TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND: THE COMPLETE GUIDE
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND: THE COMPLETE GUIDE
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND
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 25 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 ACCOMMODATION
Before your adventure to Milford Sound begins this is probably the best place to stay the night before. If we were to do things differently during our New Zealand 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. Due to the town’s proximity to Milford Sound and with us 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:
- Kiwi Membership Card – The most popular camping ground in Te Anau is Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park. Usually, it costs $35 for a 2 year membership, however Traveller’s Autobarn 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 found the sign below during our drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, so a little too late but these camping grounds may come in handy for you!
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
Typical Scots, recommending pie eating BUT devouring one of these delicious creations by the beautiful lake are one of the most popular things to do in Te Anau. It is 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!
Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
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!
Fancy A Hike?
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 😉
DRIVING FROM TE ANAU 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 all.
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.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound (according to Google) is 1 hour and 40 minutes, however like most roads in our South Island road trip, it will likely take MUCH longer as you stop so often for photos at the following stops.
Eglington Valley – For Lord Of The Ring Fans
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. You may recognise these mountains as the Eglington Valley was used a location in the Lord of the Rings films. You drive through the valley, 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.
Pop’s View Lookout & Monkey Creek
Pop’s lookout is another roadside stop and the perfect place to view Hollyford Valley. The lookout is dedicated to Robert Alistair Andrew who was killed in an avalanche in 1983. Another stop 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, Monkey Creek stop is a guaranteed spot for seeing some keas which are friendly yet funny birds. 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!
Just 10 minutes along the road from Monkey Creek is the Homer Tunnel. 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! This is pretty much the summit of the Te Anau to Milford Sound road as it sits 945 metres above sea level marking the start of the road’s 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 very nearly at the end of your Te Anau to Milford Sound adventure, just one last stop which was one of our favourites – The Chasm. 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 before the final drive to Milford Sound.
MILFORD SOUND ACCOMMODATION FOR ALL BUDGETS
Budget – Milford Sound Camping (DOC Campsites)
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!
Ballin’ – Milford Sound Overnight Cruise
To us, this would be 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 – Milford Sound Lodge
Obviously, a Milford Sound Cruise is the closest accommodation however Milford Sound Lodge is a very close second at only a 4 minute drive. 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
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, it included:
- A powered campsite
- An insanely good 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 2018).
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.
Despite seeing the NZ$100.00+ price increase since our Milford Sound lodge stay in March 2018, we still feel we would be pay this price 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 then not have to cook our usual porridge in the campervan!
- 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 (more on that later!)
THE BEST MILFORD SOUND 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)
After our amazing night’s sleep and breakfast at Milford Sound Lodge, we drove 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 manoeuvring 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, 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.
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND – OUR TOP TIPS
- 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 for getting wet. Maybe not a double poncho, if you value your dignity but when will you get the opportunity again to head under a waterfall in Milford Sound?
- 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.
- Remember there is no phone signal on the road either, so plan your route beforehand and take note of all signs regarding rain and snow fall to ensure a safe drive.
- Remember sandfly repellent – those wee buggers are notorious in the Fiordlands!
- 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 uphill’s and braking round the bends.
- 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.
For more photos of our adventure, please take a peek at our New Zealand gallery.
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