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If you’re thinking about visiting Milford Sound in Winter then this blog is for you. Here are winter things to do, driving tips, what to expect, the weather, and more!
Milford Sound is New Zealand’s number one tourist attraction, attracting over 800,000 visitors a year! But, if you want to see a less-crowded Milford then why not consider visiting during the winter months?!
Winter is a great time to cruise or even kayak through this “8th Wonder of the World” because you are less likely to see another boat and the surrounding peaks may have a light dusting of snow. It’s less busy and more beautiful – why wouldn’t you want to go!
But there are a few things you should know about visiting Milford Sound in winter before you go. From preparing for the weather to winter driving tips, this blog has all the important info to ensure you enjoy Milford at what I believe to be one of the best times of the year!
Milford Sound in Winter FAQs
May to September is winter in Milford Sound, however you can still experience snow on the road to Milford before May or after September.
The average temperature in the winter in Milford is a pretty comfortable 48 degrees Fahrenheit (8.9 Celsius) but early in the morning or when it’s dark it can reach about 33 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 Celsius.) Expect snow, rain, or shine – Milford is known for having four seasons in one day!
Yes, but you should drive carefully and always carry snow chains (and know how to use them!) If you’re not an experienced driver then a guided bus tour would be your best option.
The best things to do in Milford in winter are going on a cruise, kayaking, visiting Lady Bowen Falls, hiking, photographing the Milford Sound Swing, and visiting the Underwater Observatory.
Yes. Milford Sound is known to be more beautiful in the winter months, plus, it is much less busy with fewer crowds!
The Weather in Milford Sound in Winter
You may already be aware that Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth. In fact, it’s common for levels of rainfall to reach as high as 250mm per day! Milford Sound averages 182 days of rainfall every year.
Funnily enough, the wettest months here are during the summer, particularly December and January. You’re less likely to get rained on in the winter.
The average temperature in the winter in Milford is a pretty comfortable 48 degrees Fahrenheit (8.9 Celcius) but early in the morning or when it’s dark it can drop to about 33 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 Celcius.)
So, it is cold during winter in Milford, but not super freezing. As a Canadian, to me this weather is balmy. But if you’re not used to it (Aussies I’m looking at you), be prepared with lots of warm layers.
As mentioned, rainfall is at its lowest in the winter but you are likely to come across frost and snow on the roads at this time of year (especially near the Homer Tunnel.) Similarly, there is likely to be ice on the walking tracks in Milford so appropriate footwear is a must.
While it will snow in Milford Sound during the winter, it isn’t super common and the snow doesn’t always stick around on the ground. On the road to Milford when you are at higher elevations is where you are more likely to see snow than down at the Milford Foreshore (which is at sea level.) Places like Pop’s Lookout and the Homer Tunnel are known to be dusted in snow during the winter months.
When visiting Milford in the winter my advice is to layer up so that you can easily remove or add layers when needed and be prepared for the weather to change at moment’s notice – it is Milford Sound after all! And as always with Milford, bring your rain jacket!
Getting to Milford Sound in Winter
You have two options when it comes to getting to Milford Sound in winter; drive or fly! Below is some info on both options so you can make the best choice for yourself.
Drive to Milford Sound in Winter
Driving to Milford Sound in winter can be a bit of a task. If you aren’t a confident driver, then I suggest joining a coach (bus) tour from either Queenstown or Te Anau. This way, you can relax while an expert drives you to Milford Sound.
Milford Road Conditions in Winter
From Queenstown, the road to Te Anau (the closest town to Milford) is pretty standard as New Zealand roads go. The Devils Staircase between Queenstown and Kingston can be pretty narrow in parts so excise caution here. Otherwise, I would consider the road into Te Anau to be a relatively easy drive.
State Highway 94 (SH94), the road which takes you from Te Anau to Milford is one of the highest state highways in New Zealand. It’s also one of the most scenic, so allow sufficient time for the many beautiful sights along the way.
Frost and snow on the roads is a common problem in Milford Sound and on the SH94 in winter, particularly early in the morning. So make sure you carry snow chains as a precaution.
There’s a risk of avalanches during the winter months so be sure to check road conditions before you depart. You will spot avalanche warning signs along your route, these signs can be seen at Te Anau, Knobs Flat, and 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) before Milford Sound itself. Don’t stop in avalanche areas, it is best to keep moving to pass them quickly.
Also, watch out for road signs notifying you if snow chains are required, and pull in to one of the designated pull-offs if you need to put on your snow chains.
Also worth noting is the Homer Tunnel is open for two-way traffic during the winter months so there won’t be the typical traffic light system in operation. So don’t stop at the entrance, just drive on through and be careful of oncoming traffic as it’s quite narrow.
Thankfully, the road to Milford in winter will be quieter and you are less likely to spot lots of large tour buses on the sometimes narrow roads here.
If you’re not an experienced winter driver then, my advice is to let someone else take to wheel or get one of the many coaches operating from either Queenstown or Te Anau into Milford. The drivers are experts and the buses are suited to winter driving conditions.
Alternatives to Driving – Fly to Milford
If the road to Milford doesn’t sound ideal then you can fly there instead! Flying to Milford Sound is without a doubt a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Views of Fiordland National Park from above are unmatched. However, flights are expensive as you must ride on small fixed-wing planes or helicopters.
But if you have the money to spare, then a flight (at least one way) is a must!
There are a few different flight options you can consider including:
- Fly to and from Queenstown to Milford – On a small fixed-wing plane you’ll enjoy a scenic flight and skip the long drive from Queenstown to Milford (and back again) completely. A great option for a tour from Queenstown.
- Bus tour from Queenstown to Milford with a return flight – To me, this is the absolute best tour to Milford Sound as you get to explore the road to Milford and fly back. It makes for a shorter day than just a bus trip. It’s also the most thorough way you can enjoy Milford with views from the road, on a cruise in the water, and from up in the air!
- Helicopter flight from Queenstown to Milford – I love helicopters! I once did a helicopter ride in Mount Cook, and to this day, it’s one of my most memorable experiences. This tour takes you to Milford from Queenstown with an additional landing in an alpine environment!
Things to do in Milford in Winter
There’s just so much to do in Milford so, during your time here you can experience as much or as little as you’d like. A must-do is of course a Milford Sound cruise but you may also be tempted by other bucket-list-worthy activities like a sunrise kayak tour or hiking the stunning Lady Bowen Falls track.
1. Milford Sound Cruise
No visit to Milford Sound is complete without a boat cruise. A cruise allows you to get up close and personal with many of the famous sights including Bowen Falls.
There’s a cruise for everyone depending on what you’re after. You may choose a smaller more personalized experience like Mitre Peak Cruises which has a maximum capacity of 30 people. The bonus with a smaller vessel is that you can really get up close to those waterfalls – so much so you can get a free ‘glacial facial’. The icy cold water is very refreshing, believe me.
If a larger boat is your preference there are lots to choose from including this highly rated scenic cruise. These are purpose-built with large viewing windows and large outdoor decks to see all the wonderful sights in Milford.
If you’re lucky you may even spot the resident seal population sunbathing on the rocks near the falls. Dolphins too inhabit the inky blue waters here, you may spot some frolicking next to your boat!
A cruise in Milford typically lasts between 90 minutes and two hours.
2. Lady Bowen Falls
The Bowen Falls Walk is another popular activity in Milford Sound, but it’s only accessible by boat. Head to the wharf at Freshwater Basin, from here a boat will transfer you the short 120 meters to a small pontoon on the other side to start the track.
The track should take you about 30 minutes to complete, it’s a winding uphill climb to the viewing platform at the top. From here, you can see the majestic 162 meter-tall Lady Bowen Falls in all her glory. After rainfall the falls are even more glorious and fierce. In fact, a lot of locals will tell you that Milford is best seen when it’s raining.
3. Kayaking through Milford Sound
For the more adventurous, why not go kayaking through Milford Sound – a bucket-list experience for sure! My personal favorite is the sunrise tour. Complete silence, still waters, and the chance to watch an epic sunrise over the sounds. Surely, the perfect start to your day!
There’s a kayaking adventure for all abilities ranging from easy to tough. You can choose a 3-hour adventure that allows you to get up close to the waterfalls and kayak a loop of Milford Sound or a shorter one-hour trip that is combined with a cruise.
You will be provided with all the gear you need like a buoyancy aid, spray skirt, fleece (to keep you warm), and anything else you can think of. With the right gear, kayaking in the winter months is totally doable (and you won’t be cold either!)
Whatever option you choose it sure is a unique way to see the 8th wonder of the world.
4. Milford Foreshore Walk
The Milford Foreshore Walk is a short and sweet 400-meter loop track where you can enjoy fantastic views of Mitre Peak. It’s a flat, easy track ideal for the whole family which begins from the main car park.
Watch the cruise boats from the viewing points and read all about the flora and fauna in the area through the many interpretative boards dotted along the track.
5. Milford Swing
A favorite and must-see for both photographers and couples is the Milford Swing – a man-made swing with the most epic view of Mitre Peak. It is said to have been built just a few years ago by a worker in Milford for his girlfriend. How romantic!
To get to the Swing just follow the Foreshore Walk in the opposite direction of the wharf. You will cross a little wooden bridge, after this, keep walking for about 5 minutes and keep a lookout to your right and you should spot the swing – it’s on a little sandy patch jutting out into the water.
Sit on the swing and have your partner snap a photo from behind, the swing and the tree it hangs from provides the perfect frame for gorgeous Mitre Peak.
6. Milford Underwater Observatory
New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory is another unique way to see Milford Sound in winter. The Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory is located in Harrison Cove and is only accessible by boat.
You will find yourself 10 meters below sea level here. See the colorful sea life up close and discover different types of black coral usually found at depths of 500 meters in the sea.
You can learn all about the history of the Milford Sound area – from the very early days of Maori tribes to European settlers. The guides are very knowledgeable and will be sure to answer any questions you may have.
7. Have lunch at Pio Pio Restaurant
At Pio Pio Restaurant at Milford Sound Lodge, located just minutes from the wharf. Here, experience good locally sourced food and great coffee (ideal if you’ve had an early morning wake-up for your cruise or kayaking). For lunch or dinner, I recommend the wild venison tenderloin or the Marlborough salmon. There are lovely views of the stunning Milford scenery from the restaurant too.
If you’re after a place to stay in Milford this is also your spot – the Premium Riverside Chalets here are pure luxury! For those on a budget, their campsites are reasonably priced and you won’t find a place to stay close to Milford than this!
Pros and Cons to Visiting Milford Sound in the Winter
A big pro is that Milford Sound will be a heck of a lot quieter in the winter months, so you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself. Fewer people on the boat cruises too means the viewing platform on the boat will be empty – giving you the chance to snap an epic photo.
The road into Milford too will be significantly quieter and you are less likely to come across large coaches that tend to congest the narrow road from Te Anau to Milford.
You’re more likely to spot native birdlife in Milford in winter – including the Takahe, Kakapo, Mohua, and Kea. These birds hate crowds so, are more prevalent on the walks and hikes in the area during the winter months.
It’s typically cheaper to travel to Milford in the winter with a lot of the cruise, hotel, and other activity providers offering special rates to entice customers.
The cons would be that the road conditions can be snowy and frosty, so unless you’re an experienced winter driver, it may not be the nicest driving experience. But don’t let it deter you – bring snow chains and drive at a comfortable pace.
Opening hours and cruise times will be limited during winter in Milford Sound. So, you will need to plan your trip a little more carefully. It may just mean you need to stay the night to get everything done due to the limited daylight hours.
The pros certainly outweigh the cons in my opinion – a quieter, more peaceful Milford Sound is more attractive to me. Plus, you may even spot a dusting of snow on the peaks surrounding the sound if you’re lucky.
What to Bring With You/What to Pack
- Wet weather gear – this is the ‘rainiest place in New Zealand’ after all. Also, good hiking boots are a must, particularly for the Lady Bowen Falls track.
- Insect repellant – the sandflies here (yes, even in the cold winter months) can be a pain. These sandflies are particularly prevalent on the Milford Foreshore Walk and the Lady Bowen Falls track
- A good camera – the photo opportunities at the 8th wonder of the world are endless. My personal favorite photo spots here being the Milford Swing, Lady Bowen Falls, Mitre Peak from your cruise, and sunrise on your kayak tour
- Bring snacks and water – the restaurants and stores in the area may have limited opening hours so it’s best to be prepared. Plus, they can be pricey!
- Take cash with you – the last ATM before Milford is in Te Anau. Although all the activity providers and restaurants in Milford accept credit and debit cards, you never know what technical difficulties may occur in such a remote location. You’ll also need to pay for parking.
Before you go…
A trip to Milford Sound in winter should be added to everyone’s bucket list! I hope I’ve managed to convince you to visit Milford in winter. A quieter more scenic Milford is a dream plus with activities and accommodation at cheaper rates there’s no better season to visit Milford than in the winter.
If you found this blog helpful, then we have lots more for you to read. Check out all of our blogs about Milford Sound, Queenstown, and New Zealand. Some of our favorites blogs include:
Enjoy Milford Sound!