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One of my favorite road trips on the South Island is the journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound. On this epic drive, you’ll get to witness some of the most breathtaking views in New Zealand from the road, not to mention stopping at some pretty spectacular viewpoints and hiking trails. It’s safe to say it’s a bucket list experience and one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
For those who haven’t driven this road before knowing the best places to stop can be hard. In fact, on this journey, there are 30+ different places to stop! But you simply can’t do them all, nor are they all worth your time.
To help you plan your road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound I’ve written this guide to the 15 best places to check out on the way. Of course, you can’t do them all in one day but by choosing to visit even just a few of these amazing attractions, you’ll get a great taste of this magnificent journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound!
About the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a 118-kilometer journey (73 miles) that takes 1.5 hours without stopping. With that said, most people will take between 3 to 8 hours if they truly want to explore some of the best attractions on the way. To me, there are two different types of road trips most people do when they drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
The first stops at all the viewpoints or “quick stops” on this list. People who choose to do this can expect the journey to around 3 hours, maybe even less depending on how long they stop for. This is great if you’re leaving Te Anau in the morning and have a cruise booked in Milford around lunchtime.
The second road trip involves stopping at the viewpoints and doing one hike. This adds around 3 hours to the journey and there are two of the best hikes on the South Island to choose from that both take around 3 hours. If you have one of the later cruises booked, say around 3 pm, then this is a great option. Although a long day, you can drive back to Te Anau afterward or stay in Milford Sound at the Milford Sound Lodge.
Both road trips give visitors a great taste of this journey and deciding what you’ll do simply comes down to personal preference and the amount of time you have.
Another important factor to consider when driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the weather. During winter, this trip can take much longer due to poor road conditions. Also, in spring, occasional heavy rains fall slips can happen and close the road completely. It’s important to also have a plan B and have some extra time on your hands when traveling during these seasons.
Related read: Traveling from Queenstown? Check out our road trip guide from Queenstown to Te Anau.
Te Anau to Milford Sound FAQs
Best Stops Between Te Anau and Milford Sound
1. Lake Te Anau Viewpoint
Only a 5-minute detour from the main road out of Te Anau is a beautiful lookout called Lake Te Anau Lions Lookout. On a clear day, this viewpoint offers a great 360-degree vantage point over the town of Te Anau, Lake Te Anau, as well as the Southern Alps. It’s a quick stop that’s sure to impress and is considered one of the best things to do in Te Anau.
The viewpoint is located on Ramparts Road and there is a small car park and a grassy area to have a picnic. A good idea is to visit for sunrise, the views will be amazing and it’ll start your day early for a full day of exploring.
2. Lake Mistletoe Walking Track
Located near Te Anau Downs, this easy 45-minute walk leads through native Fiordland forest to the stunning Lake Mistletoe which is home to native ducks, frogs, and other lake life. It’s a very easy walk and at just over 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) return, it’s suitable for the whole family.
What you won’t find on this trail are any epic mountain views, but because of its accessibility and the fact the other hikes on this list are much harder, I included it for those without much hiking experience.
Lake Mistletoe is just a 27-kilometer drive (16.8 miles) from Te Anau right near the Te Anau Downs foreshore.
3. Te Anau Downs
Te Anau Downs is just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Te Anau and is the starting point of the Milford Track – one of the 10 Great Walks in New Zealand. This track requires you to get a water taxi from the jetty next to Fiordland National Park Lodge. This track is incredibly popular and rightly so as it features glacial valleys, rainforest, and cascading waterfalls.
For those not hiking the Milford Track though, Te Anau Downs offers you a chance to get out and see Lake Te Anau from another view. You can walk out onto the jetty and capture stunning reflections and views of the mountains. If you’re early enough this place can be very quiet which I love!
4. Eglinton Valley
This will be the first attraction you check out once entering Fiordland National Park. You’ll notice the scenery change to steep rocky mountains and a valley covered in golden yellow tussock grass. The Eglinton Valley was actually carved by glaciers just like Milford Sound and when visiting it can be overwhelming to think just how much ice must have occupied this region at one point in time!
This is one of the few valleys you can drive through in Fiordland National Park and you may even spot a short-tailed bat here – a weird and wonderful creature that crawls along the forest floor in search of food. There are also a few places in the Eglinton Valley that were filming locations in the Lord of the Rings movies. Namely the Eglinton mountains, also known as the Misty Mountains in the Fellowship of the Ring.
Fancy a hike while you’re in the area? Why not test out the East Eglinton Track. Be warned, this is a challenging track and only recommend for experienced hikers. A high fitness level and experience in the backcountry is required and you’ll also need to cross a river on this track.
5. Mirror Lakes
Mirror Lakes is easily one of my favorite stops between Te Anau and Milford Sound. This stop is simply a pullover bay on the side of the road and once parked up it’s around a 400-meter return track that leads you to the dreamlike Mirror Lakes. On a clear day, you will get outstanding reflections of the Earl Mountains on the still lake – a perfect photo opportunity.
Seeing as the walk is so flat and quick it’s a perfect walk for the whole family. The pull-off is well signposted on Milford Road and it’s about 56 kilometers (34.8 miles) north of Te Anau.
6. Lake Gunn
One of the best short walks on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is Lake Gunn Nature Walk. For such a short (45 minutes total) walk, it truly gives you a taste of the wilderness of Fiordland National Park. Spot mossy trees, stony beaches, and unique birdlife. On a calm day you’ll also get gorgeous reflections off the lake and the day I went, a cloud slivered its way through the valley.
At 480 meters above sea level, Lake Gunn is stunning – the surrounding mountains seemingly disappear into the flat surface of the lake. You can also spot paradise ducks here. This track is right next to the popular Cascade Creek campsite, meaning it can get quite busy in the morning before campers depart for Milford Sound.
7. Key Summit hike
The Key Summit hike is at the Southern end of the very famous Routeburn Track. This track combines rainforest with panoramic mountain scenery making it a firm favorite with tourists to Milford Sound. The track gains a slow and steady elevation of 400 meters but you will be rewarded with stunning views when you emerge from the forest after the climb. There’s even a small tarn ([pictured above) near the top which gives off beautiful reflections.
Allow a minimum of 2.5 hours walking time for this track from The Divide parking lot.
Did you know – Fiordland has more earthquakes than anywhere else in New Zealand. That’s because it sits on not one, not two, but three fault lines.
8. Pops View Lookout/Hollyford Lookout
For those who don’t plan on hiking in Fiordland National Park, there aren’t many chances to star down into deep valleys. For that reason, a stop at Pops View Lookout is a must!
This scenic viewpoint offers amazing views of the Hollyford Valley and the best part is you don’t have to hike at all. Simply, pull over in the parking lot and enjoy the stunning views – it’s that easy!
The parking lot is located on a sharp bend so be very careful crossing traffic to get in there. Oh, and there’s often a cheeky kea in the parking lot who may try to steal your keys, so keep them close!
9. Lake Marian Track
Without a doubt, my favorite hike on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound is the Lake Marian Track. From the parking lot, you will walk across a swing bridge before coming to the stunning series of waterfalls – even more majestic after some rainfall. After the falls, continue uphill for about 1.5 hours to the breathtaking Lake Marian (one of the best places to visit on the South Island if I do say so myself.)
Lake Marian is an alpine lake in a hanging valley formed by glacial action. Like Mirror Lakes, it has stunning reflections of the surrounding mountains on a clear day.
For those who don’t want to hike the entire trail, you can always stop at the first waterfalls (they are beautiful on their own) and turn around. This short track to the falls only takes around 30 minutes in total. This track can get pretty muddy so wear appropriate footwear.
The parking lot of Lake Marian Track is located on Holyford Road which is a right turn off the main highway. Although there are signs for the track, be sure to keep your eyes peeled as it’s easy to miss.
10. Monkey Creek
Within the Hollyford Valley and a little further down the Milford Road from the Lake Marian Track parking lot, sits a very popular place to stop and fill your water bottle. Monkey Creek is a glacier-fed spring and the water here is so pure you can drink it straight from the source! It’s probably the nicest most refreshing cup of water you’ll ever have.
Despite its name, there are definitely no monkeys here. In fact, this creek got its name from a European settler who lived in the area in the 1800s, his dog’s name was – you guessed it – Monkey! The rare whio (blue ducks) live in the creek and the parking lot is a good place to see another cheeky kea.
11. Gertrude Valley Lookout
Just before the Homer Tunnel, you will be greeted with the Gertrude Valley lookout point. From here, spot the snow-covered peaks of the Darran Mountains, including Marian Peak.
You can walk from the viewpoint to the Gertrude Saddle via the Gertrude Saddle Route. This grueling hike takes around 6 hours but is only 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) in length. It offers stunning views as one of the best hikes in Milford. With that said, due to the rocky terrain on the hike I recommend only attempting this in good weather or if you’re an experienced hiker. Please don’t take young kids on this trail and never hike it in the rain.
12. Homer Tunnel
Possibly one of the most famous sites on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the Homer Tunnel which was completed in 1953. Construction of the tunnel took almost 20 years due to the dangerous nature of its location and in fact, 3 workers sadly lost their lives during the construction of the tunnel.
The road through the tunnel is sealed but is very narrow. During the summer months, traffic lights operate so you won’t need to pass oncoming traffic inside the tunnel. In winter though, each side of the tunnel sits in an avalanche risk area so you cannot stop. The tunnel itself is 1.2 kilometers (0.7 miles) long and if you are visiting in summer or even early winter, you’ll likely get to stop and enjoy the magnificent views!
Coming up to the tunnel is quite eerie, especially on a rainy day when the valley surrounding it has lots of little veins of waterfalls running down. Be sure to drive slow and take in the views even if you don’t get to stop. This part of the drive is arguably the most beautiful.
13. Hundred Falls
The Hundred Falls are quite literally hundreds of waterfalls gushing down the side of a high rock face. These falls are particularly majestic after clearing a storm. As you pass through the Homer Tunnel look to your left, there is a small viewing area here and if it has been raining recently you’ll be able to see how this attraction got its name.
This is just a quick 5 minute stop – take some photos and continue on your way to Milford Sound.
14. The Chasm
The Chasm is a roaring waterfall that drops into a vast abyss and over the years has carved its way through the rock to form a very unique attraction on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. The huge amount of water that falls here gives you an idea of just how much rainfall this area gets.
To access the falls, follow a short trail for about 20 minutes until you are greeted with the mighty Chasm waterfall. It only gets more powerful with heavy rainfall. The two footbridges over the Cleddau River give you the best viewing points for the waterfall. In fact, the photo above is taken from one of them. Once again, this is a quick stop and should be included on every Milford Road itinerary.
15. The Milford Sound Swing
Last on this list of amazing places to visit on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the Milford Sound Swing. Although this attraction is technically in Milford Sound I simply didn’t want you to miss it. The swing (which can be a little tricky to find) was built by a worker in the area for his girlfriend. Now though, the Milford Sound Swing is extremely popular among tourists who head to the swing to capture an amazing photo together.
If you want to find the swing, check out this guide to finding it, otherwise you may have trouble.
Booking your Milford Sound Cruise
If you’ve decided to follow this blog and drive yourself to Milford Sound from Te Anau then you’ve made a great choice. With that said, this means you need to book your cruise before you go. This is where it gets tricky and booking the right cruise departure time is important.
For example, if you plan on doing your cruise the same day you leave Te Anau then you need to pick a late afternoon cruise so you have time to enjoy the drive. Remember, if you do this, you will have to drive back to Te Anau afterward unless you decide to stay in Milford Sound (the Milford Sound Lodge is your only option unless you camp.)
I recommend booking this small-group tour with Cruise Milford at 1:45 pm. It’s a great cruise on a small vessel which means you can get as close as possible to the action. If you need more time, there is this 3:15 pm scenic cruise but it is on a larger vessel. Those are the two latest cruises without doing an overnight cruise which leaves at 4:30 pm. This is ideal if you plan to enjoy the road trip and then head back to Te Anau afterward.
If you plan on staying at the Milford Sound Lodge then you should instead spend the entire day exploring Milford Road, enjoy the sunset at the Milford Sound foreshore, and then do your cruise first thing the next morning. For this option, I recommend booking this nature cruise that leaves at 10:30 am. That way you can wake up, have breakfast, and jump on one of the first cruises in the morning. It’s also the best time to see wildlife. Not to mention, Milford Sound is generally very quiet in the mornings before all the tour buses from Queenstown arrive.
Prepare for Milford Sound: Check out all the best things to do in Milford Sound before you go!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
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 book 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 is what most budget backpackers get 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! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
On the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, there truly is no shortage of amazing stops. Those were 15 of the most scenic stops and I’m sure you’ll agree there’s something for everyone on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you found this guide helpful in planning your upcoming adventure. if you did then be sure to browse around more. I have so many other great guides including the best things to do in Queenstown, the 25 best places to visit on the South Island, and more!