Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound were the highlight sight of my two weeks in New Zealand. It was one of the main reasons we came to Queenstown and I am glad to not be disappointed. There is only one road to Milford Sound and it goes through the Fiordland National Park. The drive through the valleys to see forests, mountains and waterfalls was my favorite part of the trip.
Milford Sound is one of the most well known sights in New Zealand and close to the tourist haven of Queenstown, so there are a lot of options to get out there. We decided against a day trip and did an overnight trip with Real Journeys, and I am so glad we did. Not just for the time on the boat in the quiet evening, but also for the time in the park itself. This drive turned out to be the best part of a really great trip. Milford Sound is the destination and the headliner. And it is indeed beautiful and worth a trip, but for me the park itself was more of a hit.
Ancient Beech Forest
I like forests and mountains. I am far happier in a shady forest than on a beach in the sun. That is probably why I enjoyed the drive so much. The beech forest feels very old and primeval. The moss hanging everywhere and the dampness in the air help that feeling. I have a pretty good imagination, but didn’t have to strain at all to see dinosaurs walking through the forest or dragons flying above it. Maybe some of it is knowing that Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand, but it really is impressive scenery.
The weather we had was perfect. For a place that apparently rains 2 out of every 3 days, we had two days of blue skies. We definitely saw it rain in Queenstown, but not on our drive, which is amazing and let us get great pictures. I almost wish he had some rain though. Justin, our bus driver, told us that the number of waterfalls increases in the rain. The ones we saw were all snow melt.
The only road through the Fiordland National Park to Milford runs through three valleys. Each is very different from the other showing just how diverse New Zealand is even in a small area. The first, Eglington Valley, is a wide flat valley edged by tall mountains. Eglington Valley is also home to the Mirror Lakes. Unfortunately it was a windy enough not to get a perfect mirroring, but enough to see how cool the lakes are. I like the upside down sign that mirrors in the lake. (It took us a bit to realize it was intentional.)
Rising up from the flat Eglington Valley we crossed into Hollyford Valley, a steeper forested valley. The Divide between the two valleys is the start to a lot of the hikes and tracks available in the park. Each way the bus dropped people off to go hiking.
This is an avalanche area. Although we were there in the summer the avalanche signs are still around. Our driver was telling us that there is a dedicated road team that works year round only on this road. Despite being there in the summer, the tops of the mountains are still covered in snow. We drove by a few places where the tress had all been ripped up. Justin explained that this wasn’t even the avalanche itself but the wind that is generated with so much snow moving all at once.
The one stop in Hollyford Valley on the way to Milford was at Monkey Creek. I filled up my water bottle at the encouragement of our driver, saying it was some of the cleanest purest water in the world. I got a picture of me acting like a monkey at Monkey creek.
Coming back we stopped at Pop’s View, named for a man who dedicated his life to the maintenance of the Milford Road. This view of the Hollyford River and the forests was one of my favorite of the trip. Standing here is where I really could almost see dinosaurs or dragons wandering in the woods.
The top of Hollyford Valley is Homer Tunnel. This is a hole drilled through the mountain, a little over a kilometer long. The tunnel is so narrow that only one stream of traffic is allowed through at a time so we have to wait for a green light to go. It also angles down pretty sharply as it heads down toward Milford.
Coming through on the way back we stopped just outside of the tunnel and got out. The area around the mouth of the tunnel is amazing. There were snowmelt waterfalls all around. And although they look tiny, they are apparently more than a meter wide and a long way off. The distances are hard to judge as the mind has a hard time believing that this is real. The noise from the falls reaches that distance and really does sound like more water than it looks like.
We even saw a few Kea, the alpine parrots that only live there.
The final valley that leads down from the tunnel to the sound is Cleddau Valley. Similar to Hollyford on the other side, with steep sides and forests.
The one stop here was at the Chasm. Just a few minute walk through the forest to a waterfall that has worn the rocks into a swiss cheese of holes. According to a sign, the river picks up a pebble in a depression in the rock and swirls it around for a while to wear it into that shape. There is a lower and an upper viewing platform, with the upper looking down into the rock holes.
And to Milford Sound….
The first impressions of Milford are grand, but that is another post. More information can be found here.
- Destination Fiordland – Regional Tourism Organization for Fiordland
- New Zealand Parks page on Fiordland
- Milford Sound daytrip – Great post at A Dangerous Business whose writing was where I first heard of Milford Sound.
Special thanks to Justin, our friendly and knowledgeable driver, and the great people at Real Journeys. They did give us a discount on our journey. Even so all views and opinions here are my own.