From lakes and winding valley roads, to waterfalls, glaciers, and mountain passes, the Milford Road is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in all of New Zealand. It makes Milford Sound the most accessible fiord in all of Fiordland, but is also an epic drive through challenging territory. Of course, in our experiences driving in New Zealand, challenging just means it will be even more breathtaking. And the Milford Road did not disappoint.
We headed out to Milford with a quick stop in Te Anau, for a few extra groceries and to fill up our gas tank. There are no amenities in Milford and we are planning on staying there for 3 nights, so we wanted to make sure we were well supplied. At the gas station, we also got the weather report (which was good) and the report that Homer Tunnel was open until 6 pm. This meant the trip was a go for us, so we headed out.
Our first stop of the day was a short hike at Lake Mistletoe, a small glacial lake. The sun was burning off a bit of the chill and it was gorgeous light out there. Also plenty of bellbirds and tui about. We had a lovely hike until the end, when it told us we should return via the very busy road. Since it was a short hike, we chose to backtrack through the forest instead.
Lake Mistletoe marks the unofficial start of the Milford Road (even though it technically starts in Te Anau). Typically, driving without stopping from Te Anau the 120km road takes 2 hours due to the somewhat demanding conditions and windy narrow roads. But we spent the better part of the day, close to 4 hours, driving the road.
We stopped off quite frequently along the way…wherever we could safely pull over our car we did in order to take in the amazing scenery. It’s late spring here, which means plenty of wildflowers are in bloom. And it was a somewhat sunny day, which meant fine weather for hiking. We stopped and hiked at several spots along the way, including the boardwalk at Mirror Lakes, Knobs Flat, and The Divide.
The Divide is the lowest pass from East to West through the Southern Alps and allows for breathtaking views of Hollyford Valley. We were surprised at how much fresh snow was on the peaks when we stopped here.
After The Divide, the road drops down towards the Cleddau valley, through a section fondly known as avalanche alley. We passed the Marian gates, which are closed whenever there is danger of avalanches. From here, you go through a section where there is no stopping as the danger of rockfall and avalanches is high! It’s a shame too because there were so many beautiful photo opportunities that turned into quick snapshots through the windows of the car. But we also saw lots of evidence and damage from previous avalanches and rockfalls, so we weren’t too keen on stopping anyway.
Once we could stop again, we got out and parked in a beautiful valley near a stream. Had a small picnic snack, wandered and took a few photos, and then were invaded by a tour bus FULL of people running around and climbing all over everything. We fled and hit the road again, heading for Homer tunnel.
Homer tunnel is 1,219 meter long unlined tunnel, cut through a granite mountain. It is wide enough for 2 way traffic, but is run as a one way tunnel, with traffic lights on either end to manage the traffic flow. We got there just as the light turned red, so we got to enjoy the view while waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, we started to see lights in the tunnel as the oncoming traffic made their way to the end of the tunnel. The light then changed to green and we were on our way.
From there, it is a steep drop to Milford Sound. We rolled past The Chasm, which was closed for upkeep construction and then down into Milford. We popped into the Milford Sound Lodge to register for our campsite (we were lucky enough to get one of the few sites available). Then we decided to head down the hill a bit to get our first glimpse of Milford Sound.
Since we’re here on more than a day trip, we were lucky enough to get to do a bit of hiking around the sound this afternoon. We sat and watched some of the boats go out at 1 pm (which is when all the tour buses roll in and vomit out thousands of tourists who flock to their boats at the wharf). Once the boats left the harbor and sailed away, we had the place to ourselves and could enjoy the peace and quiet and the amazing views from a bench right beside the water. We also had the luxury of doing a bit of hiking as the weather was quite nice. It was an enjoyable afternoon.
Late this evening, it started to rain. Rain here means lots more waterfalls so I’m hopeful we’ll have plenty to look at on our nature cruise tomorrow. Can’t wait to get out and see Milford Sound from the water.