21 Fun Things To Do at Milford Sound on Your First Visit

Discover a comprehensive list of awesome and fun things to do at Milford Sound, on the South Island of New Zealand.

Milford Sound, also known as Piopiotahi, in Fiordland National Park (Te Wahipounamu), is one of the most serene natural attractions in New Zealand. It is a strong contender for one of my favorite places on earth.

I’ve made my way to this UNESCO World Heritage Site more than three times since my first visit in 2018 and over the years have gathered this list of 21 must-do activities that I recommend to other travelers visiting this incredible Kiwi Fjord for the first time.

From cruising the Tasman Sea to taking a scenic flight over the Southern Alps, standing beneath Stirling Falls to kayaking to hidden coves, this travel guide will help you plan your visit to what Rudyard Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world. I’ve included photos I’ve taken from my trips that I hope will inspire you to make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Milford Sound.

Olly GasparOlly Gaspar

I’m Olly, a full-time traveler for the past 5 years. I visit every destination I write about & handpick all recommendations.

Things to do in Milford Sound

Let’s dive into the list! Remember, there are many different ways to get to Milford Sound. Read my comprehensive guide for tips and advice.

1. The Milford Sound Boat Cruise to the Tasman Sea

Booking the famous return boat cruise from Milford Sound terminal to the Tasman Sea is by far the most popular way to experience the beauty of the Fjord.

In fact, almost every bus tour company going to the Fiordlands will include the Milford Sound cruise on their itinerary.

There are many boat trips to choose from, and each company usually offers three departures daily. However, as this is one of the most popular experiences at Milford Sound, I recommend booking your tickets at least a few days in advance.

The journey involves a 1-2 hour cruise through the Fiordland’s spectacular waters to the mouth of the fiord at the Tasman Sea (weather-dependent). Along the way, you’ll witness the grandeur of the steep cliffs, and endless waterfalls– and possibly spot bottlenose dolphins and fur seals.

I’ve tried a couple of boat cruises on Milford and my favorite “cruise only” option was the Wilderness Cruise with RealNZ.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown, I recommend the coach and boat cruise option with Pure Milford.

2. Take a Scenic Flight Over Milford Sound

Don’t have time to drive the long road to Milford Sound? Perhaps you’re looking for the most spectacular way to witness the beauty of the Fiordlands?

For a bird’s-eye view of Fiordland National Park, a scenic flight is unparalleled. There are plenty of options to choose from departing Queenstown, Wanaka, or even the West Coast.

I recommend booking a morning scenic flight tour since this provides the best chance for clear weather and stable flying conditions. On a typical 20-minute to one-hour flight, you’ll fly over the Southern Alps followed by a low flyover of the fjord for a panoramic view of landmarks such as Mitre Peak, Bowen, and Stirling Falls, and the glacier-carved cliffs that Milford Sound is renowned for.

Most scenic flights will also land at Milford Sound Airport so that you can explore and even go on a boat cruise.

Scenic Flight over Milford SoundScenic Flight over Milford SoundScenic Flight over Milford Sound

3. Stirling Falls

Whether you take the famous boat trip, a small boat, or a kayaking trip down the fjord, a huge highlight is the epic Stirling Falls, one of Milford Sound’s two permanent waterfalls which is truly impressive at 151 meters high!

My best experience at this waterfall was onboard the deck of a smaller vessel on my first visit. This allowed us to drive much closer to the waterfall and we got absolutely soaked from the spray!

Stirling Falls at Milford Sound in the rainStirling Falls at Milford Sound in the rainStirling Falls at Milford Sound in the rain

4. Spot Fur Seals & Bottlenose Dolphins

Milford Sound is a sanctuary for fur seals and bottlenose dolphins, and spotting them was one of my fondest memories on the fjord.

I’ve usually seen the seals lounging on the rocks, especially around Seal Rock, which is located deep within the fjord, close to the Tasman Sea on the eastern banks. I’ve only managed to spot dolphins once on a clear day and they were riding on the bow of the boat.

In my opinion, smaller boat tours offer a more personal wildlife viewing experience, as they can navigate closer to the seals’ resting places and move smoothly, which can increase the chances of a dolphin encounter.

I spoke to our tour guide Ben from Pure Milford and he said that there are over 60 bottlenose dolphins that live in the fjord! He told me that it doesn’t matter so much about the weather, it’s just a matter of luck to spot them!

Fur seals basking on the rocks at Milford SoundFur seals basking on the rocks at Milford SoundFur seals basking on the rocks at Milford Sound

5. See the Underwater Observatory

The Underwater Observatory in Milford Sound offers a unique glimpse into the fjord’s marine life. On a rainy day, or if the cruises are all booked out, this becomes the best option to see what’s beneath the surface!

Located at Harrison Cove, within Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, Milford Sound’s awesome Underwater Observatory offers a really cool view of the fjord’s underwater ecosystem. You can also book a visit as part of a combo ticket with a boat cruise by booking with Southern Discoveries.

Regardless of the weather, it’s a fantastic opportunity to dive into the marine life without getting wet. Here, amidst the unique freshwater layer, you’ll discover rare black corals, which are usually found in much deeper waters. I also noticed that these were actually white, despite their name– weird!

The observatory is accessible at the Milford Sound Discover Center by a short boat ride from the main terminal.

Underwater observatory at Milford SoundUnderwater observatory at Milford SoundUnderwater observatory at Milford Sound

6. Take an Overnight Cruise

Okay, I’m going to be honest. I haven’t done an overnight cruise in Milford Sound but based on the reviews and great wrap from other travelers online, this looks like one of the most remarkable ways to experience the fjord (and what a unique way to tick off number 19!).

One of the pitfalls of a Milford Cruise is that it is quite busy due to its popularity. However, I’m recommending this activity because this looks like the perfect way to experience the fjord in the early morning serenity before day-trippers arrive.

You can book these cruises through several providers, but after comparing reviews online it looks like the one from Southern Discoveries offers the best value and overall experience.

Milford Sound Cruise boatMilford Sound Cruise boatMilford Sound Cruise boat

7. Lady Bowen Falls

Lady Bowen Falls, standing at an impressive 162 meters, is the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound and a primary source of hydroelectric power and water for the area.

The first time I saw it, I was really surprised by just how close it is from the main jetty– it’s literally around the corner, so make sure you go up on the deck as soon as the cruise departs, or you’ll miss it!

Although you can view the falls from a distance on most boat tours, I recommend taking a dedicated trip for a closer look during the summer months. Southern Discoveries offers a boat service that takes you near the base of the falls, where the thunderous roar and spray make for an epic, up-close experience.

The cost is just $10 NZD for adults and $5 for kids and you can even get off near the falls to walk up the Bowen Nature Walk up to an epic viewing platform overlooking the waterfall.

Photography tip: This is one of my favorite places to take photos in Milford Sound, especially during the early morning, when the sun pokes over Mitre Peak to light up the golden spray of the falls, contrasting with the native Fiordland flora in the foreground.

Lady Bowen falls in New ZealandLady Bowen falls in New ZealandLady Bowen falls in New Zealand

8. Marvel at Mitre Peak

Speaking of Mitre Peak, this epic 1,692 m mountain is perhaps the most impressive peak in the Southern Alps. No, it’s not the tallest mountain in New Zealand, nor is it quite as well-known as that title-holder, Mount Cook.

However, This isn’t due to its height, but for its beautiful, steep conical shape that I think looks a lot like Mount Crumpit from The Grinch (anyone?).

While it’s visible from many points along the fjord, the best views are from the water. The boat tours provide the best perspective but you can also get a great reflection shot from the Milford Sound foreshore walk, especially at dawn or dusk– if the peak isn’t shrouded in mist.

9. Milford Sound Lookout Track

If you’re looking for a short, easy hike close to the visitor center then I highly recommend checking out the Milford Sound Lookout Track.

This short 400 m return walk takes you to an elevated viewpoint for better views of Milford Sound. The track starts just a few hundred meters before you get to the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal. From the café parking lot in Milford Sound, head south past the brown buildings to find the trailhead near Donald Sutherland’s grave, just beyond the hedge to the left you’ll find the trail.

It’s well-marked, winding through lush native bushland before opening out to the lookout.

From the top, you can see Mitre Peak, the Pembroke Glacier, and great views of Milford Sound.

Reflection photo of Milford Sound in New Zealand's South IslandReflection photo of Milford Sound in New Zealand's South IslandReflection photo of Milford Sound in New Zealand's South Island

10. Go Kayaking on the Fjord

Want a bit more adventure than a boat tour? Kayaking in Milford Sound is one of the best ways to soak up the scenery at eye level, from the towering cliffs to the lazy seals.

While I couldn’t find any kayak rental companies, there are several tour operators located at the sound that offer guided tours, suitable for all skill levels, and provide all the necessary equipment.

Below is a list of the best kayak tours I could find in Milford Sound to help you choose.

11. Hike the Milford Track

When it comes to New Zealand’s famous ‘Great Walks’, Milford Track is by far one of the most famous, and is widely regarded as ‘The Finest Walk in the World’.

In fact, the Milford Track earned this title as far back as 1908 when Blanche Baughan coined the term in her London Spectator piece.

The Milford Track stretches over 53 kilometers, starting at Lake Te Anau and finishing in Milford Sound at Sandfly Point. Along the way, hikers are treated to stunning views of Sutherland Falls, one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, and the serene beauty of Clinton and Arthur Valleys.

While it requires preparation and booking in advance, especially during the Great Walks season (March to October), the Milford Track offers undeniably the best way to immerse yourself in the pristine wilderness surrounding Milford Sound.

12. Take the Milford Foreshore Walk

Visiting Milford Sound and looking for a short walk after the scenic drive down Milford Road? The Milford Foreshore Walk is well regarded as one of the best things to do once you actually arrive at Milford Sound.

This leisurely, easily accessible stroll offers stunning views of Milford Sound and Mitre Peak. This short track starts near the Milford Sound Visitor Centre and wraps around the water’s edge for a short, 30-minute walk.

I’ll admit I’ve taken this walk every time I’ve visited Milford Sound as it’s the perfect easy activity while waiting for the fjord cruise boats to depart.

13. Stay at the Milford Lodge

Since the drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau takes at least two hours, I highly recommend staying here for at least a night to make the most of the fun activities and unique things to do in the National Park.

Conveniently located near the fjord, the Milford Sound Lodge offers a range of accommodation options, from comfortable chalets to budget-friendly dorm-style rooms.

To make your trip planning easier, below is a quick list of the best places to stay near Milford Sound, including the famous lodge!

1. Milford Sound Lodge Luxury

Encapsulated by mountains with spectacular views of the surrounding waterfalls and offering a free breakfast it is hard to beat.

2. Tasman Holiday Parks Te Anau

Offering large apartment-style rooms, a hot tub and sauna, and only a 5-minute walk from Te Anau center. Perfect for those heading to Milford Sound for a day trip.

3. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise Unique

The most unique overnight experience floating around Milford Sound. With a chance to spot local wildlife whilst indulging in a 3-course dinner.

Tip: If you’re cruising around New Zealand in a campervan (awesome), there are plenty of great campsites along Milford Road. My favorite is Cascade Creek Campsite. However, you can find more campsites here.

14. Spot a Kea

When cruising around Fiordland National Park or hiking on one of the many amazing South Island hiking trails, you’ll likely come across the famous New Zealand alpine parrot; the Kea.

In fact, this is the world’s only alpine parrot and is regarded as one of the most intelligent bird species on the planet. Unfortunately, their numbers have fallen in recent years, but Milford Sound is still one of the best places to spot one in New Zealand.

I’ve always seen them at the car parks on the drive into the fjord, including the famous Chasm and Mirror Lakes stops. On my most recent visit, I also spotted them while waiting to drive through the Homer Tunnel. The Kea are very smart and typically unafraid of humans. They’ll likely come up to your car in search of food. However, remember not to feed them, as this has a negative impact on their behaviour!

15. Scuba Diving

Looking for the most unique thing to do at Milford Sound? Scuba diving in this cold climate might not be on the top of everyone’s itinerary, but it does offer a one-of-a-kind experience!

The diving experience at this fjord is extremely unique due to the layer of fresh water on the surface, which creates an unusual and surprisingly cool underwater environment. Furthermore, the visibility is often excellent, allowing for clear views of the vibrant marine life, including various fish species, and sometimes even seals.

The best-known scuba operator in the area offering guided dives is Descend, located in Te Anau.

16. Take a Helicopter Flight

If a scenic plane isn’t what you’re after, perhaps a helicopter flight over the southern Alps and majestic fjord might be.

Taking a helicopter flight over Milford Sound is an exhilarating way to gain a bird’s-eye view of iconic landmarks like Mitre Peak and Sutherland Falls. Some helicopter tours like the one we took even offer landings on remote alpine ledges or glaciers of the Southern Alps.

Remember, Milford is one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand, and helicopter flights often sell out in the busy season. While we didn’t have any trouble getting a helicopter flight within 2-days notice, this might be different for you, so plan ahead!

17. Find the Best Photography Spots

One thing that always draws me back to Milford Sound are the amazing opportunities for landscape photography. All the photos on this blog are taken by me, and here are my favorite photo spots to help you take great photos on your first visit.

  1. Milford Sound Jetty: An iconic spot for photos with great views of the sound and Mitre Peak. This spot is perfect during sunrise or sunset when the light plays dramatically on the face of the peaks and cliffs.
  2. The Foreshore Walk: This easy trail offers diverse perspectives of the fjord, perfect for wide-angle shots. I recommend walking just off the track (avoid stepping on flora) to get close to the water for great reflection shots.
  3. Lady Bowen Falls: Capture the power of this waterfall, which provides a spectacular backdrop, especially after rainfall when it’s at its most dramatic. You can get great shots of the waterfall mist from any of the regular Milford Sound cruises, or get closer with the Lady Bowen Falls boat from the Visitor Center.
  4. Milford Sound Lookout Track – a great spot for photos from a slightly elevated position. I recommend getting here early to beat the crowds, especially if you’re planning to put up a tripod!
  5. From the Water: Whether it’s from a kayak or a cruise, photographing the fjord from the water level offers a unique perspective, especially for capturing the reflections in the water, which are best in the morning on a calm day!

Note that some of the best photography spots in the region are along Milford Road. Check the last item on this list for more ideas!

18. Spot Glow Worms

If you’re visiting Fiordland National Park, you might have already heard of the famous Glow Worm Tours from Te Anau. However, did you know that these bright little critters are everywhere in the park, including at Milford Sound?

Glow worms are unique to New Zealand, and are actually larvae of a native fly that lights up the landscape with a bioluminescent glow. They’re attracted to dark, damp places, which is why they like Milford Sound– the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand.

If you’re up for nighttime activity, I recommend taking the Milford Sound Foreshore Walk or Lookout Track at night time for the best chance of spotting these bioluminescent creatures. However, since these guys usually move around a lot based on the season, you might want to ask at the Visitor Centre for a heads-up on where to find them currently.

Tip: Remember to avoid loud noises and flash photography as this can be harmful to the glow worms.

19. Go Stargazing

Stargazing in Milford Sound is an amazing experience thanks to the minimal light pollution.

If you’re lucky enough to visit the fjord on a clear-sky night, then this remote location provides an excellent backdrop for observing and photographing the stars, constellations, and the Milky Way.

If you’re staying the night, you can stargaze right from the Milford Sound Lodge. Alternatively, walk down to the foreshore for great long-exposure photos of the stars with Mitre Peak in the foreground.

Photography tip: for the best photos of the Milky Way at Milford Sound, plan your visit around the New Moon for minimal light pollution and the clearest stars.

20. Witness Milford Sound in the Rain

It’s true when they say that no visit to Milford Sound is the same. As you can probably tell from my photos in this guide, visiting the fjord is a completely different experience in the rain compared to a clear day!

However, what I can tell you is that a rainy day visit is certainly more common. With over 6.8 meters of rainfall annually, this is one of the wettest places you’ll visit in New Zealand!

However, all that rain makes for an amazing scene– the steep cliffs pour with hundreds of new waterfalls, and the lush rainforest draws in rich mist for a truly wild scene.

Visiting Milford Sound in the rain is one of the most incredible experiences you’ll have, so don’t let the weather deter you! However, do keep in mind that after particularly heavy rain, the road to Milford Sound can close, especially before the Homer Tunnel, so plan accordingly.

21. Explore the Stops on Milford Road

Reaching Milford Sound via the incredible Milford Road is an adventure in itself. In fact, I could write an entire blog post about all the amazing places to stop along the way. However, since this is likely your first visit, here are the stops I recommend taking.

  1. Mirror Lakes: These small lakes provide stunning reflective views of the Earl Mountains on a calm day. A short, easy walk takes you to the viewing platforms.
  2. The Chasm: A short loop walk leads you to this series of powerful waterfalls and rock formations. I believe the rainforest on this walk is one of the most scenic and beautiful in New Zealand.
  3. Eglinton Valley: Offering panoramic views of an ancient glacial valley, it’s a great spot for landscape photography.
  4. Monkey Creek: Known for its clear water, this is a great place to fill your water bottle and possibly see keas or other local wildlife.
  5. Key Summit: For those who want to stretch their legs, the Key Summit track starts off the Routeburn Track and offers stunning views of the Fiordland.
  6. Lake Marian: Accessed via a short hike, this alpine lake is nestled in a hanging valley and is an incredible scenic spot to reach.
  7. Hollyford Lookout: Providing sweeping views over the Hollyford Valley and towards the distant Tasman Sea.
  8. Homer Tunnel: This engineering feat marks the entrance to the Cleddau Valley and the descent into Milford Sound. No, you can’t stop inside the tunnel, but it’s a marvel in itself to drive through.

Best Ways to Get to Milford Sound

Read through this entire Milford Sound activities guide for first-timers and still looking for ways to get here?

Here are your options:

  • Helicopter & Scenic Flights
  • Bus & Coach Tours from Queenstown, Wanaka, and Te Anau
  • Driving yourself from Te Anau along Milford Road

In terms of tours, here are my top 3 recommended options with links to book your trip.

1. Milford Sound by Plane & Boat Top Pick

Take a scenic flight over New Zealand’s picturesque Southern Alps. Land in Milford and then embark on a Milford Sound cruise before flying back to Queenstown.

2. Milford Coach & Cruise Tour Best Value

The most popular and best-value day trip to Milford Sound & the Fiordlands from Queenstown by Pure Milford, one of the best tour companies in New Zealand.

3. Milford Luxury Coach & Cruise Luxury

Reach Milford on a full-day trip from Queenstown by luxury coach. See the dramatic Fiordland scenery through the glass roof of the coach, driving past towering waterfalls before embarking on the cruise.

FAQ About Activities at Milford Sound

Can I drive to Milford Sound?

Yes, driving Milford Road is one of the best ways to get here. Expect a 2-hour scenic drive from Te Anau or at least 4 hours from Queenstown. Note that road closures are common, especially near the Homer Tunnel on Milford Road (State Highway 94). Check the NZTA for up-to-date closures. Also, note that parking is rather expensive at Milford Sound. Currently, it costs $10 an hour to park your car in the main car park!

What is the best time of year to visit Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is spectacular year-round, but the peak season is during the New Zealand summer from December to February. For fewer crowds, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (Spring: September-November, Autumn: March-May).

Can I visit Milford Sound in one day?

Yes, it’s possible to visit Milford Sound in a day, especially with organized tours from Te Anau or Queenstown. However, I do recommend staying overnight to fully experience the area’s beauty. You can stay at Milford Lodge or one of the many campsites on the way into the fjord.

What should I pack for a trip to Milford Sound?

Pack rain gear, warm layers, sun protection, insect repellent (the sandflies are particularly bad here), comfortable walking shoes, a camera, and a water bottle. The weather can change rapidly, so it’s best to be prepared!

Do I need to book tours and activities in advance?

Yes, it’s a good idea to book boat cruises, kayaking tours, and accommodation in advance, especially during the summer months when they can fill up quickly.

Is there mobile phone coverage in Milford Sound?

Mobile coverage is limited in Milford Sound and along much of Milford Road. I had 3 bars of 4G with my Airalo e-Sim but this only worked when I got to the Visitor Centre and not along Milford Road. While there is Wi-Fi at the café near the car park and at the visitor center, I recommend making any necessary calls or arrangements before leaving Te Anau and download offline maps.

Is there a town at Milford Sound?

No, there isn’t a town at Milford Sound. The area is a natural environment with very limited development. The closest thing to a ‘town’ in Milford Sound is the small complex at the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, which includes the Milford Sound Lodge for accommodation, a café, and a few other facilities primarily catering to tourists and visitors.

What is so special about Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is considered ‘The Jewel of Fiordland National Park’. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and a haven for unique wildlife, including fur seals, dolphins, and rare birds like the Kea. The fjord’s dramatic landscapes and serene waters, ideal for cruises and kayaking, make it a must-visit destination in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

Is Milford Sound free?

There are no visitor or entry fees to visit Milford Sound. However, since this is a remote fjord, there are costs involved with getting here. Also, while it costs more than $100, the amazing cruise is well worth the money! However, there are also many free things to do here, including nature walks like the Foreshore Walk and the Lookout Walk.

Can you see Milford Sound without a cruise?

Yes, you can experience Milford Sound without taking a cruise. However, I do recommend it if you are coming all the way out here. There are several viewpoints and short walks, such as the Milford Foreshore Walk for stunning views of the fjord. Additionally, scenic flights are a great alternative to get a unique and unparalleled perspective of Milford Sound.

Resources For Planning a Trip to New Zealand & Milford Sound

Still organising your trip to New Zealand? If you prefer independent travel like me, read my guide on how to plan a trip to New Zealand. Alternatively, check out the useful resources below that I use to plan all my trips around the world for the past 5 years of non-stop travel.

To learn more about independent travel to anywhere else in the world, read my ultimate step-by-step guide on how to plan a trip.

More South Island Travel & Adventure Guides

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this comprehensive travel guide to planning your adventures and activities at Milford Sound.

Remember, I update all my guides frequently. So, if you have any more suggestions that you believe should be included, leave me a comment below or email me at [email protected]!

Otherwise, for more New Zealand travel inspiration, check out my list of comprehensive guides below– all based on my adventures in the South Island.