The Perfect Day Trip: Te Anau to the Milford Sound

Julie New Zealand 21 Comments

The Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most popular sights, is located just a few hours away from Queenstown on the South Island.  Before arriving in Queenstown, we heard that you cannot visit New Zealand without visiting Milford Sound.  It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.  After seeing tons of photos on line and hearing all of the hype about Milford Sound, it made the top of our list of things to visit during our New Zealand tour.

Day Trip: Te Anau to the Milford Sound

The Milford Sound can be visited as a day trip from Queenstown, but this makes for a very, very long day.  Board a bus for a 4 hour scenic road trip, arrive in the Milford Sound, board a boat for an hour and a half cruise, and then repeat the same four hour ride to get you back to Queenstown.  Yes, it is doable, but this did not sound like fun for the four of us.

Instead, a trip to the Milford Sound is a perfect day trip from the much closer town of Te Anau. Staying in Te Anau allows for a leisurely two hour ride to the sound 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.

We spent two nights at the Alpenhorn Motel in a one bedroom apartment with a kitchenette, giving us our first chance to prepare basic meals in seven months. Since we were here during the beginning of the off season, we were the only guests at the motel.

On the Drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound

The day we visited the Milford Sound, we were up and out the door by 8:15 am. This gave us three hours to drive the 120 km to the Milford Sound with plenty of time for photo opportunities along the way. At 11:15 am we had a cruise booked for our tour of the Milford Sound.

Drive to Milford Sound

Drive Te Anau to Milford Sound

There are various viewpoints along the way. Our favorites were Mirror Lake, a small, quiet lake with a perfect reflection of the nearby mountains, as well as The Chasm, a twenty minute out and back walk to see water rushing through a gorge which is quite spectacular.

Mirror Lake New Zealand

Kara New Zealand

Road to Milford Sound

Prior to arriving at the Milford Sound we traveled through the Homer Tunnel, a one way, ancient looking tunnel.  It was dimly lit and dripping with recent rainwater, quite an interesting experience.  We hit the timing of the lights just right, but it can take up to twenty minutes to pass through the tunnel, especially during high season.

The Milford Sound

We arrived at the Milford Sound and had some extra time before our cruise; just enough time to take a quick walk to a scenic point.  As we had approached the Milford Sound, our partly sunny skies deteriorated into overcast skies, but the wavy, blanket of clouds added to the drama of the scene. The Milford Sound gets six meters of rain per year, so to not have a rainy day we were quite thankful.

Milford Sound with Jucy

There are five or six tour companies offering an hour and a half tour of the Milford Sound, all with nearly identical itineraries.  We chose Jucy because they offered the tour at a cheap price.  We were seeing all of the same things as the other tours, so why pay more?  At 11:15 we were on our way, taking our hour and a half tour of the Milford Sound.

To be honest, we all thought the Milford Sound was beautiful and worthwhile to see, but it did not live up the hype we had been hearing about. We cruised along a fiord, with tall mountains on either side of us, with waterfalls, native plant life, and even some seals and a quick look at the Tasman Sea, but it was not as amazing as we were expecting.  In a lot of ways, it had us reminiscing of our cruise on the fjords in Norway two years ago.  These two places look almost identical.  Add in chilly, overcast conditions and two bored kids on both visits and we have a good case of déjà vu.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound Cruise

After our cruise was over we started our drive back to Te Anau. Since we are avid hikers we were anxious to get our hiking shoes dirty in New Zealand. Time to go tramping!

Key Summit Hike

Not far past the Homer Tunnel on the way back to Te Anau is the Divide car pack. It is here that people can start the world famous Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike that takes trampers through some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. 

We hiked the Key Summit Hike, a three hour hike that took us on a portion of the Routeburn Track and then higher to a summit point with amazing views of New Zealand.

It took us about an hour to get to the summit. The first portion of the hike took us through New Zealand’s temperate rainforest. Once we got high enough, we entered alpine scenery, with shrubbery and stunning mountain views. It was windy and quite chilly and it didn’t take long until Kara was freezing and cranky. The rest of us enjoyed the views…more amazing New Zealand views. Wow, we love it here!

Hiking Key Summit

Key Summit Hike Trail

After some photos on the mountaintop, including a couple goofy Earth Trekker photos, we walked back down to our car, completing the entire hike in exactly three hours.

Earth Trekkers Hiking

For those driving out to the Milford Sound and are looking for a short hike to really get a good view of the scenery in this part of New Zealand, this hike is unbeatable. I highly recommend it. We all enjoyed the views from the Key Summit more than the views from the Milford Sound cruise. Well, maybe except for Kara, who had quite the warm, comfy spot on the cruise and later had hands as cold as ice while we were hiking. This was our first taste of tramping in New Zealand and we were all eager for more.

We reached the town of Te Anau by 6 pm, just in time for another “home cooked” meal while watching a DVD on the TV.  What a spectacular day!

Things To Know: Te Anau to the Milford Sound

We stayed at Alpenhorn Motel and loved it here.  This place is great for families, with a bedroom for the kids, a kitchenette with microwave and cooktop, and a living area with TV, DVD, and free movies to borrow from the office. It was clean and quiet and conveniently located in Te Anau.

Jucy is the company we used for our Milford Sound cruise. For our family of four in April 2015 we paid $118 NZD ($90 USD). We got an Easter special one kid free deal…so Kara got a free ride on a beanbag, the best seat on the boat!

The town of Te Anau has a well stocked grocery store, heaps of small restaurants, and even a Subway restaurant. There is a waterfront area in town with great views across the Te Anau Lake.

It takes roughly two hours to reach Te Anau from Queenstown, not allowing time for any stops.  Our drive took three hours because we stopped for so many photos. I couldn’t help it! Around every turn was another fabulous view! Check out our post: Wow!

The drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound takes about two and half hours, allowing a few very short stops for scenic views and photos. We gave ourselves three hours, stopped at Mirror Lake and The Chasm, and still had a half hour to spare at the Milford Sound before boarding our boat. It was also low season so we did not have to deal with traffic or a long wait at the tunnel. If you are driving from Te Anau, I would give yourself three hours or more, just to make sure you reach the Milford Sound in time for your cruise.

The Key Summit hike from the Divide car park is a three hour return hike.  It is an easy hike that anyone with average fitness can complete. It is a constant, steady climb up to Key Summit. Rarely is it steep, just be prepared for a steady, uphill walk. It can be a lot colder and windier at the top so make sure that you have plenty of warm clothes, especially during the cooler months. We loved this hike, even Kara and her frozen hands.


Comments 21

  1. Hello Earth Trekkers! Commenting on this in 2019, a bit late to your party. My family and I are going to NZ in December and we’re going to see the Milford Sound on a cruise with Real Journeys. However, after reading your post, I want to do the Key Summit hike, too! This would be impossible to do on the same day since we’re going with Real Journeys, and it would be a whole day thing. So I was thinking of doing the hike the following day, but this would mean cancelling our Doubtful Sound cruise with Real Journeys (not a problem). My question is, do you think it would be worth it to cancel the Doubtful Sound cruise (since we would have done the Milford Sound cruise by then) in exchange for hiking the Key Summit track? I only booked the Doubtful Sound cruise because we had that extra day in Te Anau. Would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks a lot!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Esther. I honestly don’t know what to tell you. We have not cruised Doubtful Sound so I don’t know how it compares to Milford Sound and the Key Summit Hike. I recommend image searching Doubtful Sound to see if it is worth the time and money. Key Summit is nice, but it only takes a few hours of your time. I do wonder if it would be worth the drive from Te Anau just to do this. Sorry I can’t give you a concrete answer. But whatever you choose it will be wonderful…it’s a gorgeous area. Cheers, Julie

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