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Milford Sound in Winter - Self-Driving vs Guided Tours

Winter is one of the most magical times of year in Milford Sound, and Milford Road, the only road access to Milford Sound, provides a spectacular drive with wintery, visual treats around every corner. With the cold temperatures, snow, and ice, many people think a visit to Milford Sound is not possible in winter. But although there are sometimes road closures in winter (about eight per year), it’s possible to visit Milford Sound in any season.

The Milford Sound road travel options remain the same in winter. You can drive yourself or take a tour, and tours provide the safest and easiest road transport option to Milford Sound, especially in winter. Of course, as a tour operator, we have a natural bias towards guided tours, but our main priority for all visitors to Milford Sound is that their journey is as safe and as stress-free as possible. So whether you’re self-driving or taking a tour, here we’ve covered what you need to know for safely travelling Milford Road in winter and we will let you decide what is best for you.

Milford Road in winter, Luxe Tours NZ

Milford Road Winter Conditions

Traveling along Milford Road is a core feature of the Milford Sound experience, and in winter, the road transforms into 120km of wintery magic. The trip in winter is one of serene ambiance, often with snow-capped mountains providing a stunning backdrop. Crisp, fresh air invigorates the senses at every stop, while the wildlife flourishes in the quiet winter months. It's a breathtaking trip where you can marvel at nature's winter beauty while relishing the peacefulness of the Milford Road in winter. 

Milford Sound in winter, Luxe Tours NZ

However, much of what makes Milford Road so magical in winter is what creates often challenging conditions for drivers. These conditions usually last from late May to early September, when the area experiences low temperatures. Temperatures average from highs of 9.5 °C - 14°C and lows of 2.1-1.5°C, sometimes as low as 0°C at night and early morning. 

Low temperatures lead to snow and ice on the road, and black ice is common, making the road particularly hazardous during the winter months. In winter, the sun doesn’t hit certain parts of the road all day, so there are always dark, slippery sections, and snow is likely from the divide to Cleddeau Valley. There are also often areas of road works in winter, helping to maintain the road and keep it safe, such as clearing snowy sections and laying grit.

Self-Driving Milford Road in Winter

Milford Road in winter at homer tunnel, Luxe Tours

Many people enjoy the freedom of driving themselves down Milford Road. The comfort of your own space and vehicle can make the journey very peaceful, and having complete control over when you stop and where is an enticing option for many. However, winter driving to Milford Sound is very different from other times of the year, and you need to approach driving Milford Road with extreme caution. It’s a road that can be dangerous in all seasons, but it’s especially hazardous in the colder months.

New Zealand’s roads are quite narrow and winding compared to roads elsewhere in the world, and Milford Road is no exception. The road can take a lot of people by surprise, as there are very few straight sections and frequent blind corners to navigate, requiring extreme concentration and focus, especially if you’re used to driving in a different country. These aspects of the road are even more challenging in winter, so you must be a confident and competent winter driver if you decide to drive yourself to Milford Sound in Winter. 

Snow Chains are Mandatory

Snow chains Milford Road, Luxe Tours

If you’re taking a vehicle down Milford Road in Winter, then you’ll need snow chains, and you can hire them in Queenstown from Hirepool and some local service stations in Te Anau however there is very limited stock across both Queenstown & Te Anau. You’ll need to have them fitted to your vehicle, so make sure you sort this out the day before you leave to give yourself plenty of time to have them fitted properly and ensure you know how to fit them safely and securely yourself. 

Obey the Signs

Milford Road in winter signs

There are signs along Milford Road advising snow chains to be fitted at particular locations, and there will be safe spaces to pull over near these signs to fit your chains. Ensure you follow the signs to keep yourself and other drivers safe. If you don’t obey these signs, you could be fined $750.

Allow Extra Time

An average drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes around 4 hours one way when accounting for rest stops and sightseeing, and you’ll want to allow extra time in winter, especially if you’re taking a Milford Sound Cruise. People frequently miss their cruise in winter due to driving slowly through snow and ice, stopping for road works, and the time needed to put on snow chains. 

Cruises often run slightly later in winter to give ice a chance to melt as much as possible and for people to drive slower, but many people still get caught out. You’ll also need time for parking and getting to the cruise terminal, so you’ll need to plan carefully and keep a careful eye on the time during your drive. So when considering the following:

  • Cruise operators usually require you to check in 20 minutes before departure

  • You’ll need around 30-60 minutes of extra time to account for road delays

  • You’ll need time to park, pay for parking, and then get to the cruise terminal - around 20 minutes to be safe

You’ll want to plan for around a 5-6 hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound to ensure you get to your cruise on time. 

Self-Driving Tips

Get used to the roads and your vehicle before leaving 

There are many near-misses on Milford Road due to people driving on the wrong side or swerving their vehicles, so ensure you are used to driving on the left and are confident in your vehicle, especially if you’re renting it.

Practice putting on your snow chains 

If you don’t want to spend ages on the side of the road in the cold putting your chains on, practice a few times before you leave. 

Stop to enjoy the view 

You cannot take your eyes off the road if you’re driving, and the scenery can be distracting, so take your time, and pull over if you want to take in the scenery. 

Allow others to pass 

Everyone will travel at different speeds, and there are no safe passing opportunities on the road. If you are holding up travellers behind you, pull over at a safe spot and allow others to pass. 

Keep up to date with road conditions 

Weather can change quickly on Milford Road, and there are avalanche risks in winter, so the road may close at any time during the day. Keep up to date with Milford Road conditions and potential closures here, and keep an eye out for the signs in Te Anau, Knobs Flat, and Milford that also advise on current road conditions. 

Don’t drive from Queenstown 

A drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown in one day is extremely arduous and adds another 2-3 hours to your total one-way drive to Milford. You’d also have to drive in the dark to get to your cruise on time, which is very unsafe in winter. If you’re going to drive yourself, then stay in Te Anau for at least one night and drive to Milford in the morning.

If you are not confident, take a tour 

Let an experienced person keep an eye on the weather and road for you. If you want comfort and quiet, consider taking a smaller guided tour rather than a larger one

Guided Tours in Winter 

Milford Sound in Winter Tours, Luxe Tours

There are many advantages to taking a guided tour to Milford Sound in winter, and it’s the safest and most convenient option for traveling Milford Road. You will have less freedom of stop choice in your drive to Milford Sound than if you were self-driving, but tour operators will ensure you don’t miss out on any of the great stops along Milford Road while also getting you to your cruise on time. There are many locations that you simply wouldn't know about if you were self driving.

Milford Sound tour in winter, Luxe Tours

Guided tours generally remain the same regardless of the season, though times may vary in winter to coordinate with cruises in Milford Sound. Your tour operator will give you all the necessary information about pick-up and drop-off times and locations. 

Guides also know the best places for photo opportunities in winter compared to summer to ensure you get the best visual experience and can capture some amazing winter memories. A guided tour also means that nobody has to miss out on the scenery to concentrate on the road, and you won’t have to worry about keeping an eye on the time, as your tour operator will take care of everything, allowing you to simply relax and enjoy the journey. 

Multiple Tour Options

There are many tour options available to suit your needs and preferences. A larger group tour will provide plenty of social interaction if that’s something you enjoy, and they are usually the lowest cost tour option, while a smaller tour will provide a quieter trip, more stops with more expert guides, and often more comfortable seating for your travels. 

Experienced Drivers

Tour drivers are very experienced in navigating Milford Road and have done defensive driving courses and had winter driving training. They are also experienced with snow chains, so you can sit in the comfort of the vehicle and enjoy the scenery while they swiftly fit the chains. 

Winter Tour Tips

Book in advance 

There are fewer visitors to Milford Sound in winter than in other seasons, but you still need to book tours and cruises in advance as most operators will limit numbers during winter months.


Take a Tour from Te Anau 

There are guided tours available from both Queenstown and Te Anau year-round, but a tour from Queenstown can be very stressful, particularly in winter. Road conditions can cause delays, so you may have to miss some stops, and you’ll be travelling for most of the day and in the dark at both ends of the trip.

The biggest issue from Queenstown is that tour drivers only have 13 hours that they can drive and when you take into consideration that a return trip is about 10 hours of driving in winter, plus a two hour cruise, it leaves only an hour for photo & rest stops but also an allowance for delays due to snow.

"Here at Luxe Tours, we are often passed by tour vehicles travelling well above the speed limit who we would 'bet our bottom dollar on' are racing back to Queenstown because they are likely to exceed their driver hours. I feel very sorry for the poor passengers in the back!"

Toby, Lead Guide - Luxe Tours.

High avalanche risk in winter can also lead to last-minute road closures, and if you’re touring from Queenstown, you may arrive in Te Anau only to find out that Milford Road has just closed.

Touring from Te Anau means that tour operators can get closure updates quickly and Te Anau has plenty of things to do if a road closure does happen. If a trip can’t go ahead, operators can arrange a trip for a different day if it fits your plan, provide refunds, or they may also offer backup options such as Doubtful Sound or the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. For example, Luxe Tours can divert you to Doubtful Sound if a Milford Sound Tour is cancelled. 

Exploring Milford Sound in winter offers a magical experience full of tranquility and snowy landscapes. The Milford Road, while particularly stunning in winter, presents a more challenging and often hazardous drive compared to other times of the year. Self-driving to Milford Sound in Winter requires caution and very careful planning, and it should only be attempted by confident and experienced winter drivers. Guided tours ensure a stress-free journey with experienced drivers, maximizing the winter wonderland experience.

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