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Road trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

A photo of calm waters on Milford Sound, in Fjordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.

New Zealand is no slouch when it comes to natural beauty, but a road trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi really takes it up to a whole new level. Located on a remote stretch of the South Island’s west coast, this is a revered site that never fails to deliver a feeling of awe to all who are lucky enough to visit.

If you’re looking for somewhere that you simply will not forget, visiting Milford Sound on a road trip from Te Anau — or as an overnight road trip from Queenstown / Tāhuna — is about as close to unforgettable as you can get. While many opt to visit Milford Sound / Piopiotahi on an organised day tour by bus, it can make for a perfect self-drive road trip in a rental car, and the thing is, once you start planning your road trip, you’ll quickly realise there’s a lot more to see and do than you may have first thought. Before you know it, you’ll be spending three or four days in the area. Read on to find out why.

The history of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

The first thing you need to know about Milford Sound is that it isn’t a sound, rather it’s a fjord. This might sound like semantics, but it matters — a sound is a valley that was filled with sea water, most often by the flooding of a river valley — while a fjord is an underwater valley that was carved by glaciers, and when the glacier melted, the valley filled will water. So in English, Milford Fjord is the more accurate descriptor, but somehow the Milford Sound name has stuck.

Starry sky over mountains at Milford Sound, New Zealand
Get ready to enter another world.

Why stop with English though? After all, Piopiotahi was revered by the Māori people long before any foreigner paddled up its sublime waters, so where does the Māori name — Piopiotahi — stand on the sound/fjord front? For the name’s origins, you need to look back to the Māori legend of the mischievous hero Māui. After an untimely death while trying to achieve immortality for humankind, his partner — a piopio bird — flew to the fjord to mourn his passing and sing a final lament. Tahi means one, so Piopiotahi literally translates as “a single piopio.”

Foreigners didn’t find about the site of the piopio’s lament until 1812, when Welsh captain John Grono after sailing upon its waters, named it Milford Haven in honour of his homeland in Wales. Thanks to the cats and rats that foreign seafarers like Grono brought to New Zealand’s shores, in under a century the piopio was considered virtually extinct — the last confirmed specimen was shot in 1902.

Fjords and sounds, cats and rats, birds and a mischievous hero aside, it is Milford Sound / Piopiotahi’s earth-shattering beauty that sees it as one of the absolute highlights of a visit to New Zealand’s South Island. Running some fifteen kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea on the South Island’s western coast, the mouth of the fjord is cradled by sheer cliffs of over one thousand metres high, while in from the coast, waterfalls, wilderness, and wildlife offer an utterly sublime, other-worldly experience. As you quietly cruise along its waters, it’s easy to imagine the piopio’s lament echoing off the cliff faces.

When novelist Rudyard Kipling described it as “the eighth wonder of the world,” he wasn’t kidding, nor was UNESCO, when they awarded this entire region of New Zealand a World Heritage Listing in 1990.

Highlights of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Arguably the most memorable — and comfortable — way to experience Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is on a day- or overnight-cruise. The more energetic might prefer exploring by kayak, though unless you’re planning on kayaking its full length, this is sometimes better enjoyed as a part of a cruise trip.

Still water-related, though this time under the surface, both snorkelling and diving are possible, particularly to see the black coral trees — but be warned, the water temperatures in these parts are not tropical! For those with a bigger budget, scenic flights are another possibility, but to truly soak up the awe Milford Sound / Piopiotahi can provide, you’re far better off sticking close to the ground.

How to get to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

For centuries, the only way to reach Milford Sound / Piopiotahi was on foot or by boat. Even then it wasn’t easy — Captain Cook twice sailed right by the fjord’s entrance in 1773, leaving it to Grono to stumble upon it almost 40 years later. Today, the closest town — Te Anau — lies over 100 kilometres to the south, but it wasn’t until the opening of the almost-twenty-years-to-build Homer Tunnel in 1953 that it became possible to drive the whole way. The single road is not just the only means to get there, but also a near-unforgettable journey into the heart of Fjordland National Park.

Mountain landscape within Fjordland National Park on the way to Milford Sound, New Zealand
Just getting there is stunning.

From Te Anau, it is 121 kilometres (two to two and half hours driving non-stop) and from Queenstown / Tāhuna it is almost 290 kilometres (about four and a half hours non-stop), to reach Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. While you can make the drive in one hit, it is worth allowing enough time to linger and sightsee along the way. You can also approach by boat, plane (daily flights from Queenstown Airport), and tour bus (no train, sorry), but a road trip by rental car to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is a great option.

When it comes to renting a car for a road trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, Queenstown / Tāhuna, Queenstown Airport, Invercargill Airport and Dunedin / Ōtepoti all offer comprehensive selections of rental cars to choose from. Of these options, Queenstown and Invercargill Airport are the two closest options.

Tips for driving your rental car between Te Anau and Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Driving between Te Anau and Milford Sound / Piopiotahi in your rental car is a terrific way to experience one of New Zealand’s most beautiful drives, however it is important to remember that you are in a wilderness area, and there are some important points to keep in mind while on the Milford Road.

  • Be sure to leave Te Anau with a full tank of petrol. There are no petrol stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, so it is essential that you leave with sufficient fuel.
  • There is no phone coverage on the Milford Road, so do not assume you will phone coverage for the journey — yes, warn the kids in advance.
  • Be prepared for drastic weather changes in short periods of time. The weather in time part of New Zealand can be temperamental to say the least, and can change with little warning. Bring warm clothes and wet weather gear.
  • If you are visiting in winter, be sure that you have snow chains. If you do not know how to use snow chains, you should not attempt this drive in winter. Delays and road closures due to weather conditions in winter are commonplace.
  • Many visitors time their drive from Te Anau to coordinate their arrival with cruise departure times. This means traffic congestion can be a problem. To avoid the worst of the traffic, leave Te Anau as early as possible — or late in the afternoon (but only if you have accommodation organised).
  • In busy periods, large buses are common on the Milford Road — always drive carefully and prepared.
  • Pack some snacks, plenty of drinking water, and insect repellent. There are two sets of public toilets along the way, but that’s it.
  • Before you leave Te Anau, be sure to visit the Tourist Office. They have a good map, and loads of information on Milford Sound that they’re happy to share.

Where to stay near Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Unless you’re on an overnight cruise, you will need to have your accommodation sorted out beforehand. Most visitors tend to stay in the cute little lakeside town of Te Anau. It offers a good range of accommodation, along with creature comforts including cafés, restaurants and bars, and some shops. Te Anau is also the base for a number of hiking options and activities, so don’t make the mistake of thinking Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is the sole attraction.

Tourist looks at fjord scenery from a cruise ship deck on Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, South Island of New Zealand.
Get ready to have your breath taken away.

There is accommodation in Milford Sound / Piopiotahi itself, but it carries premium pricing and fills up fast. In season, accommodation in Te Anau itself likewise fills up, so booking your beds in advance is a prudent decision.

Further afield, while you conceivably could use Invercargill or Queenstown / Tāhuna as a base, you’d be up for a formidable amount of driving, and Te Anau is a better option if you want to self-drive to Milford Sound.

One day road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Assuming you have a late-morning Milford Sound / Piopiotahi cruise booked, you want to leave Te Anau as early as possible — both to beat the worst of the traffic and to allow enough time to linger along the way. What follows are some of the main points of interest, and we suggest picking a couple to see on the way to your cruise and a couple more on the way back. Some of the treks, for example the Routeburn Track and the walk to Lake Marian, are destinations in their own right, so don’t try to combine them with a visit to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi itself. The National Park office provide a good free map here (PDF).

About thirty minutes north of Te Anau lies Te Anau Downs. This marks the trailhead for the Milford Track — a four day trek to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi — but if you’re up for a shorter and good-for-kids walk, the forest track to Lake Mistletoe Viewpoint takes about 45 minutes round trip and offers up some good views. The Te Anau Downs Lookout and Te Anau Downs Station are also worth considering — if the weather is clear!

Mountainous stretch of the Milford Road on the way to Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
With every turn it gets ever more beautiful.

Another twenty to thirty minutes up the road will deliver you to the Eglinton Valley Lookout and the Mirror Lakes. Carved out of the Earth by glaciers thousands of years ago, Eglinton Valley’s steep rocky mountains are draped in beech forest and the valley floor is golden tussock grass — with a clear sky and bright sun, this is a truly beautiful spot. This was also one of the filming locations for The Lord of The Rings, with the mountains “acting” as the Misty Mountains in the epic film. It is around a ten minute round-trip walk to the lakes where (weather permitting) you can enjoy a stunning mirrored view of the Earl Mountains — they’re not called Mirror Lakes without reason! While admiring the reflections, keep an eye out for the pāpango — New Zealand’s smallest duck!

Back in the car and fifteen to twenty minutes later, you’ll reach a series of viewpoints including the Lake Gunn Viewpoint and the Lake Fergus Lookout, along with the trailhead for the Lake Gunn Nature Walk, an easy loop walk that takes around an hour all up at an easy pace. Many just stop for some happy snaps, and with the clock ticking, if you only have the one day, you do need to decide where to spend your time.

The trail to one of the most rewarding hiking trails in the area, the Routeburn Track, is only another ten minutes up the road. The apex of the trail offers tremendous views over Fjordland National Park, but with it needing a minimum of three hours return to hike — more if adding Lake Howden — this is a full day activity in its own right.

Just a hop, skip, and a jump up the road is Pops View, which offers up spectacular views of the Hollyford Valley and is near the access point for the walk to Lake Marian and, to the north, Humboldt Falls. As with the Routeburn Track, Lake Marian needs between three and four hours, so again this is a standalone destination.

A scenic view across the beautiful Lake Marian with mountains in the background. In Fjordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
Lake Marian is like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

From Pops View it is about thirty minutes onwards — including driving through the Homer Tunnel — to reach The Chasm — one of the best places in the area to witness the power and beauty of nearby waterfalls, and access is via an easy-to-follow trail. Before the tunnel, be sure to make a stop at the Monkey Creek where you can sip clear mountain spring water and perhaps spot a kea or ten. Note that traffic can clog up around the tunnel with delays of up to thirty minutes or so being not uncommon.

Last stop before Milford Sound / Piopiotahi itself is the Tutoko Suspension Bridge which dates back to 1940. It is now a pedestrian bridge only, and while some might stop for a photo moment, for many, with Milford Sound / Piopiotahi so close, the temptation to push on is strong.

Parking at Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

There is both free- and paid-parking at Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, but the free parking area fills up fast and is located to the east of the airport, around 1.5 kilometres from where the cruise ships moor. If you want to park closer to the cruise terminal it costs NZ$10 per hour.

A cruise on Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

There are almost two dozen operators running cruises on Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, with options ranging from short trips of a couple of hours to multi-day excursions that explore at a slower pace. The shorter trips tend to leave the ferry terminal and follow one side of the fjord out to the Tasman Sea and then return following the other side of the fjord to the terminal. This allows passengers to get a decent “view of everything,” including native forest and cascading waterfalls, but if you’re after a more in-depth experience — and the opportunity to savour the silence of a starry night — an overnight cruise is worth considering.

A tourist boat cruises past beautiful waterfalls on Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
Like another world.

Some cruises may offer kayaking as an additional option, but there are also specialist kayak operators that offer kayak rather than cruise trips on Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. This offers a far closer to nature experience and offers the opportunity to visit areas the cruises skip.

There are chances to see wildlife, from kea and albatross to dolphins and NZ fur seals, but Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is not a zoo, and the wildlife do not show up to perform on request! Your mileage will vary — even if you purchased unlimited mileage with your rental car! Another option on the wildlife front is to consider a visit to the Milford Sound Observatory. A floating underwater observatory at Harrison Cove. This is the only floating underwater observatory in New Zealand and offers a way to witness the fjord’s underwater environment without getting wet.

Closing thoughts

A little bit of planning goes a long way when you’re figuring out a rental car road trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. While it is tempting to visit as a day trip, if there is an area of New Zealand that deserves a bit more of your time, this is it — especially if you love the outdoors.

Planning also matters when it comes to deciding what you want to see on the way to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi from Te Anau and what you plan to see on the way back. Don’t try to cram too much in, and remember that while having a rental car is the perfect way to enjoy a road trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, likewise you don’t want your holiday to resemble a military expedition. Remember you’re on holiday!

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