The Road to Milford Sound
Driving / Ferry Tour115 km1 DayOn the road to Milford Sound
Take a drive through the mountains of Fiordland on New Zealand’s most spectacular scenic highway from Lake Te Anua through to the sheltered waters of Milford Sound. Experience glacial carved valleys, ancient forests, wild surging rivers and countless waterfalls on this incredible journey through the wilderness. This is a trip that is just as fascinating in the rain as it is on a fine day.
Hidden beneath the waters of Milford Sound lies an incredibly deep valley carved out from the rock by ancient glaciers over two million years ago. During successive periods of advance and retreat, the glaciers pushed their way down from huge ice caps that once covered Fiordland’s mountains. At times the glaciers, which were thousands of metres thick, extended out into the ocean. Their enormous weight created enough force to grind away huge amounts of rock as they moved across the landscape, carving out the steep-sided valleys that can be seen today. When the glaciers began to melt at the end of the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, the sea level rose and the glacial valleys along the coastline were reclaimed by the sea, creating the fiords that can be seen today. Along the coast near the entrance to the fiords, these silent waterways are sheltered by huge underwater moraines. The moraines are large piles of rock which were carried down from the mountains on the iceflows and deposited at the end of the glaciers before they began to retreat. Sheltered from waves and strong currents by these underwater rock walls, the fiords are host to a unique community of marine plants and animals. This is an awe-inspiring landscape, where waterfalls plummet over high cliffs and vegetation clings to sheer rock walls above these deep fiords.
The trip starts from Lake Te Anau .
During the ice ages huge glaciers spread west from the mountains carving out the deep fiords that are found along the coast today. At the same time, glaciers were also advancing eastward from the mountains, creating a series of deep glacial lakes that includes the lakes, Te Anau, Manapouri, Monowai, Hauroko and Poteriteri. Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island and descends to 276 m at its deepest point. There are glow-worms in a complex of water sculpted limestone caves on its western shoreline which can be visited on a boat tour, while at the local Fiordland Wildlife Park you can see a number of native bird species including the endangered Takahe. The Department of Conservation visitor centre and a number of booking offices for a variety of tourist trips are located in the Te Anau township.
From Te Anau head north 50.2 km on the Te Anau Milford Highway and SH94 to the Mirror Lakes signposted on the left.
A 5-minute boardwalk leads through moss-covered beech trees to a number of viewing platforms looking across the still waters of the Mirror Lakes in the Eglinton Valley which produce perfect reflections the surrounding snow-capped peaks of the Earl Mountains.
Continue north 23.7 km on the Te Anau Milford Highway and SH94 to Cascade Creek signposted on the left.
An easy 30-minute loop walk leading from Cascade Creek circles through the forest to Lake Gunn. The lake was known to the Maori as O-Tapara and its shores were a resting place for parties heading towards the West Coast in search of greenstone at Anita Bay. Paradise ducks and scaup can often be seen on the lakes and the surrounding red beech forest is alive with forest birds, including tomtits, fantails, bellbirds, parakeets, kereru and the tiny rifleman. At dusk you can sometimes catch sight of the long-tailed bat, which along with another species of bat, are New Zealand’s only native land mammals.
Continue north 8.5 km on the Te Anau Milford Highway and SH94 to the start of the Routeburn Track and the walk to Key Summit on the right .
From the Divide on the road to Milford Sound, you will find the start of the Routeburn Track and an excellent walk up to the Key Summit. The track heads uphill through silver beech forest for an hour to the bushline where the turn-off to Key Summit is reached. The Routeburn Track continues downhill from here to Lake Howden, fifteen minutes away, but its only a short, 15 minute climb to the Key Summit where you will find an amazing alpine plateau with numerous small tarns and alpine marshes which are crossed by boardwalks. Set against a backdrop of snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges, the Key Summit is home to ancient, stunted beech trees, thickly clad with mosses and lichens. There are bog cushions, comb sedges and wire rushes growing in the marshes along with alpine sundews, mountain bladderworts and other alpine herbs such as orchids, snowberries and gentians which flower during the summer months. A plane table indicates the main landscape features, with views down the Hollyford Valley and from the end of the ridge you can also look across the Eglinton and Greenstone Valleys. Key Summit is the meeting point of three major river systems, the Hollyford, Greenstone-Clutha and Eglinton-Waiau, all of which have their origins on its flanks. At the end of the Ice Ages, 17,000 years ago, the glaciers that covered the area left huge boulders, known as glacier erratics, stranded along the Key Summit ridgeline where they can still be seen today.
Continue north 15.6 km on the Te Anau Milford Highway and SH94 to the Homer Tunnel.
In the Upper Hollyford Valley beech trees overhang the turbulent Hollyford River. Named after Harry Homer, who discovered the saddle in 1889, the tunnel was begun in 1935 as a relief project for the unemployed, taking 18 years to complete. To start with there were only five men working on the tunnel using picks and wheelbarrows. The men had to live in tents and at least three were killed by avalanches over the years. Fractures in the rock brought snow flows into the tunnel and eventually a powerhouse was built so water could be pumped out of the tunnel. Work was interrupted by the Second World War, although the tunnellers still managed to break through the mountain in 1940. An avalanche destroyed the eastern tunnel portal in 1945 and it was another 10 years before the tunnel was completed in 1954. Today the rough-hewn rock walls of the Homer Tunnel, dripping water and lit only by the head-lights of vehicles passing through, present an eerie sight as you drive downhill towards the western portal. Just past the exit, a 15-minute nature walk climbs from the right side of the road through the forest beneath the towering rock face of the Homer Saddle and the surrounding valley walls. On a rainy day the mountainsides come alive with dozens of waterfalls cascading down the sheer rock faces from the Homer Saddle above.
Continue west 4.9 km on the Milford Sound Highway and SH 94 down the winding road through the Cleddau Valley to the Chasm, signposted to the left.
Fed from the high peaks surrounding the Cleddau Valley, the Cleddau River plunges down through beech forests on its path to Milford Sound and the sea. The continual action of the river, has spun small rounded stones, gradually cutting fluted channels into the rock. The Cleddau River now plunges deep into this rock, disappearing under a natural rock bridge before dropping 22 m through a series of cascades. A 10-minute walking track leads from the road to this impressive Chasm, skirting the upper falls tumbling under the natural rock bridge into the next waterfall.
Continue 8.7 km west down the Cleddau Valley on SH 94 to the Tutoko Bridge. The Tutoko Walking Track is signposted on the right.
Good views of Fiordland’s highest mountain, the 2746 m peak of Mt Tutoko, can be obtained from the road bridge, but if you take a short walk into the forest on the Tutoko track, you can experience the beauty of the beech and podocarp forest covered with a luxuriant carpet of mosses and ferns. If you keep following the track for a couple of hours you will eventually reach a riverside clearing and the Tutoko Valley flats, placing you in a unique setting among some of Fiordland’s highest peaks. Ahead lies Mt Tutoko with its glacier and tumbling icefall. The peak was first climbed by Samuel Turner, an eccentric Englishman who led several expeditions in the 1920s, modeling them on the classical mountaineering expeditions that were being made in the Himalayas at the time. Complete with guides, porters and carefully selected companions, he finally reached the summit on his sixth attempt.
Continue west 3.7 km on the Milford Sound Highway and SH 94 to Milford Sound.
Fiordland is one of the highest rainfall areas in the world. When it rains, thousands of waterfalls spring to life from the sheer rock walls of this ancient glacial valley, cascading into the fiords below. Milford Sound is the most visited of the fiords, a scenic wonder dominated by the distinctive shape of Mitre Peak that rises from the sheltered waters of the fiord. These huge valleys were once filled with ice but as the climate warmed towards the end of the last ice age, huge volumes of water were released as the ice melted causing the sea level to rise. Many of the deeply cut glacial valleys were flooded to create the fiords that now make up this magnificent stretch of coastline.
EXPLORING MILFORD SOUND
Milford Sound has two distinct characters. On a clear day it is a picture of tranquillity, but during rain the fiord is transformed, as countless waterfalls erupt into life from the sheer glacial-carved rock walls. High winds often blow the huge volumes of water that cascade from the 146 m Stirling Falls, back up into the air. There are many ways to experience Milford Sound. Scenic flights depart from the small airstrip at the head of Milford Sound and a number of scenic cruises run daily, covering the full 22 km length of the fiord all the way out to the ocean. The Milford Deep Underwater Observatory at Harrison Cove provides visitors with view of the unique underwater environment lurking beneath the surface of the fiord. Milford Sound is a diver’s paradise, where deep-water species such as black coral exist in unusually shallow depths. This is due to the huge volumes of water that flow into the fiords, creating a layer of fresh water over the salt water, that filters out sunlight and creates conditions normally found at much deeper levels. A short walk down the spiral staircase at the Underwater Observatory takes you down into the viewing room where marine colonies have been established on special trays outside the windows. You can see triplefins, spotted and banded perch swimming among tube worms and sponges, there are anemones and snakestars as well as brilliantly coloured corals. Brachiopods, a type of shellfish which hasn’t changed in over 600 million years, can still be found in the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, which was created to protect all underwater marine life in the fiord. Up on the surface, bottle-nose and dusky dolphins frequent the clear waters, along with Fiordland crested penguins, and the now-protected fur seals have also returned. For the adventurous, another great way to get a close up experience of the Sounds and its marine life is to take a guided sea kayaking trip out onto the waters of the fiord.