Milford Sound Day Trip: What to Expect and is it Worth it?

by | Apr 11, 2020 | 0 comments

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a jewel of New Zealand’s South Island and is on most people’s lists when planning their trip to the country. However, the trip out there can be expensive, especially for those traveling on a budget. What does it cost, what activities are available and most importantly, is it worth it?

Note: All prices are listed in NZD and USD. As of February 2020, $1.00 NZD = $0.65 USD.

What is Milford Sound?

Stairway leading directly into Milford Sound

Despite the name, Milford Sound is actually a fjord (pronounced fee-yord). A fjord is a long, narrow inlet that is bound by steep cliffs on the sides and connects with the sea.

Although there are many fjords around New Zealand, Milford Sound is the only one accessible by road. Tucked away in the Fiordland National Park, it’s retained much of its natural beauty without becoming overly commercialized. Not to mention the drive to there is equally as impressive. In fact, because of its intact and unspoiled nature, Milford Sound was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1990.

The Legend of Milford Sound

Mountainside with snow and running water.

More than 1,000 years ago the Maori tribes discovered Milford Sound. Tribes would travel from afar to fish, hunt and collect pounamu (the famous green stone of New Zealand) throughout the area.

Their legend states that the Sound was formed by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a god in charge of shaping the Fiordland coast. Chanting a powerful prayer, he hacked at the rock walls and carved it from the earth.

The Milford Sound Experience

Driving Through Fiordland National Park

Whether you take a tour or drive yourself to the Sound, you’ll first have to pass through Fiordland National Park. This is a gorgeous landscape full of sweeping mountains and forest views. From prehistoric era habitats to Ice Age carved landforms, you’ll likely want to pull over few minutes for a photo op (I knew we did). Take your time, and definitely enjoy the sights.

Before you enter the Cleddau Calley where Milford Sound is located, you’ll drive through the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel is named after William Homer, who discovered the Homer Saddle (which the tunnel passes through) in 1889 on a surveying expedition.

Traffic flows only one direction at a time in the tunnel, so if you get stuck waiting at the light, try to spot a Kea. They are the world’s only alpine parrot, and it’s common to see them hanging about.

Responsible Travel Tip: You may see tourists trying to feed the Keas. This can be harmful, making them dependent on humans versus focusing on foraging for their own food. Help keep the Keas wild by abstaining from feeding them. Learn more here.

Exiting from the tunnel, you’ll immediately begin your descent down a steep, twisting mountainside. You’re on the final stretch. Soon the mountains will be towering overhead, surrounding you from all sides. Keep your eyes peeled because soon you’ll see the glistening waters of Milford Sound.

Directions

If you depart from Queenstown, then plan to be on the road for at least 8 hours that day. That’s a lot of time spent behind the wheel.

  • Distance: 295 km (183 miles)
  • Drive Time: Approx. 4 hours

Head East out of town on State Highway 6A heading to Frankton. Once there, you’ll want to turn South on Highway 6. Drive about 97.6 km (60 miles) until you reach the turnoff for State Highway 94. There will be signs for Te Anau/Milford Sound/Piopiotahi). You’ll follow this road all the way to the Milford Sound parking lot.

Day Trip Activities at Milford Sound

Take a Boat Cruise

Milford sound cruise boat leaving dock animation

The biggest attraction in Milford Sound is their boat cruises. Multiple companies ply the waters, all offering similar tours.

During the tour you’ll be taken around the Sound. This provides views of the inlet as giant mountains pass on either side of you, closeup views of Bowen Falls (dropping from 162 meters (531 feet), and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sights of the dolphins and penguins that frequent the waters.

Tour Companies to Consider

Pro Tip: Check for tour deals on BookMe. They offer discounts on activities throughout New Zealand 1-2 weeks in advance, including Milford Sound tours.

Go Kayaking

If cruising isn’t of interest, you can still get on the water by booking a kayaking tour instead. Costs range from $115.00-$149.00 NZD ($73.61-$95.38 USD) per person.

Tour Companies to Consider

Visit the Breakwater Walkway

Man Walking along Milford Sound Breakwater

Right next to the cruise terminal is a breakwater to help keep the docking area calm. You can walk all the way out to the point. It’s a nice photo stop to get cruise ships and the mountains in the background.

  • Cost: Free
  • Distance: About 200 meters (0.125 miles)
  • Time Required: 15 minutes, return
  • Location: Next to the cruise ship terminal. Walk out along the docks and it’ll be to your left.
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Walk the Milford Sound Foreshore Trail

Man hiking Lakeshore of Milford Sound

If time allows, there’s a short trail along the shore at the very start of the sound. You’ll be rewarded with wonderful views of the Sound, catch a glimpse of Bowen Waterfall, and can learn more about the area through interpretive visitor’s panels.

  • Cost: Free
  • Distance: 400 meters (0.25 miles)
  • Time Required: 30 minutes, loop track
  • Location: Right along the foreshore of Milford Sound. Accessible via the car park.
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Hike to the Milford Sound Lookout

Milford Sound Lookout

Next to the township is a trail that takes you to a hidden viewpoint of the sound.

  • Cost: Free
  • Distance: 400 meters (0.25 miles)
  • Time Required: 30 minutes, return
  • Location: Access toward the back of the car park, starting behind the township.
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Experience Bowen Falls Up Close

Bowen Falls at Milford Sound

If viewing Bowen Falls from afar isn’t enough, you can take a trail that’ll get you up close to it.

  • Cost: $10.00 NZD ($6.40 USD) per adult, $5.00 NZD ($3.20 USD) per child.
  • Time Required: 30 minutes, return
  • Location: Tickets purchased at the Milford Sound cruise terminal. From there, you’ll catch a ferry across the wharf where the trailhead begins.
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Marvel at The Chasm

The Chasm at Milford Sound

The Chasm is about 15 minutes outside of Milford Sound and can easily be visited either on your way in or out of the park. Although viewing this attraction takes only about 15 minutes, it’s worth the quick stop. Thanks to river stones being carried downstream over the centuries, swirling nooks and crevices have formed in this chasm, creating an awesome waterworks display.

  • Cost: Free
  • Time Required: 20 minutes, return
  • Location: About 10km outside of Milford Sound, off Highway 94
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Take a Tour vs Driving to the Sound

Road to Milford Sound

The two best ways to get to Milford Sound are by either booking a tour or driving yourself. Each has their pros and cons.

Booking a Tour

Pros

  • Booking tours are great if you don’t want to make the drive yourself. They’ll still make plenty of stops for photography along the way.
  • You’ll be traveling with a group of other people, giving you the chance to make new friends.
  • It takes the hassle out of planning the trip yourself. The tour company will manage all the details; you just show up and enjoy the views.

Cons

  • Prices for the basic tour package range from $149.00-$209.00 NZD ($95.39-$133.80 USD) per person. This includes bus transfer from Queenstown and back.
  • The tours all run about 13 hours. That’s a long day, with most of it spent sitting in the coach bus.
  • You have no say on when or where you go. It’s all directed by the tour company.
Couple Looking out over Milford Sound

Driving

Driving, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to craft your own tour. You can hike, take a cruise or both.

Pros

  • You’ll be able to do the activities that appeal to you most.
  • You can make a multi-day trip of it.
  • You get to move at your own pace, lingering when you want and moving on quickly if something doesn’t appeal.

Cons

  • If you plan to do a day trip from Queenstown, then at least 6 hours will be spent behind the driver’s wheel.
  • The cost can quickly add up. We spend a total of $363.05 NZD ($232.40 USD) on our 2 day, 1 night visit. That included:
    • 2 nights of freedom camping
    • Daily rate of our campervan rental
    • Gas driving to/from Queenstown
    • Paid showers after our day at the Sound
    • Parking at Milford Sound for 2 hours
    • Skipping the cruise and just doing some of the free hikes in the area
  • Should you add on the boat cruise, you’re looking at another $59.00-$81.00 NZD ($37.77-$51.86 USD) per person for the basic cruise package.

Don’t miss out on these top travel apps to level up your New Zealand road trip.

Is It Worth It?

Man Standing at Milford Sound
Can you spot Tom at the edge of the water?

Honestly (and this opinion is definitely not the popular one), we weren’t super impressed with Milford Sound. Sure, it was pretty, but we felt the views heading to the Sound were more breathtaking than the Sound itself.

Maybe it’s because we went at the wrong season, so the weather wasn’t doing the views justice. Maybe it’s because there’s so much hype about this place, we had built it up too high in our minds. Or maybe we’re jaded.

What WAS Worth it

  • We really enjoyed the drive into Fiordland National Park. The landscapes are truly magnificent. Even with only so-so weather, we regularly exclaimed “Wow!” and “Look at that!” throughout the trip. I could see enjoying a long weekend in the Fiordland National Park for hiking, when the sun’s out and everything is in bloom.
  • Tom and I don’t know when (or if) we’ll ever return to New Zealand, so I’m happy I got to check it off the bucket list.
  • I really like viewing UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is something I didn’t expect when we first set out on our travels. The diversity of places they’ve designated is extremely interesting, and it’s fun to learn how each achieved UNESCO status (#nerdalert).
Misty Milford Sound

What We’d Change

There are three major things we’d change about our trip.

1) Skip Milford Sound

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), with places such as Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains in easy reach, we’re a bit spoiled when it comes to amazing outdoor landscapes. So while Milford Sound was nice, we personally enjoyed the drive through Fiordland National Park more.

If you’re similarly from the PNW, then I’d consider skipping this attraction and saving your money for another activity instead. Take a good look at photos online to determine what you’ll get out of the experience. If you’re like us, perhaps you’ll find the views aren’t necessarily worth the cost.

On the other hand, if you’re not from the PNW, then I’d recommend going. It’s unlikely that you’ve ever seen something quite like this area before, so you’ll be wow-ed by the scenery and enjoy all that Milford Sound has to offer.

2) If We Did Go Back, We’d Spend More Time in Fiordland National Park

With how beautiful the entire park is, next time I’d linger longer, spending 2-3 days out enjoying nature. From lounging around in camp, to hiking or even fishing on some of the lakes, this place would be stunning and a great place to unplug for a while.

3) Book the Tour for Just a Day Trip

If your goal is to just see Milford Sound on a day trip, then booking a tour will be your most economical option. We spent a total of $181.50 NZD ($116.20 USD) per person driving ourselves, and that didn’t even include a cruise on the Sound. This compares to the cheapest cruise with transfer package at $149.00 NZD ($95.39 USD). Often there are even discounted tickets available online, so you can go for more of a cost savings if you’re flexible in date, time and company you use.

What were your thoughts on Milford Sound? Would you change anything about how you did your trip?

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