Milford Sound stands as an undeniable highlight on any New Zealand itinerary, offering an enchanting wilderness journey no matter the time of year. In this guide, we’ll take you through Milford’s year-round weather patterns, shedding light on what to expect from the unpredictable yet famous weather that adds its own unique touch to this awe-inspiring destination in every season.
Milford Sound Weather
Milford Sound’s Location
Milford Sound is nestled in the heart of Fiordland National Park on the lower west coast of New Zealand's South Island. This remote location fosters an extraordinary habitat where rare species flourish, providing a haven of tranquillity as you immerse yourself in nature.
This location also means that Milford Sound is prone to changeable weather patterns year-round and is famously one of the wettest places on Earth. As warm air travels over the Tasman Sea, gathering moisture, it collides with the Southern Alps, where the warm moist air is forced upwards, cooled, and falls as rain over Milford. In the cold winter months, the moist air often falls as snow. For Milford Sound visitors, this weather system translates into a constant possibility of showers throughout the year and both rain and snow in winter. But despite the rain and winter snow, sunny days are also common, and it’s possible to witness both rain or snow and sunshine within minutes, so it’s important to be prepared for all weather conditions. Milford Sound would not be one of the most famous natural landscapes without its weather patterns, and as long as you’re properly prepared, Milford will provide a spectacular adventure any time of year.
Te Anau Weather
Because Te Anau is the nearest town to Milford Sound, it’s common for people to think they’ll experience the same Milford Sound weather in Te Anau as they do in Milford Sound. But because of Te Anau’s western mountain range, weather systems from this direction tend to get trapped before they reach the township. Te Anau only gets around 1200mm of rain annually, and snow rarely settles in the area.
With these weather differences and its proximity to Milford Sound, Te Anau makes an excellent base for visiting Milford Sound. There are a range of accommodation options, restaurants, cafes, and activities available in Te Anau year-round, and there are many options for tours to Milford Sound from Te Anau, allowing for ease and complete relaxation on your visit to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound in Spring
Spring in New Zealand falls during the September - November months, and the Milford Sound weather patterns during these months can be quite unpredictable. Some days may be very cold with frosty grounds and others will be quite warm. Temperatures range from highs of around 15.7 ℃ to lows between 4-7 ℃, and average rainfall during these months is around 550mm.
Spring Activities and Sites
One of the great things about visiting Milford Sound is there are always plenty of activities available and amazing sites to see all year round. The journey along Milford Road is fantastic any time of year, and in the later spring months, you may see new generations of wildlife stepping out into the world.
There will be plenty of forest birds about, and you may see parents out with their young. At the Mirror Lakes, a popular destination along Milford Road, you may see parent Scaup, small diving ducks, teaching their new young broods how to dive. The drive along Milford Road is often more colourful this time of year too, as the lupins begin to bloom and the Southern Rata trees sprout their vibrant red flowers.
Spring is also a time when new fur seal pups and dolphins are born, so it can be a very exciting time for wildlife viewing on a Milford Sound Cruise. This time of year also makes for spectacular waterfall viewing as the waterfalls are at their most extreme due to the melting mountain snow and ice.
Walks in Spring
Fiordland is also home to three of New Zealand’s Great walks: The Milford Track, Kepler Track, and Routeburn Track, and you can start all three of these walks from Te Anau.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) is responsible for managing these trails, and essential safety information and bookings can be found on their website. You can also do these walks as part of a guided tour.
The Great Walk Season officially begins in October, and outside of this time, facilities may be limited and there are no wardens at the huts. It’s recommended that great walks out of the official season only be undertaken by experienced hikers.
Pack for all weather: Spring days in Milford Sound are very changeable, so it’s crucial to be prepared for rain, sun, warmth, and cold. Sunscreen, layers, a waterproof coat, sturdy shoes, a warm hat, and a sun hat are essential items.
Be cautious of river crossings: Rivers in spring are often very swollen due to snow melt, so extra caution will be needed if you’re out hiking, especially if undertaking river crossings. Be sure to check the DOC website for information and weather warnings before hiking.
Milford Sound in Summer
The New Zealand summer falls within the December - February months, and while temperatures are often high during these months, rainfall is high too. Temperatures range from 17-19°C throughout summer and average 7-8 17-19°C at night. Average rainfall during these months is around 500mm in January, increasing to 600mm by late February.
Activities and Sites
With the warmer temperatures, summer is the best time of year for camping along Milford Road. There will also be an abundance of wildlife along the Milford Road and in Milford Sound. You’ll see various native birds, and will likely see the famous cheeky Kea at various Milford Road stops, as they like to hang around in places where there are lots of people.
The longer daylight hours in summer mean that you can spend more time enjoying the scenery in the day, and you can choose to book a Milford Sound Cruise later in the day if you need to. On a cruise, you’ll see fur seals basking in the sun, and you may see the Fiordland Crested Penguin out foraging in the warming weather.
Walks in Summer
The three great walks will be in their official open season during the summer months, and conditions are safest during this time. Many visitors flock to Te Anau during the summer months to walk the trails, and there will be wardens at the huts and all facilities up and running during this time.
Prepare for sandflies: The warmer weather unfortunately means the sandfiles will be out in full force, so insect repellant is essential. Some people find that taking non-drowsy antihistamine tablets in the mornings is helpful in preventing the itch that can accompany sandfly bites.
Take extra caution when driving: As summer is peak visitor season, Milford Road is very busy, so you need to be extra cautious when driving the narrow, winding road. Some people find that a guided tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a great option in summer for limiting stress.
Pack layers: Though the temperatures are warmer in summer, there can also be cool days, so warm layers are needed, especially if you’re camping in the area, as night temperatures are low even in summer.
Milford Sound in Autumn
Over the Autumn months of March-April, a cooling trend begins in Milford Sound weather patterns. High temperatures drop to around 12.4°C and lows to around 4.4°C, sometimes dropping to below 0°C at night. Rainfall in Autumn ranges from 548mm in March to 560mm by late May.
Activities and Sites
Autumn can be a great time of year for visiting Milford Sound, as the daylight hours are still reasonably long until early April, and there are fewer visitors in the area, so sites will be less crowded along Milford Road.
The scenery in Te Anau can be very picturesque during this time of year as the leaves on the trees change to various shades of orange and red. In Milford Sound, the native trees and plants are evergreen, meaning they won’t change colour or drop their leaves, so the lush forest will still remain. A Milford Sound Cruise in Autumn can also be very a peaceful experience due to the fewer visitors in the area.
Walks in Autumn
The great walks season is still open until the end of April, so if you want to hike the Milford, Kepler, or Routeburn tracks, then this can be a great time of year to do so. Many people prefer hiking in Autumn as the daylight hours are still long and there are far fewer people on the tracks.
Milford Sound In Winter
The winter months of June-August bring the coldest temperatures to Milford Sound, with highs wavering between 9.5°C and 11.2°C and lows dropping to 2.1-1.5°C, sometimes below 0°C at night. Rainfall decreases in winter to around 430mm while snow often blankets the mountains.
Activities and Sites
Winter in Milford Sound can be an incredible experience, with the surrounding snow and hushed quiet creating an almost ethereal atmosphere. The wildlife in the area is also not bothered by the colder weather, so you’ll still be able to see native birds along Milford Road and plenty of fur seals and occasionally dolphins on a Milford Sound Cruise. The colder temperatures also mean you’ll see fewer sandflies, so you’re less likely to get bitten.
Visiting Milford Sound in winter can take some extra planning, particularly when it comes to driving, as the roads can be dangerous in certain conditions and daylight hours are quite short. Tours and cruises also run half an hour later in winter than throughout the rest of the year. Self-driving to Milford Sound is generally not recommended in winter due to safety concerns. Frost, black ice, and snow are common on Milford Road in winter, so it’s only safe for experienced drivers. There are plenty of tour operators who can safely get you to Milford Sound. Tour drivers are highly experienced in winter driving, and they carry all the necessary equipment, such as snow chains.
There are guided tours from Queenstown to Milford Sound available throughout the year. However, these can be stressful and tiring, particularly in winter, as road conditions can cause delays and you’ll be travelling from 6am - 8pm, and in the dark at both ends of the trip. Additionally, avalanche risk is high on the Milford Road in Winter, leading to last-minute road closures. These sudden closures mean that if you’re touring from Queenstown, you may arrive in Te Anau only to find out that Milford Road has just closed.
A Tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound means that road closure updates are provided quickly, and Te Anau has a range of excellent things to do should a road closure occur. Some tour operators may also offer back-up plans for winter road closures. For example, Luxe Tours will divert you to a Doubtful Sound Tour at no extra cost if a Milford Sound Tour cannot go ahead.
Walks in Winter
As winter is the off-season for Great Walks, tracks are still open but facilities may be limited and there are no hut wardens. You may also need permission in some cases. Doing the full Great Walks in the off-season is also not recommended for inexperienced hikers, and it’s crucial that you check the DOC website frequently for safety information and updates if you choose to do a Great Walk.
There are many day walk options available in the area throughout the year, and they may be a good option in winter. For example, you can get a taste of the Kepler Track by taking the 1-3hr return walk around Lake Te Anau to Doc Bay and Brod Bay, viewing stunning lake and forest scenery.
Book in advance: Even though there are fewer visitors in winter, it’s still important to book tours and cruises in advance as most operators will limit numbers during winter months.
Pack warmly: Warm clothing is crucial in winter, and a waterproof layer is still needed even though there is less winter rainfall in winter.
Take extra caution when walking: Ice and frost are common on walking tracks during this time of year, so you’ll need to watch your step.
Year-round Milford Sound Packing Tips:
Pack layers for the fluctuating weather in Milford, and ensure you have a waterproof jacket.
Wear sturdy footwear to ensure safety and comfort on walking tracks.
Guard against New Zealand's intense UV radiation with a high-SPF sunscreen, even in winter.
Combat pesky sandflies with insect repellent, and consider taking a non-drowsy antihistamine for added protection.
Pack necessary medications, including options for travel sickness.
Don't forget your camera or smartphone to capture the breathtaking scenery.
Bring cash for quick snacks in Milford.
Bring your own snacks, especially if you have dietary restrictions.
One of the greatest things about Milford Sound is that it promises an incredible visit any time of year. Whether you’re surrounded by the new life of spring or snow-capped mountains of winter, as long as you’re prepared for warmth, cold, sun, or shine, you’re guaranteed an unforgettable nature experience in any season of the year.