Milford Sound Area Guide
Looking up Milford Sound past Mitre Peak (1683m) left.
Mt Pembroke (2000m) in snow - right. © Naturespic.com
Milford Sound is the northernmost of the 14 fiords and the only one which is accessible by road. The tiny settlement of Milford is at the head of the sound, the triangular form of Mitre Peak reflected in its calm waters. The village is almost entirely given over to serving the needs of its thousands of visitors, and there are few facilities here other than an air strip, boat departure terminal, information area, cafe, and, less pleasantly, hordes of sandflies. Milford has the second highest level of rainfall in the world, receiving up to eight metres of rainfall a year, second only to the mountains of Tahiti.
You can fly to Milford from Te Anau or Queenstown over the spectacular mountain scenery used in filming the Lord of the Rings, or drive there on the scenic 119 kilometre Milford Road (state highway 94) from Te Anau along the eastern shores of Lake Te Anau, over the southern alps, and through the Homer Tunnel.
The best way to appreciate the scenic grandeur of the area is to take a boat cruise or kayak trip around the fiord. From this level, the waterfalls are a spectacular sight, set amidst towering cliffs and dwarfed by Mitre Peak. Most cruises will explore the full length of Milford Sound, taking in several of the waterfalls, stopping to see fur seals basking on the rocks at Seal Point, and sometimes sharing the water with bottlenose dolphins.
Milford Sound has a unique underwater environment, the area’s high rainfall and the fiord's narrow shape combining to create a phenomenon known as 'deep water emergence'. As the rain drains through the forest, it becomes stained with tannins and sits on top of the seawater, forming a tea-coloured 40-metre band, limiting the amount of light which reaches the depths and creating an environment similar to that of the deep ocean. This unusual environment provides a habitat for rare black and red coral which is usually only seen at depths of more than 40 metres. Take a water taxi or boat cruise to the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory to see this special environment, viewing coral, anemones, sponges and sea stars.
To really get a sense of the wild natural environment of Fiordland, walk the 53.9 kilometre Milford Track, a four-day hike from the northern tip of Lake Te Anau over the Mackinnon Pass to Milford Sound. The track involves a boat trip at both ends, and can be done on a guided trip or independently, although both must be booked in advance as numbers on the track are strictly controlled by the Department of Conservation.