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ULTIMATE Guide to Visiting Milford Sound in Winter

ULTIMATE Guide to Visiting Milford Sound in Winter

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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

Waiting at the Homer tunnel on the road to Milford Sound, New Zealand
Waiting at the Homer tunnel on the road to Milford Sound, New Zealand

Is Milford Sound Worth Visting in the Winter?

Don’t let the cold and snow scare you away from visiting beautiful Milford Sound! In all honesty, besides temperature and a bit more extreme weather conditions there are just about the same amount of things to do in Milford Sound in the winter as in any other time of the year.

The cruises are still open, you can still hike or kayak, and the best part, NO CROWDS! The scenery at this time of the year is also particularly impressive, that is because of the consistent heavy rainfall that will make the waterfalls larger and more powerful! Imagine standing close to one and hearing and feeling some of the spray that comes off of it.

Because of the lack of crowds, not only will the different tourist attractions and accommodations be cheaper and less busy, but it also means taking photographs will be easier. Plus, as there are fewer tours going through the sound you will be more likely to see a greater abundance of wildlife such as dolphins, penguins, and whales.

The Weather in Milford Sound in Winter 

exploring milford sound on a boat
Milford in Winter is cold – but the sun still comes out!

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 (10in) 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

A motorhome at the Homer Tunnel between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Waiting at the Homer Tunnel!

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.

But if you want to rent a car or campervan and drive yourself then there are a few things you should know about the road to Milford.

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 Devil’s 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 are 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. 

The road between Te Anau and Milford Sound
The road to the Milford Sound is a gorgeous drive in the winter months!

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 into 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.

If you’d rather take a more independent route InterCity Bus is the largest public bus network in New Zealand so they are a reliable choice to book one way and return trips through.

Alternatives to Driving – Fly to Milford

A helicopter flies though Milford Sound, New Zealand
A helicopter is one of the fancier ways to get to Milford in the winter months!

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:

  • 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 that includes views of Mitre Peak and Tukuko Glacier. You’ll have to experience it for yourself to truly see how grand Milford Sound is from the sky.

 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 

boarding the milford sound boat cruise
We did our cruise with Southern Discoveries, and it was great!

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 Cruise 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. This tour goes right to the 525-foot (160-meter) high Bowen Falls and Mount Pembroke’s snow-capped peak.

If a larger boat is your preference there are lots to choose from including this highly rated scenic cruise that comes with the optional lunch. These boats are purposely 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 

Bowen Falls in Milford Sound
The beautiful 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 (393 feet) 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 (531 feet) 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. 

Note: As of 18 January 2022 Bowen Falls Walk has been closed due to no boat transportation available. Please check the official website for current updates.

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! 

A kayaking adventure is great for all fitness levels and a perfect way to get immersed in the sound. You can book a quick but thorough kayak trip that begins 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 views from the Milford Sound forrest walk
Mitre Peak dipped in snow is so beautiful!

The Milford Foreshore Walk is a short and sweet 400-meter (.25 mile) 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 parking lot.

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 

The Insta-famous Milford Sound 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 as mentioned above, and go 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 providing the perfect frame for gorgeous Mitre Peak.

6. Milford Underwater Observatory 

Bailey at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory
This is a really unique experience!

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.  On this cruise, you will also get close to many waterfalls as you make your way to the cove.

You will find yourself 10 meters (33 feet) 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 (1,640 feet) 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 

Milford Sound Lodge Restaurant Pio Pio meal
A delicious warm curry in winter? Yes, please! Photo credit: Pio Pio

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 but camping in the winter will be pretty chilly without the right equipment. These options are the closest accommodation you will find in Milford! See the full accommodation section further down in the post for more nearby suggestions.

Related read: If you’re visiting Queenstown (and why wouldn’t you be!) then check out our blogs about where to stay in Queenstown and the best restaurants in Queenstown!

8. Hike the Milford Sound Lookout Track

Milford Sound lookout track
Not a bad view!

The Milford Sound Lookout Track is one of the best walks you can do in Milford Sound during winter. It’s short, fairly easy, and offers some beautiful views! Unfortunately, most people never hear about this hike and miss it when visiting Milford Sound.  

The track is somewhat hidden and starts behind the café in Milford Sound. Walk to the rear parking lot behind the café in Milford and past the two brown buildings. When you pass Donald Sutherland’s grave you should find the track.  

The Milford Sound Lookout Track is only 400 meters long (.25 miles) in total and takes you up above Milford Sound via some stairs. From up there, you’ll be able to enjoy Milford from a completely different point of view than you’ve seen before. The best part is, due to its low elevation, the trail is often free of ice and snow in winter.

Most people complete this entire trail in about 20 minutes or so. 

Pros and Cons of Visiting Milford Sound in the Winter 

Bailey and a Kea pose for a photo at the Homer Tunnel
Bailey and a Kea pose for a photo at the Homer Tunnel

Pros

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, which 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. 

Cons

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 

A woman looks up at the side of Mitre peak in Milford on a MIlford SOund Boat cruise
Mitre Peak from the side on our second Milford Sound cruise
  • 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 are 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.

Where to Stay in Milford in Winter

It’s a really good idea to spend the night in the area the night before and after your Milford Sound cruise so you will be less rushed and able to spend one full day at Milford Sound (and even stick around after the cruise to wait for sunset!).

There are not many options to stay directly in Milford, your only two options are the Milford Lodge or camping at the attached Rainforest Campervan Park. Camping can be done in the winter but will be very cold unless you have the right setup (heater, clothing, blankets, or RV with the option to hook up to electricity). The nearby city of Te Anau on the other hand has a few more options.

There are quite a lot of different places to stay including really nice caravan parks with rooms available at great prices. We stayed at the Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and it was great! But there are lots of other options too!

Some great options for where to stay in Te Anau are:

Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers (budget hostel)

Located right in the town center this is the perfect choice for the budget traveler. They offer dorm beds as well as private rooms and have communal kitchen facilities and common spaces available. This a great social hostel – perfect for meeting other travelers.

Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (mid-range budget)

This holiday park is where we stayed as it had budget private rooms as well as powered campsites (perfect for Daniel’s parents who were with us and had rented a campervan,) It is located just outside of town but in a very beautiful and peaceful area. There are tons of communal facilities and the park is kept very clean.

Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments (high budget)

If you want a beautiful, comfortable, and somewhat luxurious place to stay then this is it! Right on the edge of the lake, this motel offers apartments that suit couples or families. Every room has a balcony, WiFi, air conditioning, a kitchen, and there are BBQ facilities onsite!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and I pose for a photo on our Milford Sound cruise
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoy Milford Sound in winter as much as we did!

A trip to Milford Sound in winter should be added to everyone’s South Island New Zealand 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: 

Free and Cheap Things to do in Queenstown

33 Unique Things to do in New Zealand

15 Things to do in Mount Cook

33 EPIC Things to do in Jasper in Winter
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