Located in the heart of the Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is a beautiful destination that makes its way onto most New Zealand itineraries. And rightfully so. Even the road there is an attraction in its own right. Twisting through the snow-capped mountains and past the ice-blue lakes, this scenic drive is any landscape photographer’s dream. With so many fabulous sights at every turn, picking the best ones is never easy. So if you only have one day in Milford Sound, here are my tips on how to make the most out of it and walk away with some great photos.
What is Milford Sound?
Even though it’s called Milford Sound, Milford is actually a fjord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island. The area attracts numerous tourists who come here to explore the fjord on board of a cruise boat and drive the famous road. It is also quite popular with landscape photographers, who enjoy a wide variety of stunning scenery to shoot, including the iconic Mitre Peak.
To make to most of your day in Milford Sound, I suggest staying overnight in Te Anau and having a rental car. This will allow you to start early and be flexible with the schedule, which is essential for landscape photography. There are organized bus tours from both Te Anau and Queenstown that are an excellent option for those who simply want to enjoy nature without much stress or rush. However, traveling with a group will severely limit your ability to move around freely. Therefore, I always recommend
It’s also worth noting that the road to Milford Sound is rather twisty. Traffic is slow and overtaking is not at all easy. The highway gets increasingly busy after 10
Sunrise in Te Anau
Landscape photography is all about the best light. Since you’ll be starting your day quite early anyway, why not wake up before dawn to capture those beautiful morning colors? Luckily, you won’t have to travel far. Head over to Te Anau lakeshore and you’ll find lots of great compositions there. Snowy mountains on the far side of the lake make for an amazing background as they catch the morning glow. Just search for a suitable foreground and be sure to bring a tripod and ND filters.
The Milford Sound Road
The road to Milford Sound is more than a hundred kilometers of amazing scenery. For me, the best way to experience this beauty is to simply allow yourself to get lost. Rather than coming up with a predetermined list of viewpoints, create your own adventure and stop whenever you feel like it. Trust me, there will be no shortage of amazing vistas. Having said that though, below are a few places that are worth considering.
I’m including the Mirror Lakes in the list because it is one of the more popular stops on route to Milford Sound. These small lakes are located right next to the road and are super easy to access. A short five-minute walk leads to the waterfront where Earl Mountains can be seen reflected nicely in the water. That is if you’re lucky. If there is even little wind, there probably won’t be much to see other than the ripple on the surface of the lake. Fabulous as it may be, in my book the ripple doesn’t quite qualify for an epic landscape photo. Personally, I think Mirror Lakes can easily be skipped in favor of more interesting locations.
The Hollyford River is one of the places that I discovered accidentally when driving around. This shallow but rapid mountain stream flows alongside the road for a few kilometers and is ideal for some water action photography. There are several pullout areas, but my personal favorite is the one right after the Falls Creek Waterfall. Here, it’s easy to get down to the riverbank and shoot close to the stream. Rocks and boulders offer plenty of foreground interest and the mountains in the background complete this nice and
The Chasm is another highlight of the Milford Sound road worth a quick stop. It’s a short and easy half an hour walk that leads through the forest and over a series of waterfalls and natural caves. The footbridges along the way offer an excellent opportunity to glance down into the abyss and see the water rushing through the caverns below with immense force.
As beautiful and impressive as the Chasm is, it’s also incredibly hard to photograph. The images don’t truly showcase the depth of the caves and the sheer power of the stream gushing down below. Coming up with a good angle is another challenge, even with an ultra-wide lens. I’ve read about an unmarked path leading down to a hidden spot with an awesome view just past the second bridge. Unfortunately, much as I searched, I couldn’t find it. As it was raining by then, I didn’t really feel like exploring further. Wet rocks are very slippery and falling down into the Chasm is a seriously bad idea. In the end, I had to settle for a rather nondescript photo shown below.
Key Summit Track
There are several good hikes in Fiordland National Park. If you got time, I definitely recommend doing at least one of them. According to my research, the two most interesting are the Marian Lake Track and the Key Summit Track. Originally, I wanted to do the Marian Lake as it’s apparently more scenic. Unfortunately, it is also the longer and more difficult hike. As we were running late for the boat tour, we changed our plan in the last minute and decided to explore Key Summit Track instead.
The trail begins at the Divide parking area and follows the Routeburn Track for the first half an hour or so. It then branches off to a series of switchbacks that eventually end at Key Summit above. It’s not a difficult hike but definitely requires some stamina. The path to the top offers fantastic views of the Fiordland National Park but don’t stop there! Continue past the summit for another 10-15 minutes to reach a viewpoint from which lake Marian is visible in the distance. It’s a lovely sight and the only way to see the lake other than hiking to it.
From here, the unsigned path goes further along the ridge to what I’ve read is an even more impressive viewpoint. Unfortunately, by then we were seriously risking to be late for our fjord
Milford Sound Cruise
No trip to Milford Sound is complete without booking a cruise and seeing it from the water. An hour and a half long boat ride takes you past incredible mountain landscapes and amazing waterfalls. The sights are truly incredible… if the weather is fine. When it rains, Milford Sound just isn’t the same. Very moody and still beautiful, but quite different from how I imagine it looks on a sunny day.
Conditions in Fiordland can change very quickly. The photos from the Key Summit and the ones here may seem like they were taken on two different days while in reality, they are barely a
I spent hours prior to the trip trying to decide which cruise to go with. Is the early morning light better? Or should I book the last boat of the day? In the end, all that research was rendered irrelevant by the weather, but I still think that the afternoon is better for photography. There are other benefits too. The tourist buses will be gone by then so there won’t be too many people on the boat. Also, if you plan on shooting sunset at Milford Sound, you can just stay after the cruise, without having to drive back and forth. We took a tour by Jucy Cruise departing at 3:45 pm (spring and summer only) and other than the rain it was great. The timing was perfect as well.
Sunset in Milford Sound
Interestingly enough, the most impressive views of the fjord are not from the boat but rather from the foreshore walkway. To landscape photographers, I definitely recommend staying in Milford Sound for sunset. If you take the afternoon tour, you’ll still have a
From the parking lot, you can either walk left to the Milford Sound Lookout or right towards the cruise terminal. Both options offer great views, so pick the one that looks promising on that particular day. The iconic shot from Milford Sound is that of a dominating Mitre Peak. However, depending on the season and the weather, that composition may or may not work. I was lucky enough to catch some light in the sky after all the rain earlier, but the action happened away from Mitre Peak. It’s still a lovely sunset
Milford Sound is a beautiful part of New Zealand and should definitely be on any landscape photographer’s itinerary. If you can, stay for a few days to catch a variety of weather conditions. If not, do some research and make the most out of the time you have. Hopefully, this article has been somewhat helpful in that. I also recommend watching my YouTube video covering Milford Sound, and as always, let me know what you think in the comment section and let’s chat!