Fiordland is a hiking paradise. Whether you choose one of the great walks in Fiordland - which we covered in a separate article - or a shorter day walk, exploring on foot makes it a hugely rewarding experience.
Milford Sound itself is one of the most frequented destinations in New Zealand. It is located at the dead end of Milford Road leaving Te Anau towards the north. Here frequent rains on the steep mountains, rising vertically from the sea, feed the high waterfalls cascading down from the rainforests. The pictures is completed by fur seals sleeping on the rocks and curious dolphins as well as the rare Fiordland crested penguins swimming next to your kayak.
Getting around in the Milford Sound region
With only limited accommodation available, and most activities located closer to Milford Sound than Te Anau, experiencing more than just the road side attractions requires some driving but is well worth the effort.
There are a few DOC camp sites available halfway to Milford Sound but most tourists will stay in Te Anau. From there, driving to Milford Sound takes between 1 and 1.5 hours. The route is busy with coaches coming in from Queenstown. So we advise to do the road side attractions and activities at the sound on one day and do any hikes the following day(s). Otherwise you'll end up like us. Doing the key summit in 1.5 instead of 3 hours. This is fun if you like running up and down mountains (we certainly do) but definitely can become a stressful undertaking.
The tourist day trip
Let us start with the typical tourist route. Along the way to Milford Sound, many small beautiful stops are waiting for you. They are more or less busy with tourists, depending on the time of the day. But you pass them anyway so why not give it a try before going for some serious hikes in less frequented parts of the area.
Marked only with a small sign, park your car next to the road and have a short stroll to take in the views on this beautiful valley which was formed by glaciers eons ago. See the Fiordland mountains rising at the sides and a flat floor shining in a bright yellow.
Right next to the road there is a small viewing platform close to the tarns (mountain lakes). On days with nice weather, you can see a perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains in the lakes. Expect to share it with lots of tourists though.
In case you did not have a walk at Lake Te Anau, Lake Gunn offers a good opportunity to see the red beech forest, the birdlife of the Eglinton Valley and lake beaches.
Monkey creek provides another opportunity to take in the the magnificent views on towering mountains. Chances are pretty good to encounter some curious Keas near the car park as well. But please do not feed the Keas, it just makes them depended on food provided by humans.
Shortly before Milford Sound, have a last stop at the chasm. A 15 minute loop track crossing the Cleddau River offers spectacular views of a series of waterfalls. The Chasm is at its roaring best just after or during rainfall.
At Milford Sound, park your car and enjoy the view onto Mitre Peak. Either via the Lookout Track up the hill past Donald Sutherland’s grave, or via the Milford Foreshore Walk leading through a small patch of rainforest to the waters' edge.
To fully participate in the tourism main stream, book a boat cruise through the fiord. If you are more interested in a personal encounter with dolphins and seals, consider renting a kayak and start exploring the landscape on your own terms. Kayaks are rented out by: Rosco’s Milford Kayaks, Sea Kayak Fjordland and Go Orange Kayaks. Alternatively, Descend allows you to experience Fiordland's underwater world, in particular the famous black corals.
Should you have some additional 1.5 to 2 hours available before heading back to Te Anaua, consider to have a look at the Humbold Falls. On your way back and after exiting the Homer tunnel, turn left onto Hollyford Road. You can't miss it, it is the only turn off and an easy gravel road without any obstacles. Follow it for another 18 km to the Hollyford trail head at the end of the road A short climb through rainforest leads you to the lookout of the impressive 275 meter high Humboldt Falls.
Half day and full day hikes
If you don't book way in advance, chances are good that Fiordland's great walks are booked out. Luckily for the active traveler, the area offers many rewarding day hikes with which you can compensate your missed great walks.
Key Summit (3 hours return)
Starting at The Divide car park, the track follows the Routburn Track for about an hour before branching off onto a twenty minutes climb towards Key Summit. During good weather the summit provides panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains and down the three valleys of the Greenstone, Hollyford and Eglinton valleys. In addition there is a self-guided alpine nature walk and lots of very mossy trees giving the location a mystic atmosphere.
Lake Marian (3 hours return)
When turning into Hollyford Road, the same road you take for the Humboldt falls, follow it for about one kilometer and park your car on the left. After crossing a swing bridge walk alongside Marian Creek towards the viewing gantry providing many great photographic opportunities. From here on towards Lake Marian, the track can be very muddy so make sure to have proper shoes with you.
In the warmer months the lake is an ideal place to enjoy the weather and take a swim. In winter you can watch spectacular avalanches roar down the mountains behind Lake Marian.
Gertrude Saddle Walk (4 to 6 hours return)
This is one of New Zealand’s most accessible alpine walks. Park your car at the Homer Hut car park at an unmarked parking spot about 1 kilometer to the east of the Homer Tunnel. The track itself follows the Getrude Valley for and hour and then climbs about 800 m to Black Lake and the Gertrude Saddle. From up here you have sensational views towards Milford Sound and the surrounding Darran Mountains. But beware, there is high avalanche risk in winter and spring.
Grave Talbot Walk (3 to 4 hours return)
Starting from the western side of the Homer tunnel, this track follows the raging Gulliver River and then leads to the Esperance River Grasslands. Following a gentle slope the track climbs 600 m in total. As with the Getrude Saddle, there is high avalanche risk in winter and spring.
Tutoko (5 to 6 hours return)
This track is the closest to Milford Sound, located about 2 kilometers from Milford Sound. Looking at the map, it follows the Tutoko river and climbs about 150 meters. Nevertheless it takes several hours to reach the end of the valley with the track being unmarked, leading through unique rainforest and having extensive muddy sections which require to walk multiple detours. You are rewarded with pure nature and the 2834 m high peak Mt Tutoko rising right next to you. If you walk it all the way you can witness the Herbert Icefields dropping into the Leader Creek.