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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.
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.
7 Milford Sound Must-Know Tips
- How to get to Milford Sound: Whether you’re coming from Queenstown (like most travelers do) or from Christchurch (like we did), always stop in Te Anau and stay for one night before you get to Milford and after you return from Milford: Te Anau Lodging Deals.
- How long to stay in Te Anau: Book 3-4 nights in Te Anau if you’d like to hike, otherwise at least 2-3 days!! Drive from Queenstown to Te Anau and stay the first night there. Then drive early to Milford Sound to experience the amazing sunrise along the scenic road. Spend the day at Milford Sound, including a breathtaking cruise tour. Drive back to Te Anau while stopping often enough for stunning walks/hikes and viewpoints during sunset. It’s amazing. Even if you don’t hike, there are many breathtaking views and short walks. You can’t do it all in one day and never forget: It can always rain, that’s why it’s so much better to book 3-4 nights and be on the safe side, instead of 2 only. Check out this extremely helpful map: Map — Te Anau - Milford Highway. Check out our ‘Hotel Booking Tips for Te Anau’
- Combined Flight & Cruise | From Queenstown without driving: If you’re staying in Queenstown and don’t want to drive, you can book a combined scenic flight over Milford with a cruise tour afterwards. That means you won’t have to drive at all. The trips start directly from Queenstown and are truly breathtaking. You experience excellent service as well: No waiting, no crowds, no stress! Check our 'Cruise Tour Section' above for tips. Special Tip: If you don’t drive, we would do the combined flight & cruise any time instead of taking a crowded bus tour from Queenstown.
- Scenic Te Anau - Milford Sound Drive: Make sure to read our detailed tips about this drive in the section above. Start early to get a decent parking spot! The drive on Milford Road (Google Maps) takes less than 2 hours if you start early, longer if you drive later and you have to use the shuttle from the remote parking area to Milford Sound! Always check the road condition in advance. The drive itself is amazingly scenic and has many viewpoints/stops for attractions. Tip: The drive is even more stunning during sunrise and sunset! We recommend doing the stops and hikes on your way back. Read our hiking tips below for all recommended short walks or longer hikes along or near Milford road and find detailed tips for the drive and stops here: Map — Te Anau - Milford Highway
- Prepare for Changing Weather: The Fjordland experiences a high amount of precipitation and rapidly changing weather conditions. Regardless if you’re hiking or on a cruise tour: Be prepared for rainfall, colder temps, even snow, and wind at almost any time of the year. Always bring a waterproof layer, a warm layer, sturdy shoes, and sunscreen in the summer months. Just within a few hours only, you can experience four seasons in one day: Sunshine, rain and wind, as well as snow.
- Book a Cruise Tour in Advance: A cruise tour is a must-do (except for the case, when you are doing a combined flight & cruise tour we recommend above). Always pre-book, as they are in high demand!! Check our tips above for the 'Cruise Tours'. Especially if you’re visiting during peak season, book at least a few days in advance. Plan a full day for this stunning place and fully charge the batteries of your camera.
- Staying overnight in Milford Sound? There is only one option directly in the area, which is the Milford Lodge. Otherwise, you’re not allowed to stay overnight at Milford Sound. The lodge is nice and clean, however, you have to choose between super expensive chalets and backpacker style dorm rooms. There is nothing in between. Instead, we always recommend to stay in Te Anau and drive the amazingly scenic road from there. You can even book tours and flights starting in Te Anau: Milford Sound tours from Te Anau
A Perfect Day (Milford Sound Itinerary)
We left Te Anau quite early at 5.30 in the morning. As soon as the sun came up, we were flashed by the beautiful landscape and mountains. I recommend either the first cruise in the morning where you may spot dolphins. However, the position of the sun is not high enough when taking the first cruise as the sound is still in the shade. We booked the 10 am cruise. Therefore, first, we did the Milford Foreshore Walk to get some good shots of Mitre Peak and the Milford Sound.
The sun was up before 10 am, so we had the perfect light during the cruise. However, clouds filled the sky pretty fast at midday. On the way back, we made lots of stops along the scenic road and watched the awesome sunset. The hike to Lake Marian was utterly breathtaking through the rainforest. Another fantastic hike is the Key Summit, the first part of the Routeburn Track. If possible, try to do the scenic drive for hikes and walks at least twice! Unfortunately, we had lots of rain the day after. The reason that we skipped this spectacular trail. We wish we booked one more night in Te Anau, as the weather was pleasant again the next day.
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 favourite 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 marvellous pics. Perfect hike if you arrive early. More information: Milford Foreshore Walk
- 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, a 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 beautiful lush 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.
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 15$ p.p. and 7.50$ for children for summer 2019/2020 without shower just dunnies are provided. Map of campgrounds, number, and facilities