The Milford Sound (also called Piopiotahi), one of New Zealand’s most popular sights, is located just a few hours away from Queenstown and Te Anau on the South Island.
In 2008, the Milford Sound took the #1 spot on TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice World Destinations. And nearby Queenstown took second place. That just goes to show how popular (and touristy) the Milford Sound is.
We have visited the Milford Sound twice on two different trips to New Zealand. In this guide, we let you know how to plan your Milford Sound day trip from Te Anau and Queenstown, with lots of helpful tips so you can have the best experience.
Table of Contents
What is the Milford Sound?
The Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction.
This fiord is located on the South Island, in Fiordland National Park. It’s famous for being one of the most beautiful places in the world and Rudyard Kipling called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Over many millennia, the Milford Sound was slowly carved out by glaciers. It is roughly 15 km long and 2 km wide.
The village of Milford Sound, which sits next to the fiord, is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. On a visit to the Milford Sound, there’s a good chance you will have cloudy skies and maybe some rain. If it is a sunny day, consider yourself very lucky.
On a cruise of the fiord, keep an eye out for seals, bottlenose dolphins, penguins, humpback whales, and southern right whales, which can be spotted in Milford Sound.
How Do You Get to Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is accessible by car, tour bus, and airplane.
State Highway 94 runs from Milford Sound to Te Anau and then continues to Lumsden.
Most people visit the Milford Sound by car or tour bus, taking this winding, scenic road. Along this drive, there are numerous overlooks, walking paths, and viewpoints to help break up the drive. We’ll get to these later in this guide.
If you are planning a Milford Sound day trip, the best place to stay is Te Anau, which is about 2 hours from the Milford Sound. Many people also day trip to the Milford Sound from Queenstown, but with a 4-hour drive one way, this makes for a very long day.
State Highway 94 | Milford Sound Day Trip
Milford Sound Day Trip
Milford Sound Day Trip from Te Anau
Te Anau is the best place to stay for a Milford Sound day trip.
Staying in Te Anau allows for a leisurely two-hour drive to the fiord with plenty of time for ooohs and aaahs at the various scenic points, more time to explore Milford Sound, and even time enough for a fairly strenuous hike on the way back to Te Anau.
The very small town of Te Anau is located two hours south of Queenstown and is also just two hours away from the Milford Sound. This splits the distance between the two destinations, making for much more enjoyable time touring this area.
Milford Sound Day Trip from Te Anau Itinerary
From Te Anau, a day trip to the Milford Sound will look something like this:
8:00 am: Drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound
11:00 am: Milford Sound cruise (these last 1.5 to 3 hours)
2:00 pm: Drive to The Divide
2:45 pm: Key Summit Hike (optional)
5:45 pm: Drive to Te Anau
7:00 pm: Dinner in Te Anau
On a day trip from Te Anau, you have plenty of time to do a longer cruise of Milford Sound and/or add on the hike to Key Summit. We liked the Key Summit hike more than the cruise of the Milford Sound so it’s worth adding on to the day, if you like hiking.
Tips for Staying in Te Anau
Plan to spend at least one night in Te Anau. This allows you to get an early start to drive to the Milford Sound. After visiting the Milford Sound, you can either return to Te Anau and spend another night here or continue to Queenstown. Continuing to Queenstown after Te Anau will add another 2 hours of driving on to the day.
Te Anau is also the gateway town for cruising on Doubtful Sound, a larger, more remote fiord in Fiordland National Park. In Te Anau, you can also see glowworms at the Te Anau Glowworm Caves and enjoy the view from the Te Anau Lions Lookout Point.
On our most recent visit, we stayed at Annies on Milford and had a great experience. Kepler Oaks Chalet, Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments, and Boutique Tiny House all get rave reviews. If you are traveling on a budget, check out Bob & Maxines Backpackers.
We had several great dinners at Redcliff Restaurant & Bar, but Sandfly Café, Ditto, and the MacKinnon Room are restaurants that get good reviews.
Driving from Te Anau to the Milford Sound
Milford Sound Day Trip from Queenstown
Even though it is much farther away than Te Anau, many people day trip to the Milford Sound from Queenstown.
Board a bus for a 4-hour scenic road trip, arrive in the Milford Sound, board a boat for a two hour cruise, and then repeat the same 4-hour ride to get back to Queenstown. Yes, it is doable, but it makes for a very long day (about 12 to 13 hours).
You can either do this drive on your own or take one of several tours that leave from Queenstown. A big advantage of taking the tour is that you can sit back and enjoy the ride and not have to spend 8 hours behind the wheel of a car. This tour is one of the highest rated from Queenstown and this tour is offered by RealNZ.
If you want to take a smaller group tour, take a look at this premium small group tour.
Milford Sound Day Trip from Queenstown Itinerary
From Queenstown, a day trip to the Milford Sound will look something like this:
7:00 am: Drive/tour bus to the Milford Sound
1:00 pm: Milford Sound cruise
3:30 pm: Drive/tour bus to Queenstown
7:45 pm: Arrive in Queenstown
Milford Sound Day Trip from Queenstown by Airplane
Another way to visit the Milford Sound from Queenstown is by taking a flightseeing tour with the option to land at the Milford Sound and then cruise on the fiord. This is a gorgeous way to travel to the Milford Sound, as you soar over the Southern Alps and can see Milford Sound from the sky.
This 5-hour tour includes your flight to and from Queenstown plus a cruise on the Milford Sound.
Tips for Staying in Queenstown
If you plan to take a tour to the Milford Sound, make your reservation at least several days in advance, because these can sell out.
For a list of things to do, where to eat, and where to stay, take a look at our Guide to Queenstown.
Mirror Lakes, one of the optional stops on the drive to the Milford Sound
Driving to the Milford Sound: Things to See & Do
The drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound is 120 km (74 miles) long and takes about 2 hours. With stops, plan on 3 hours for the drive to the Milford Sound.
There is a long list of places to visit on the drive between Te Anau and the Milford Sound, and some are better than others. I’ve done this drive twice so far and here are the places that stand out the most.
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest and the driving route. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Te Anau Downs
State Highway 94 runs along Lake Te Anau until it reachs Te Anau Downs. This is a lovely drive. At Te Anau Downs, near the Fiordland National Park Lodge, there is a short walking track here called the Lake Mistletoe Walking Track. I recommend saving that walk for the return drive to Te Anau, to save time and energy for other viewpoints and the Key Summit hike. If you continue farther down the road, next to the boat launch is a viewpoint of Lake Te Anau.
Te Anau Downs | Milford Sound Day Trip
Past Te Anau Downs, the road leaves Lake Te Anau and heads into Eglinton Valley. At this point, you are driving along Eglinton River and occasionally have nice views of the wide open valley.
Eglinton River | Milford Sound Day Trip
Mirror Lakes is one of the top places to visit on the drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound. It’s best to do this first thing in the morning, because it gets busy here mid-morning, when more day trippers start rolling in.
From the parking area, it is a 3-minute walk on boardwalk trails to several viewpoints of Mirror Lakes.
Mirror Lakes | Milford Sound Day Trip
This is an optional stop. You’ll see Lake Gunn from the road as you drive past it, but if you want to get out for a photo, there are several turn outs along the lake.
Lake Gunn | Milford Sound Day Trip
The Divide/Key Summit Hike/Routeburn Track
The Divide is a large car park and the location of the trailhead for the Routeburn Track and Key Summit Hike. The Key Summit Hike is a 3-hour hike that we highly recommend, if you like hiking and are visiting the Milford Sound on a day trip from Te Anau. Save this hike for the return drive to Te Anau.
We cover the Key Summit hike later in this guide (or skip ahead now).
Key Summit | Milford Sound Day Trip
Pops View Lookout
On a cloudy, rainy day, it’s not worth stopping at this viewpoint. But if skies are relatively clear, you get a nice view of Fiordland National Park from this spot. There is a small car park here and this stop takes just a few minutes of your time.
Pops View Lookout | Milford Sound Day Trip
Lake Marian Track
Just beyond Pops View Lookout, turn right on Lower Hollyford Road to get to the car park for the Lake Marian Track. The Lake Marian Track is a 6 km, strenuous hike that takes 3 hours. The trail takes you to Lake Marian, a beautiful lake that is surrounded by mountains.
At this small car park, you can safely get out of your car and take photos of the valley. It’s a nice view but not an absolute “must” to stop at this spot.
Monkey Creek | Milford Sound Day Trip
Gertrude Valley Lookout
Just before you get to the Homer Tunnel, you have the option to stop at the Gertrude Valley Lookout. From the parking lot, you can walk a short distance for a viewpoint of Gertrude Valley. From this car park, you can also walk out to the Gertrude Saddle, a 9 km challenging out-and-back hike that takes you to a spectacular viewpoint of the valley.
Gertrude Valley | Milford Sound Day Trip
The Homer Tunnel is a 1.2 km (0.75 miles) long tunnel that was built in 1953. In the summer months, it is a one-way tunnel, so there is a traffic light directing drivers. When you arrive at the tunnel, the light could be red for approximately 15 minutes, so budget extra time for the drive.
Once inside the tunnel, it is dark and narrow. The tunnel is wide enough for two way traffic, but during the busy summer months, traffic is one-way for safety reasons.
Homer Tunnel | Milford Sound Day Trip
Milford Valley Lookout
Once you emerge from Homer Tunnel, you will start down a series of switchbacks. On the second switchback, at the Milford Valley Lookout, there is a small turnout where you can safely stop and take a photo.
Milford Valley Lookout | Milford Sound Day Trip
This is one of the best places to visit on the drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound. The Chasm is a gorge that was carved out by the Cleddau River. To get here, it is 400-meter one-way walk through a native rainforest. A visit here lasts about 30 minutes.
Currently, the Chasm Walk is being rebuilt after suffering from storm damage. Get updates on the status here.
The Chasm | Milford Sound Day Trip
At this quick stop, you can park next to the Tutoko Bridge and walk out to a viewpoint of the Tutoko River.
Tutoko River | Milford Sound Day Trip
Planning Your Time
If you only visit the quick viewpoints (Te Anau Downs, Mirror Lakes, Pops View, Monkey Creek, and Milford Valley Lookout), the drive from Te Anau will take about 3 hours. If you want to visit The Chasm on the drive to the Milford Sound, add another 30 minutes.
If you like the idea of hiking Key Summit or Lake Marian, do these on the return drive to Te Anau, after the Milford Sound cruise.
Things to Do at Milford Sound
The Milford Sound Cruise
Cruises on the Milford Sound last 1.5 to 3 hours. Since there are several options, we get to this in a separate section below.
Milford Foreshore Walk
This short, easy walking trail starts next to the public parking lot at Milford Sound and takes you out to Milford Sound Lookout, for one of the best views of the Milford Sound. This walk takes about 20 minutes and is nice to do if you get to Milford Sound early and have some extra time before your cruise.
Along this walk, you can detour out to the Milford Swing.
Milford Foreshore Walk | Milford Sound Day Trip
Milford Sound Lookout | Milford Sound Day Trip
Services at Milford Sound
In the Milford Sound village, there is a large public parking lot (there is a small fee to park here), a gas station, an information center, a small airport, a few cafes, and some hotels (the Milford Sound Lodge and Mitre Peak Lodge).
A view of the wharf (where Milford Sound cruises begin) and Milford Sound / Piopiotahi.
The Milford Sound Cruise
How to Choose a Cruise
Cruises of the Milford Sound last 1.5 to 3 hours. All cruises go the full length of the fiord.
Southern Discoveries offers cruises that include the Underwater Observatory. From this observatory, you will descend 10 meters below sea level to gaze at fish and other wildlife in the fiord. It is located in Harrison Cove and only accessible by boat.
Cruises are offered throughout the day. When picking a cruise time, consider your starting point and how long it will take you to get to the Milford Sound.
When we cruised the Milford Sound, we left Te Anau at 8 am and booked an 11:15 am cruise with Jucy. We picked Jucy because they had the cheapest price on the day we did this. All of the cruises see the same things in the Milford Sound, so what you are choosing is group size and amenities on the boats. You also have to decide if you want to spend the extra time at the underwater observatory.
On the Jucy Boat
Milford Sound Cruise Options
This 3-hour cruise by Southern Discoveries includes a visit to the Underwater Observatory.
Southern Discoveries also has an experience where you can cruise the Milford Sound and go kayaking on the fiord. It’s a great option for those who want to be more active.
RealNZ is a popular tour operator throughout New Zealand. They offer a 2-hour cruise of the Milford Sound that gets excellent reviews.
Mitre Peak Cruises offers a 2-hour cruise on the Milford Sound on a small boat, making this a good option for those who want to cruise with a smaller crowd. This Boutique Cruise is another great option for those who want to cruise the Milford Sound on a smaller boat.
We cruised the Milford Sound with Jucy Cruise and had a fantastic experience.
What to Expect on a Milford Sound Cruise
All cruises start at the wharf in the Milford Sound village. The standard cruise lasts 1.5 hours and makes a loop in the Milford Sound.
On the cruise, you will see Mitre Peak, Bridal Veil Falls, the Tasman Sea, Seal Rock, Stirling Falls, Harrison Cove, and Bowen Falls. Some cruises include the Underwater Observatory at Harrison Cove.
Milford Sound | Milford Sound Day Trip
Bowen Falls and Milford Sound
On the day we cruised the Milford Sound, we had cloudy skies, not an uncommon occurrence here.
We thought the Milford Sound was beautiful and definitely worthwhile to see, but it did not live up the hype. As we cruised along a fiord, we had spectacular views of the tall mountains on either side of us, waterfalls, native plant life, some seals, and a quick look at the Tasman Sea, but it was not as amazing as we were expecting.
With that being said, it’s still worth it to visit the Milford Sound, but I think there are plenty of other places in New Zealand that are just as (or even more so) beautiful as the Milford Sound.
Key Summit Hike
This is a great thing to do on the drive between the Milford Sound and Te Anau. If you are day tripping to the Milford Sound from Queenstown, this hike is probably too long to also add on to the day.
The Key Summit Hike is a 3-hour hike that takes you high into the mountains for extraordinary views of Fiordland National Park.
This 7 km (4.3 mile) hike is rated as easy. We did this on our first visit to New Zealand when Tyler and Kara were 12 and 10 and we all agree that we liked this hike more than the cruise on the Milford Sound.
The hike starts at The Divide, which is located on State Highway 94. This is the same starting point for the world famous Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike that takes trampers through some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery.
The first portion of the trail travels through New Zealand’s temperate rainforest. The trail then climbs into the mountains, enters alpine scenery, and from here the views of the mountains are extraordinary.
If you are looking for a short hike to get panoramic views of this part of New Zealand, this hike is unbeatable.
Key Summit Trail | Milford Sound Day Trip
View from the Key Summit hike
At Key Summit
Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
If you only have the time for one, which is better, the Milford Sound or the Doubtful Sound?
We did both and here is what we think.
The Milford Sound is easier to get to (you can drive here in two hours from Te Anau and there are a lot of tour options from Te Anau and Queenstown). Cruises last an hour and a half to three hours. The scenery is more dramatic, with steeper mountains and waterfalls (we didn’t really notice a difference in mountain height when we did these). And since the Milford Sound is so popular, the marketing makes you think that this is something you must do on a visit to New Zealand.
The Doubtful Sound is larger and more remote than the Milford Sound. You have to commit a full day to the Doubtful Sound, because of its remote location. But that remoteness and the fact that less people visit Doubtful Sound is a big plus for some people.
Tim and I have different opinions. Tim liked Doubtful Sound more. He liked that it was more remote, less visited, and he loved cruising the smaller arms off of the fiord, an experience you don’t get at the Milford Sound.
I preferred the Milford Sound over Doubtful Sound. It’s a shorter cruise and a shorter day trip (a big advantage if you are traveling with kids). On the drive to and from the Milford Sound, there are viewpoints and short hiking trails where you can get out and stretch your legs, so you have the opportunity for a more active day.
If a full day of travel by boat and bus doesn’t deter you, and you like the idea of visiting one of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful places, put Doubtful Sound on your list. But if you want a shorter day, a shorter cruise, are traveling with kids, are day tripping from Queenstown, or want to see what the famous Milford Sound is all about, then schedule a cruise on the Milford Sound.
Best Tours of the Milford Sound
If you have your own transportation to the Milford Sound, this tour includes both a cruise and a kayaking excursion on the fiord, plus a visit to the Underwater Observatory.
If you are staying in Te Anau and plan to visit the Milford Sound on a tour, this tour includes a visit to the Underwater Observatory.
From Queenstown, this coach and cruise full day trip gets excellent reviews.
If you prefer a smaller group tour from Queenstown, this tour is a great option to consider.
And finally, if you prefer to combine a scenic flight with a Milford Sound cruise, this tour from Queenstown looks amazing.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you drive to the Milford Sound?
Yes, you can drive to the Milford Sound. State Highway 94 connects the Milford Sound with Te Anau. Along this drive are numerous viewpoints and opportunities to get out and stretch your legs.
How long does it take to visit the Milford Sound?
Cruises on the Milford Sound last 1.5 to 3 hours. From Te Anau, it takes about 2 hours to get to the Milford Sound, so a day trip from Te Anau can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours, depending on the length of cruise you choose and how many stops you make on the scenic drive. From Queenstown, a Milford Sound day trip usually takes 12 to 13 hours, since it is a longer drive to the fiord.
What is the closest town to the Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is the name of the small village located on Milford Sound. The next closest town is Te Anau, which is about a 2-hour drive from the Milford Sound.
Which is better, Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
Milford Sound is more popular with more dramatic scenery. Cruises are shorter and you can drive to the Milford Sound or get here on a tour. If you want a shorter day trip, a shorter cruise, are traveling with kids, or want to see want the famous Milford Sound is all about, then put the Milford Sound on your list.
A visit to the Doubtful Sound takes a full day. A day trip here takes 7 hours from Manapouri. Doubtful Sound is more remote, harder to get to, and less visited than the Milford Sound. If you like the idea of visiting a less touristy place and cruising through one of New Zealand’s most remote destinations, put Doubtful Sound on your list.
If you have any questions about how to plan a Milford Sound day trip, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to New Zealand
NEW ZEALAND ROAD TRIP: With 3 weeks in New Zealand, visit the highlights on a road trip to the North Island and South Island. If you have less time, you can shorten this itinerary by spending 2 weeks on the South Island.
SOUTH ISLAND: On the South Island of New Zealand, visit Doubtful Sound, spend a day or two in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, visit Akaroa and Banks Peninsula, go on a helicopter flight to see Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers from the sky, and learn about the best things to do in Queenstown. For the full list, read our article Best Things to Do on the South Island.
SOUTH ISLAND ITINERARIES: Whether you have one week or three on the South Island of New Zealand, plan your visit with our one week itinerary, 10 day itinerary, and 2 week itinerary. Each itinerary lists multiple ways to plan your road trip, depending on your interests.
AORAKI/MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK: Get started with our article Best Things to Do in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. We also have guides to the Hooker Valley Track and the Tasman Lake Trails.
NORTH ISLAND: Top experiences on the North Island include the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (one of the best day hikes in the world), spending a day or two in Auckland, visiting Waiheke Island on a day trip from Auckland, touring Hobbiton, a visit to Taupō, and seeing the glowworms and blackwater rafting in the Waitomo Caves. For the full list, read our article about the Best Things to Do on the North Island.
We have TONS more information about New Zealand in our New Zealand Travel Guide, including Auckland, Queenstown, Wanaka, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Franz Josef, Christchurch, Wellington, Taupō, and the Milford Sound.
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