Last Updated on 23/12/2020
Milford Sound is an awe-inspiring place. Located in Fiordland National Park on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it’s said to be one of the great natural wonders of the world. Here, mountains push upwards out of dark inky waters, waterfalls cascade over sharp cliffs and lush green rainforests extend untouched as far as the eye can see. Unsurprisingly, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a top bucket list New Zealand destination.
Milford Sound is accessible all year round but in my opinion, winter is the perfect time to visit. Snow accentuates the majesty of the peaks and fewer visitors mean that you almost have the place to yourself. Dolphins, penguins and alpine parrots are emboldened by the peace and you can admire them undisturbed by crowds. Convinced? Here’s how to see Milford Sound in winter:
How to get there
Depending on your budget and timeframe, there are multiple ways to visit Milford Sound. I’ve outlined the most popular ones below:
Driving offers the most freedom, particularly if you’re road-tripping from Queenstown or neighbouring Te Anau. You get to call the shots on your schedule and you can choose how long you want to spend at Milford Sound.
The journey time from Queenstown to Milford Sound by car is about 3 hours and 42 minutes. One important thing to note about driving in winter is that access to Milford Sound is sometimes closed off. This is due to heavy snowfall, ice and avalanches which can make the winding alpine highway very dangerous.
My advice is to check the weather and highway restrictions before you set off, just in case there are any closures or warnings.
If you fancy splashing out you can do a scenic flight and observe Milford Sound’s majesty from above. Flights depart from Queenstown Airport and take you over Fiordland National Park. The experience lasts about 1 hour and adult tickets are a pricey 470 NZD. Check out this website for more information.
Personally, I think the easiest, most fuel-efficient and affordable way to visit Milford Sound is to do a bus tour. All your transport there and back is sorted and your cruise is included in the price. All you need to do is show up at the bus stop on time and bring plenty of snacks for the journey.
There is a range of tour companies available, with some of the more popular ones being Kiwi Experience and InterCity. The journey time is about 4 hours each way from Queenstown (including stops) but you can depart from Te Anau if you want a shorter journey.
The buses set off early in the morning, arrive at Milford Sound around lunchtime and then get back to Queenstown in the early evening. The cruise is about 1 hour and 45 minutes in total and you can expect to pay about 199 NZD for the whole trip.
If you just want to use a coach service to get to Milford Sound and do your own thing from there then that’s entirely possible too. You can book single and return tickets with InterCity.
The one downside to doing a Milford Sound tour in winter is that they don’t always run every day due to demand and weather. This should only really be a problem if you’ve got rigorous time constraints on your trip.
If in doubt, make sure you time your trip on the days that the tours are likely to run. Trust me, you’re not going to want to miss Milford Sound for anything.
What is Kiwi Experience I hear you ask? Read all about this bus tour here to find out whether it’s right for you!
Milford Sound weather
Milford Sound from the back of the cruise
The southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island is notorious for its more than average rainfall. Incidentally, Milford Sound is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest places in the world.
Expected rainfall is approximately 182 days in the year and the rainiest months are December and January – slap bang in the middle of summer! So, if you want to avoid getting soaked, winter is your best bet but I would bring some waterproofs just in case.
Don’t let the rain deter you, however. Milford Sound is just as beautiful if not more in torrential downpours. The waterfalls swell and roar into the fiord (sound is actually a misnomer but Milford Fiord doesn’t ring quite as well) and the mountains loom moodily in the mist. It’s an electric atmosphere, brimming with life and beauty.
What to pack
Wrapping up warm to enjoy the views
Quite frankly, Milford Sound is cold in winter. The mountains are likely to be covered in snow and if you’re planning to do the cruise then the best views are on deck where you’re exposed to the elements. To make sure you enjoy the breathtaking sights in maximum comfort, I’ve included a few winter essentials to take with you below:
- Waterproof winter jacket
- Thick socks
- Boots/walking shoes
- Camera (make sure you can protect it from the rain – a GoPro might be best)
- Packed lunch
- Plenty of water
Milford Sound in winter: What to expect
Mirror Lakes – those damn ducks!
The bus picked us up outside Nomads Queenstown at 7 am. It was still dark and there was a chill in the air tinged with a frisson of excitement. The moon hung in the sky, bathing the snow-capped mountains in a silvery light.
It was quite a long journey to Milford Sound with a drive of about 4 hours including breaks along the way. Before long, we could start to see the first mountain peaks of Fiordland National Park looming closer.
The Mirror Lakes in Fiordland National Park
One of the highlights of the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound is the Mirror Lakes. Just as its name suggests, Mirror Lakes is a stunning stretch of water surrounded by marshlands. On a good day (and if there are no ducks), you can see a clear reflection of the Earl Mountains.
The best way to enjoy this view is to follow the short 400-metre walking track along the edge of the lake. It’s an ideal hangout for road trippers who want to stop and stretch their legs on the Milford Sound Highway.
Meeting the parrots at Monkey Creek
Fiordland National Park is most famous for its beauty but it’s characterised by one particular cheeky local resident. Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot has gained a reputation for its bold attitude around humans and this large green bird can often be seen hanging out along the Milford Sound Highway.
We spotted a pair lounging about at Monkey Creek, a glacier-fed spring and popular beauty spot. A particular peculiarity of kea is that they’ve acquired a taste for the soft rubber on the roof of vehicles. They absolutely love the stuff. Sure enough, one of them was happily tugging at the frame of a car, the passengers blissfully oblivious.
These bold little characters are not afraid to get pushy and unfortunately, that might just be their downfall. Their curiosity and omnivorous appetites have caused conflict with humans in the past and there’s now only a few thousand of these birds remaining.
The cruise with Southern Discoveries
Cruise making its way past Mitre Peak
The cruise I took as part of the tour was with Southern Discoveries, although there are other companies, including Jucy Cruise and Real Journeys. You can even book an overnight cruise and watch the sun set and rise over this mountainous paradise.
Cruises vary in length but they each follow the same route so you don’t have to worry about missing out on anything in particular.
During my visit, it was an unusually bright and sunny day (a rarity!). The catamaran had an open-top deck to view the spectacular natural scenery in all its glory. It was pretty cold though and after a while, we had to retreat below deck for tea and coffee.
I won’t give too much away here as I don’t want to spoil the magic of the moment for you. I’ve included a few highlights to look out for instead:
One of the many gorgeous waterfalls
Rain or shine, there are some spectacular waterfalls. Some of the most iconic ones include Lady Bowen Falls – the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound, Stirling Falls (the most famous) and Bridal Veil and Fairy Falls.
Mitre Peak again
Mitre Peak is perhaps the most famous sight in Milford Sound. The mountain rises 1,692 metres from the seafloor and its name is inspired by its distinctive shape which looks like a bishop’s mitre (a type of hat). The summit is actually formed by 5 peaks joined together.
Kea – the world’s only alpine parrot
One of the top highlights of Milford Sound is the wildlife. Pods of dusky and bottlenose dolphins often frequent the fiord and whales have also been known to drop by – although rare.
Fur seals are another local resident and you can usually spot them basking in the sun at Seal Rock.
You can sometimes see Little Blue Penguins swimming in the water (I saw two!) and if you’re lucky, you might spot Fiordland Crested Penguins. Native only to Fiordland and Stewart Island, they are incredibly rare and sadly an endangered species.
To see more Milford Sound wildlife, you can go scuba diving and visit the floating Underwater Observatory. Head’s up, these activities are not included in the standard bus tours so you might have to book them as extras.
Alternative things to do in Milford Sound
You can never tire at looking at this view
There are not just cruises and scenic flights to do in Milford Sound. You can go fishing, kayaking, sailing and even stay overnight. Here are some extra things to do below:
Milford Sound has a number of eco tours available. You can opt for an eco cruise which takes a little longer than the others. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the local wildlife and geography and get a closer look at some of the area’s main natural features.
Several cruise companies do eco tours but the Gray Line Milford Sound day tour is highly recommended. It includes a ride on a boutique cruise boat which accommodates only small group tours. This allows for a much more intimate experience.
If you enjoy hiking then why not consider what some people call the ‘finest walk in the world?’ The Milford Track is one of the nine New Zealand Great Walks and this epic trail takes you into the heart of Fiordland National Park.
This adventure is 53.5km and takes about 4 or 5 days to complete. Bookings are essential as only 90 people at a time can start the walk each day. Sadly, you won’t be able to do this during the winter months as the season runs from October to April.
There are still a number of day walks you can do all year round. They vary in difficulty but most of them are pretty easy to complete. Favourites include Milford Sound Foreshore Walk, Milford Sound Lookout Track, Key Summit Track and Grave Talbot Track.
Always be prepared when you’re hiking and check the weather forecast before you go – particularly during the winter!
Hiking is a spectacular activity in New Zealand. One of the most famous day walks is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. You can find out how to do the trail in winter here.
Final Thoughts about Milford Sound in winter
Milford Sound is such an iconic New Zealand landmark. Is it worth it in winter? Hell yes! For one thing, it rains less. There are fewer visitors and the snow-capped mountains look like a fairy tale wonderland or a Lord of the Rings film set (speaking of which, you can read all about Hobbiton here).
I hope you’ve got all you needed to start planning an epic Milford Sound adventure. If you have any questions, do feel free to comment below.
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