Milford Sound

Things to do in Milford Sound

Date: 14 March 2024

Besides the epic scenery, incredible mountains, and inspiring wildlife, you might be wondering "What to do in Milford Sound?" As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular fiord to visit in the heart of New Zealand's South Island, Milford Sound offers visitors an array of both exciting and spectacular activities. Milford is a magical place full of nature’s wonders, so it can be hard to know how to best experience Fiordland’s top destination.

Whether you’re cruising serene waters through towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls, conquering the iconic Milford Track for unforgettable views, soaring to new heights by fixed-wing plane, or delving into underwater marvels, Milford Sound promises an unforgettable experience in the heart of nature's masterpiece. This guide will explore Milford Sound’s must-do activities.

Milford Sound Cruises

The most popular activity to experience Milford Sound is to explore its waters by boat. A cruise along the length of the fiord, right out to the Tasman Sea, will give you the best opportunity to see all of Milford Sound up close. On a cruise, you’ll visit the home of numerous marine animals, like bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and albatross. Rainy days will treat you to hundreds of waterfalls springing from mountaintops, and sunshine will promise relaxation as you can simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle around you.

Milford Sound Day Cruise

Best for: seeing the fiord in its entirety

A Day Cruise is a great way to experience Milford Sound in all its glory. On a cruise, you’ll get to see the entire length of the fiord and from almost every angle. Soak up the views of sheer cliffs, thundering waterfalls, and maybe even local wildlife as your onboard nature guide provides an insight into the geography, history, culture, and wildlife of the area. Nature guides are usually aboard Milford Sound Day Cruises, but it’s best to check before you book. RealNZ has a dedicated nature guide on all their Milford Sound vessels, so you’ll never miss a thing.

The day trip to Milford Sound will leave you with an appetite, and all RealNZ Day Cruise vessels offer satisfying and tasty food options. Nothing tastes as good as lunch with Milford Sound! Taste local New Zealand produce and relax in comfortable seating or on one of the top decks with craft regional beverages in hand.

Milford Wanderer in front of waterfall

Milford Sound Overnight Cruise

Best for: Sunsets and sunrises

A Milford Sound Overnight Cruise is the ultimate way to enjoy this incredible fiord. Like a day cruise and then some, an Overnight Cruise allows you to be fully immersed in nature and wake up, remote, to a spectacular sunrise, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Overnight Cruise offerings are limited, but RealNZ offers comfortable compartments on their purpose-built overnight vessels.  On these traditional, charming vessels, you can choose between a private ensuite or a shared bunk cabin. On top of this, all food is taken care of by your onboard chef, and you’ll enjoy professionally prepared meals. You’ll also be accompanied by an onboard nature guide who’ll be on the lookout for the amazing wildlife that calls Milford Sound home, such as Fiordland crested penguins and fur seals. You’ll also have the option to explore the shoreline by kayak or tender craft, so you can try your hand at navigating the fiord and getting even closer to the mountains and waters. Top it all off and relax on the top decks, staring out at the starry skies.

Overnight cruises have limited availability compared to day cruises, so if you’d like to spend the night in one of the most memorable places on Earth, we recommend booking well in advance.

Boat sailing at sunset

Kayak Milford Sound

Best for: getting closer to the mountains and water

Kayaking offers Milford Sound’s visitors an unparalleled perspective of the fiord. This activity gives you the unique opportunity to feel connected with the immense environment.

Paddle beneath the shadow of Mitre Peak’s towering form, explore Harrison Cove, and discover landscapes untouched by modern civilisation, all while you float on the pristine waters of Milford Sound in deep serenity.

As you navigate the fiord, keep an eye out for the marine life that calls Milford Sound home. Seals, dolphins, and penguins can make appearances, which is always an exciting experience when they do, especially in a kayak! If you do see wildlife, keep a safe distance to not disturb them.

If kayaking Milford Sound sounds like you, book a guided experience led by experts, who double as nature guides, telling you all about the region's ecology, geology, and history. Alternatively, combine experiences with a cruise, a kayak, and accommodation, during a RealNZ Overnight Cruise. On this experience, you’ll be given the option to explore Milford Sound’s shoreline by kayak or small boat, if the weather allows. RealNZ will take you kayaking at a secluded cove, close to where Fiordland crested penguins choose to nest and moult. Perfect for beginners and up, Milford Sound typically has calm waters due to it being sheltered from the sea.

Group of friends kayaking in Milford Sound

When is the best time to kayak in Milford Sound?

For those seeking sunny and warm days, late spring and summer are prime kayaking seasons, and paddling during these months increases your chances of having good weather. However, if you're ready for more of an adventurous experience and don't mind the rain and many waterfalls, winter months offer a unique perspective on Milford Sound's incredible landscape, typically offering heaps more waterfalls, and making it an exciting destination even in wetter conditions.

Milford Sound Swing

Best for: that Instagram photo

The Milford Sound Swing is a new attraction on Fiordland’s shores. Only a short, pleasant walk through some native flora, the picture-perfect reward at the end makes your short walk even more pleasant.

Woman sitting on swing in Milford Sound

How do you find the Milford Sound Swing?

The Milford Sound Swing can be missed if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Not located within the main Visitor Terminal area, you’ll find it if you walk away from the harbour, in the direction of the car park. Keep walking until you find the signpost for the ‘Milford Sound Forest Walk’ - begin to walk that trail.

Eventually, you’ll cross a bridge and reach a fork in the path. Stick to the right-hand side, facing the fiord. Here there’s a small clearing that leads to a small sandy peninsula. Hop onto the beach and follow it along – before long you’ll reach the Milford Sound Swing!

Milford Track Walk

Best for: lifelong achievement

The Milford Track is described by many as ‘the finest walk in the world’, and with good reason. This one-way, 53.5km walk takes you through glacier-carved valleys and into beautiful native forests, alongside waterfalls, and over mountain passes. People travel all over the world just to hike this track, and signing up for the journey will be something you’ll never regret.

The Milford Track involves hiking over three nights and four days, where you’ll be sleeping in special huts dotted along the trail. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, camping is not allowed, but the cosy huts that New Zealand is well known for make this hike an even more memorable experience.

Note that New Zealand has a ‘Great Walks season’ which is a period that the Department of Conservation judges as the best, and safest time to be in alpine conditions and walk the track. The season is usually from the end of October to the end of April: late spring to the end of summer.

As one of the most beautiful walks in the world, it’s also one of the most popular. The huts you must stay in book out quickly when bookings open at the start of the hiking season, so it’s important to be organised and book as soon as possible.

Three walkers on a swing bridge

How long does it take to walk the Milford Track?

The Milford Track starts at Glade Wharf, located on the far side of Lake Te Anau, which is in the south of the South Island. Note that Glade Wharf is only accessible by boat transfer. Here you’ll start your 53.5km walk (one way) over 4 days.

The number of hours you walk per day varies. On the first day, it’s estimated you’ll only walk 1.5 hrs. However, on the second, you’ll be hiking steadily for 6 hrs. The third day will be between 6-7 hrs of hiking, and the final day will be about 5.5 hrs until you reach Sandfly Point. Here, you’ll get on another boat which will take you into the heart of Milford Sound, the end of your journey. Book your Milford Track Transfer here.

Visit the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory

Best for: seeing a unique perspective

Visit Milford Sound’s underwater observatory and see the fiord from a totally fresh perspective. You’ll head 10m below the surface of the water where you’ll be able to see Milford Sound’s incredible layers. This is a unique fiord where saltwater from the sea and freshwater from waterfalls and rivers combine, and an incredible phenomenon occurs where the dark freshwater floats on top of the heavier saltwater, making it a great habitat for specific marine life such as Black Coral.

How do you get to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory?

Milford Sound’s underwater observatory is located at Harrison Cove, a short boat journey from the Visitor Terminal.

Diving Milford Sound

Best for: discovering something new

While the main spectacle of Milford Sound is above the water's surface, diving enthusiasts can still find unique underwater experiences in this breathtaking fiord. The underwater world of Milford Sound is a hidden gem, offering divers the chance to spot rare marine life, such as black coral, crayfish, and fur seals in action.

Is Milford Sound salt or fresh water?

Is Milford Sound salt or fresh water?

Milford Sound is a fiord with a mix of both saltwater from the Tasman Sea and freshwater running in from the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. This unique blend creates a phenomenon where the freshwater, much darker and full of tannins from leaves and earth, creates a layer that floats on top of the denser saltwater below. This mix of salt and freshwater contributes to the unique marine life that thrives in these waters.

How deep is the water in Milford Sound?

The depth of Milford Sound's water varies, sometimes reaching depths of 400 meters (1,312 feet). Diving into these unveils a world of underwater cliffs, rock formations, and marine life. While the underwater landscape won’t boast the colourful coral reefs found in warmer climates, it’s the varied submerged terrain and its residential marine life that is a major draw to dive in Milford Sound.

Diving in Milford Sound requires proper certification – we recommend using local dive operators who are familiar with the unique conditions of the fiord. The cool temperatures and varying visibility may present challenges, but for those seeking a one-of-a-kind diving

Diving in Milford Sound requires proper certification – we recommend using local dive operators who are familiar with the unique conditions of the fiord. The cool temperatures and varying visibility may present challenges, but for those seeking a one-of-a-kind diving adventure surrounded by the stunning landscapes of Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound holds the promise of an unforgettable underwater exploration.

Swimming in Milford Sound

Best for: a fresh start

If you're a fan of invigorating swims and don't mind the brisk chill, taking a dip in Milford Sound can be a unique and memorable experience. Just be sure to bring a wetsuit to keep the cold at bay, only swim where the currents are calm, and enjoy the stunning surroundings from a different perspective.

Two people jumping off the boat into Milford Sound

 How cold is the water in Milford Sound?

While the idea of taking a refreshing swim in Milford Sound might seem tempting, it's essential to note that the water temperature here is on the chilly side. Even during the warmer months, the fiord's waters can be quite cold, never warmer than 10 degrees celsius.

Milford Sound Scenic Flight 

Best for: those extra-special memories

Seeing Milford Sound approach from the skies is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From the air, you’ll gain perspective of the surrounding Fiordland mountains, the Tasman Sea, hidden mountain-top lakes, and the magnitude of the fiords.

Experiencing a Milford Sound scenic flight is also the fastest way to visit. Milford Sound usually takes a whole day to experience when you include travel time, and a scenic flight shortens this significantly. So, if you have dinner reservations, or morning adventures planned, you have more time to get stuck in.

 How long does it take to fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound?

A flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes around 40 minutes one way. If you’re working out the timing, don’t forget to factor in activities you’d like to do in Milford Sound, like a cruise, and return flight time.

Encounter Milford Sound Wildlife

Best for: the cutest moments

As a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, Milford Sound is home to an abundance of bird and marine life. If you choose to enjoy one of the activities listed above, you’ll increase your chances of spotting these amazing creatures. Your guides will be on the lookout for them, and might spot:

  • NZ fur seals, often spotted lounging on the rocks at the edge of the fiord where it meets the sea.
  • Bottlenose dolphins, occasionally spotted swimming beside and riding the wake of vessels as they cruise the fiord. Keep your eyes peeled for playful dolphins swimming alongside the boat!
  • Fiordland crested penguins, or tawaki, a rare penguin sometimes seen at Harrison Cove, where the RealNZ Overnight Cruise stops to kayak. With the tawaki population in decline and susceptible to threats from predators and changing climate, it’s important to keep your distance if you are lucky enough to spot these penguins.
  • Kea, usually spotted at Monkey Creek, on the Milford Road, just before you enter the Homer Tunnel on your way to the fiord. Kea are inquisitive, intelligent, and cheeky alpine parrots. Foraging is a useful skill for them to have, so don’t feed them under any circumstances!
A kea sitting on a car in Milford Sound


How do I get to Milford Sound?

To reach Milford Sound, the most popular fiord in New Zealand’s Fiordland, you can embark on a scenic journey from either Queenstown or Te Anau. From Queenstown, the most common route is via State Highway 6 and State Highway 94, known as the Milford Road. This picturesque drive offers stunning landscapes and takes approximately 4 hours by car one way (without stops!)

Alternatively, starting from Te Anau, another gateway to Fiordland, you can follow State Highway 94 directly, which takes around 2.5 hours one way. Considered one of the most beautiful drives globally, the road showcases remarkable landscapes, including Mirror Lakes and the Homer Tunnel. Whether you choose to start from Queenstown or Te Anau, both journeys promise awe-inspiring scenery before arriving at Milford Sound, an awesome natural wonder.

Transport to Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a popular destination for many visitors to New Zealand, and there are numerous transport options available. Many businesses offer ‘Milford Sound Day Trips’ which package coach transfers with a cruise when you reach the fiord. Coach journeys are popular, as all passengers can relax in comfort, watch the incredible scenes roll by, and leave the (sometimes tricky) driving to the professionals.

Alternatively, you can upgrade to a Milford Sound flight, increasing the views, and shortening the travel time. Read our blog on how to get to Milford Sound to find out the best way for you to travel.

What is the best time to visit Milford Sound?

The best time to visit Milford Sound is all year round! Milford Sound's beauty knows no seasonal bounds. Contrary to specific months, any time from January to December offers a spectacular experience. In sunshine, witness the stunning contrast of blue skies against majestic mountain peaks. But even rain transforms the landscape, creating a breathtaking display of hundreds of waterfalls cascading around the fiord. Whether it's the warmth of the sun or cool immense rainfall, Milford Sound captivates visitors with its timeless allure throughout the entire year.

Are there any restaurants or places to eat in Milford Sound?

The only places to eat in Milford Sound are aboard the day or overnight cruise vessels. If you’re heading out for a day trip, you should bring refreshments, snacks and water for your journey and experience. Additionally, the cruise you choose to book might offer à la carte dining, pre-ordered picnic boxes, or cabinet food. RealNZ cruises usually offer a variety of food options depending on the vessel you’re cruising on. You should research your options before departing for the day, so you’re not left hungry! Alternatively, stop at Te Anau for lunch before you continue to Milford Sound. Te Anau is the last town you’ll pass through and has restaurants, cafés, and supermarkets.

Can I camp or stay overnight in Milford Sound?

Accommodation options in the heart of Milford Sound are limited. The only accommodation available is Milford Sound Lodge, a public lodge catering to independent travellers. This lodge not only provides chalets but also serves as a campervan park. It's important to note that Milford Sound, being a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, strictly prohibits freedom camping, and Department of Conservation campgrounds are limited. Further outside of the centre of Milford Sound is the ‘Cascade Creek Campsite’ along the Milford Road. This standard campsite is suitable for larger vehicles, and reservations are necessary due to its popularity. Beyond that, the closest hotels are in Te Anau, about 2 – 2.5 hrs from Milford Sound.

What is the best way to see Mitre Peak in Milford Sound?

To see the iconic Mitre Peak, take a cruise through Milford Sound and feel the mountain tower above. Boat tours offer unparalleled views of the peak, allowing you to appreciate its grandeur from the water. Whether on a day cruise or an overnight adventure, you can appreciate this majestic mountain in all its glory from a boat.

What should I wear to Milford Sound?

Dressing appropriately for your Milford Sound adventure ensures you’re comfortable and most importantly, dry while enjoying the stunning surroundings. Layering is key, as weather conditions can change quickly, no matter what the forecast says! A waterproof jacket and sturdy shoes are a must. Though when it’s sunny, it’s really sunny, so don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen! If you plan on partaking in water activities, pack a swimsuit and a quick-drying towel. Being prepared for various conditions ensures you make the most of your time in this natural wonderland.