Milford Sound Backpackers‘ Guide
Is it worth going to Milford Sound?
This is a big question that many backpackers and tourists to New Zealand find themselves faced with on their trip to the South Island.
Despite that fact that Milford Sound looks very close by on a map it is, in fact, one of the more remote places to get to in New Zealand and requires at least a full day to get there and back and at least an overnight trip to properly enjoy the area.
The other thing that puts people off is the cost. Because Milford Sound has firmly established itself as a major attraction for all kind of tourists the prices are at a premium both for transport and cruises in the sounds. This can mean that people travelling to Milford Sound on a budget need to consider their options carefully and decide if it’s worth it to them.
The short answer is yes in my opinion but only provided you have the time and budget. If you’re trying to see the whole country in a few short weeks then Milford Sound might be too far out of the way and there are plenty of other spectacular places to see in New Zealand.
But if you’re a bit more flexible with time or have your own vehicle then this is a truly breathtaking place to see and the road that leads there is one of New Zealand’s most scenic.
Things to know about Milford Sound
A sound is an ocean inlet flanked by sheer rock facades and mountains. Sounds are formed when river valleys are flooded by the sea because Milford sound is carved out by an erosion of glacier ice it is actually a fiord. This is one of the most popular natural attractions in the world and has been named the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling.
Milford Sound offers some incredible diving opportunities with great visibility and the chance to see dolphins, sharks, octopus and whales up close.
Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in New Zealand so make sure you take waterproof gear even if the weather is clear when you set off. But don’t stress too much about planning your trip for a clear day, the immense cliffs look enchanting as the mist rolls through and the waterfalls put on their best display after (or during) a good downpour.
There’s no cellphone signal along the road and at the sound. Make sure you plan ahead and have things like directions, bookings and contact downloaded.
There are no petrol stations along the Milford Road. There is one very expensive one in Milford itself so if you are driving make sure you fill up in Te Anau.
The road is sometimes closed outside of the summer season due to weather, check the DoC website for up to date road conditions when you travel in the offseason.
How to get to Milford Sound
Drive times to Milford Sound: 4 hours from Queenstown, 2.5 hours from Te Anau
Milford Sound is located at the end of a 118 km stretch of road leading from Te Anau to the coast in Fiordland. The only way is to drive the same route down and back so make sure to factor this into your travel plans.
There are a variety of ways to get to Milford Sound depending on where you're leaving from but by far the best way is with your own transport. Taking self-drive to Milford Sound option means you’ll be able to go at your own pace and stop off at things along the way. It also allows you to avoid the crowds by going at non-peak times.
The most popular transport option is a day tour which will take you from either Te Anau or Queenstown in a bus, often with a glass roof for the best views. These tend to run at the same time each day and may sell out in the summer months. Trips from Queenstown leave around 7:30 am in order to have enough time to make it to Milford Sound for a cruise and drive back again.
Hitchhiking to Milford Sound is also a very feasible option in the peak season. Many people self-drive the long road to the sounds so standing near the outskirts of Te Anau at the start of the day should have you picked up reasonably quickly. As always with hitchhiking, be cautious and use common sense. It’s a good idea to hitchhike with another person than alone.
Accommodation in Milford Sound
Bad news, there is no Milford Sound backpackers’ acommodation such as dorms. There is very little accommodation at the end of the road in Milford ‘town’ and there is nothing there in terms of shops or restaurants. If you’re travelling to Milford Sound on a budget then you’re best to head back out to stay the night. If you do decide to stay and take an early morning cruise or see the area without other tourists then you basically just have one option:
Milford Sound Lodge - luxury cabin options or campervan park spots from $70 per person per night.
If you’re looking for a splash-out or a once in a lifetime experience, you can book a luxurious overnight cruise to stay on the water at Milford Sound.
If you’re on a budget your best bet is to stay in Te Anau the night before and after and either take your own transport or arrange a day tour. Te Anau has several campgrounds and holiday parks as well as budget to luxury accommodation options.
If you have your own campervan or tent try Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park.
Affordable but nice dorms and backpacker vibes head to Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers.
Something a bit nicer if your a luxury backpacker or prefer to stay in hotels: Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments
The other excellent option if you have a tent or campervan is to stay at the Department of Conservation (DoC) campgrounds along the Milford Road. There are several campsites along this road and it’s a great way to give yourself a head start on the tour buses, stay in a stunningly scenic spot and save a few dollars at the same time.
The Cascade Creek Campsite is the last one along the road and therefore the closest to Milford Sound. The campground costs $15 a night per person which is placed in a box in an envelope with your number plate. This is regularly checked in the summer season and often the campgrounds fill up so get in early. Check here for other campground locations along the Milford Road.
Ways to See Milford Sound
Coach and Cruise Package
If you book a day tour to Milford Sound your package will include your transport to and from Te Anau or Queenstown as well as your boat cruise through the sound. Various packages include tea/coffee and food but this isn’t of a very high standard and isn’t worth choosing a package for.
You will be taken by bus along the Milford Road, usually with a couple of stops for sightseeing and then to your cruise. Note that you will likely be on the busiest cruises as all the tour buses converge at around the same time in order to be able to start the long drive back to Queenstown.
Self Drive + Cruise
If you drive yourself down the only thing you will need to book is your cruise ticket. This can easily be done online and there are often deals on websites such as Backpackerdeals. The cruise route is fairly similar for all cruises so the only real difference is the cost and size of the boat.
Best Cruises in Milford Sound
Smaller boat – If you are wanting a more intimate experience and don’t like crowds then you may want to pay a bit extra to take the Mitre Peak cruise which offers much smaller boats and a more detailed explanation of the surroundings.
Bit of Luxury – If you’re feeling like a real splash out have a look a the overnight cruise offered by Real Journeys which anchors in the sound for the night allowing you to experience the serenity of Milford Sound with no one else around.
If you’re the adventurous type then heading out for a kayaking tour is a really special way to see the sounds and gives you a whole different perspective on the immense cliffs and waterfall surrounding you. A kayaking guide will take you out with a small group and will give you loads of interesting information as well as showing some of the quieter areas of the sounds where the cruises can’t get to. Friends of ours worked for Roscoes Kayaks and we heard lots of great things about what the tours included.
Things to see along the way
If you’re picturing a long, boring drive to get to Milford Sound then think again. This is one of the most beautiful roads in the country and there are plenty of things to stop and do along the way.
So make sure you factor in time to stop on the way there or back to enjoy some of the beauty of the surrounding area and maybe even do a hike or two. Here are our top stops along the drive to Milford Sound.
Try getting there early as this is a favourite stop of the tour buses but on a clear day it’s worth a look. The short walkway takes you past a lake so still, it appears like glass giving a crystal clear reflection of the mountains in the distance. It’s a stunning view and a great photo stop but you won’t need to spend more than about 10 minutes here.
Lake Marian Hike
If you’ve left yourself time for a short day hike along the way, we thoroughly recommend the hike to Lake Marian. It takes about an hour of up hill-climbing, often over rocks and tree roots, to reach the pristine alpine lake. Even on a cloudy day, it’s a beautiful spot to sit and re-energise after the walk-up. But on a clear day, the lake looks incredible and reflects the epic valley beyond. Allow 2-3 hours return for this hike. Or if you don’t have the time to stop off to see the falls which are 10 minutes into the track.
Another quick but totally worthwhile stop is the mighty chasm. This insanely powerful waterfall has made its way through the rock creating incredible curves and holes over many years. The walkway has been made so you walk about the waterfall and alongside it to get a look at the amazing patterns and be deafened by the thundering water.
The drive along Milford Road is one of the best spots in the country to spot one of New Zealand’s endangered native birds, the only alpine parrot in the world – the cheeky Kea. These gorgeous little critters are very curious and hang out at high altitudes, often near the tunnel about 18 km before Milford Sound. They are notorious for causing trouble by ripping off parts of cars and stealing food. They are comfortable hanging around people but be careful when getting close and never feed them!