milford Foreshore Walk is an easy walk for max. 30 min. We came here before the cruise early morning and shot some marvelous pics.
- Tutoko an exhausting 6 hours hike. At the end of the trail, you get rewarded spectacular vistas to the Mount Tutoko; the highest peak in the Fjordland 2.834 m. It is one of the very view hikes in Milford Sound due to the steepness of the mountains. The trail leads to an enchanting rainforest and provides amazing views to the Herbert Icefields.
- The Chasm is a short 20 minutes return hike to witness the sheer power of water and rain.
- The Gertrude Saddle as a hard-alpine hike with scenic mountain views, waterfalls, and even ice fields. Schedule up to 6 hours but avoid hiking during wet conditions. Not suitable in winter. The first hour is easy to hike before you start climbing huge granite rocks. Metal ropes assist you, but for this hike, you need to be experienced.
- Lake Marian, pretty steep ascent which took us one way 1.40 h plus break at the alpine lake. Schedule 4 hours for the 8 km trail to lush beautiful rainforest. The trail can be hiked all year. If this is too long for you, just walk until the thundering Marian Creek for up to 15 minutes. The trail is wet, muddy, rooty, and slippery.
- Key Summit at the Divide car park, the beginning of the Routeburn Track, a smooth but steep max. 3 hours return hike open all year. Consider snow can occur until spring. After almost an hour it branches and leaves the Routeburn to the summit. You get rewarded with a 360 degrees view from the summit on a clear day.
- Mirror Lakes, just a short 10 minutes stroll.
How to prepare for the massive amount of rain and the rapid changes in the conditions? Even for a day cruise or hike always bring a waterproof layer, warm layer, and sunscreen in the summer months.
Swing Bridge to Marian Lake
Freedom camping is almost not allowed along the Milford road. The DOC offers lots of campgrounds along highway 94. The last one close to the Divide fills up quickly and is the most crowded one. Camping fee 13 $ p.p. in March 2018 without shower just dunnies are provided.