Top 5 activities in Milford Sound, New Zealand and our ideal two day itinerary

Updated: Jan 30

One of the most popular road-trips in New Zealand and it’s not hard to see why. Often called the 8th wonder of the world, Milford Sound is beyond beautiful and interestingly enough, it’s NZ’s only mainland World Heritage Site. We spent two nights in the beautiful Milford Sound, and here are our favourite five things to do, our tips and tricks, and suggested itinerary.


1. Sunrise at the foreshore

We watched the sun both rise and set at the foreshore – it was such a stunning place we couldn’t keep away.


At sunset there were only two other people at the foreshore taking photos, which to be frank, we simply couldn’t believe. We had heard all about the huge crowds at Milford, so it made the two of us wonder how busy sunrise would be (as we knew it was meant to be better for photos). The next morning we got up early and were ready to fight our way through the thousands and thousands for sunrise. And trust me we bloody did. Thousands of sand-flies. But not a single soul. We could not believe our socks. Which we wished we were wearing as we got so many bites on our feet. So many.


The sunrises we witnessed were beautiful, and one morning the two of us ended up rolling up our pants and walking out into the water (only up to our ankles mind you!). It was an unexpected delight - finding small warm patches in the bloody freezing water.


If you can pull yourself out of bed, actually even if you can’t, MAKE YOURSELF – go and watch the sunrise along the foreshore. Even on a gloomy day, it’s an incredible feeling staring Mitre Peak in the eye as the sun comes up.

  • Sunrise was better than sunset when we visited (summer) as the sun rises behind you and lights up Mitre Peak. Although in the winter months, the sun would set right behind Mitre Peak which would be perfect!

  • Low tide is the best (especially for reflection shots). If you time the low tide with sunrise you can see the awesome green mossy rocks.

  • Pack all the mosquito repellent you have. All of it.

Note - as we walked back to Vinnie (approximately 7:10am) we noticed a couple of cars pulling into the car park. By 7:45am it was almost full. Tourists, travellers, kiwis, democrats, republicans - EVERYONE was there. Our tranquil sunrise seemed like a distant, distant memory.


2. The hidden Blue Pool at the Chasm

A hidden gem in Milford Sound away from all the tourists? What?! Before I get started on how to find the blue pool, I will say this – do go and look at the chasm, it’s pretty incredible watching the water come gushing through the narrow gap. But do it first, as the blue pool will steal the rest of your day, and rightly so.


Ok, so how to find the blue pool. Towards the start the walk to the chasm, you will notice a DOC donation box along the path (on the right). Right beside this is a small hidden path (a wee bit muddy and through the bush). It goes for roughly 200m (only 5 or so mins) and leads you to the most beautiful hidden oasis you have ever seen (just follow the unofficial track).


Pack your togs and towel, sunblock and lunch and spend the day there. The water colour is unbelievably clear (guess that’s alpine for you!) and there’s a rope swing if you’re game enough. Like game James. As the pool is still a wee bit of a hidden gem, you should more or less have the place to yourself. (We were there for a couple of hours and only saw three other guys).



3. The Drive into Milford Sound

Don’t pay any attention to how long Google Maps says this drive should take. I’m telling you now you’ll be pulling over every five minutes to admire a reflective lake, fast flowing rapids, tumbling waterfalls, glorious mountains, cheeky wildlife, ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING. And it’s all worth the stop. Our advice would be to allow plenty of time for the drive so you can hop in and out to your hearts content. The drive can also be quite windy and steep in parts so it’s nice to be able to take your time and do it slowly and safely.


I probably sound like my Mum here (shout-out to Mum if you’re reading), but I’m going to go for it anyway. If you really want to take shots along the road – please be SAFE. I don’t want to say how many times we saw tourists suddenly pull over (in a non pull off) and then casually begin strolling along the windy road right into incoming traffic. It was both frightening and horrible to watch. Frightenible.


Our tips if you REALLY want road shots:

  • Do them early in the morning or late in the evening when traffic has slowed down (noting early in the morning means lots of people are driving in, and similarly late in the evening means lots of people are driving out – so be actively watching the traffic these ways). When we say early morning and evening we mean roughly 30 minutes after sunrise and 30 minutes before sunset. The light is also much nicer at this time of the day as it’s not as harsh.

  • Do them on a gravel road off the main roads. Our favourite was near the Eglinton Valley Viewpoint (about 50 minutes from Te Anau).

  • Pull over in a proper pull off. And remember, all the one way bridges on the road give way to the incoming traffic (the traffic driving into Milford – not out).

How did we safely take our road shots? I ended up hopping out of Vinnie and waiting at a pull off while James drove up and down. We weren’t willing to risk walking along the road for “the shot” so we took similar pictures in a clearing (Eglinton Valley). We also have super cool walkie talkies so I could tell James if the road was clear.



4. Lake Marian

A pretty low effort/high rewards walk in our opinion – leading you to an absolutely picturesque alpine lake. The walks begins along a lovely little swing bridge (great photo opportunities!), and over some pretty boardwalks where you can admire the falls/rapids. After that, it gets a bit more ‘uphill’, rocky and muddy - it took us about an hour and a half to reach the top (the lake). As we left late in the day (around 6pm-ish) we took a pack of tomato soup with us and LOVED just sitting up there, reading our books with a hot soup in hand and admiring the incredible reflection in front of us.


So what would we recommend? We would suggest doing this walk late in the evening, and if the sky is cloudy, staying until sunset. (This was our initial plan but we ended up walking back down earlier as all the clouds we had eagerly been watching slowly disappeared). We thought the water became much more vibrant and stiller as the evening went on. Second mum warning now - if you are going to do this walk in the evening, you will certainly need a head torch. We had read online that the track can be a little tricky to find in sections, but we only found two spots where this was the case. Both times where this happened we stopped, took our time, did a full 360 spin around and within seconds had found the orange markers pointing us in the right direction. Just take your time and you will be fine.


Lastly, as Lake Marian is an alpine lake, the earlier in the year you go, the less water there will be. We had previously seen photos of Lake Marian and noticed a few awesome rocks to jump/dive off, but when we visited (late Jan), they were completely submerged. Nothing major – but handy to know.


5. Morning boat cruise

James and I popped into the Visitor Centre at 8am on the dot (when it opened) to enquire about the daily cruises and make a booking. In doing so, we discovered the 9am cruise was $46 each (1.5 hours) whereas the same cruise at 11am was $71 and $96 at 1:30pm. They clearly expect lots of people to come to Milford for a day trip, and hike up the prices accordingly.


We chose to do the 9am cruise (saving our money for Ferg Burger) and would say it was only about 1/3 full. It was the opposite of a bull inside a china shop. At some stages, James and I were the only ones on the whole floor!! The cruise itself was beautiful, but to us, felt more like one of those things you ‘just had to do’. Definitely no regrets, but I have realised the two of us place more value and enjoyment on the quiet sunrises we have together. And those are completely free (aside from the $12.95 you will spend on insect repellent).


Aside from saving your pennies, the 9am cruise will also give you the best light for taking photos (a double win really… just like when your birthday falls on a weekend day).



WHERE TO CAMP?

There is one campground in all of Milford Sound (the Milford Sound Lodge). It is $30 per person, per night – power included. While it is expensive as you only get a very very small gravel patch (we couldn’t open Vinnie’s driver door without walking into the next site), it’s worth it to do sunrise at the foreshore. The showers are awesome too. Probably what inspired Pharell’s song happy. You will need to book the campground BEFORE you come though. We managed to just pip the last site and this was only because we were smaller than the regular campervans.


DOC also have about eight or so campsites on the way into Milford Sound – however these are all quite close to the Te Anau side with Cascade Creek being the closest to Milford Sound. They all cost $13 per person (adult) and have drop toilets. They are a great cheaper option, and we thought Cascade Creek was pretty lovely.


OUR SUGGESTED ITINERARY (ONE NIGHT/TWO DAYS)

Before you leave:

  • Book a site at the Milford Sound Lodge.

  • Fill your car with petrol.

  • Buy all the mosquito repellent money can buy.

  • Book your cruise for day two – departing at 9am.

Day One

  • Leave Queenstown/Te Anau early in the morning and drive into Milford. If you are coming from Queenstown, we would recommend doing more of your stops the following day (as you will have more time) whereas if you’re coming from Te Anau, we recommend you take your time, and stop at the various spots along the way (try and have lunch at one!). Some of our favourite stops were the Reflection Lakes, Eglinton Valley and Lake Gunn Lookout.

  • Walk up to Lake Marian (allowing approximately three hours for the return trip and photos);

  • Drive to the Chasm and visit the glorious blue pool in the early afternoon (keep at least an hour free for this);

  • Continue on to Milford Sound Lodge and check in – get settled/have a shower/eat dinner etc.

  • Drive to the foreshore (5 mins from the Lodge) and watch the sun go down. Make sure you LATHER yourself in insect repellent.

Day two

  • Wake up early and watch a beautiful, quiet sunrise at the foreshore. Don’t forget to lather in insect repellent again!

  • Depending on when the sun rises, you might have time to return to the campground and have a glorious hot shower and some brekkie. If not, pack everything up in the dark – it will be worth it for the sunrise at the foreshore.

  • Make sure you’re at the Milford Sound carpark at about 8:20am as you will need to be at the ferry terminal at 8:40ish (it’s roughly a ten minute walk there from the car park).

  • Cruise along Milford Sound from 9am-10:30am. Pack a poncho if you want to get sprayed!!

  • At 11am-ish, begin your drive back from Milford Sound, and take your time. Stop at any of the spots you may have missed on day one!

BEFORE YOU GO:

  • Check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Milford Sound receives 600cm of rain each year (and it rains for approx. 186 days) – the positive – more beautiful waterfalls tumbling down the mountains. The negative – the rain can make the crystal clear water appear more brown/green than blue.

  • Book the campground in advance.

  • There is no free Wi-Fi or reception at Milford Sound but you can make an emergency phone call (or sell your body parts if you wish and pay for Wi-Fi).

  • Book the early morning cruise – you will have much more space and save yourself almost half the price. If you can, book it from Te Anau or Queenstown so you don’t have to be at the Visitor Centre at 8am on the dot!

  • Purchase LOTS of mosquito repellent. Think about how much you will need and then double it.

  • Fill your car with petrol!

FACTS:

  • Milford Sound is actually not a Sound but a Fiord. This has been something that has confused me for several years and I’m happy to (finally) announce I understand the difference, as basic as it seems. A Fiord is a valley carved by glaciers, and a Sound is a valley carved by lakes.

  • Captain Cook missed Milford Sound/Fiord (don’t know what to call it now) on his exploration due to the mountains overlapping! I don’t know why but I find this fact so reassuring, like me mucking up that spreadsheet at work is all good now cause Ol’ Mate Cap’n Cook missed Milford? Potatoes Potatoes.

  • It’s home to two permanent waterfalls – Stirling Falls and Bowen Falls. Bowen Falls provides all the power (hydro) and fresh water to Milford Sound.

  • Over the summer, 300 workers reside in Milford Sound.

We hope you found this helpful! Let us know what you think of Milford Sound, or better yet, the beautiful blue pool.


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