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20 BEST Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound

20 BEST Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound

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It’s no secret that I love a good road trip, and the journey to Milford Sound from Christchurch is no exception. While this trek might not be for everyone at over 9 hours of drive time, believe me when I tell you there are so many incredible sights along the way that make it worthwhile.

If you’re visiting the South Island, there’s a good chance you’ll be staying in Christchurch since there’s a large international airport here. And while there are tons of things to do in Christchurch from gondola rides to beach outings, even the most active of travelers can appreciate taking a break from the fast-paced city and venturing into nature.

While staying in a metropolis certainly has its perks, there’s something special about escaping to a more remote area, especially one as magical as Milford Sound. I have come back more times than I can count, and absolutely love bringing family and friends here when they are looking for the best places to visit on the South Island.

Since this a long trip, around 760 km (472 miles), I recommend taking your time and staying the night at some of the cozy mountain towns along the way. There are options for everyone, and I’ll highlight my favorite activities to do at each place.

In this guide, I’ve listed 20 of the best stops for you to check out from Christchurch to Milford Sound, and I think you’ll find that this road trip will be one for the books. Without further ado, let’s get started!

Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can browse JUCY’s availability here. Alternatively, you can see all of the different rental companies available in NZ on Motorhome Republic.

About the Drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound

The picturesque drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound is an astounding 756.7-kilometer-long journey (470.2 miles) that takes approximately 9.5 hours to make without stops. Personally, I think 7 days would be the right amount of time to dedicate to this road trip to ensure you’re seeing some of the absolute best sights.

For instance, I’ve included enjoying overnight stays in Queenstown and stopping to admire the beautiful hues of the Mirror Lakes along your way.

While there are a few routes you can take from Christchurch to Milford Sound, this guide will highlight what I consider to be the best scenic routes with my favorite activities to do at each stop. If you are limited on time, no worries! I’ve listed plenty of options so you can choose what works best for you.

Before continuing on, I really want to touch on being safe while driving in New Zealand. Whether you’re visiting New Zealand in the winter, or plan to spend your summer holiday here, you’ll need to be cautious of the weather and road conditions.

I recommend checking out this guide on driving in New Zealand, especially if you’ve never been here before. Aside from knowing the rules of the road, you’ll need to carry snow chains and be aware of slippery ice if you’re visiting in winter. In other seasons, there can be high winds and heavy traffic, so you’ll need to be cautious and use good judgment. I also take a few minutes to read New Zealand’s traffic and travel website before embarking on a road trip as well.

I have visited Milford Sound in every season, and it’s honestly beautiful every time of year. While it is a very wet place, it is definitely worth the trip. No matter when you’re traveling from Christchurch to Milford Sound, below are my recommendations for the best stops along the way.

Related Read: If you’re taking a road trip, check out my guide on renting a car in Christchurch. I’ve rented plenty of cars on the South Island, so I have lots of tips that I want to pass on to you!

How to Get from Christchurch to Milford Sound

Drive yourself

Bailey stands in the doorway of her rental car while waiting at the Homer Tunnel on her way to Milford Sound from Queenstown
Driving to Milford Sound on a cloudy day.

One of my favorite ways to explore New Zealand is by getting in a car and going. I personally love driving between towns because I get to choose my own itinerary and can change my schedule as I please.

If you’re flying into Christchurch, you can rent a car directly from the airport or catch a ride into the CBD and book one there. My preferred method is booking online through Discover Cars, as they have amazing customer service and great deals that aren’t always available at the rental car companies. Plus, you can pay in your home currency, so you won’t have to deal with those pesky international transaction fees!

It’s worth noting that you will need to be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver’s license and credit card to rent a vehicle in New Zealand.

If you’re traveling with a group or enjoy more space while you travel, I have had great experiences using JUCY to rent campervans and motorhomes. They have a lot of locations in New Zealand, so renting from them is a breeze.

For even more options, check out Motorhome Republic. This site is one of the largest motorhome rental agencies in the world, so you’ll definitely find something that works for your travels.

Go on a Tour

A bus drives out of the Homer Tunnel on its way to Milford Sound
A bus drives out of the Homer Tunnel on its way to Milford Sound

If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, I always love joining a good tour. This 5-day round-trip tour is a great option for those staying in Christchurch who want to see the South Island but don’t necessarily mind where the stops are.

On this guided tour, you’ll visit attractions like New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook, take a cruise on Milford Sound, and ride the TranzAlpine Express through the Southern Alps. Overnight stays are included at Queenstown and Franz Joseph, where you’ll have free time to explore these stunning areas.

This tour departs on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and includes hotel pickup and drop-off in Christchurch.

It’s worth noting that you will get a better rate if you’re traveling with others because of the shared accommodation cost. For three guests, the price is $1,995 NZD per person. For two, you’ll each pay $2,375 NZD per person. And the option for solo travelers is a bit more at $2,925 NZD. Meals are at your own expense, and you’ll arrive back in Christchurch on day five.

If you want to see what the South Island has to offer, but driving isn’t your thing, I highly recommend booking this round trip 5-day guided tour here.

Christchurch to Milford Sound FAQs

20 Best Places to Stop Between Christchurch and Milford Sound

1. Christchurch

Bailey at the New Regent Street Precinct in Christchurch, New Zealand
New Regent Street Precinct in Christchurch, New Zealand
Bailey at Ohinetahi Viewpoint next to Sign of the Bellbird in Christchurch, New Zealand
There are some nice views around Christchurch – ride the gondola for the best!

Visiting Christchurch is one of best things to do on the South Island. It’s the second largest city in New Zealand (after Auckland), a title which means there are endless activities to do year-round. I’ve listed my favorite suggestions below for a full day in Christchurch.

In 2011, Christchurch had a devastating earthquake, the damage of which can still be seen to this day. Although this disaster will forever be a part of the city’s history, the strength of New Zealanders has turned this story into one of perseverance and hope.

Visiting Quake City is at the top of the list when visiting Christchurch. This museum pays homage to the lives lost during the earthquake, and teaches the importance of preparedness in the event of a natural disaster. Aside from being educational, it’s a great place for kids and offers plenty of family-friendly activities.

There’s plenty of tours in Christchurch, and one of my absolute favorites is the International Antarctic Center. This family-friendly attraction has everything from an interactive 4D cinema space to a room that reenacts what it’s like during an Antarctic storm. Plus it’s really close to the airport, so it’d be a great way to pass a few hours before your return flight.

For those that don’t have a fear of heights, you can’t miss taking a ride on the Christchurch Gondola. You’ll get unbelievable aerial views of the city, and after the 1 km long ride (0.62 miles), you’ll reach the top where there is a gift shop, the Time Tunnel Ride, and various walking trails.

If you’re an avid hiker, my absolute favorite hike in Christchurch is the Godley Head Loop Track. This 9 km (5.6 mile) hike should take about 3 hours to complete, and includes epic coastal views where you can spot whales and seals. This track also includes many WWII historical sites along the way, and is considered to be one of the best hikes in New Zealand.

If you’re looking for more inexpensive activities in Christchurch, I recommend walking through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It’s free to enter and each time I visit there’s always something new to admire that the current season brings. Also, a walk down the Brockworth Street Art Gallery is a must for art lovers. I spent about an hour walking down this street and taking pictures of all the amazing murals.

For all the thrill-seekers out there, you have to sign up for this Christchurch Zipline tour where you will fly at speeds over 80 kph (50 mph). The instructors are amazing and really helped ease my nerves which I really appreciated. The Christchurch Adventure Park has multiple ziplines and biking trails, so it makes for a great way to spend a few hours during your day.

I rely on caffeine most days, and the most unique place I’ve had coffee in Christchurch is C1 Espresso. Not only is it one of the best coffee shops in Christchurch, but you can watch your food being delivered to you overhead in pneumatic tubes. It’s such a cool spot with really tasty coffee and a great atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the best places to visit in Christchurch during the winter is He Puna Taimoana Hot Pools. These hot pools overlook the ocean and are a perfect way to wind down. The cost is very reasonable at $21 NZD per adult for two hours, and there are even group rates to help you save money. These hot pools are super popular, so you will need to book in advance, but it is such a lovely way to relax.

2. Lake Tekapo

Views of Lake Tekapo from the Church of the Good Shepard
Lake Tekapo is a lake and town that’s definitely worth check out.

After your action-packed day in Christchurch, I suggest pulling over at Lake Tekapo for the night. Plan to arrive in the evening so you can enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants in Lake Tekapo. I personally recommend enjoying a sunset dinner at Dark Sky Diner.

I always take advantage of the amazing star-gazing opportunities when I visit here. Lake Tekapo is classified as an UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, so I suggest enjoying the night sky either from a soak at the Tekapo Springs, or by taking a tour.

One of the best ways to experience this area at night is by taking a guided tour to Mt John Observatory. You’ll spend two hours at a world-class astronomical research facility with experts who take the time to describe the awesomeness of space and the southern skies. It’s a really cool experience and great for anyone with an interest in space.

On the following morning, a visit to the small but elegant Church of the Good Shepherd is an absolute must. This modest church has been around since 1935, and it’s an especially popular spot for photographers given the backdrop of the Southern Alps and stunning blue lake.

Staying Overnight in Lake Tekapo

I really recommend staying at least one night in Lake Tekapo. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the South Island with some of the best views of the night sky.

If you’re on a budget, I recommend staying at the Lakes Edge Lodge. It’s just a 3-minute drive from the town center, and even offers shared laundry services which is great for a long road trip.

If you have a higher budget for accommodations, I really enjoy the Mantra Lake Tekapo. These apartments are great for people traveling in groups, and have a really nice outdoor pool and hot tub. They offer one, two, and three-bedroom apartments and continue to have rave reviews.

Related Read: For a more detailed itinerary, check out the best stops on the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook.

3. Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki Lookout with views of Mount cook National Park
Can you spot Mount Cook?
Bailey enjoys the views of Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
It’s really that blue!

If you follow New Zealand travel pages on social media, chances are you’ve seen pictures of Lake Pukaki. This bright blue lake is nothing short of picturesque, and it’s worth taking a pit stop here to snap a few photos.

One of my favorite places for photo ops is this viewpoint. On a clear day, you can see across the entirety of the lake and get great photos with Mount Cook in the background. There is a large parking lot here and even toilets, so it’s a perfect spot to spend a few minutes during your road trip.

If you’re up for a little jaunt, I recommend pulling over to take the Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk. This is also a perfect spot for a picnic as the views are absolutely incredible.

After a brief visit taking pictures and maybe having a tasty snack, it’s on to Mount Cook as our next stop from Christchurch to Milford Sound.

4. Mount Cook

Bailey walks through the grass at Lake Pukaki Viewpoint (Mount Cook Road)
What a view!
Bailey stands on the egde of Hooker Lake in Mount Cook National Park 
The Hooker Valley Track!

Mount Cook is one of the most iconic places in all of New Zealand. There are hundreds of thousands of visitors that travel here each year, and after visiting many times, I can tell you it’s absolutely worth the hype. If you can, I recommend staying overnight as there are tons of things to do in Mount Cook National Park.

For those looking for a new profile pic, I highly recommend pulling off about 10 km (6.2 miles) from Mount Cook Village to take the famous Mount Cook road photo. This notorious picture spot does require you to stand on an active road, so you’ll have to be cautious of other cars, but I promise it’ll be worth it. With Mount Cook standing high behind the winding road, it makes for an absolutely stunning addition to any photo album.

It probably comes as no surprise, but one of my favorite activities to do is hiking, and Mount Cook has some amazing trails. The Hooker Valley Track is very popular as it’s relatively flat and offers breathtaking views. At 10 kilometers total (6.2 miles), this hike will take about three hours, and you’ll get to enjoy views like Mount Sefton and Mueller Glacier along the way. Time and time again, this track continues to be one of my favorite hikes on the South Island.

If you’re looking for a shorter hike, there are plenty of options for walks in Mount Cook. The Blue Lakes Loop Track and Governors Bush Walk both take around an hour, and are great options if you are traveling with little ones.

While I do love hiking, there’s something magical about seeing Mount cook from above. If you’re looking for an experience to commemorate a special occasion, taking this 20-minute scenic helicopter tour would make for an incredible memory.

This flight runs daily and there are plenty of departing times available, so you can easily choose one that fits your schedule. This trip includes unbelievable views over the Ben Ohau Mountain Range and an alpine landing (which you should absolutely brag to your friends about). I know it’s a bit pricey at $337 NZD per person, but it will easily be one of the most memorable experiences on your road trip. Just don’t forget to bring you camera! If you’re looking for an aerial view of Mount Cook, I recommend booking this helicopter tour here.

Landing on a glacier during a Mount Cook helicopter flight in New Zealand
Landing on a glacier on a helicopter flight in Mount Cook!

Staying Overnight in Mount Cook Village

I personally think staying overnight at Mount Cook is a must, especially if it’s your first time visiting. That way you don’t have to rush your stay, and will have more time to kayak on the lake, hike more trails, or even go on that helicopter tour I mentioned.

For those traveling on a budget, I recommend the Glentanner Park Center. While it’s technically 17 km (10.6 mi) outside of town, the dorm rooms are clean and it’s a great place to meet fellow travelers.

If you prefer a place closer to Mount Cook Village, I like the Aoraki Court Motel. It’s still pretty budget-friendly, and the rooms are spacious with amazing views. Plus, it’s less than a five minute walk to the village.

Note: If you can’t find a place to book in Mount Cook, consider staying in Omarama or Twizel instead!

Why I Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here!

5. Lindis Pass

Windy road through Lindis Pass, New Zealand
Windy road through Lindis Pass, New Zealand
Bailey at Lindis Pass Viewpoint on the way to Mount Cook, NZ
Lindis Pass!

Up next on our journey is a scenic drive through Lindis Pass. This 63-kilometer-long road (39 miles) passes through beautiful places like the Lindis Valley and Ahuriri River Valley. There’s incredible mountain views and if you’re traveling in the winter, you’ll even see some snow.

When you’re driving, look for the sign labeled ‘The Lookout’. This is at the highest point and takes you to the Lindis Pass Viewpoint. There’s a small car park here that’ll take you to two different viewing areas, the Lindis Conservation Area and Longslip Mountain. To get the best view, my advice is to climb up the hill to the left of the viewpoint (facing away from the road). This will tack on an extra 20 minutes, but I think it’s the best photo spot to capture the undeniable beauty of the scenery below.

If you are driving this road in winter, don’t forget to bring snow chains. I’ve driven the Lindis Pass while it was snowing before, and it was definitely a little nerve-racking. As long as you’re prepared and check for road closures beforehand, you should be good to go.

6. Wanaka

A view of the town of Wanaka, New Zealand
The beautiful town of Wanaka

About halfway into the drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound, you’ll reach the lovely town of Wanaka. I recommend spending the night here (or a couple of nights!) as there are plenty of things to do while visiting Wanaka.

Some of my favorite things to do here include hiking Roy’s Peak Track, taking photos of #ThatWanakaTree, and visiting Mount Aspiring National Park. There’s loads more, but I’ll touch on a few of my favorites now.

Hiking the Roy’s Peak Track is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in New Zealand. I admit, this is one of the hardest hikes in the area, so it’s definitely geared towards intermediate and advanced skill sets, but all levels can walk part of it.

This hike is 8 km (5 miles) one way, and after 1,500 meters in elevation (4,920 feet) you’ll reach the peak which offers amazing views of Lake Wanaka. Depending on your fitness level, this hike will take 6 to 7 hours, including breaks. If you’ve seen the photos from this hike, you can attest to the amazing viewpoint, which is about 30 minutes before reaching the summit.

The famous Roys Peak viewpoint at sunrise
The epic viewpoint on Roy’s Peak!

After making this long trek, you’ll want to grab a bite to eat. I highly recommend visiting the food truck market on Brownston Street which has some of the best quick eats in all of Wanaka. For some truly delicious Indian food, look no further than The Bombay Palace. Or, if you’re looking for shareable plates, check out Kika for some mouth-watering tapas.

If you’re looking for activities to do with the family, I fully recommend Puzzling World. This place has illusion rooms and brain games, and it’s honestly just a fun time. I also love visiting the Wanaka Lavender Farm where you’ll find farm animals, beautiful gardens, and sweet treats – it’s an absolute must-see if you’re visiting during summer when the lavender is in full bloom!

I’ve mentioned Lake Wanaka a few times already, but it’s definitely an amazing place to visit, whether you want to relax on the shore, go kayaking, or even join a tour.

Lake Wanaka Cruises on Lake Wanaka
Going on a boat cruise in Wanaka is a must-do! Photo credit: Lake Wanaka Cruises

In my opinion, one of the best tours is this Happy Hour Lake Wanaka Cruise. This is the perfect option for those that are short on time or just want to view the lake’s attractions all at once. It lasts about an hour, and you’ll get a complimentary beverage and cheese board.

You’ll sail around the southern end of the lake and visit sights like Waterfall Creek and and Ruby Island. There’s also a bar on board if you’d like to indulge a bit more after your free drink. This was such a relaxing way to travel around Lake Wanaka, and at $61 NZD, it’s really a nice way to treat yourself. If you’re interested in sailing around this majestic lake, you can reserve this Lake Wanaka Cruise here.

Staying Overnight in Wanaka

I have stayed at the Clearbrook Motel multiple times and find it to be a good mid-range option for both price and comfort. One of my favorite aspects of these apartments is that they all come with a balcony or a patio so you can soak in the views. I always love when you can take great photos right from your accommodation.

For those who want a more luxurious stay, Club Wyndham is a great option. This hotel offers many amenities like a heated pool, a bar, and a fully-equipped fitness center, so it’s a great place to unwind after a long drive.

For more options and details about the area, check out my blog article about where to stay in Wanaka.

7. Crown Range

Bailey at Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout
It’s the most beautiful view of my home!
Crown Range road in summer in New Zealand looking towards Queenstown
What a spectacular drive!

After a night in Wanaka, you’ll head down the winding Crown Range Road. This road is full of steep hills and turns, so only experienced drivers should be behind the wheel. This road is so legendary for it’s challenging journey, that some motorhome companies ban their vehicles from driving on it!

This section of highway is the highest main road in New Zealand, so snow and ice builds up here when it’s cold out. I know, I’ve mentioned it a few times, but carrying snow chains and relying on traffic reports is a must when driving in New Zealand during winter.

As you leave Wanaka and make your way on the Crown Range, there is one quirky attraction you must visit – Bradrona. If the name didn’t give it away, this is a bra-lined fence in Cardrona. You heard that right. Legend has it that some backpackers started the tradition in 1998, and every time someone took a bra down, even more were added the next day. Now, over 800 bras hang freely in Bradrona, and over $30,000 NZD have been donated to breast cancer research from this site alone.

Be sure to also stop at the historic Cardrona Hotel on our way towards the Crown Range. This hotel is said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand, so you’ll definitely want to have your camera handy. I love grabbing lunch at their award-winning restaurant, and nothing quite beats enjoying a drink in the sun in their quaint beer garden.

Next, I recommend on this route is the Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout which offers exceptional views of the Remarkables Mountain Range and the Kawarau River.

You’ll need to park at the small parking lot on the side of the road, then take a short walk up the narrow, relatively steep hill to get to the lookout. If you have time, I recommend stopping at Arrow Junction Lookout and Crown Range Summit, which both offer amazing vantage points as well.

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8. Queenstown

Southern Discoveries cruise on Lake Wakatipu during sunset in Queenstown
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown is stunning!
Bailey smiles at the camera from an Alpine landing from Queenstown
High above Queenstown!

Known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, Queenstown is the next stop on our road trip. Queenstown is my home, so it’s going to be hard to narrow down the list of things to do, but I’ll try my best.

Queenstown is known for its immense natural beauty, so I highly recommend finding a good trail to walk down first. If you’re looking for an easy hike in Queenstown, I recommend the Queenstown Gardens Lakefront Loop or Bob’s Cove. Both trails have gorgeous views and are in areas that offer other activities so you can do more after your hike.

If you’re looking for a challenge, this Full Day Mountain Biking Adventure is a great way to explore Queenstown and nearby Arrowtown. This self-guided tour includes bikes, helmets, maps, and options for stops along the way. Staff will drive you to Arrowtown, where you’ll bike the Queenstown Trail for a 30 km (18 mile) journey, which will take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours to complete.

For my adventure-seekers, I highly recommend this Extreme Jet Boat Ride. This 25-minute thrill ride includes high speeds, 360° turns, and fishtailing on the Shotover River. At $163 NZD, it’s a tad on the pricey side, but at over 1,400 five-star reviews, it’s a fan-favorite for anyone wanting to get their adrenaline pumping.

For the ultimate thrill, sign up for this Queentown Tandem Skydiving adventure. You’ll meet in downtown Queenstown and have a courtesy shuttle to the drop zone. After a safety briefing, you’ll board a small plane and do a tandem jump at your choice of either 9,000, 12,000, or 15,000-ft. Prices start at $335 NZD per person, and go up if you choose higher elevations.

For even more options, check out my blog on some of the best adventure activities in Queenstown.

Bailey enjos the view from the top fo the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown, New Zealand
On the steamship cruise in Queenstown!
Scenic views along the tiki Trail in Queenstown, New Zealand
Scenic views along the Tiki Trail in Queenstown, New Zealand

For those that prefer a more relaxed setting – fear not – I have you covered. For a fun and historic adventure, check out this Steamship Cruise from Queenstown. This 90-minute cruise has epic views of Lake Wakatipu, and you’ll have time to view different parts of the ship like the engine room and forecastle where there is a small museum. There is also a cafe onboard. This cruise is an excellent way to relax and enjoy the beauty of Queenstown.

One of my favorite (and most indulgent) activities is taking a soak in the Onsen Hot Pools. Each pool has a panoramic view of the Shotover River Canyon and is the epitome of relaxation. Privacy and pampering are key here, and this spa makes you feel like royalty. Prices start at $98 NZD for one adult which includes 1 hour in the hot tub, a complimentary drink, and snack.

Staying Overnight in Queenstown

Because Queenstown is so popular, there are a lot of places to stay. If you’re looking for more options given specifics like noise control, town history, etc… then I recommend reading my in-depth blog on where to stay in Queenstown. Otherwise, below are some quick suggestions of my preferred places to stay.

For a mid-range option in Central Queenstown, I recommend staying at QT Hotel. This is an adorable boutique-style hotel located on Brunswick Street. This hotel offers great views of The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu, and it’s right in the middle of everything. Also, they have a restaurant onsite, Bazaar, that is loved by tourists and locals alike.

If you’re looking to splurge a little, check out the Kamana Lakehouse in the Fernhill neighborhood. This hotel has an onsite restaurant with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Queenstown. As a bonus, you can rent the private outdoor hot tub to get some pretty awesome photos. Of course, having the best views of town does have it’s disadvantages as Fernhill is located on a pretty steep hill if you have to walk.

Related Read: Visiting in the Winter? No worries, there are also lots of fun things to do in the winter in Queenstown, too!

9. Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery

Bailey enjoys a coffee at Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery in New Zealand
My go to coffee stop!
A llama at Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery, New Zealand
Don’t forget to go see the animals!

Now, I know I’ve mentioned plenty of places to stop on this road trip from Christchurch to Milford Sound, but this next one is my absolute favorite place to stop for coffee. Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery is a lovely space full of artwork on display. This is a great place to visit if you’re looking to get some unique souvenirs, as they have paintings, prints, jewelry, and other crafts for purchase.

If the weather is nice, I love sitting outdoors and admiring the views (coffee in hand, of course). Sometimes there are even food trucks, so it’s a great chance to try some tasty local bites.

They are open from 8 am to 4 pm every day, so it’s the perfect location to grab a drink and stretch your legs before heading onto the next stop.

10. Te Anau

The main road that leads into Te Anau during a road trip in New Zealand
Welcome to the cutest town!

Te Anau is another place where I highly encourage you to stay the night. This is the last main town before you reach Milford Sound, and hosts some of the most unique activities on the South Island. I also recommend stocking up on groceries and gas while you’re here.

Known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park, there are plenty of things to do in Te Anau. One of my personal favorites is a visit to the glow-worm caves. This Te Anau Caves Tour is a great introduction to this magical underground world. You’ll travel across Lake Te Anau before encountering thousands of these shimmering creatures, all while a knowledgeable guide recounts facts about this very unique world. The tour lasts just over two hours, and is truly one for the books.

Bailey stands on a rock overlooking Lake Te Anau on the Kepler Track
Just one of the epic viewpoints on the Kepler Track near Te Anau.

No visit to this town would be complete without a trip on Lake Te Anau. If you’re a nature lover, I suggest checking out this afternoon Te Anau cruise on a historical motor yacht. This small group tour goes across Lake Te Anau while the crew tells tales of the the town’s history. You’ll enjoy afternoon tea on the boat, and stop off at Fiordland National Park for some guided nature walks. This three-hour tour costs $145 NZD per person and is a great way to experience Te Anau’s natural beauty.

If you’re looking for a lake trip without the nature walk, spoil yourself with this champagne sightseeing cruise instead! I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the surrounding beauty than by being on a yacht at sunset with a drink in hand. It’s pure bliss.

If you’d rather enjoy the wilderness on land, there are plenty of hiking trails in Te Anau. I like hiking up to the Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track. It’s definitely a longer hike so you’ll want to dedicate most of the day to it, but the views are absolutely breath-taking.

Another option is to join a hiking group tour. This guided Kepler Track hike includes a helicopter ride to the Luxmore Hut, a guided hike through the mountains, and a water taxi ride back to town once you reach the shoreline. This hike is rated at a moderate-difficulty level, and is guaranteed to be a full day of stunning views. This option is a bit of a splurge given the helicopter ride, but it’s a great way to explore the wilderness and to see Te Anau from different vantage points.

For a more budget-friendly option, check out this Kepler track boat and hike. You’ll cruise on a jet boat towards Lake Manapouri, stopping at different locations along the way, many of which were featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whether you’re a fan of the movies or just want to surround yourself with stunning scenery, this is a great way to see some amazing parts of Te Anau.

After your boat ride, you’ll pull over to hike along the Kepler Track for a bit. This is a great place to take some photos, and your guide will point out interesting animals and plants native to the area. After this easy trek, you’ll be taken back to town to enjoy the rest of your stay. You can book this guided tour online here.

Staying Overnight in Te Anau

While it’s a small town, there are a lot of great places to stay in Te Anau. I usually stay here when I am exploring Milford Sound. Why? Well, I prefer to take my time enjoying all the stops along the way from Te Anau to Milford Sound. I love hiking and stopping at all the lookouts, so this helps me not feel rushed. Also, to be perfectly transparent, there’s more options here and the lodging costs are much lower in Te Anau than Milford Sound.

For those traveling on a budget, you really can’t beat the Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels. This is a great place for those traveling in a campervan or motorhome, and they also have individual rooms available for a great price.

For those with a larger accommodation budget, I recommend checking out the Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments. The staff are so friendly and really strive to ensure you have a top-rated experience. I recommend booking a room with a view of the lake – it’s gorgeous!

11. Te Anau Downs

Relaxing at Te Anau Downs!
Just admiring the views on a moody morning!

The Te Anau Downs is the start of the Milford Track, and is located just 30 km (18.6 miles) from Te Anau. This hike is very popular as it showcases plenty of wildlife, glacial valleys, rainforests, and unbelievable views of waterfalls.

If you plan on hiking the Milford Track, I recommend staying in Te Anau the night before. That way you can easily grab a water taxi to get to the starting point of the track where your journey will begin.

If you’re not planning to hike, I still suggest making a quick stop here. You can go out onto the jetty to get a surreal view, and admire the magnificent reflections of the mountains in the water.

Related Read: If you’re traveling around New Zealand, check out my guide on the best waterfalls on the North and South Islands.

12. Eglinton Valley

Bailey poses with her car in the Eglinton Valley on the way to Milford Sound
On my way to Milford Sound in the Eglinton Valley.

Next on the list is a drive through beautiful Eglinton Valley. As you drive through this part of Fiordland National Park, you’ll start to notice the landscape changing as the native beech forests and mountains become more prominent. I recommend stopping here to take a photo of this stunning place with its golden yellow tussock and high-arching mountains.

If you’re a LOTR fan, you might recognize the Misty Mountains from the Fellowship of the Ring. These are, in fact, the Eglinton Mountains.

If you’re looking to stretch your legs even further, I’ve heard great things about the East Eglinton Track. Admittedly, I haven’t hiked it (yet), but it’s definitely a challenge and even requires you to ford a river! This trek is for experienced hikers with an in-depth knowledge of the backcountry.

Personally, I like pulling over in Eglinton Valley for a few minutes to stretch and take some photos before moving on to my next stop.

Did You Know: Fiordland has more earthquakes than anywhere else in New Zealand. That’s because it sits on three (yes THREE) fault lines.

13. Mirror Lakes

Bailey stands on the viewpoint of Mirror Lakes in Fiordland National Park
Mirror Lakes! Funny story, I’ve never been here on a clear and calm day!

Next up is a quick stop at Mirror Lakes. Located about 56 km (34.8 miles) north of Te Anau, look for the sign indicating the pull-off bay on Milford Road. After parking, it’s a short, easy walk to get to the lakes.

The return track is a quick 400-meter (1,312 feet) hike that leads you straight to the extraordinary Mirror Lakes. The lake displays stunning reflections of the Earl Mountains on a clear day, and makes for some amazing photos.

This short walk is great for those traveling with families, and it’s wheel-chair accessible as well. Don’t forget to bring your camera, because this stop is well worth it!

14. Lake Gunn

Lake Gunn, New Zealand
On a moody day with epic clouds!

At 480 meters (1574 feet) above sea level, Lake Gunn is our next stop, and one that you definitely don’t want to miss. The neighboring mountains all but disappear into the smooth lake’s surface, and you might even see a paradise duck or two if you’re lucky.

I think the Lake Gunn Nature Walk is a great way to experience the ruggedness and beauty that Fiordland National Park has to offer. This stroll takes about 45 minutes to complete and is 1.4 km (0.87 miles) in total. There’s lots of wildlife to see too, so keep an eye out for birds like the flightless takahē and the adorable kea.

I love this trail in the morning because the water is as still as a picture, showing a perfect reverse image of the mountains. It can get quite busy earlier in the day as it’s right next to the popular Cascade Creek campsite, but it’s still one of my favorite sights on the way to Milford Sound.

If you’re an avid camper, I highly recommend staying at the Cascade Creek campsite. Booking in advance is required, and it costs $15 NZD per night for one adult. You can learn more and book your campsite here.

15. The Divide and Key Summit hike

A tarn on the Key Summit reflects the surrounding mountains
The small tarn on the Key Summit creates amazing mirror-like reflections!

I know I’ve mentioned a few hikes recently, but there are just so many incredible lookouts and trails on the way to Milford Sound, and they each offer a beautiful and interesting view of Fiordland National Park. This next stop is known amongst locals as The Divide.

Running through the Southern Alps, this east-west pass stretches from Greymouth all the way to Invercargill. From this spot, you’ll find the start of the Key Summit hike, which is at the end of the infamous Routeburn Track. This hike is one of the best hikes in Milford Sound. Once you’ve reached the top, you’ll be rewarded with the most amazing panoramic views.

A top choice among tourists visiting Milford Sound, this track starts from The Divide Shelter Parking lot and combines scenes of both rainforests and mountains on the journey upwards. The climb has elevation gains of 400 meters (1312 feet), but the stunning views when you emerge from the forest will take your breath away. It takes around 3 hours to complete depending on how many stops you take and it makes for quite the workout.

This is one of my favorite hikes out of the whole road trip. Having said that, if the weather is bad, I wouldn’t recommend the Key Summit hike as you won’t get the incredible views. A different option would be hiking the Lake Marian Track, which I’ll discuss below.

16. Pops View Lookout/Hollyford Lookout

Pop's View on Milford Road
Pop’s View!

A lovely place to pull over on the road from Christchurch to Milford Sound is the Pops View Lookout. Please be careful when driving as the road to the lookout is very windy and located around a blind corner. After parking, you only need to walk a few meters to enjoy a spectacular view like the one pictured above.

The picture above is just one angle that my camera captured, but there are so many other amazing views of this area.

There’s also plenty of birds and other wildlife to photograph as well. While you’re in the parking lot, keep an eye out for the cheeky Kea. He might seem friendly and cute (and he is), but be careful to guard your valuables as he might fly off with your keys!

17. Lake Marian Track

Lake Marian road to Milford Sound
Lake Marian!

Not to take away from the other amazing trails in this post, but the Lake Marian Track is my absolute favorite hike on the road to Milford Sound.

Just off the main Milford Highway, you’ll drive on Hollyford Road until you reach the Lake Marian Trail Carpark. From the parking lot, you’ll walk over a swing bridge before reaching an enchanting series of waterfalls. If you’re short on time, you can end your excursion here. However, if you want to see a stunning alpine lake (which is out of this world!), then I encourage you to keep going.

After the falls, it’s takes about 1.5 hours uphill to get to Lake Marian. Since this is a pretty wet area, don’t forget to wear appropriate footwear with good grips to withstand the mud.

Lake Marian rests in a gorgeous hanging valley that was formed by glacial action. Much like the Mirror Lakes mentioned above, it creates stunning reflections of the surrounding mountains on it’s smooth surface. I actually went for a swim here when I visited, and it was absolutely freezing. I guess that was officially my first polar dip in New Zealand!

Now, I’m not going to try to convince you to swim in Lake Marian, but the hike to see this stunning view is 100% worth it.

18. Gertrude Valley Lookout

Gertrude Saddle Route views
The stunning Gertrude Saddle Route view!

We’re getting close to the end of this road trip, but I’ve got a couple more stops to highlight before we reach Milford Sound. One such stop is the Gertrude Valley Lookout Point. This lookout offers views of the snowy Darran Mountains, including Marian Peak. If you’re traveling with kids, this is a beautiful place to take a family photo and stretch your legs.

If you’re looking for another hiking adventure, you can keep walking past this lookout to the Gertrude Saddle Route. This hike is 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) in length, and takes about 6 hours to complete. Due to the rocky terrain, I recommend only experienced hikers attempt this trail and I don’t recommend going if the weather is bad. This hike is very dangerous and numerous people have sadly lost their lives on this trail. Having said that, if you have the experience and know-how, this is one of the most amazing trails in the area.

As long as you look for the signs, you should be able to find the Gertrude Valley Lookout pretty easily. But as a heads up, if you’ve reached the Homer Tunnel, you’ve gone too far.

19. Hundred Falls

Part of Thousand Falls on the way to Milford Sound
Part of Hundred Falls on the way to Milford Sound

The last place before reaching Milford Sound is a quick stop to get out and take some pretty epic photos before continuing on. The Hundred Falls are tiny vein waterfalls that flow down the sides of tall rock formations.

These falls occur after it rains, but since this area is known for heavy rainfall, there’s a good chance you’ll get to view them.

Be sure to bring your camera and look left after going through Homer Tunnel. Assuming it’s rained recently, you’ll get to see exactly how this region got its name.

20. Milford Sound

A waterfall in Milford Sound
Milford Sound is full of waterfalls!
Bailey enjoys the views of Milford Sound from the side of the boat
So beautiful!

Alas, we’ve reached the end of our road trip and have arrived at Milford Sound. Congratulations! Now let’s explore this charming New Zealand gem.

One of the must-do activities when you make it to Milford is embarking on a scenic cruise. I have plenty of options for you, so read on to get my top choices!

Milford Sound is a fiord that was formed from glacial erosion over millions of years, and it’s the only fiord in New Zealand that’s accessible by car. Now, there’s a good chance it’ll be raining when you visit, but don’t let that hold you back as it is even more beautiful in the rain! There are tons of fun things to do in Milford Sound like kayaking and hiking (just pack a raincoat), and the sheer beauty of this place will leave you longing to come back – I know it does for me.

There’s almost no light pollution here, so this is one of the best places to go star gazing. In the winter, the sun goes down around 5:30 pm, so you’ll have even more opportunities to view the night sky.

If you’re looking to the skies for fun, I recommend taking this scenic helicopter flight. This journey lasts about 25 minutes and you’ll see Harrison’s Cove, Mount Tutoko (the highest peak in Fiordland National Park), and even land on Tutoko Glacier – talk about an adventure!

No matter what activities you do, your journey to Milford Sound will be one you’ll never forget. Every time I come here I find more reasons to fall in love with this magical place.

Related Read: Before embarking on your epic road trip, make sure to read my in depth guide on important things to know before visiting Milford Sound. You’ll be an expert on this place in no time!

Book Your Cruise in Milford Sound

RealNZ Milford Sound cruise
What a place!

Taking a road trip to Milford Sound is quite the adventure! If you’ve made it this far, that means you’re looking to book a cruise to experience the true beauty of this charming place.

If you’re staying in Te Anau, you’ll need to book an afternoon cruise so you can have enough time to enjoy the drive to Milford and also drive back safely. Your other options are staying in Milford Sound (at the Milford Sound Lodge or a nearby campsite), or my personal favorite option, taking an overnight boat cruise.

If you’re trying to get back to Te Anau to stay the night, I recommend joining this small group boutique cruise for the 2:45 pm outing. You’ll get to spend just under 2 hours on a quaint vessel with commentary from the crew, and it includes a complimentary coffee or tea and biscuits.

Another option for an afternoon cruise is this sightseeing cruise with lunch.You’ll need to book the 1:15 pm outing in order to account for the time it’ll take to get to Milford Sound.

Both options above will get you back to your accommodations with plenty of time to spare, and include stunning views of wildlife and astounding scenery. The cruise with the buffet is a bit higher at $200 NZD per person since it includes a full meal, but they are both very well priced and offer unbelievable views that you won’t soon forget.

The hot tub on the back of our Milford Sound overnight cruise with views of the steep cliffs in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Our overnight cruise had a hot tub onboard!
Bailey smiles at the Camera on a Milford Sound cruise with a waterfall in the background
A cruise is an absolute must in Milford!

If you have the time and budget, my absolute favorite cruise is this overnight cruise on the Fiordland Jewel. Let me tell you, after taking my fair share of cruises in Milford Sound, this one blows them all out of the water.

This overnight cruise lasts just under 18 hours total and includes a 3-course dinner, an ensuite cabin with views, breakfast, and a top-deck hot tub (this is what sold me honestly). They also offer kayaking excursions so you can explore the Sound even more!

This cruise caps out at 22 travelers so it’s a really intimate and relaxing experience. While there weren’t kids on my cruise, they do allow children 6 years and up, and you have to have a minimum of 2 people to book. It’s definitely one you’ll have to budget for at $1,149 NZD per person, but it’s totally worth doing at least once in my opinion. If you’re up for it, you can book this overnight cruise here (book ASAP as it sells out almost every single night.)

For more details, check out my guide on things to know before booking an overnight cruise in Milford Sound.

Essential Information to Know Before You Go

Milford Sound in the Fall
Milford Sound!
  • It’s a long drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound (760 km/472 miles) with a lot to see along the way. I highly recommend turning this into a 5-7 day trip if not more. I recommend spending the night in Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Queenstown, and Te Anau.
  • Milford is one of the wettest places in the world, and has jokingly been referred to as getting all four seasons in one day. Confidence is key and knowledge or driving in all weather conditions is a must. Don’t forget to bring snow chains in the winter!
  • Make sure to pack a good pair of hiking boots, appropriate rain gear, bug spray (for those pesky sandflies), sunscreen, and plenty of snacks
  • Bring your camera! This road trip is meant to me memorialized. You won’t regret taking too many photos, trust me!
  • Make sure to get fuel along the way. Gas stations on this road can be found at Wanaka, Omarama, Twizel, and Lake Tekapo.

Where to Stay near Milford Sound

A room at the Milford Sound Lodge
The Milford Sound Lodge is the closest you can get!

If you’re wondering if you can stay in Milford Sound, the answer is yes!

Staying in Milford Sound is the most convenient choice if you pick a tour that doesn’t include transportation. However, there’s only one hotel here: the Milford Sound Lodge. It’s lovely, but since it’s the only option, it also books up far in advance (you can check availability here) and can be pricey. You can’t beat the location though!

However, there are also several campsites on the road between Te Anau to Milford Sound, which can also be a great option for those wanting to stay close to the fiord. 

Cascade Creek Campsite is around 40 minutes south of Milford Sound and has 120 tent sites, which do not have power. The facilities are clean and it’s the closest Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite to Milford Sound, so it’s a popular choice. For this reason, you’ll need to book in advance. It costs $15 NZD for adults and $7.50 NZD for children per night. There’s also a $10 NZD booking fee per party. 

Deer Flat Campsite is a 50-minute drive from Milford Sound. It’s a small, primitive camp, with only 15 tent sites, although caravan and RV access is also permitted. It’s absolutely beautiful, located next to the Eglinton River and surrounded by beech forest. You can’t book here, so it’s first-come, first-served. The prices for Deer Flat are the same as Cascade Creek, minus the booking fee. 

Alternatively, there are plenty of hotels in Te Anau to choose from, and from there you’re only a 2-hour drive to Milford Sound. Some of the tours in this blog leave from Te Anau, so that might be the most convenient option for you!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.

Travel Insurance Has Your Back!

Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.

If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!

To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.

Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera while kayaking in Milford Sound
Thanks for reading!

Making the trek from Christchurch to Milford Sound is no easy feat! Whether you stop at all 20 stops listed above or just a few of them, I’m certain this will be a road trip you’ll never forget.

Thank you so much for checking out My Queenstown Diary! I really hope you enjoyed this blog and that you found it helpful. While you’re here, feel free to browse some of my other posts about beautiful New Zealand. I’ve listed some below to help you get started.

10 Best FREE Things to do in Glenorchy

20 BEST Places to Visit on the North Island of New Zealand that You Don’t Want to Miss in 2024

Where to Stay in Auckland: The BEST Auckland Hotels for all Budgets