To prepare for our trip to New Zealand, we read through a lot of blogs, books, and websites about places to visit in New Zealand. We quickly realized Milford Sound was a must see especially after one blog explained the following: Queenstown is the place where tourists come to vacation while Milford Sound is the place where Queenstown residents go to visit. Rudyard Kipling described it as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” We had to see for ourselves what all the hype was about.
The drive from Queenstown is about 5 hours or you can make your way to Te Anau, a small half way point between Queenstown and Milford. We made our way to Te Anau on Friday night (long summer days provide plenty of sunshine until around 9:30 or 10pm). We stayed at the Village Inn at Te Anau which had an old town theme to it. Each room had signs above it making us feel like we were closer to the wild west than the middle of New Zealand.
Rain prevented us from exploring the town too much, but there’s a beautiful lake and great shops to take advantage of.
From what we read, it’s better to head to Milford Sound early or later to avoid tour busses and traffic. So we hit the road at around 6:30 after downing a quick cup of coffee (the gas station wasn’t even open yet). Note* there’s no gas station at Milford Sound, so fill up before you head out (we made it with enough to get back but there are no gas stations if you need one).
The drive is worth the early morning wake up. The single lane road winds through forest, mountains, past sheep and cow farms (a few deer farms too). Even on an overcast, dreary days (which is most days), the views are spectacular. The road is riddled with look outs, scenic overlooks, a long tunnel through a mountain, and hikes. Since the drive is about 2 – 2 1/2 hours from Te Anau and our morning cruise check in was 8:50, we only stopped a few times, promising we would spend some time on the way back. Driving on winding roads in the northern island once again prepared us. The roads curve…a lot. Sometimes it feels a bit like an amusement park ride. The early morning journey was beautiful and there were hardly any other cars on the road. We only passed a few cars on our drive to Milford. It felt like we were in our own little world.
We booked a scenic boat cruise in Milford. The parking lot is filled with campervans, every form of rental car, and tourists/people with cameras in hand. Every cruise uses the same location for check ins. I did a lot of research about which cruise we should take. When it came down to it, Jucy was the cheapest and there didn’t seem to be a big difference between the others (unless you opt for an overnight cruise…expensive, but I’m sure spectacular). All of the boats depart and come back around the same time (at one point there was a cruise boat traffic jam allowing us more time to look at seals), so I’m not sure if it really matters which cruise you take. This might be different for the afternoon tours which are filled with bus loads of people from Queenstown.
Grabbing cups of coffee on the boat (gotta love a caffeine fix), we warmed our hands as we started the voyage. Milford Sound is not actually a sound ( a river-formed valley leading to the sea), but a fjord – a valley formed by the erosive effects of a glacier. The cruise runs 16 km through the head of the fjord to the Tasman Sea where things on the boat got rocky. If the boat gets a’rockin’ – hold on. Seriously. The boat ride took us past craggy, rocky mountains, tree covered cliffs, waterfalls, a seal colony, to the Tasman sea and back. On the return, our boat got up close and personal with a waterfall, allowing us all to get sprayed.
The day started off dreary and overcast, so we didn’t know how that would impact visibility. We may not have had blue skies, but clouds swirled around the tops of the cliffs, dangling above the water making us feel like we were floating through a land of the lost. There were times the mountains were completely covered by clouds, but then the clouds would move, providing us with new images of the landscape. It’s hard to find words to describe the beauty of Milford Sound. It’s awe-inspiring. There were multiple times during the trip where we looked at each other and said “how is this real?” Beautiful. We couldn’t stop taking pictures, but none of them seem to do the place justice.
We were very excited to be on the windy boat ride
A colony of seals floated in the water and these two were drying off on the rocks. We took pictures of the group floating in the water that appeared bright blue ( in this it looks dark and dreary), but the seals were all lying on their bellies or back making them look like they’re playing dead. A little scary in a picture.
The return back. You can see where the two pieces of land on the left used to be connected before the glaciers divided them.
The boat took us really close to this waterfall.
Everyone got a little wet
The waterfall from further away
When we got back to shore, we were just in time for the sun to come out. By then, the busses of tourists were starting to unload and the place became packed! We took a quick pic to show that blue skies happen at Milford before moving away from the busy parking lot.
After talking to the parking attendants (always ask the locals), we headed back on the road towards Te Anau for a nice hike. The Lake Marian hike seemed perfect. We had gotten a map from a hotel near the Milford Sound parking. It promised an easy hike with some loose footing, a 3 hour return and beautiful views of a lake. More beautiful views?! yes please! Better yet, the hike was on our way back to Te Anau. We drove about 40 minutes on Rt 94 before turning onto Hollyford Track where we drove for another km before parking. After eating a quick lunch we had packed, we grabbed our bag with water and started the hike.
The beginning of the hike starts by going over a swinging suspension bridge before leading you through moss covered trees next to a roaring bright blue river leading you to a small waterfall. This part of the trail is easy, cool, and you will get sprayed from the roaring river next to you. It also ends very quickly and that’s where the real adventure begins.
We were reminded of a quite a few things on this hike:
- Always make sure you have plenty of water. For the 3 hour hike, we had a camelback and a bottle of water thinking it was only a short hike. Luckily, we only ran out of water as we got back to the car and we had more water waiting for us there. Definitely make sure you bring lots of water
- New Zealanders walk fast. After hiking for about 20 min, we hit a sign telling us from that point it was 1 1/2 hours to the lake. We made it to the top a little faster than that, shaving about 10 min off the estimated time, but we were going at a pretty quick pace. We’ve found that a lot of trail estimations were made by people that walk fast
- New Zealand switchbacks are not the same as Colorado switchbacks…meaning there really aren’t any. The trail goes up.
- Maps don’t always tell you the full story
- some loose footing turned in to the entire trail made up of tree roots, loose rocks, mud, and some tricky navigating. It was beautiful, but definitely not the easiest. Turns out this link gives more accurate information, but we definitely didn’t look at this before we left
- easy – the entire time we were hiking, I kept saying “if this is easy, I’m glad we didn’t go on the challenging hike!” Turns out, the first part of the hike along the falls and river is the easy trail. After that, the hike gets a more moderate ranking.
- Trails go up. If it goes down, it’ll go back up with little to no switchbacks. You just climb up.
- The views are worth it.
- Not a lot of people venture out
About 45 min. in to the hike, it was super hot and humid and for a moment, I wanted to turn around. Forging on, in another 10 min, the temperature dropped and it became way less hot and sticky. After another half hour of climbing the steep terrain, the trail winds around and you get your first glimpse of the bright blue water. We made our way down to the lake shore where a group Europeans were the only other people around. There are natural waterfalls created by snow melts. Clouds and mountains reflect perfectly in the lake’s still waters. Birds and insects chirp in the distance. The trail leads you to a small opening where you can enter the water or balance on rocks for a picture. One of the Europeans suggested going for a dip in the lake a little further down where there was a small opening away from the group. We ventured over where Will waded in to his knees as I went exploring. This part of the lake is surrounded by dense, moss covered forest. It looks like someone spray painted a movie set. Or it was something out of Fraggle Rock.
Fraggle Rock? Just kidding, it’s behind Lake Marian. Many spider webs were worn to get this shot. Gross.
The view was breathtaking. Relaxing by the lake, listening to the trickle of the waterfalls…it was spectacular and made the entire hike worth it.
This little trickle down waterfall from snow melt provided the only background noise besides the birds and insects.
The way down went much faster. We passed more hikers on the way down realizing it was probably better we had started out earlier on the trek. Most of the hikers stopped us. Red-faced, tired, and sweaty they asked how much longer to the top. We knew exactly how they felt as we tried to explain it gets better and the end result is amazing.
After getting back to the car and guzzling more water, we drove back to Te Anau. This where we were really happy our home base was Te Anau and not another 4 hours to Queenstown.
A shower, food, and some libations later, we took a small walk around the lake at Te Anau before getting caught in the rain again and heading back to the hotel.
This plane was parked on the lake at Te Anau. It added to the magic of the place.
Milford Sound and Lake Marian provided some of the most beautiful scenery either of us has every seen. Simply breathtaking. If you ever get a chance…go. There were times where we couldn’t talk or find words as we were blown away by the vast beauty of both places. It was truly epic.