17 April, 2020
Last updated on 19 July, 2022
Posted by Spaceships Crew
Queenstown to Milford Sound is one of the most dramatic drives in New Zealand, offering views that contrast from snow-capped mountaintops and reflection lakes to lush green trees and fiord boat cruises. Here’s everything you need to know before you take off!
With two distinctive islands, North Island and South Island to choose from, visitors always ask us which island is best for them? There’s no right answer as both islands are beautiful (and different) and both have a lot to offer.
North Island vs South Island
North Island is much more populated (with three times residents than South Island), is home to the nation’s most thriving cities, has warmer weather and bigger beach culture, and has lots of geothermal activity;
South Island boasts dramatic mountain scenery, features incredible fiords and great walking trails, is home to a vast number of marine and bird life, and is famed for being home to the adventure capital of Queenstown. So if you’re after something a little more off the beaten track and you’re inspired by vivid mountainscapes and stunning snow-capped peaks, or you’re a self-confessed adrenaline junkie, South Island is the place for you.
‘New Zealand’ by Alessandro Loss
Details of the journey
The 3-day drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is one of the most iconic routes of South Island. It’s approximately 464 km in length and will take you from Queenstown centre to Milford Sound before bringing you back along the same route to Queenstown again.
How long to go for?
This route will take you around 3 days using our rough driving itinerary guide below. However, we would always factor in a few extra days if you’re exploring other parts of South Island.
You’ll want a few stops along the way as there’s so much to see! There’s also an option to stay a little longer in Queenstown, as it’s legendary for being the adrenaline capital of the world and there are so many activities that can entertain all ages.
Best time of year to go?
The truth is, the weather in New Zealand can change unexpectedly (at any time) so being prepared will only get you so far! Nonetheless, the breathtaking mountain scenery is spectacular in any weather so we really think that South Island is a goer all year round.
Further north of the island, the climate can be subtropical during the summer months whilst the inland alpine areas can be as cold as -10°C (14°F) in the winter and the coastline mostly benefits from mild temperatures year-round. With varying weather, it’s important to pack clothing and equipment for all seasons.
‘Mirror Lake, New Zealand’ by p-a-t-r-i-c-k
Packing for NZ is relatively easy with Spaceship travel because our campers come with everything you could need. It’s sort of like packing for an adventure camping trip without the need for tent equipment, sleeping bags or cooking gear. Here’s more information about you might need for your journey with us…
What should I pack?
When it comes to packing for South Island, it’s important to pack for the extremities. The weather can differ greatly and can change in a split second, so bring all-weather gear. Some items that will come in handy for New Zealand are:
Lightweight waterproof jacket
Rucksack or backpack for hikes
Trekking poles for uneven terrain
Water packs or hands-free hydration systems
UV protection and sunglasses
‘Traversing the Mountain Side’ by PermaCultured
Road trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound
Here’s a rough itinerary which will give you an idea of what to see and where to stop along the way. This route will take you from Central Queenstown and back again, so you will start and finish in this exciting city with plenty of opportunities for sightseeing.
Day 1: Queenstown to Te Anau
From Queenstown, take State Highway 6 and State Highway 94 which curves around the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. This 2-hour stretch of road is extremely scenic and picturesque so bring a camera and be prepared to stop a few times for those “wow” moments, of which there are many.
The very aptly named Remarkables Mountains can be seen on this highway before bringing you to the spectacular town of Te Anau, which faces the Kepler and Murchison Mountains.
Day 2: Te Anau to Milford Sound
Set off for Milford Sound on State Highway 94 which will take over 1hr 40 minutes. There are a number of campsites in the area when you arrive so you can spend your day exploring the fiord surroundings on foot, or you can take an overnight boat cruise to explore the Bowen Falls and the Stirling Falls.
Overnight cruises usually set sail in the morning and some cruises will include extra activities such as kayaking, scuba diving or swimming with dolphins.
Day 3: Milford Sound to Queenstown
Spend the morning exploring the area before taking the same route down State Highway 94, going back on yourself to return to Queenstown again.
Things to do and see on this road trip
If you’re looking for a little detour, we highly recommend heading up to Glenorchy before making tracks south for Te Anau. Located just 45-minutes away from the centre of the city, this area is set amongst peaceful lakes and incredible snow-capped mountains and offers activities out in the wilderness for true adventurers.
You can go hiking, kayaking, horse riding or jet boating or you can enjoy a guided tour to visit all the famous film locations for Lord of the Rings. The tour will take you to the fictional destinations of Isengard, Lothlórien and Amon Hen so if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, make sure you set aside enough time to fit in a detour to Glenorchy!
‘Road to Glenorchy’ by Russellstreet
The Devil’s Staircase
Coming out of Queenstown, you will come across a fantastic viewpoint called The Devil’s Staircase. It’s a good place to park up for lunch or just to take in the glorious scenery.
From Queenstown heading south on Highway 6 along the Lake Wakatipu, you’ll come to a small town called Kingston. The views at this southern end of the lake are truly unblemished. The shoreline here also offers a sandy beach area where you can enjoy lake activities such as swimming, kayaking or rowing.
Arrowtown Gold Panning
If you’ve got a bit of extra time to explore, don’t miss the wonderful Arrowtown, a quaint historic gold mining town just north of Queenstown. Visitors and tourists can spend the day panning for gold in the Arrow River – a super fun activity for all ages!
The Kepler Track
Once in Te Anau, you will have the option of exploring the various mountain tracks. The Kepler Track is a great half day hike and the starting point is accessed by water taxi to Brod Bay. There are also heli hike experiences available from $530 per adult.
‘Kepler Track - The Ridgeline’ by Evan Forester
Te Anau Glow Worm Caves
The Te Anau Glowworm Caves offer an exciting excursion to anyone staying in the picturesque town. A set of fascinating cave systems where you can spot pretty glow worms in the dark grottos, an activity that is suitable for all age groups.
The Milford Track
This full day hiking trail makes an awesome alternative to the boat cruise if you don’t fancy setting sail on the water. This is a guided excursion which takes on the first section of famous Milford Track with amazing views of dramatic alpine vistas, crystal clear rivers and ancient beech forest. Access to the start of track is by boat and must be pre-booked.
Skyline to Bob’s Peak
Whether you explore this peak before your set off or on your return to Queenstown, it’s not to be missed for anyone staying in the city. The Skyline cable car (also called the Queensland Gondola) will take you to the top where you will enjoy mind-blowing views and find a restaurant as well as thrilling luge rides, nature walks, mountain bike trails and even stargazing tours for the evening time.
‘Who's Going Up?’ by Jocelyn Kinghorn
Want more road trip inspiration?
Driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound is an amazing trip, but New Zealand has much more to offer. Have a look at this list of the best road trips in New Zealand and see what else you can do. Be inspired by these free itineraries and tips and create the ultimate New Zealand road trip just for you. Our tips will help you to create the best New Zealand travel experience. Have fun.