Although you don’t have to try hard to find a scenic road trip in New Zealand, a few journeys will beat the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound – a highlight for many tourists who come to this remote country.
Located on New Zealand’s Southern Island, Milford Sound is a fiord within Fiordland National Park. It’s been called the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling and it is by far one of the most popular places to visit in New Zealand among tourists.
Check my guide to Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand and the best place to start your adventures in this country.
The largest town near Milford Sound that has a big airport is Queenstown, a scenic alpine resort that is also a base for adventure in Southern Hemisphere. Queenstown has flights from all major cities in New Zealand such as Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
But before booking your tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound, I recommend spending a few days in Queenstown. Heliskiing, snowboarding, hiking, whitewater rafting, base jumping, and zip-lining are just a few popular activities in this place.
Where to stay in Queenstown
Hotels in Queenstown are pricey, and if you are looking to save money, hostels and Airbnb could your best option. Wherever you stay, make sure that you can easily reach downtown Queenstown, as some parts of the city are only accessible by bus.
Check Queenstown bus schedule here.
Walk along the main drag, and you will hear dozens of languages spoken. While Queenstown is fairly remote, visitors from all over the world have come to admire its natural beauty.
The opposite side of the coin is that Queenstown, a town with about 20,000 residents has been struggling to keep up with an influx of tourists. The number of visitors is only projected to grow and local officials are looking for ways to accommodate everyone.
Things to do in Queenstown
Everything in Queenstown revolves around outdoors and adventures. If you are visiting this place for the first time, it might be difficult to decide what to do, so I put a list of some of the most awesome things to do in Queenstown.
If you want to catch an incredible view, head to Queenstown Hill for sunrise or sunset. Although epic views from Queenstown Hill are great at any time, if you arrive early in the morning, you probably won’t run into as many hikers as you would in the middle of the day.
If you have only a day in Queenstown, one thing that you must do is the Skyline Gondola, a cable car that will bring you to an observation platform from which you can see the postcard view of Queenstown framed by the majestic mountains. This attraction is located in the heart of downtown Queenstown and it can be reached by foot.
Ben Lomond Hike
After taking in scenic views at Skyline Gondola, head to Queenstown Hill from where you can hit the trail toward the Ben Lomond Mountain, a peak which stands over 5,700 feet and offers panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu.
Ben Lomond is a 6-8 hour round-trip hike, so it will take most of your day. It is a seasonal hike which is open from November through late March when there are no snowstorms in the area and the trail is clear for hiking.
Things to know about Ben Lomond Hike
Ben Lomond Hike is challenging because of the high elevation gain, so bring enough water and food. Also, don’t forget to put on season-appropriate clothing and footwear, and apply sunscreen, because even on a cloudy day, you still risk a sunburn at higher elevations. Most of the hike is exposed, and there’s little shade to spare you from the sun.
It takes about 3 hours to get to the summit and about 1 hour and 30 minutes to get to Ben Lomond Saddle, a half-point from where the hike gets progressively steeper. Besides being an excellent physical challenge, the hike to Ben Lomond offers incredible views of Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables and Coronet Peak on the opposite shore.
After a tough climb, the otherworldly views from the Ben Lomond peak will be your best reward but don’t leave your belongings lying around as you take a break. Ben Lomond is home to Kea, a bright-green alpine parrot that lives in the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island.
While Keas are notorious for trying to steal food and other items, you shouldn’t feed them any food from your backpack, as it could be really bad for their health. Kea population is on a decline due to a combination of factors, and human conflict is among them. So the best thing to do is to adore these lovely creatures from afar and avoid direct contact with them.
If time allows, take a quick trip to the Remarkables, a mountain range along Lake Wakatipu. Besides being a popular place for skiers and snowboarders, it is also an incredibly scenic place with the Remarkables reflecting in the calm waters of Lake Wakatipu.
After a day of exploring, it’s time to grab some good food and enjoy the quaint downtown Queenstown. Here you will find tons of restaurants and stores, however, prices here can be really high, so if you are staying in Queenstown for more than one day, it might be a good idea to get some groceries and cook your own food.
There are several ways to travel from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Your choice depends on how much time and money you can spend here.
If you like to explore at your own pace and do some hikes near Milford Sound such as Tutoko Valley Route, Gertrude Saddle, or Lake Marian Track, you better off renting a car. All these hikes require between 3 to 5 hours, so make sure to allocate your entire day for them.
But if you are short on time, and want to make the most out of your trip to Milford Sound, your best bet is an organized tour.
Rent a car and drive to Milford Sound
While you can book an organized tour to Milford Sound, you can also rent a car and take your time driving and exploring the area at your own pace. This is the best option if you have a couple of spare days and enough extra cash that you can spend on accommodations and outdoor activities such as kayaking or Milford Sound cruise.
A popular stop along the route from Queenstown to Milford Sound is Te Anau. Many travelers who drive to Milford Sound, spend a night in Te Anau, the gateway to Milford Sound, enjoying the area’s quiet atmosphere and scenic beauty of Lake Te Anau before continuing their journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
There are many hotels in Te Anau, and the town has a developed infrastructure with restaurants, cafes, stores, and everything else catering to tourists.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
Some of the most beautiful stops along your journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound are Mirror Lakes, Key Summit Track, a 3-hour hike that takes you up for an incredible view of the Fiordland National Park, and the Chasm, a waterfall that is only 10 km away from Milford Sound.
There are so many beautiful vistas along the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound, that I recommend allocating at least one extra hour because you will want to make several stops and take some photos.
However, if you want to visit Milford Sound in one day without stopping in Te Anau, the roundtrip from Queenstown to Milford Sound will take you about 8 hours on average. If you decide to do that, you have to leave Queenstown no later than 7 a.m., as you will have tons of tourist buses along the way. I’m sure you don’t want to get stuck in line with them.
Milford Sound Tours
When you arrive, you will have a choice between several operators who run boat cruises in Milford Sound. Some of them are Real Journeys, Jucy Cruise Milford Sound and Mitre Peak. Many of these packages are very similar, so don’t forget to do research before making your reservation.
To make things easier, I recommend booking your Milford Sound cruise online ahead of your visit. Most boat cruises typically last between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so you will be done by late afternoon.
Milford Sound Kayak
Another great option is to explore Milford Sound by kayak. You will get soaked by thundering waterfalls, see the wildlife and feel dwarfed by enormous fjords!
However, this is better done when there is no rain, so make sure to check Milford Sound weather ahead of your trip. For those who stay in the area longer, hiking around Milford Sound and checking out Fiordland National Park are musts. Another great place to visit is the nearby Doubtful Sound, a less touristy option that also offers incredible scenery.
Milford Sound accommodation
From there, you have to decide whether you want to spend a night in Milford Sound or go back to Te Anau.
If you want to spend a night in Milford Sound, the accommodation options there are pretty limited, so make your reservation ahead of time. One of them is the Milford Sound Lodge about 2 minutes away from Milford Sound. However, this is not a cheap option, so if you are on a budget you might be better off going back to Te Anau from Milford Sound on the same day after finishing your Milford Sound cruise.
PRO TIP: A more pricey alternative is an overnight cruise in Milford Sound. This is, however, an expensive option that might not be suitable for everyone.
Milford Sound Helicopter Tour
Another popular option is to fly over Milford Sound by helicopter from Queenstown. It’s an amazing journey, and while the price is very steep, it’s well worth the investment, as you will be treated with some truly remarkable views.
Milford Sound by bus and boat cruise
The most budget-friendly option for traveling from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a combination of a bus and a quick Milford Sound cruise.
It’s also great for those travelers who are short on time and want to make the most out of their trip to New Zealand’s South Island.
The bus departs from Queenstown early morning and arrives at Milford Sound in the afternoon. The highway winds through the mountains with scenic views on every corner, and your bus will make a couple of stops at these scenic spots, so you will have a chance to snap cool photos.
I booked my 1-day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound with InterCity and had a great experience, so if you are looking for a budget option, I highly recommend them.
Milford Sound Tour
After you arrive, you will get on a boat and take an awesome ride along the waters of Milford Sound. The ride will be pure magic as you will get close to rapid waterfalls cascading down the steep mountains and get a chance to observe penguins, dolphins, seals and other incredible marine wildlife. If you get lucky, you might even see a while splashing in the clear blue waters!
Your bus will depart after you are done with the tour and you will be back in Queenstown between 7 and 8 p.m.
PRO TIP: If you have some spare change, you can also arrange a flight back to Queenstown from Milford Sound after taking a bus to Milford Sound in the morning.
Best time to visit Milford Sound
Seasons run differently in the Southern Hemisphere. This means that summer falls on the period from late November through early March.
Regardless of the season, Milford Sound has some of the highest amounts of precipitation in the world. The rainfall is pretty consistent here throughout the year, so when you plan your trip to Milford Sound, you can only count on your luck, if you are shooting for a sunny day. If you are visiting Milford Sound in winter which is from June through August, you have a better chance of seeing the wildlife, however, temperatures will be cooler.
December and January are considered to be the best months for visiting Queenstown when this place comes out in its full glory.
If you are trying to decide when to visit Milford Sound, it depends on what you want to get from your experience. While the weather is a big part of it, Milford Sound is magnificent in any time of a year!
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no cost to you, I might earn a small commission if you make a purchase through the links in this article.