Towering rock walls on Milford Road drive

Towering rock walls on Milford Road drive

Milford Road Map

Milford Road map (courtesy of NZ Dept of Conservation) - click to enlarge

While it is only the third best way of arriving at Milford Sound (hiking the Milford Track or arriving by boat win hands down for the two most rewarding), the 120 km drive from the touristy township of Te Anau to Milford is a world class highly scenic drive highlighting the dramatic scale and natural beauty of this World Heritage-listed area.

With a strong recommendation to hit the road early, the first third of the journey skirts New Zealand’s second largest lake. Gouged by glaciers millennia ago, Lake Te Anau features a number of arms that poke into the heavily wooded enveloping mountains. Beautiful in its own right, it is dull in contrast to the landscape approaching Milford Sound. The small village of Te Anau Downs represents the launching point for the famed Milford Track which combines a short boat ride across the lake with a four-day trek to Milford Sound.

Mirror Lake is around half distance though it is a misnomer on our journey, a cool breeze ruffling the surface. At 85 km, The Divide represents the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps and is the trailhead for several superb multi-day hikes (or tramps in Kiwi-speak). Two hours tough trekking away are spectacular and panoramic views from Key Summit.

Milford Road Gunns Camp Museum

Gunns Camp Museum on Lower Hollyford Road

Soon after, a dirt road (Lower Hollyford Road) spurs right towards historic Gunns Camp and towering Humboldt Falls. Acting as a camp for trekkers on the Hollyford Track, Gunns Camp is a treasure trove dripping with history around a famous family. Raising cattle in early days under harsh conditions and opening up an embryonic travel industry around hiking this spectacular environment, Dave Gunn famously trekked 20 hours in 1936 to raise an alarm after a fatal plane crash. His heroic efforts saw the four survivors rescued.

Gunn’s Camp superb one-room museum is packed with quirky items from early days in the area – farming tools, a backpack from early postal deliveries, historic home wares, tunnelling equipment and New Zealand’s oldest petrol bowser (functioning but not in service).

Milford Road Humboldt Falls

Humboldt Falls tumbles 275 metres

A peaceful half hour stroll off the same road, Humboldt Falls stands supermodel tall and wafer thin tumbling an elegant 275 metres over three stages in verdant forest. Like a mirror image, a companion waterfall cascades nearby. (Tip: I strongly suggest that you take this road on the return journey to Te Anau)

The road narrows sharply and winds awkwardly, sheer rock walls gouged by ice rivers rearing up hundreds of metres either side in a dramatic setting. Water tumbles freely from the rock walls, temporary waterfalls tumble and dry as the area absorbs over seven metres of annual rainfall. An exceptional engineering feat, Homer Tunnel (one way during the day) blasted through a blocking mountain opening up Milford Sound in the early 1950s (before then it was trekking or boat access only). The rough rock walls are still clear as the car sneaks through the narrow downhill cavern to emerge with spectacular views from Mount Talbot, tumbling mist and clouds slightly shrouding a glorious hairpin descent towards Milford Sound.

Milford Road Mt Talbot Views

Views and hairpins from Mt Talbot

Milford Road The Chasm Cleddau River

Fantastic rock formations carved in The Chasm

Milford Road Male Tomtit

Male tomtit

Nearing the sound, the gushing and swirling Cleddau River sculpt freakish and artistic rock formations in The Chasm, a 15 minute loop symphonic boardwalk of thundering waters and verdant green forest. Tiny tomtits prance and dart among the branches, their glossy golden breast gleaming in the dappled light.

The road meanders the final ten kilometres into Milford Sound, a location Rudyard Kipling flamboyantly described as the eighth wonder of the world. The fame and beauty of Milford Sound diminishes the Milford Road from Te Anau in tourist literature but on any measure it is one of the world’s finest touring drives. Leave time to enjoy the remarkable work of glaciers ploughing an exceptionally scenic path littered with waterfalls, beech forests, mountain views and glacial lakes.

Tips

Milford Road Rainforest Colour

Colourful plant life near The Chasm

– Leave early to avoid the conga line of buses on the narrow road. Most buses leave Te Anau between 9:00am and 10:00am so wake up early and leave well before this.

– Have a full tank of petrol (gas) before you go as it is a 240 km round trip without fuel stations.

- Take insect repellent as the sandflies are ferocious.

– Save some of the highlights for the return journey (especially a longer hike or Humboldt Falls) to catch an earlier boat at Milford (recommend booking) and avoid the bus loads of passengers that arrive around lunch time for boat trips that depart between 12:30pm and 2:00pm.

– Allow up to 15 minutes to get through the Homer Tunnel, a one-lane traffic-light patrolled bottleneck to access Milford Sound.

– Plan for it to rain – after all, the area gets over 7 metres of rainfall annually and it contributes to the beauty of the area with tempoary waterfalls and misty views.

– Stop where you can for views as many stretches of road are narrow without chances to stop the car.

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Welcome to Travel Wonders
My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
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