Visiting Milford Sound in winter: An awesome day trip.

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I’m embarassed. As a New Zealander, all my life I’ve seen beautiful photos of tourists visiting Milford Sound – but I’ve never been!

It must surely be one of our country’s most iconic sites?! Well, now we’ve been. And, I can see what all the fuss is about.

Rudyard Kipling famously described it as one of the wonders of the world. It is without doubt one of New Zealand’s most spectacular natural attractions.

Visiting Milford Sound is breathtaking.

Stirling Falls, Milford Sound.
Looking back towards the beautiful Stirling Falls in Milford Sound.

What is a sound?
Getting to Milford Sound
Sights to stop at along the way
Cruising Milford Sound
How much does it cost?
Where to stay before and after visiting

Milford Sound is not a sound

It’s true. Milford Sound is not actually a sound. It is in fact a fiord.

A sound is formed when a river valley is flooded with the sea, whereas Milford Sound has been carved out by the erosion of ancient glacial ice. It is in fact a large ocean inlet, a bit bigger than a bay.  Milford Sound is 16-kilometres in length from the head of the fiord to the open sea.  The name Milford Sound reflects the geographic features and sheer rock faces that tower 1200m above the water.

The huge looming rock faces of Milford Sound.

Getting to Milford Sound

Firstly, to de-funk a few myths. Visiting Milford Sound isn’t just for wealthy tourists splurging on their once-in-a-lifetime trip. It is totally doable on a budget, and a fantastic day trip for a family adventure.

It isn’t overwhelming in one day because of distance from Queenstown. We visited Milford Sound from Te Anau, but there are other ways as well.

You can fly in – by scenic flight or helicopter; you can take a bus from Queenstown or Te Anau. Or you can drive yourself.

And you can visit Milford Sound in winter.

A frosty morning leaving Te Anau heading for Milford Sound in winter.

Driving yourself

This is what we did and what I would recommend. Self-navigating, especially in rural New Zealand, seems to outweigh other options (in my opinion) simply due to freedom. You can stop anywhere, and travel at your own pace (and budget).

The road to Milford Sound is drivable in a campervan, but don’t rush. From Te Anau to Milford Sound is 240 KM (144 miles). In summer it’s a straightforward drive. It’s beautiful in winter as well, but allow at least two hours and drive carefully. There can be snow or ice on the road.

Visiting Milford Sound by campervan in winter.
Beautiful scenery on the road to Milford Sound.

Stop along the way

Visiting in winter means less opportunity for some of the most famous hikes in Milford Sound. But, one of the most well-known sights along the way doesn’t involve a hike to get there.

Mirror Lakes is exactly as the name implies; a small lake with magical reflections of the mountains made in the water. It is on the left hand side of the road to Milford, and you can view the lake from the boardwalk and platform less than two minutes walk from the carpark.

The famous view at Mirror Lakes on the road to Milford.

Cruising Milford Sound

We loved our Jucy Cruise in Milford Sound. We were impressed by the whole staffing team, right from the moment we were welcomed on board. The commentary by the captain is brilliant; personable, informative, and with the perfect amount of humour.

We learnt all about the history of Milford including the first Maori visitors and early settlement. The staff pointed out fur seals on the rocks and different kinds of birdlife in the fiord. And we loved getting right underneath the spray of the waterfall from Sirling Falls!

Visiting Milford Sound with kids. Getting right up close to the famous Stirling Falls.
The best moment! Getting right up close to the famous Stirling Falls.

How much does it cost?

There are currently (Winter 2020) two Jucy Cruises per day. The cruises depart Milford Sound at 11:30 and 13:30. Tickets for adults are $59pp; children 0-14 years are free. Check the Jucy website for updated prices and departure times.

Having a quick snack inside the Jucy Cruise boat.

Where we stayed before and after visiting

TE ANAU: Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park 
Location: 77 Manapouri-Te Anau Highway, Te Anau Lakefront
Cost: Sites from $18pp. 
About: Awesome kids playground. Great bathroom facilities. Very friendly staff.

QUEENSTOWN: Queenstown TOP 10 Holiday Park
Location: 70 Arthurs Point Road, Arthurs Point, Queenstown
Cost: Powered site from $50 p/n (50% off for second night) 
Facilities: Amazing facilities; spa pool, drying room, laundry. Kids loved the big jumping pillow and playground.

Know before you go

  • Visiting Milford Sound is undoubtedly popular, clocking in close to 1 million visitors a year. Peak season is November to march.
  • There is no cellphone coverage and limited WiFi in the Fiordland. Prepare to unplug, and enjoy it!
  • Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth. September to December are the wettest months, with an average of 16 to 18 days of rainfall in a month. But don’t be put off by that – just prepare ahead. The rainfall makes the giant waterfalls even more dramatic!
  • The weather can change rapidly. As well as rain, you can experience sunshine, wind and even snow. Brings layers of warm clothing, a good jacket, hat and sunscreen.
  • Parking at Milford Sound is free during Winter 2020 (May – September). 
  • There are no petrol stations or shops between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Bring snacks (you can buy some food on board the cruises) and make sure you have a full tank of fuel.

PS. Captain Cook missed Milford Sound on two occasions as he sailed along the Fiordland coast. Definitely add visiting Milford Sound to your New Zealand itinerary to make sure you don’t!

Signposts on the road to Milford Sound.
Thinking about visiting Milford Sound? Do!

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