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How safe is the Milford Road?

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You may have heard that the Milford Road is a dangerous one, that there is a high rate of accidents compared to other roads in New Zealand. We tend to agree and disagree. Our aim here is not to scare you into avoiding driving and taking a tour instead, because that would be biased. We simply want you to understand the different factors to consider if you are planning on driving yourself into Milford. The big one is safety.

Any road is as dangerous as a driver makes it, and while the road itself in terms of quality, condition and geography is no different to a lot of other roads in New Zealand, it does have a relatively high accident rate for a short 115 kilometres (72 miles) with an average of 28 serious car accidents per year and dozens more minor ones. So why?

Milford Road Congestion

As we have discussed above, the geography, while it includes twists, tight turns and many blind corners, it is not overly different from many other Southland / Otago roads such as the Devil Staircase and Kawarau Gorge roads either side of Queenstown, or the road to Glenorchy.

Milford Road congestion, busy traffic

One particular dynamic that plays out on the Milford Road is high amounts of congestion. Due to the fact that Milford Sound cruises start by 9:00am and finish around 5:00pm, as well as the many number of cruise options the action is condensed to just 8 - 12 hours on the road.

Over 4000 people visit each day in the summer months and while a lot travel in by coach with tour companies, the large majority make the journey by private vehicle. Constant crossing of cars coming from either direction is a given through the spring, summer and autumn months, posing a risk of centreline crossing on blind corners which is witnessed by police and other authorities time and time again.

New Zealand roads are simply not like others around the world, particularly in bigger cities where highways & motorways dominate the landscape. The road into Milford Sound is full of blind corners, steep climbs & drops and is certainly not a road to tackle in one of your first days arriving in New Zealand.

Milford Road Conditions

As with any area in Fiordland, the Milford Sound road is exposed to very sudden changes in weather and conditions. It is known by the locals for changing within minutes, first nothing but sunshine on the horizon, then round the next corner and through a valley to find dark rain clouds approaching.

Parts of the Milford Road journey such as the Eglinton Valley, The Divide and the Hollyford Valley are prone to drawing in large rain systems that get trapped in amongst the mountains. Rainfall can go from zero to 30mm (one inch) an hour at times.

This makes it very treacherous, as well as often poor lighting in amongst the mountains. With very few pull over spots between main tourist photo stops, it is common to find cars stacked up behind each other trying to navigate their way slowly so be aware when you come round the next corner.

Milford Road in winter

Winter and early spring are also very challenging times of the year with many days of 'black ice' (hidden ice on the road) in the early morning and sometimes throughout the day depending on sun exposure or the lack of it. Snow is common between May and September. While beautiful and one of our personal favourite times to visit Milford, it is extremely dangerous on the roads and it is highly recommended that you take a tour who will carry tyre chains and all the essentials should they be needed.

Should I drive the Milford Road myself?

It is a beautiful trip into Milford Sound no matter whether you are on a tour or driving yourself however if you are visiting New Zealand or new to this area, we really think you should consider whether or not driving in yourself is the right choice. Here's our pro's and cons to driving yourself:



Choice of when to pull over, what stops to visit and time to take throughout the journey.

The driver doesn't get to witness much of the beauty themselves as focus on the road is crucial.

The comfort of your own vehicle.

May waste time at stops that are not worth it.

Overall saving of cost.

Parking at Milford Sound is a bit of a walk versus being dropped at the cruise terminal by a tour.

Privacy in your own vehicle.

Unguided and no information as to what you are looking at along the way and the special areas.

Can be quite stressful at times if the weather turns on you, especially in winter.

When is it a hard no to driving ourselves?

  • You come from a right side lane driving country such as the United States or the European Union. There is just so much to look at in the stunning surroundings that a lot of tour drivers have evidenced many cars crossing the centre line and witnessed drivers looking out at those surroundings.

  • If Milford Sound will be one of your first few day drives since arriving in New Zealand and travelling then really best to consider whether a full day of driving on twisting roads is going to be enjoyable and most importantly safe for you and your travelling companions. Tiredness is not your friend on this journey.

  • In certain weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow & frost/ice or very windy conditions. Your safety is paramount, trust us when we say that the road is not easy to drive at these times.

How will a tour change my experience?

  • Being able to look out the windows and simply take in the magic that is the Milford Road is amazing!

  • Hopefully avoid large crowds. At Luxe, for example, we purposefully chose our cruise option and therefore departure time from Te Anau to make sure we have as little vehicles and other tourists around us at any one time.

  • Take photos when and where you want. For example at Luxe, we are more than happy to pull over at any other spots you see and take a quick pic! We want you to remember every moment.

  • Enjoy every moment with your partner, family or friends. The driver is going to feel a tad left out of the experiences chat when you get back to Te Anau at night time!

  • Finally, but most importantly - keep you safe and put your day in the hands of an experienced driver who is specifically trained on the Milford Road and drives it most days.

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