The Ultimate Guide to Milford Sound in New Zealand


New Zealand has been at the top of Mallory’s bucket list since before we were married.  Due to the expense of a New Zealand trip and the amount of time we would want to stay there, the trip has been placed on the back burner for now, giving way to the cheaper and easier trips to Europe and Asia.  But, that doesn’t mean we don’t still plan for the trip all the time.  One of the big stops we are planning for our New Zealand road trip is the Milford Sound.  Since we can’t share our future experience with you, I enlisted the help of Alicia Rogers-Sanchez aka The Day Job Traveller to share her experience.

Fiordland National park

Milford Sound lies deep inside New Zealand’s most popular and impressive natural attraction, Fiordland National Park.   Fiordland National Park lies in the southwest portion of New Zealand’s South Island.  The park is part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage site of Te Wahipounamu.  Milford Sound is considered the crown jewel of Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a 16 km (9.94 mi) fjord that leads into the Tasman Sea.

Milford Sound is known for its huge mountain peaks, waterfalls, deep and dark waters and tree-covered cliffs.  Despite Milford Sound’s remote location, surrounded by unspoiled steep cliffs and rain forests, it is the only fjord (Milford Sound is not actually a sound, but a fjord) in New Zealand that is accessible by road.

While you can travel there by road, most visitors join a day tour to explore the sound. Most of the tours include some kind of cruise of Milford Sound, but you can also book a tour that includes other activities such as kayaking, scuba diving walking, fishing or a scenic flight.

Alicia booked a group kayak tour, as you can see in the image above.  She says she loved the kayak tour because it allowed her to get up close and personal with sea lions.  It also helped her get amazing views of waterfalls like Bowen Falls.  She says another highlight of the kayak tour was stopping for lunch on a beach overlooking the last glacier in Milford Sound.

Milford Sound Lodge

You can also stay overnight at the lodge if you choose.  Due to its UNESCO designation, free camping is forbidden at Milford Sound, so the Lodge is the only real accommodation available to stay overnight.  Luckily, the lodge has a range of different options to hopefully suit whatever kind of budget you may be working with.

Alicia really enjoyed her stay at the lodge.  She says it is “a beautiful lodge located right at the gate of Milford Sound (with) stunning mountain and river views located right outside your door.”

I said the lodge was the only real accommodation for overnight stay in Milford Sound, but there are two less traditional options as well.  First, you can stay overnight on the water by booking an overnight cruise.  Second, there are huts located along the Milford Track that can be booked for visitors walking the Milford Track.

The Weather

Alicia warns that it warns a lot at Milford Sound.  In fact, she reports they measure the rainfall at Milford Sound in meters rather than millimeters.  Understandable since it rains 6,813 mm there each year. Unsurprisingly, Alicia experienced some rainy days in Milford Sound.

In most places I have traveled, I have been able to avoid the rainy season by visiting in summer.  That isn’t going to help you here as Milford Sound’s rainiest months are actually December and January, the peak of the New Zealand summer.

milford sound lodge rain

So, don’t plan a trip trying to avoid the weather and just plan for and embrace it instead.  There is plenty you can see and experience in the rain at Milford Sound.  Of particular note, the waterfalls are said to become even more impressive during a rain storm as water thunders down the cliff faces into the sea or, even more impressively, get carried away into mist before hitting the sea after a long fall.

In addition to great rain gear, you are going to want to bring some warm layers regardless of the season.  Average temperatures range from 18 degrees Celsius ( 64 degrees F to us Americans) in the summer down to 4 degrees Celcius (41 degrees F) in the winter.

It is also common to get snow along the road and in the mountains during winter.  While this creates beautiful mountain peaks, it can also cause avalanche warnings that close the road.  As such, make sure to check the road information before you start along the road to Milford Sound.

Wildlife

The unique landscape of Milford sound, including lush rain forests, steep cliffs, a top layer of fresh water and lower levels of salt water.

The most common wildlife to be seen at Milford Sound are birds, seals and dolphins, but there are a number of unique species of animals and plants that can only be found in this region due to its remote location and unique weather.

The wildlife at Milford Sound is most active during the cooler months of Spring and Fall.

Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins are the most commonly seen dolphins in Milford Sound as there are more than sixty such dolphins living in the area.  In addition to Bottlenose Dolphins, lucky visitors may see the smaller Dusky Dolphins or even a whale.

Seals

New Zealand fur seals are seen year round in Milford Sound.  The seals like to hang out at Seal Point where the gentle-sloping rocks can more easily be climbed by the seals.  These protected species have made a great comeback after nearly being hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century.

Penguins

I don’t know if Mallory realized there are Penguins at Milford Sound yet or I don’t know how long I will be able to stop her from visiting!

There is a good chance any visitor to Milford Sound will spot a Fiordland Crested Penguin and/or the Little Blue Penguin.  The Little Blue Penguins are a common species, but the Fiordland Crested Penguin is an endangered species only living here and Stewart Island.

Other Birds

Fiordland National Park is home to the very rare Blue Duck, called whio by the locals.  They can be found along the fast-flowing rivers in the Eglinton Valley and Monkey Creek.

Other endangered birds that can be found at Milford Sound are the Takahe and Kakapo.  You can also find the unique Mohua (yellowhead) and Kea (pictured below) in Milford Sound.

Finally, you can expect to see plenty of seabirds like cormorants, Sooty Shearwaters and gulls flying over the waters of Milford Sound.

kea birds in milford sound

History of Milford Sound

According to smart people, the cliffs and mountains of Milford Sound were once part of a huge mountain rage on the megacontinent of Gondwanaland over 600 million years ago.  Over time, those mountains were reshaped into the Milford Sound by erosion (glacial movement) and the movement of tectonic plates.

While early European visitors incorrectly named Milford Sound (it’s a fjord, not a sound), it was first discovered by the native Maori people more than 1,000 years ago.  The Maori tribes would travel to Milford Sound to fish and hunt, and to collect the precious pounamu, a type of green jade stone.

According to Maori legend, Milford Sound (called “Piopiotahi”) was formed by the godly Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who carved the rock walls with his toki while chanting a powerful prayer.  Legend also says a piopio (an extinct native bird) flew to Milford Sound in mourning after the legendary hero Maui died trying to win immortality for his people.

Recommended Stops on Your way to Milford Sound

Eglington Valley

The Eglington Valley is located at the entrance to Fiordland National Park.  Alicia said it a great viewpoint as it is beautiful flat land that leads to the great peaks surrounding Milford Sound.

Falls Creek Waterfall

Alicia recommends definitely stopping at the small bridge by the waterfall.  Alicia says it is quite incredible to take in the towering mountains on one side of you and the raging Falls Creek Waterfall on the opposite side.

Monkey Creek

Alicia says Monkey Creek (pictured below) great place to pull over and take in the surround valley.  Another highlight of this stop is the Kea birds, which are the world’s only alpine parrots.  Alicia says the Kea birds hang around the parking area hear and will come up close for a visit as they are used to people.

The Chasm

The Chasm is a waterfall that falls deep into a carved rock below a bridge.  You can reach it by a short walk through the rain forest.

About Alicia

Alicia Rogers-Sanchez is known as The Day Job Traveller, @thedayjobtraveller, on Instagram and Facebook. Alicia is a full-time Graphic Designer who loves travel, capturing nature and sharing travel tips she learns along the way to help others make their travel experiences more enjoyable.
She says her love of travel began in Alberta, Canada seeing the Rocky Mountain range by helicopter. After that experience, she was hooked on the world’s natural wonders and the rush she got from witnessing it all with my own eyes.
Alicia aims to capture images of travel that wander off the tourist path onto a dirt path discovering what the local landscape is really like. Adventure, nature and relaxation complete her perfect travel picture. With only a few weeks vacation a year, it’s all about the balance between exciting travel experiences and the comfort of home living.
Alicia captures her awesome images with a combination of cameras including the iPhone 7, the Canon Rebel SL1 and the Go Pro Hero.  She edits her images in Photoshop CC and Adobe Lightroom CC.

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