The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most popular roads in New Zealand and after reading this guide, you’ll realise why. Too often visitors rush this route to reach their Milford Sound cruise as soon as possible but we encourage you to relax, charge the camera and be prepared for some insane scenery.
The Te Anau to Milford Sound road was our favourite road trip from our time travelling New Zealand in a campervan and after 30 countries, it’s probably our favourite roadtrip ever. In this guide we will cover things to do in Te Anau before you leave as well as the best Milford Sound cruise and our amazing experience camping at Milford Sound Lodge.
We have also included the costs and top tips to make your Te Anau to Milford Sound trip a highlight from your time in New Zealand – just like ours was!
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND HIGHLIGHTS
PREPARE FOR YOUR TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND ROAD TRIP
Road Trip Essentials
If there’s one thing we learned from our South Island road trip, it’s that to prepare for the unexpected. The road conditions in New Zealand can change hourly – from heavy rain to snow to sunshine. You may also go an entire day without seeing a fuel stop or supermarket and be without Wi-Fi.
To ensure you are prepared for a safe Te Anau to Milford Sound drive, we recommend reading and downloading our road trip packing list – it can be used offline to tick off the essentials you need for a safe, stress free drive.
Leave Enough Time
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is only 144 miles (around 240km) which on paper means it should only take around 2 hours. With the stops mentioned below, it took us around 3 hours to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Remember, if you are travelling New Zealand in a campervan driving to Milford Sound will take much longer due to the speed and size of your vehicle and to be honest there are so many scenic stops on the way you’ll want to hop out for a photo or two along the way so do not rush this incredible road trip.
Check the Road Conditions
The road to Milford Sound is not for the faint hearted – there are many turns, stops, other vehicles and even a tunnel to contend with. Throw in an avalanche warning or heavy rainfall, not to mention the constant need for upgrades due to the road’s popularity and you have the recipe for unpredictable road conditions. Before you begin driving to Milford Sound, check the road conditions here.
STAY IN TE ANAU
Before driving to Milford Sound, we recommend staying the night before in Te Anau to ensure you are well rested. If we were to do things differently during our South Island itinerary, we would’ve stayed in Te Anau as there is so much to see and do, but instead we stayed in Orepuki.
Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound but because of this and the fact we were travelling in February, Te Anau accommodation was too expensive for our modest backpacker budget.
It is very popular in the busy months of January – March so it can be difficult (and expensive) to find somewhere to stay however these are our top tips for cheap Te Anau accommodation before you head on to the road to Milford Sound.
Cheap Hotels in Te Anau
A good hack for finding cheap Te Anau Accommodation is if you filter your search by price – low to High, but then rating high to low this will show you the best but cheapest accommodation. Although hostels will prove cheapest, remember you have the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound ahead so you don’t want to be kept up all night by partying backpackers.
If searching for cheap Te Anau accommodation, don’t limit your search to hotel websites. Airbnb allows you to stay with locals who are the best for sharing tips for driving to Milford Sound. It will also give you access to kitchen facilities – saving you money on eating out.
Camp in Te Anau
We LOVED camping on the South Island as it was a super cheap, but also rewarding way to enjoy the natural surroundings. It is also the cheapest Te Anau accommodation for those on a budget.
The most popular camping ground in Te Anau is Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park. Usually, it costs $35 for a 2 year membership to join the Kiwi scheme, however our van rental gave us the membership keyring for free with our van.
This allowed us 10% off all kiwi camp grounds but in Te Anau specifically, you can Save 10% with Cruise Milford as well as many local food and drink deals through the membership. We have taken a photo below of the nearest campgrounds for those driving to Milford Sound.
If you are planning on camping, cook up a storm with our one pot camping meals to fuel your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
THINGS TO DO IN TE ANAU
Te Anau is known as the gateway to the Fiordlands and probably the last place you will have phone signal for quite some time, so why not immerse yourself in nature and explore the stunning scenery through our wee list of top things to do in Te Anau.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves
Seeing the Te Anau glowworm caves, is like a scene from a different planet. You will begin your tour with a boat ride to the western shores of Lake Te Anau before arriving at the underground phenomenon. The Te Anau glowworm caves are over 12,000 years old but were only discovered in 1948. The caves are impressive themselves, the constellation of sapphire creatures are an added extravagant bonus!
Miles Better Pies With a View
How cliche, Scottish people recommending pie eating BUT devouring one of these delicious creations by the beautiful lake was one of our favourite memories from Te Anau.
Miles Better Pies offers the perfect budget friendly food that (as the name describes) were miles better than any other pie we had in New Zealand – possibly because the location was so beautiful! If pies aren’t your thing or you’re not restricted to a backpacking budget there are many restaurants in Te Anau that cater to all tastes.
Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
Te Anau Bird Sanctuary is one of the most popular things to do in Te Anau for backpackers and families alike as entry is completely free! Rare birds such as kaka, morepork, takahe and parakeet can be found here as part of specialist breeding programmes and rehabilitation schemes before returning to the wild.
Not only can you travel Te Anau to Milford Sound, but visit Doubtful sound too. Nestled in a far quieter corner of the Fiordland National Park, Doubtful Sound is less popular but ideal for those looking for a more peaceful, less touristic experience.
Lake Te Anau Cruise
Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island and second largest in the whole of New Zealand. Although you probably plan to take a Milford Sound cruise, don’t think a lake cruise isn’t worth it.
Lake Te Anau offers some hidden gems that cannot otherwise be explored from land. The Lake has three “arms” which stretch West allowing secret views of the stunning surroundings.
For example via a Lake Te Anau cruise you can see the Murchison Mountains up close, where visitors are actually forbidden by foot due to the rare Takahe birds. There are numerous cruise options as well as cruise & fly options too!
Hike the Routeburn Track
Rather than view the unrivalled mountains and scenery from a boat, why not hike amongst them instead on the world-famous Routeburn Track. Enjoy a full day, guided trek amongst some of the most stunning scenery from Te Anau to Key Summit via the Routeburn Track. The perfect way to burn off those Miles Better Pies calories. The full Routeburn track actually takes around 3-4 days, so if you’re driving to Milford Sound make sure you have enough time to squeeze it all in!
HOW TO GET TO MILFORD SOUND
Make sure to plan your Te Anau to Milford Sound route prior to starting as you will unlikely have phone signal (or Wi-Fi) for quite some time. We recommend starring these suggestions on Google maps beforehand. Don’t know what we mean? Read our post on the best apps for backpackers which explains how to star attractions and use Google Maps offline.
To us no signal made the Fiordlands even more beautiful – it was absolute bliss to be cut off from the world, just us, Cathy the campervan and the most beautiful surroundings we have ever seen.
Te Anau to Milford Sound Route
- Te Anau – Te Anau Downs: Where the Milford Sound track begins
- The Mirror Lakes: Around 45 minutes from Te Anau, more on this below
- Knobs Flat: Ideal toilet stop & photo opportunity for Lord of the Rings fans
- Hollyford Valley Look Out: where you can see the Darren Mountains, much to Daz’s delight
- Monkey Creek: Probably the most beautiful creek we’ve ever seen
- Homer Tunnel: Watch out for the cheeky kea and be prepared to wait at the traffic lights for a loooong time
- The Chasm: An ideal 20 minute stroll to stretch your legs before the final drive to Milford Sound
THE BEST STOPS FROM TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND
There are probably 15+ stops you could make on the drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau, but you won’t have time for them all in one day. Instead, we have detailed our top 5 which we genuinely feel were our highlights on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Eglington Valley & Knob’s Flat
You will have barely started the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound, when you enter Eglington Valley. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, the flat valley leads to strikingly steep mountains which will tower over you either side. It is one of the only road accessible valleys in Fiordland National Park with over 700,000 people per year driving through it on the road to Milford Sound.
You may recognise these mountains as the Eglington Valley was used a location in the Lord of the Rings films. As you drive through the valley, you’ll be side by side with the Eglington river and picturesque golden tussock grass. That’s right, even the grass is insta-worthy.
The Eglington Valley is home to Knob’s flat which if you’re childish like us you’ll just laugh at the name, or if you’re sensible and mature you’ll actually stop here as it’s the last flush toilet and pay phone stop on the Te Anau to Milford Sound road.
The Mirror Lakes
After driving on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound for around 45 minutes, it’s time for the first stop – the Mirror Lakes. It is literally a 5 minute walk from where you park up and you will see lakes exactly as the name describes – mirroring the Earl mountains.
Pop’s View Lookout & Monkey Creek
Pop’s lookout is another roadside stop to stretch your legs on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It offers the perfect view of Hollyford Valley, in rain or shine. The lookout is dedicated to Robert Alistair Andrew who was killed in an avalanche in 1983.
Don’t get too comfortable back in the car as just 10 minutes down the road is Monkey Creek. The water of Monkey Creek is so pristine, you can fill up your water bottle here.
If you haven’t spotted them already along the Te Anau to Milford Sound road, the Monkey Creek stop is a likely spot for seeing some keas which are friendly yet funny birds who will cheekily bop up to your van for a nose.
Make sure not to leave any windows or doors open when you jump out for a photo as keas will hop inside and start wrecking your seats, they are even known to pull parts off the car. When we were driving to Milford Sound we didn’t spot keas here, but we did have a wee chat to them at the next stop – Homer Tunnel.
Just 10 minutes along the road from Monkey Creek is Homer Tunnel – one of the most famous highlights on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It took 19 years to cut through the rock, however until Homer Tunnel was opened in 1954 there was no road access to Milford Sound.
The tunnel pretty much marks the summit of the Te Anau to Milford Sound road as it sits 945 metres above sea level before the road’s steep descent through Cleddau Valley into the grand finale of Milford Sound.
The tunnel itself is quite the adventure, at 1.2km long there is a traffic light system in place to ensure single file traffic and you may have to wait up to 20 minutes.
We used those minutes wisely and even hopped out the car for a few more photos of the keas and stunning waterfalls that had formed overnight thanks to heavy rainfall.
You are now very nearly at the end of your Te Anau to Milford Sound road trip, just one last stop which was one of our favourites – The Chasm. The irony is when we stopped here, we were the only visitors as it was raining heavily however, this is the BEST time to see The Chasm in full flow so do not let the weather put you off!
Thanks to thousands of years of powerful floodwater from the Cleddau River, sculpted rocks curve and swirl beneath you as you stand on a bridge looking down on this natural art. The walk is an easy and very rewarding 20 minute loop – the perfect last stop on the road to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound Parking
From the Chasm to Milford Sound it is only a 10 minute drive. We hope you enjoy the epic scenery on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, but before you park up we should warn the parking at Milford Sound costs $10 PER HOUR.
It can also take up to 30+ minutes to find/wait for a space due to the popularity of Milford Sound, but it will be worth the wait the minute you head out onto the water.
You are also advised to arrive 20 minutes (ish) prior to your Milford Sound cruise departure in order to check in, so make sure to allow enough time for the drive + finding a parking space + check in!
THE BEST MILFORD SOUND CRUISE
Now the epic Te Anau to Milford sound drive is over, it is time to enjoy your cruise. If you’re looking for the best Milford Sound Cruise, we cannot recommend Southern Discoveries enough.
We did the Discover More Cruise which was 3 hours and included a picnic lunch, free tea & coffee and visit to the Underwater Observatory (ticket price $61 – however ours was part of our Milford Sound Lodge package – more on this later)
After our amazing night’s sleep and breakfast at Milford Sound Lodge, we headed to the Milford Sound visitors centre for our cruise. Although our Milford Sound Camping experience was fabulous, we were a tad disheartened to wake up to rain. However, we soon learned from our guide that this is the best time to go on a Milford Sound cruise as it produces hundreds of waterfalls around the sound.
It could be a Scottish thing, but we also prefer photographs in grey skies creating more moody atmospheres, so felt this weather was perfect in comparison to sweating in hot sunshine and fighting with sun glares in our photos.
When arriving on the boat we were welcomed by free tea and coffee – being the backpackers we are, we scooped this up for the duration of the cruise. We chose to stand at the back and were delighted that we were the only ones there. Everyone else seemed to crowd at the front, or on top.
The guide was hilarious, pointing out wildlife such as seals and birds as we sailed surrounded by the most amazing scenery. He explained the history of Milford Sound as well as maneuvering the boat so we could sail through Stirling Falls – the second highest of Milford Sound waterfalls.
Although we recommend many backpacking travel essentials, for practicality (and comedy) we recommend a joint waterproof poncho if you unintentionally want to become the centre of attention on an entire cruise for 20 minutes.
Much to Darren’s delight, my sisters had bought us the double waterproof poncho prior to our backpacking trip and we I finally found the perfect occasion to use it. Even more to Darren’s delight, the guide narrated our every action as we put on the joint poncho, taking our photo and boosting us to embarrassing boat celebs for the afternoon.
So much so, during our Franz Josef Glacier hike a few days later, we were stopped by a couple who recognised and branded us “The poncho crew” from our cruise! Don’t worry, Southern Discoveries do actually provide waterproofs should you not want to bring your own.
Waterfall fashion aside, we then headed to Milford Discovery Centre and underwater observatory which was an unexpected part of our Milford Sound Cruise. We did mention, this was the best Milford Sound cruise because we don’t know of any others that offer the unique opportunity to not only cruise the waters above, but view Milford Sound from below too.
The guide was also so informative and answered any questions on wildlife in the Fiordland area and New Zealand in general (I questioned him on penguins… a lot). To be honest, we only saw a handful of fish from the underwater observatory but it was due to such heavy rain the visibility was poor.
It was then time to head back on the boat, where the return journey takes you round the opposite side of the sound so you get a close up of Bowen Falls – the largest Milford Sound Waterfall and a truly mesmerising site.
We were also given our picnic lunch which far exceeded expectation and included so much that we had plenty snacks left for the rest of the day.
On the return of our Milford Sound cruise, we also spotted dolphins playfully jumping near the boat which is apparently very common. The cherry on top of our trip was the most beautiful rainbow over the fiord as we finished our Milford Sound cruise.
MILFORD SOUND ACCOMMODATION FOR ALL BUDGETS
Budget: Milford Sound Camping
If you are looking for Milford Sound camping, there is no free camping permitted along the Te Anau to Milford Sound road AT ALL and this is strictly enforced.
However there are plenty DOC campsites, which charge a very small fee. Cascade Creek is the closest (yet still around a 45 minute drive to Milford Sound) and costs around NZ$6.00 per person for a camper or tent.
With the Te Anau to Milford Sound stretch being one of the most popular roads in New Zealand, we recommend arriving here early as in peak season, over 100 vehicles stop at Cascade Creek per night.
Don’t forget your camping essentials for a comfortable night’s sleep!
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Luxury: Milford Sound Overnight Cruise
To us, this sounds like the best Milford Sound Cruise however we discovered it after our trip. As the name suggests, a Milford Sound overnight cruise means you truly get to immerse yourself in the splendour of the sound.
Better yet, with an overnight option your Milford Sound cruise will begin late afternoon as the sun sets on the sound when all other tours are finished for the day.
Not only can you enjoy a stunning sunset, unrivalled star gazing and sunrise over the sound but capture it all crowd free and with a comfortable night sleep and buffet dinner in between!
Best Option: Milford Sound Lodge
Obviously, an overnight Milford Sound Cruise is the closest accommodation, however Milford Sound Lodge is a very close second at only a 4 minute drive from the shore. It isn’t too expensive either considering the proximity:
- NZ$60.00 per night for powered campervan space
- NZ$40.00 per night bed in dorm room
- Unfortunately they do not have tent pitches but also offer cabins
Milford Sound Lodge: 1 Night Campervan Experience
We decided to treat ourselves at Milford Sound Lodge and combine our campervan site with a cruise & breakfast package, it included:
- A powered campsite
- An insanely good cooked breakfast
- Our Milford Sound Cruise (including lunch onboard)
- All for a grand total of NZ$298.00 for 2 people.
However this has majorly gone up in price and now for the exact same package is NZ$418.00 for 2 people (price check December 2019).
The price difference could be as we went in March, it was towards the end of season and this was a special rate, so keep this in mind when booking your Milford Sound Accommodation that deals will pop up nearer the end of the season.
Is staying at Milford Sound Lodge Worth The Money?
Despite seeing the NZ$100.00+ price increase since our Milford Sound lodge stay, we still feel we would be pay this price again and again for the following reasons:
- The facilities at the camp site were some of the best out of all the South Island campgrounds we visited as the showers were private rooms, not typical camping toilet cubicles.
- All campervan spots were spacious, shaded and private. We did not feel crammed in compared to the DOC Milford Sound camping sites, instead surrounded by towering trees and truly engulfed by the natural beauty of the area.
- Our breakfast would’ve came to NZ$50.00 alone (we did opt for the most expensive things on the menu – to get our money’s worth). It was delicious and was such a special treat to have a long lie after the tiring drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
- It also included our Milford Sound Cruise – the tour itself was unreal, staff were so friendly and it included lunch and unlimited tea, coffee etc onboard.
- It is literally on the shores of Milford Sound and only takes 4 minutes to drive to the visitor centre for your cruise making it the closest accommodation.
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND - TOP TIPS
- Enjoy the rain: Do not cancel or postpone due to rain – you will have the best Milford Sound cruise experience in this weather! Both on the sound itself and the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive as waterfalls pop up everywhere and the creeks look best in full flow.
- Pack appropriate clothing: You will get wet regardless if it’s raining or not because of the waterfalls. Maybe don’t pack a double poncho, if you value your dignity but when will you get the opportunity again to head under a waterfall on Milford Sound?
- Fuel up: There are no shops or petrol stations on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound so pack up those snacks and ensure your petrol tank is full.
- Goodbye Wi-Fi: Remember there is no phone signal on the road either, so if you’re driving to Milford Sound plan your route beforehand, check the road conditions before hand and take note of all signs on route for diversions or warnings.
- Remember sandfly repellent: Those wee buggers are notorious in the Fiordlands.
- Take regular breaks: At its highest point, the Te Anau to Milford Sound road is 940 metres above sea level, this led to severe steam coming from our campervan brakes due to constant uphills and braking round the bends. Stop regularly to ease the pressure on your van (and allow others to overtake.)
- Leave enough time: As mentioned, the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound should take around 2 hours but with numerous photo stops, ever changing weather conditions and the Homer Tunnel queues, leave early to ensure you reach your Milford Sound Cruise on time.
Hopefully you enjoy the Te Anau to Milford Sound road trip as much as we did. Driving to Milford Sound might sound daunting (especially if you’re not used to driving on that side of the road!) but with so much to see and do along the way, not to mention the epic experience of the cruise itself, we guarantee it will be worth it. Let us know if we’re missing any highlights from the road to Milford Sound, we’d love to add more hidden gems to this guide.