Mirror Lake is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound

Te Anau To Milford Sound Drive | An Epic Day Trip

The winding drive along Milford Road, in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, to get to spectacular Milford Sound from Te Anau, is more than just the journey, it’s part of the destination itself. Together, both the drive and a majestic cruise in the Milford Sound, are an epic experience. While most people opt for a tour bus to take them from Te Anau or Queenstown to Milford Sound, they have no idea what they’re missing. Self-driving to see the stops along the way is 100% the most rewarding option. This post covers the gems and side detours along the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound, a postcard-come-to-life-journey past rolling green hills dotted with sheep, rugged, snow-capped mountains, valleys carved by ancient glaciers, mirror-like lakes, cascading waterfalls, and lush forest.

This drive takes you through the untamed beauty of Fiordland National Park, part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage area of Te Wanipounamu or “Place of the Greenstone” by the Māori who first occupied this area. One of New Zealand’s National treasures.

I’ve noted the key stops for the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound in order below. I’ve also added in distances, site details, images, about how long the stop will take, and even which side of the road it’s located on to help make it easier to plan your trip.

About The Te Anau To Milford Sound Drive

Although Queenstown is physically closer to Milford Sound than Te Anau when you look at a map, the driving distance is more than twice as long. In fact, due to the terrain and the need to access Homer Tunnel, you actually have to drive by Te Anau from Queenstown anyway.

Driving distances:

  • Te Anau to Milford Sound – 73 miles (118 km)
  • Queenstown to Milford Sound – 179 miles (288 km)

The drive from Te Anau takes roughly 2 hours, while the drive from Queenstown takes roughly 4 hours. In peak season (high traffic), bad weather, and road work, both can take longer. And if you plan to make even just a few stops, even longer.

If you chose to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you have at least an 8 hour drive on top of your 2-3 hour cruise. An extremely long and draining day. Plus you miss all the beautiful detours along the way.

The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is gorgeous as well, and although not as stunning as the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, it should also be experienced with stops along the way (more on that drive in a later post).

The ideal choice is to stay in both Queenstown and Te Anau separately, taking advantage of both beautiful drives by doing them leisurely, making stops along the way. I recommend 2 nights minimum in Te Anau, but there’s more of the Fiordland to see in this lovely, laid-back town, so more is even better.

Key Stops Between Te Anau & Milford Sound

Note that some of these stops are just quick stops for a photo off the side of the road, while others are walks, or hikes, taking more time. You can’t do them all in one day, but if you plan in advance you can select the ones that speak to you the most.

Lake Mistletoe

Lake Mistletoe Track is the first stop on the drive, about 17 miles (28 km) from Te Anau. Depending on your actual start location, it’s about a 20-minute drive away.

There is a dirt parking area off the east side of the road. From there, it’s an easy loop trail. Follow it to the right after the car park. The sign says it’s 45-minutes with return, but it’s much shorter at a standard pace.


The length of the track is 1 mile ( 1.6 km) with 118’ (36 m) of elevation gain. You will go through fern-filled forest, to meadows, to the lake with mountain views beyond it.

The track is well-groomed in most places with gentle elevation gain. There may be some muddy areas if there has been a lot of rain, but otherwise, it’s perfect for families or those with less mobility.

Some sections of the track are loose gravel, while some areas have boarded walkways. There’s also a picnic table by the lake if you want to linger here for a snack or a meal.

Or, if you want, you can even make this stop shorter by heading out the lake and returning the way you came, rather than walking the entire loop. This shortens the walk to about 15 minutes.

This stop is on the east side of the road and is noted as wheelchair accessible. To learn more, see details of Lake Mistletoe Track at the doc.govt.nz website.

The Start Of The Milford Track: Te Anau Downs

Shortly after getting back on Milford Road towards Milford Sound is the next stop, Te Anau Downs. This is the start of the Milford Track, the most renowned of New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks”, which is often described as “the finest walk in the world”.

You can take a quick stop here and walk the short distance to the pier on Te Anau Lake to see where hikers get picked up for their trek and great views of the Murchison Mountains.

Te Anau Downs is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Te Anau Downs

When I was here, there were several people waiting for their water taxi to take 50-minute boat journey to Glade Wharf, the start of the Milford Track. There are also some information panels to learn more about the history of this area and the brave people that once explored and lived in this area.

This stop is located about 18 miles (30 km) from Te Anau. It’s on the west side of the street with a small parking area. It will take about 10-15 minutes.

To learn more about Milford Track, see the doc.govt.nz website. This track is so popular, it usually books up immediately when spaces are opened in the spring. If you don’t have time for the whole track (which is 4 days) consider taking a day walk along it. Transportation can be arranged to do this at fiordlandsoutdoors.co.nz.

Eglington Valley

You will see Eglington Valley, which was carved thousands of years ago by glaciers, as you approach it on the road. The Earl Mountains are to the west and the Livingston Mountains are to the east, with a valley of golden tussok grasses between them. It’s a lovely sight.

This stop is a quick photo stop, about 10-15 minutes. There is parking along the side of the road, and a short, graveled walkway with information panels to read.

The Eglington Valley stop is about 32 miles (52 km) from Te Anau on the west side of the road.

Mirror Lakes

Mirror Lakes is another quick stop, but a very beautiful one. Because of its ease and its beauty, it’s one of the most popular stops on Milford Road. It’s located about 35 miles (57 km) from Te Anau. Parking is on the side of the road with a short walk along a boardwalk to lookout points to see the Earl Mountains reflected in the lakes here.

Mirror Lake is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Mirror Lakes

This stop is located on the left side of the road, so easiest to access on the way to Milford Sound. It’s a popular stop for tour buses though, so if you see a lot of people and buses, consider stopping here on your drive back instead.

This stop only takes about 10-15 minutes and is wheelchair accessible (although it may take longer with a wheelchair).

Knob Flats

Knob Flats is a rest stop with the last flushing toilets before Milford Sound. And there’s a lot of them making this an ideal stop for buses, yet it’s kept clean, making it nice for anyone that needs a little break. There’s also a scenic area to walk and information panels on the history and wildlife here.

As a little bonus, there’s also a small vending machine inside that sells water bottles and a few snack items. I think it’s the only place to buy food or water outside Te Anau and Milford Sound. It’s very limited, but better than nothing if you need it.

Knob Flats is about 39 miles (63 km) from Te Anau. The stop is on the east side of the street and there is plenty of parking.

Lake Gunn

The easy walk to gorgeous Gunn Lake starts at Cascade Creek car park. It’s less than a mile (1.4 km) loop walk through red beech forest with trees covered in moss to the lake and surrounding mountains. They say the walk takes 45 minutes, but a 1 mile walk seems like it would actually be much less.

I did not stop at this site, but the lake off the side of the road was very pretty. To learn more, see the details for Gunn Lake on the doc.govt.nz website.

This stop is about 47 miles (77 km) from Te Anau on the west side of the road. It’s a good family stop as it’s an easy walk with little elevation.

Note that if you don’t have time for the full walk, you can park your car by the side of the road and take a very short walk to take a photo of the lake.

Key Summit Track

Key Summit Track is a longer stop, but one I highly recommend. This is a 2-3 hour hike that offers breathtaking views of Fiordland National Park’s dramatic peaks, brilliant lakes, and lush valleys.

It starts on the western end of the Routeburn Track, another one of New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks”, by the Divider Shelter and car park. It follows the Routeburn Track for about an hour before heading up and out of the beech forest to the summit for incredible views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains and Hollyford Valley. The hike is a 4.8 mile (7.7 km) loop with 1,384’ (421 m) in elevation gain.

Key Summit Track is one of the key stops on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound


It’s noted to take 3 hours with the return, but I did this hike in 2 hours after my cruise on the Milford Sound, on the way back to Te Anau. I find the New Zealand time estimates to be very generous.


The turnoff for the Divide car park is 52 miles (84 km) from Te Anau on the east side of Milford Road. You can read more about my hike at Key Summit Track | One Of The Fiordland’s Best Day Hikes.

Hollyford Valley Lookout (Pop’s View)

The Hollyford Valley Lookout is a quick stop by the side of the road to see the beautiful views of this valley, which was carved by glaciers.

Hollyford Valley View is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Hollyford Valley Lookout

This lookout is also called ‘Pop’s View’ in honor of Robert “Pop” Andrew. Sadly, he was killed by an avalanche in 1983 when working on this road.

This stop is located on the east side of the road, with parking by the side of the road. Because it’s on the opposite side, I chose to stop here on my drive back. The lookout is 53 miles (86 km) from Te Anau.

Lower Hollyford Road To Lake Marian Track

This is another stop for a hike. You can either hike to the waterfalls, Marian Falls, or head all the way to Marian Lake, which mirrors beautiful snow-capped mountains. They are both along the same trail, Lake Marian Track.

When you see the sign for Lower Hollyford Road and Lake Marian off the east side of Milford Road, follow the side road .6 miles (1 km) to the small parking area where Lake Marian Track starts. From the start of the trail, it’s a 10-minute walk to Marian Falls and about 1.5 hours beyond that to Marian Lake. Those are both one way estimates.

I only walked to the waterfall as I had limited time with all my other stops, but hope to return and do this hike another day. I actually stayed in Te Anau a few days and planned to come back and do this hike the next day, but it rained heavy all that day. A reminder of how lucky I was to get the beautiful day I had for my drive along this road and my cruise in Milford Sound.

To get to the falls, you cross a swing bridge and climb some wooden steps. This, unfortunately, means it’s not wheelchair accessible. If you’re heading all the way to Marian Lake, the track becomes very steep after Marian Falls. The track can also be muddy in areas.

Lake Marian Falls

This track is 3.8 miles (6 km) with return and 1,312’ (400 m) of elevation gain. To learn more, see the details at Lake Marian Track on the doc.govt.nz website.

This stop is about 55 miles (89 km) from Te Anau.

Christie Falls

You will see the brilliant blue water which races powerfully beside Milford Road off the east side of Milford Road not long after Marian Corner (where the road turns off above). Parking is on the side of the road. You can choose to watch the river as it makes it way downhill, or head across the street to walk to Christie Falls.


This stop is about 55 miles (89 km) from Te Anau. If you just walk along the river, expect this stop to take 10-15 minutes.

Monkey Creek

Monkey Creek is a glacier fed stream in the mountains with arresting mountain views. The water from this creek is so fresh, they say you can stop here and fill your water bottle. I brought plenty of water, so didn’t try it myself.

This stop is just off the side of the road on the west side of Milford Road. There’s a small parking area and a very short walk to see the view and take a photo. It’s so short, you can easily do this stop in 5-10 minutes.

Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive Monkey Creek
Monkey Creek

The unusual name, Monkey Creek, is from William Henry Homer’s dog, named ‘Monkey’. William Henry was a settler and surveyor here in the 1800’s. Homer Tunnel was his vision.

Monkey Creek is 58 miles (94 km) from Te Anau.

Homer Tunnel

Not far from Monkey Creek is Homer Tunnel. Although this tunnel was the vision of William Henry Homer, it was not completed until 60 years after his death. It was not an easy accomplishment in this rugged area, but without it, there would be no road access to Milford Sound.

You will know you’re getting close to the tunnel as traffic will slow down. The tunnel is only one way inside, so lights manage the traffic on each side, allowing cars to take turns through the tunnel. You need to turn your lights on to enter the tunnel and are asked not to stop to keep the traffic moving. Once you enter, it’s quick, only taking a few minutes to get to the other side.

Homer Tunnel is 62 miles (100 km) from Te Anau. There is no fee for entry.

The Chasm

Chasm Walk is an easy walk to see how the powerful Cleddau River has carved the rocks through this forest. The track is 400 m through the forest out to the edge of the river with return.

The Chasm Track

Unfortunately, the bridge is currently closed for repairs, making viewing the river difficult. It’s expected to open some time later this year (2024). This was the best view I could get with the bridge closed. Visit The Chasm Walk at doc.govt.nz for the latest updates on the track.

The Chasm is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
The Chasm

The walk is easy, on flat ground, about 20-minutes with return. It’s noted as wheelchair accessible, but I would hold on visiting with a wheelchair until the bridge is open as it would be difficult to see anything until fixed. You can, however, still hear the Chasm’s impressive roar.

You may also see Kea here, the world’s only alpine parrot. It gets its name from the sound it makes when it flies, “kee-aa”. There are signs here to remind you not to feed them.

This stop is 67 miles (108 km) from Te Anau. There’s a car park with plenty of stops off the west side of Milford Road.

Tutoko Bridge

This stop is best accessed on the return drive from Milford Sound as it’s located on the east side of the road on a windy section of Milford Road.

This is a cool little stop to see the bridge and river. You can to walk to the Tutoko Suspension Bridge, which was built in 1940 over the Tutoko River. There is also information on how the bridge was built, which is interesting as this area is so remote.

Tutoko Bridge is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Tutoko River

This stop is 70 miles (114 km) from Te Anau. It’s 2 miles (3.5 km) from Milford Sound. The photo/viewpoint is a very short walk from where you park on the side of the road. This stop takes about 10-15 minutes.

Milford Sound Foreshore Walk & Visitor Center

Finally, the last detour before your cruise (of the first one after it), is the Milford Sound Foreshore Walk. This walk is about 400 meters and loops over and around to some great viewpoints of the Milford Sound. It starts at the car park and wanders through the beech forest along the edge of the water with information panels along the way.

Milford Sound Foreshore Walk is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Milford Sound Foreshore Walk

The walk is about 20-minutes with return and this is wheelchair accessible. To learn more, visit Milford Sound Foreshore Walk at the doc.govt.nz website. The drive here from Te Anau is about 73 miles (118 km).

Tips For The Drive Between Te Anau And Milford Sound

  • Once you leave Te Anau, there are no gas stations until you return back to town, so make sure to fill your gas tank before you leave!
  • Make sure to leave plenty of time for the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound. The drive with no stops will take a little more than 2 hours. If the roads are busy, as they are during peak season, or if there is road work, which happens often, it will take longer. Also, don’t forget that you still need to find parking once you arrive and walk to the visitor center. This in itself will take about 15 to 20 minutes.
  • There is no mobile phone coverage along Milford Road. I downloaded the map of the area on maps.me on advance and used this to navigate offline. The drive is pretty straightforward, but I don’t like being without a map. Especially if I’m leaving the car for a walk or hike.
  • For the latest conditions on Milford Road and more details visit nzta.govt.nz.
  • There are several places where the road narrows to one lane, including some bridges. Be respectful and wait until it is your turn to use the road.
  • Obey all traffic signs and be respectful of anyone working on the Milford Road.
  • If your vehicle is slow (like a camper), please be considerate and pull over, letting others pass.
  • Book your Milford Sound cruise in advance during peak season. If you arrive early in the morning, however, you may be able to get a last minute booking. The afternoon cruises sell out faster.
  • Make sure to bring a good waterproof jacket with you as well and sunscreen and dress in layers as the weather can change quickly here. Also bring any snacks or meals and water for your trip as there are no stores along the way. If your planning an entire day drive, make sure to bring you phone or camera charger.

This post may use affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you choose to make a booking or purchase through one of these links. This is at no additional cost to you. If you find my content helpful, please consider booking through me as it is completely win win!

Planning Your Trip

As noted above, it’s best to book your cruise at Milford Sound in advance. Especially if you’re visiting in the summer. Use this as a starting point for your plan. Then you can decide which stops you want to make and create a plan to get to Milford Sound in time for your cruise.

Cruises are offered by RealNZ (which is the cruise I took), Southern Discoveries, Cruise Milford, Mitre Peak Cruises, and Pure Milford. Most of these are 2 hour cruises. Southern Discoveries offers a cruise that includes the Underwater Observatory that is 3 hours long. Except for the crisis that includes the observatory, the other cruises are all very similar.

The early morning cruises are the least in demand, so are sometimes less expensive. Plus you may have fewer people on your cruise all trying to get the same photo! Afternoons are when most bus tours arrive, so the afternoon cruises are usually the busiest and sell out in advance.

You don’t need to plan the all stops on the west side of the road for the trip there and the east side for the trip back, but the road does become windier and narrower as you approach Milford Sound, so some of the last stops along the way are easier if you don’t need to keep crossing traffic.

To save money and avoids the crowds, book the earliest cruise. These vary by company but are usually around 9 or 10 AM. Then, in the morning, head straight to Milford Sound for your cruise. Your cruise should be done before noon, so then you have all day for the drive back, making any stops you want to make. In the summer, the sun sets around 8:30 PM or later, giving you plenty of time.

My Trip

The day I planned this trip, the weather was a little cloudy in the morning, but was looking to clear up later in the day. This was my second visit to Milford Sound and it rained heavily on my first trip (years earlier). Milford Sound is still amazing on a rainy day, but is simply majestic on a sunny one, so I wanted a sunny day for my second cruise. Because the afternoon weather was looking sunny, I booked the 1:00 to 3:00 cruise the morning of my trip. And ‘wow’ did I get lucky with a stunning day!

This gave me plenty of time in the morning to explore many of the stops on the list above. On the drive to Milford Sound I focused on the stops on the western side of the road. I also focused on the easier, shorter stops to make sure I arrived on time.

On the drive back, I focused more on the stops on the eastern side of the road, although I also doubled back to some sites as the afternoon sun was out and I wanted better photos. I also stopped to hike Key Summit, getting there at about 5 PM and finishing by 7.

After my hike the day was still spectacular (I was so lucky!), so I had time for a few more stops before getting back to Anau before the sun set. Note that as I was also making notes for this post, my trip probably took a little longer than yours will. I had also done a day hike l the Kepler Track the day prior so was a little slow to get going in the morning.

Food

One of the challenges to keep in mind if you plan a full day along this road is that most restaurants in Te Anau close by 9 PM. Because of this, and the fact that you need to bring your lunch with you, you need to plan your food in advance. While some cruises do sell food, you may not want to be inside waiting for a food order in the middle of your cruise.

There’s a Fresh Choice market in Te Anau that sells sandwiches and pre-made food items, which are perfect for this type of trip. Getting a few sandwiches at the Subway in town is also a good idea (double check, but as of this writing the Subway opens at 7 AM, so you can get fresh sandwiches for your trip). I arrived back in Te Anau at 8:45 PM and managed to slip into an Asian restaurant called Ditto and get some takeout.

Some of my favorite places to eat here included Thai Anau, Ditto, Radha’s Indian, and the Sandfly Cafe. The latter is only open in the morning and afternoon, but I highly recommend it. They all get pretty busy, but the food is good and the staff is friendly. Actually, everyone is friendly in Te Anau though!

Where To Stay

Te Anau

Te Anau offers a friendly and relaxed atmosphere and is perfect for a stay to experience all this area has to offer and still enjoy the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

Budget

  • I stayed at Te Anau LakeView Holiday Park & Motels. This is a great place for solo travelers, families, and those looking for a place to camp of park their camper. There’s a shared kitchen and laundry facilities. The staff is also very friendly and helpful.
  • Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers sits across from the lake and is a 5-minute walk to town. They offer dorms and private rooms, some with lake views. They also have a movie room, a BBQ, and laundry facilities.

Affordable

  • Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments sits on the lake a short walk from town. They offer studies and apartments with lake and Mountain View’s, as well as disability access rooms.
  • Lakefront Lodge sits right on the lake, a 5-minute walk to town. They offer Studios and Apartments with kitchenettes, a shared BBQ, laundry facilities and rooms with partial lake views.

Moderate

  • Radfords On The Lake also sits on the lake and offers studios and suites with mountain and lake views a 3-minute walk to town. They also offer disability access rooms.

Milford Sound

Alternatively, you can stay the night in Milford Sound and experience more of the drive in the way back to Te Anau the next day.

There is minimal lodging in Milford Sound so book very early if you want to stay here! Because of its magnificent location, accommodation here is definitely a splurge. Note: there is no freedom camping at Milford Sound.

  • Milford Sound Lodge, Milford Sounds only ‘land’ accommodation, offers rooms, suites, and chalets with Mountain View’s. They also offer premium campervan sites. It’s a 3-minute drive or 30-minute walk to Milford Sound. A two night minimum stay is required.
  • Another option is Milford Sound Overnight Cruise – Fiordland Discovery, a scenic overnight boat cruise around Milford Sound. You can enjoy a soak in the on-board hot tub, or relax in your private heated cabin. Continental or cooked breakfasts and a 3-course dinner are provided. They also offer additional activities, like kayaking and tender-boat excursions.

Want More of New Zealand?

While on the South Island, you can’t miss stunning Queenstown or Franz Josef Glacier. And if you’re a wine lovers, stop in Marlborough to taste some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. There are also other great wines and some delicious beer choices as well.

For other great hikes in New Zealand, see my posts on Routeburn Track, Abel Tasman Coastal Track, Ben Lomond Track, Key Summit Track, Cape Brett Walkway, and A Day Hike on Kepler Track. Routeburn, Abel Tasman, and Kepler Track are three other New Zealand “Great Walks”.

To help plan your trip, see my New Zealand Travel Guide. It covers the top destinations above, how to get around, when to visit, safety tips, and more.

Safe Travels!

Julie

If you’re planning the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound and have any questions of comments, please add it below.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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