If you’re traveling to the South Island, it’s likely that Milford Sound will be on your itinerary. What many people don’t know is that the road to get there is just as amazing as the actual destination. The scenery is spectacular! There are several suggested scenic stops and hikes along The Road to Milford Sound, which starts in the town of Te Anau. Allow enough time to make any stops you want, as it take anywhere from 2 hours to a whole day each way. Check out this brochure from the NZ Dept. of Conservation’s website for more suggested stops and travel tips.
There are many tour companies that will take you there in a big bus from Queenstown, which takes about 5 hours each way. They do make a few stops along the way so you can stretch your legs, but I highly recommend that you rent your own car and spend time exploring all the amazing things to do along the Road to Milford Sound. If you’re really adventurous and have some cash to spare, you can take a helicopter ride one way to save some time and enjoy the scenery from above.
Before our road trip, we spent the night in Te Anau at Aden Motel. We wanted to be well rested before our big day journeying to Milford Sound. Our room was basic, but it was comfortable, clean, and affordable. It even had a well equipped kitchen. The hosts were very friendly and even left us little homemade cupcakes in the room to welcome us. We got an early start the next day. I recommend that you find a grocery store before your drive to stock up on snacks and food for the day. That way, you’ll prepared for a picnic when you find a nice scenic spot to sit down and rest. Also, make sure to fill up your car with gas in Te Anau. There are no gas stations or anywhere to get food along the road.
Starting out on The Road to Milford Sound. Once you get past the town of Te Anau, you’ll drive through beautiful forests, along rivers, and past immense mountain ranges. Keep an eye out for sheep crossing the road. Also, you’ll want to stop every few minutes because there are so many photo ops! If you do, remember to pull over safely, because the road is narrow and curvy and can be really dangerous with all the big buses driving to and from the city.
Suggested Stop #1: Mirror Lakes
This is a short stop right off the highway and it’s perfect to stretch your legs for 10 minutes. There’s a small path that leads to several viewing points of small lakes that provide amazing reflective views of the Earl mountains. Your best chance to see a perfect “mirror” reflection is on a clear day and the earlier in the day, the better.
Suggested Stop #2: Hike to Key Summit
Enjoy this 3-hr roundtrip hike along the famous Routeburn track to Key Summit with its mossy trees and silver ferns – a temperate rain forest. After about an hour from the start of the hike at the car park, the path branches off on a 20-25 min (rather steep) climb to the Key Summit for views of Fiordland National Park. There’s also a self-guided looped nature walk at the summit. It’s a beautiful hike even on the foggiest of days!
Related Post: Key Summit Track Half-Day Hike
Suggested Stop #3: Entrance to Homer Tunnel
The Homer tunnel is a one way tunnel and has a traffic light letting each direction go every 10 minutes. I recommend pulling over for a few minutes before you go into the tunnel to stretch your legs, breathe in the fresh air, and for the chance to see the cheeky mountain parrots called keas. You’ll see them perched atop the cars making funny squawking noises. The scenery here is beautiful–there’s a 360 degree view of the hundreds of waterfalls streaming down the face of the surrounding mountains.
Suggested Stop #4: Milford Sound
This was our first look of Milford Sound (which is technically a fjord!). Don’t be disappointed if it’s really foggy and/or raining a bit. It’s like that most days of the year! Once you reach Milford Sound, the most popular activity is to go on a scenic or nature cruise. There are many companies that will take you out. You can stop in at the visitor’s center to make reservations, buy a hot chocolate (ask for chocolate fish on top!), and relax in the lounge before your cruise.
Since we didn’t want to feel too rushed, we actually stayed the night in Milford Sound. There are campervan parks, or you can stay at the Milford Sound Lodge, the only accommodations in the small town. We opted to save some money by staying in a dorm share room with bunk beds (surprisingly comfortable) along with a couple from the Netherlands and a man from France, who were all very friendly and respectful. I really liked Milford Sound Lodge. It’s in a beautiful, peaceful location. The staff are very organized and helpful, and there is a nice big kitchen and laundry facilities.
Related Posts: Milford Sound Encounter Nature Cruise; Kayaking Milford Sound
Suggested Stop #1: The Chasm
View of the Tutoko River from a suspension bridge.
Stop at The Chasm for a 20 minute return loop walk through the dense, mossy forest and past some seriously powerful waterfalls. It’s cool to see how the water has smoothed out the rocks over time.
On your way back to the parking lot towards the end of the path, keep your eye out for a small green electric box on the left that marks a secret path down the hill to the secret pools! The color of the water is so beautiful and it’s so tempting to want to jump in, but the water is freezing cold because it comes straight from a glacier. It’s a nice, secluded spot to chill for a bit!
Suggested Stop #2: Homer Tunnel
This is what the view is like from the other side of the Homer Tunnel. It is the road that goes down to Milford Sound. Because you’ll likely be stopped again here at the entrance to the tunnel for up to 10-20 minutes during peak season, many people step out of their cars for a few minutes to take pictures.
Suggested Stop #3: Pops View
Pops View is quick stop and is best for your return trip, since it’s basically a small shoulder off of Milford Road. You can pullover and take pictures at this viewpoint with stunning views over the Hollyford Valley.
Suggested Stop #4: Lake Gunn Nature Walk
Colorful lupins lining Cascade Creek
Lake Gunn Nature Walk is accessed from the Cascade Creek stop off Milford Road and takes you through a forest of tall red beech trees to the banks of Lake Gunn. There’s lots of birdlife and small side trips off the main path to sheltered lake beaches for a picnic. The walk is an easy, looped path and takes about 45-min round-trip.
A Random Stop:
You’ll be surrounded by views like this meadow above with a mountain backdrop. There will be lots of opportunities for random stops along the way to capture all the beauty in between designated stops. But again, please be careful when exiting your car off the side of the road and be sure to park a safe distance from the road. There’s really so much much to see and do! We only had time to make a few stops each way, but we didn’t feel rushed and I felt like we saw most of what the scenic road trip had to offer. I loved it!