This post – Milford Sound Road: Self-Drive – is part of our series of posts on experiencing Fiordland National Park.
Table of Contents
Fiordland National Park: by Land, Sea, and Air
Read an introduction to Fiordland National Park and options for experiencing Fiordland National Park by Land, Sea, and Air here.
Or, skip to one of our other Fiordland National Park travelogue posts:
- Real Journeys Milford Sound Scenic Boat Cruise
- Real Journeys Doubtful Sound Scenic Boat Cruise
- Fiordland Helicopters: Dusky & Doubtful Sound Heli Experience
- Routeburn Track Tramp
Our Fiordland National Park Story
We were headed to Fiordland National Park in early February 2020, concurrent with an extreme rainfall event. Between February 1st and February 4th Milford Sound received 1124 mm of rain – 16% of its normal annual rainfall! The first-ever Red Severe Weather Warning was issued, a State of Emergency declared, almost 400 people were stranded, and 440km of walking track were destroyed.
Needless to say, our Routeburn Track walk booked to start February 15, 2020 was cancelled as the track was damaged beyond repair for the season. The Milford Sound Road was also closed for the foreseeable future. We attempted to visit Doubtful Sound instead but that kayak/camp adventure was also thwarted due to extreme weather.
However, as luck would have it, and due to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak we were still in New Zealand well past our original planned departure date of May 2020. THANK YOU NEW ZEALAND. So, in July 2020 and again in September 2020, we headed back to Fiordland National Park. And we can’t wait to visit again.
Milford Sound: Getting There
Milford Sound is the most popular and most accessible destination within Fiordland National Park. It is the only fjord accessible by road and is famous for its cascading waterfalls on the steep, glacially-carved cliffs that surround the 16km of the sound out to the Tasman Sea.
Milford Sound is located at the end of Milford Road (State Highway 94): an alpine drive of two hours without stopping from Te Anau. However, you’ll want to stop at the viewing points and perhaps do some of the walks along the route so we’d recommend planning to spend a full day (or more!) driving the Milford Road.
Milford Sound Road: Self-Drive
Driving the 240 km Milford Sound Road (State Highway 94) requires some preparation. Be sure that you are familiar with the road conditions, estimated driving times, and scenic sights along the route.
TIP: A good place to start your Milford Sound Road logistics research is with the DOC Milford Road tips.
Here are our suggested stops and recommended walks along the Milford Road. They are listed in northbound order from Te Anau Downs to Milford Sound.
Lake Mistletoe Walk
An uneventful 45 min return walk circumnavigating Lake Mistletoe.
Eglinton Valley Lookout
A brief stop for a Lord of the Rings photo op in an alpine valley carved by glaciers.
TIP: Scenic coach + cruise packages will stop at Eglinton Valley Lookout.
Mirror Lakes Viewpoint
A favorite stop of mine for super reflective images of the mountains in Mirror Lake on a calm day. There are a number of viewpoints along a boardwalk on this 10 min return walk.
TIP: Scenic coach + cruise packages will stop at Mirror Lakes Viewpoint.
NOTE: The remainder of the suggested stops were on our original February 2020 planned itinerary. But, our visit to Milford Sound was in the off-season (July) and we only made it as far as Mirror Lakes on our self-drive due to potential winter driving conditions. We look forward to picking up where we left off on a Milford Sound Road self-drive part 2 in the future.
Lake Gunn Nature Walk
This 45 min loop walk, accessed from the Cascade Creek parking area, travels through beech forest on the shores on Lake Gunn. Lonely Planet claims it is one of the Best of New Zealand Short Walks!
This 3 hr return hike is popular and also often completed as a detour on the Routeburn Great Walk.
Indeed, we intended to kick-off our Routeburn Great Walk in February 2020 from The Divide parking area and, about 1 hr from the start, detour to the signed Key Summit lookout. The detour is 45 min – 1 hr return and stated to be well worth it for the views. However, due to the closure of the Routeburn for the 2020 Great Walk Season, the Key Summit trail will have to wait until our next visit.
NOTE: In September 2020 we were still in New Zealand and sections of the Routeburn had opened. We were able to complete some of the Routeburn track on the Mt Aspiring National Park side: Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut. Read about our Routeburn Track tramp here.
The Lake Marian track is 3.1 km return, taking 20 min to reach the waterfalls and 3 hrs return to the lake. This alpine lake is in a hanging valley formed by glacial action. On a calm day, magnificent reflections are visible in the lake.
This tramp is at the top of my to-do list for our next visit to Milford Sound as it was the short walk I was most looking forward to when we originally planned our time in Milford Sound.
Pop’s View Lookout & Monkey Creek
Quick stops for photo ops. You’ll often find kea (alpine parrots) hanging out in these locations.
TIP: Scenic coach + cruise packages may stop at Pop’s View Lookout and/or Monkey Creek.
This easy 30 min return walk begins at the end of Hollyford Road. You’ll ascend through the rainforest to view Humboldt Falls.
Gertrude Saddle Route
This 7 km, 4-6 hr tramp is demanding and potentially dangerous. It should not be attempted in wet conditions. However, if you are an experienced tramper, read up on the Getrude Saddle here.
This easy 20 min return walk is worth a stop for the waterfall views.
You’ve arrived at the end of the Milford Road! Now out on the water of Milford Sound for a scenic cruise or kayak voyage.
TIP: The DOC has fantastic resources, as always, including this Fiordland Day Walks brochure. However, be sure to always check the latest weather and track conditions.
Milford Sound Road: Coach + Scenic Cruise
Often packages combine a scenic coach ride with a scenic cruise to allow you to enjoy both the stunning Milford Road and its stops, as well as the scenery from the water.
TIP: See photos and read more about this type of experience with our Real Journeys Milford Scenic Boat Cruise post here.
Camping on the Milford Sound Road
We suggest using the information and bountiful reviews in the CamperMate app to find campsites suitable for your situation and inline with your expectations.
There are 8 DOC campsites on Milford Road. We stayed at:
Henry Creek Campsite, Te Anau Downs
This is the first DOC camp on Milford Road going north. It is just 20 minutes up Milford Road. A forested campsite with some beautiful lakeside spots.
TIP: Whilst reading reviews we saw consensus that because Cascade Creek DOC camp is closest to Milford Sound it is often the busiest camp. Deer Flat DOC campsite was most recommended as an alternative.
Other Camping and Accommodation
- Knob’s Flat – eco-tourism accommodation; offers self-contained studio units and is the only serviced camping (hot showers!) between Te Anau and Milford Sound
- Gunn’s Camp – located in the Hollyford Valley; cabins, bunkrooms, and camping with kitchen, lounge, and shower and toilet facilities UPDATE: closed until further notice due to February 2020 flood damage
- Milford Sound Lodge – luxury accommodation, dining, and camping right on the Milford Sound
New Zealand Planning and Resources
If you’re planning for your vacation or holiday in New Zealand, more resources – including our trip map with points of interest and camping spots – can be found in our New Zealand planning and resources post.
Our travelogue and the details of our day-to-day activities can be found in our New Zealand itinerary and travelogue post.
travel dates: July 14 – 15, 2020
last updated: 26-Jul-2021