Home>Southland>14 Unmissable Things to See on the Drive From Te Anau to Milford Sound
14 Unmissable Things to See on the Drive From Te Anau to Milford Sound
You’re never short of options when it comes to scenic roads in New Zealand, but the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is perhaps one of my favourites. Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful, but there’s also plenty to see and do along the way.
We want to make sure you don’t miss a thing, so here’s our guide to the 14 unmissable things to see on the drive from Te Anau and Milford Sound, plus some really important ‘need-to-know’ information about the roads and their conditions.
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Milford Sound is one of the most visited areas on the South Island and when you do the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive, it soon becomes clear why.
Don’t listen to your google map though, I can almost guarantee that the 118km Te Anau to Milford Sound drive won’t take the predicted 1.5 hours. You’re going to need at least 2 hours, longer if you decide to do some of the longer walks.
Pack plenty of snacks because your drive from Te Anau to Milford is full of beautiful scenic stops to stretch your legs as well as the jaw-dropping views straight from your window. You’ll feel like you’re on the set of Jurassic Park for the entire drive.
Getting to Te Anau
There is only one road to Milford Sound, which starts at Te Anau. Most people reach Te Anau from Queenstown in roughly a 2-hour drive without stops. While there aren’t any notable places to see between Queenstown and Te Anau, you’ll likely still want to make roadside photos stops. The roads are too beautiful not to.
The whole Queenstown to Milford Sound drive is a lot to try and cram into one day, especially if you want to see everything along the way and do the walks. With this in mind, we recommend spending the night either in Te Anau or at the Milford Sound Lodge.
If you’re going to Te Anau from the Catlins Coast, this will take around 2-hours, driving north from Invercargill.
TOP TIP – fill up your fuel tank at Mossburn – it’s some of the cheapest fuel you’ll find on the South Island.
What is the Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive Time?
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most scenic in the country. Whether it’s raining, sunny or even snowing, the views are perfect all year round.
So it will come as no surprise when I say ignore google when she (ours is called Karen…) tells you it’ll take 1.5hours. The only way this is remotely true is if you don’t want to see any of the stunning stops along the way – in which case, why are you reading this? – and there’s no traffic.
If you want to see all of the Milford Sound roadside stops that we’ll talk about soon, we recommend at least 2 hours – 3 if you’re like us and take a lot of photos.
If you want to do the hikes that we mention as well, we recommend doing the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound as a day trip of its own and not on the day where you have a Milford Sound scenic cruise.
This is where staying at the Milford Sound Lodge and not in Te Anau comes in handy – you don’t have to drive back out at the end of the day, then in again for your cruise.
Don’t forget to book your cruise before you go!
What is the Road Between Te Anau and Milford Sound Like?
You’ll be pleased to know that for most of the year the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is well paved and accessible by 2WD. The only exception to this is in winter when it is recommended all drivers carry snow chains – or avoid completely.
I was pleasantly surprised with how ‘ok’ the Te Anau and Milford Sound drive was, I was expecting it to be a lot more gnarly than it actually was.
It didn’t feel as windy or as steep as parts of the Haast Pass or even roads on the West Coast, but that doesn’t mean it’s flat either.
In the winter, by law, you will need to carry snow chains – this is the case with many of the mountain passes in New Zealand – because of how quickly this road gets icy or covered in snow. If you don’t feel competent enough to drive in icy conditions, or you’re driving a big motorhome for the first time, I would suggest maybe joining a coach tour instead.
Parts of the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound are narrow and we crossed several one-way bridges that you will need to be aware of. There is also a one-way tunnel called the Homer Tunnel, in the summer you can expect to wait up to 20 minutes before being allowed through. That’s ok though, Keas are regular visitors to the Homer Tunnel and the scenery from here is just as beautiful as the rest of the Te Anau to Milford road.
You can keep up to date with the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound on the NZ Traffic Website
Roadside views on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
14 unmissable things to see on the Te Anau and Milford Sound drive
Now that you’re fully prepared for the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, it’s time to discover the true beauty that’s waiting for you on the Milford Sound road.
We’re not exaggerating when we say it’s one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand, but then again, most of the roads here are stunning.
Here are 14 places you won’t want to miss on the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive.
Whether you’re staying here while you visit Milford Sound, or just passing through, make sure you at least stop off for some brekky (or lunch) and check out the waterfront.
One of our favourite places to eat when we pass through Te Anau is the Sandfly Cafe. They do a good early morning bacon sandwich here and at lunchtime their burgers are to-die-for. Got a sweet tooth? If you’re in luck you might be able to grab a freshly made muffin too, but they usually sell out fast.
Along with filling your stomachs ready for the busy day ahead, plan time to have a walk around the free (donations welcome) bird sanctuary on the South shore of Lake Te Anu. It’s home to the critically endangered Takahe as well as other native birds such as the Kaka, Morepork and wild Tui who have adopted the area as home.
Declan at Pop’s View On the Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive
We’ve done the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound a couple of times now and there’s never been anyone in the car park at Lake Mistletoe. It seems to be one of the stops where everyone just drives straight past, but those people are missing out.
The short 1.3km return walk at Lake Mistletoe is a nice starter to your Te Anau to Milford Sound drive as you can reach the lakes lookout in as little as 20 minutes. On a clear day, the waters are bright clear blue and while it isn’t our favourite lake in New Zealand, it’s a stop you shouldn’t forget about.
Lake Mistletoe – the Quietest Stop On the Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive
Te Anau Downs
At the Northern End of Lake Te Anau, and opposite Lake Mistletoe, you’ll find Te Anau Downs. This is a small boat ramp area where those heading off to do the Milford Sound Track get the boat across to the start of the multi-day hike.
If you’re not planning to do this walk, it’s still worth stopping at Te Anau Downs on your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. On a clear day, you’ll get awesome reflections in the lake with a stunning backdrop of the mountains in the distance.
Te Anau is also the last place to fuel up before you drive into Milford Sound, so if you didn’t take advantage of the cheap fuel at Mossburn, now’s your last chance.
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This is one of the most popular photos stops for anyone doing the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. The parking is limited but you can always stop on your way back too.
The Eglinton Valley was formed by the melting of a giant glacier that eroded the mountains over the years and flowed through the same path as the Eglinton River.
You will have seen photos of travellers standing in the middle of the road with mountains stretching behind them. Personally, I’m not a fan of these photos after seeing one too many near misses from a mix of bad driving and tourists not moving quick enough. But anyway, I digress…
My point is it’s a gorgeous place to stop for photos but be sensible with them. There are also no drones allowed within the Fiordland National Park.
Eglinton Valley on the Drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
This stop does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a small cluster of lakes that, on a calm day or early morning, will have a mirror-like reflection of the mountain ranges.
We haven’t been lucky enough to get a completely still day when we’ve visited but it’s been pretty close.
The mirror lakes are practically right next to the street side parking but this is again, pretty limited, especially if the tour coaches are running as they take up most of the spaces.
Eglinton Valley on the Drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
Cascade Creek + Lake Gunn Nature Walk
Cascade Creek was one of our favourite stops on the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive. We were again one of the very few people who actually stopped here to do the walk and not just use the long drop toilet.
The Lake Gunn nature walk leaves from the Cascade Creek campsite and is a 1.4km loop walk through the bush and along the lake’s edge. This is a good opportunity to see some of New Zealand’s smaller native birds such as the black robin or the not-so-small kererū (New Zealand Wood Pigeon) and Kaka.
A New Zealand Black Robin
Key Summit Hike
Now we’re at the hikes that need a little longer than an hour of your time.
The Key Summit Hike is a good option for anyone who wants to see what the Routeburn track has to offer, without committing multiple days to do the whole track.
It starts at the Divide car park, j and is roughly 3.4km or 3 hours return. It’s classed as an intermediate hike, it’s mostly uphill with an elevation of 400m so I wouldn’t say it’s overly difficult.
Like most (all) of the hikes in the Fiordland, this one was closed when we passed through thanks to those February storms. So you’ll need to keep your eyes on the DOC website for if/when they open up again – hopefully in time for summer!
More things to see on the Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive
This is a nice quick stop as you drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, but it’s one you might also miss if you’re not looking out for it.
Just a quick drive around the corner from the Divide, Pop’s View will sneak up on you in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. There is limited parking at the lookout itself, room for maybe 2-3 cars, but there’s also a large car park a little further down the road – just be careful walking to the lookout.
This lookout was named after an explorer/mountaineer who lost his life in a nearby avalanche. From here you can see Mount Christina and the surrounding ranges but it’s also a great place to meet the local Kea!
Don’t fancy driving? Book a tour instead!
I was genuinely heartbroken that this walk was still closed when we drove from Te Anau to Milford Sound for the second time. It’s a walk that’s been on my list for a long time, so I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer.
This track also requires a small detour down the Hollyford Road, the only turn off along the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive.
The Lake Marian Track is a 3.1km return walk that takes you over a swing bridge and past a waterfall 20 minutes in, before starting to climb steeply through the bush. After heavy rainfall it gets pretty slippery (this might change if they’re fixing the track) and takes roughly 3 hours, return, to complete.
It’s recommended for advanced walkers but I have spoken to people who say it ‘isn’t too bad’ besides being a bit steep.
The reward at the end is another mirror-like lake in a glacial valley (much like the Hooker Valley) with good views of the mountain peaks. It’s not an overly popular track, given how long it takes to complete so if you time your trip right you might be the only ones up there!
If you venture down Hollyford Road a little further (unsealed after the Lake Marian Car Park), you’ll come to the Humboldt Falls track.
Unlike the previous two walks, this waterfall will only need a total of 30 minutes of your time as it’s a relatively easy track. At 1.2km return, the steady climb through the bush to the 275m tall Humboldt Falls is a good one for people of all abilities.
Back on to the main Milford Road, after heavy rain, you’ll be treated to hundreds upon hundreds of temporary waterfalls cascading down the sides of the mountains.
Falls Creek is one of the very few permanent roadside waterfalls on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It’s another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop, so you can add this pinto your map route for notifications while you drive.
This waterfall sits on the side of a one-way bridge, so it’s important you don’t stop on the road. Instead, park at the small car park on the other side of the road and use the boardwalk to walk back to the off-road lookout.
After Stirling Falls within Milford Sound, this is actually my favourite waterfall that we saw during our visit. The water here was incredibly clear as I believe it’s glacier fed.
There is a walk that takes you up to the top of the lookout but from the start of the track it looked very steep and muddy so we didn’t attempt it. If you’re tempted, just follow the DOC sign near the lookout and watch out for the orange track triangles. The DOC recommends 2 hours to complete this waterfall walk.
Falls Creek Between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Here’s another chance to introduce yourselves to the local kea. Monkey Creek is a popular scenic stop for anyone doing the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. There is a big open car park here that’s not easy to miss.
While there aren’t any tracks from here, many people walk across the small stream and out into the field for their insta-worthy photos.
The water here comes from the closest glacier so it’s so clean and clear, it’s actually safe to drink… when it’s fast-flowing – we don’t recommend drinking from slow-flowing natural water sources.
Stop at Monkey Creek When You Drive From Te Anau to Milford Sound
Most people have heard of the Homer Tunnel. Being the only access point through the mountains to Milford Sound, it’s New Zealand’s most famous tunnel and possibly the most rustic.
The Homer Tunnel is a one-way tunnel that operates on a traffic light system, during summer you can expect a wait of up to 20 minutes before you’re allowed through.
On the Te Anau side of Homer Tunnel, the queuing lanes turn into double lanes but the tunnel itself is only a single lane road – something to be aware of if you’re near the front of the queue.
It’s also very common for the cars waiting in line to get ‘attacked’ by cheeky kea who love to grab themselves a few bits of windscreen wipers as a souvenir of your visit.
Inside The Rustic Homer Tunnel
This is your 14th and final stop on your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, and it’ll perhaps be the busiest.
The large car park here makes sure there’s enough space for everyone – including the coach tours – so don’t expect a peaceful visit, especially in summer. The walk itself is suitable for everyone too, being only 400m return from the car park across a well-maintained boardwalk.
The Chasm’s famous rock formations have been formed by millions of years worth of flowing water carving them into the dips and bowls we see today. No doubt the waterfalls are still busy at work, changing the landscape behind them. With the vibrant green mossy rocks, it’s a photographer’s paradise when it’s not so busy with tourists.
Despite its popularity, it’s still a stop you won’t want to miss and if you’re staying at the Milford Sound Lodge it’s close enough for you to pop back to later in the day when things quieten down.
This is also currently closed due to extreme storm damage to the boardwalk structure. The car park is blocked with boulders so before you get your hopes up, check the DOC for updates.
Is There Parking in Milford Sound?
This was something that concerned us too. Knowing how busy it gets in Milford Sound, would there be enough parking?
The answer is yes! There are two car park’s once you reach Milford Sound.
One at Deepwater Basin, which is free all year round but has limited capacity – around 80 spaces I would say. From here you can either walk the 10-20 minute track through the bush to Milford foreshore or catch the complimentary shuttle that runs through summer.
On the waterfront, there are hundreds of spots but these are not free all year round. In peak season it will cost you $10 per hour to park near the information centre or waterfront. In winter it is free.
Another alternative is to stay at Milford Sound Lodge, park at your accommodation and walk 30 minutes along the bush track to Milford foreshore.
When is the best time to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound?
As we’ve already mentioned, Milford Sound is beautiful all year round and offers vastly different scenery depending on the season. Summer will give you the best driving conditions, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive in winter.
Summer means the road will be alot busier. The better weather (and better driving conditions) means the whole country and its dog will be exploring the Fiordland while there’s no ice on the road. You can expect there to be bigger crowds and limited parking at stops like Eglinton Valley, The Chasm, Mirror Lakes and Monkey Creek as well as an overall increase in traffic.
Winter is the quietest time of year to visit but, as we mentioned previously, you will need to carry snow chains with you. Be aware there is also an increased risk of the Milford Sound road closing after you reach Milford Sound – leaving you stranded until the road clears (but this can also happen if there’s a bad storm at any time of year) Winter also means you’ll get to see the ranges capped with snow, something that is very iconic of New Zealand.
There’s a lot to take in on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, a lot of which we had never heard of before doing the drive ourselves. Are there many here you’re really looking forward to seeing? For us, it’s the Marian Lake walk – we will get back to it, one day. If you have any other questions, feel free to drop a comment on this post or even email us!
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