The story of the Milford Road
Visiting Milford Sound is one for the bucket list! Getting there along the Milford Road is just as much a part of the experience as visiting Milford Sound itself! Along the road to Milford, there are many scenic landscapes, sights to see, and things to do. Think waterfalls, snow-covered mountains, and deep valleys – a trip to Milford simply isn’t complete without also driving the Milford Road.
Being able to explore Milford Road and all of the unique stops along the way is all thanks to the fact that there actually is road access to Milford Sound. Before 1954 the only way to get to Milford Sound was by boat, air, or foot – a rather difficult hike if you ask us.
But now because of Milford Road, everyone can visit Milford Sound. In fact, this 119 kilometre-long alpine road sees over 500,000 visitors every year!
Building a road through such challenging terrain with harsh and unpredictable climates wasn’t an easy task though. The entire construction of the Milford Road took 24 years to complete – starting in 1929 with 100 men armed with nothing more than shovels, wheelbarrows and handsaws.
In this blog, we’re going to reveal the story behind the Milford Road and how Milford Sound, a once difficult to reach destination, has become one of the most visited places by tourists in New Zealand!
Where it all began: the Homer Tunnel
Milford Sound is sectioned off from the outside world through mountains of hard rock. The Milford Road itself, although a difficult build, didn’t even compare to the mammoth task of getting through these mountains. The best way through was suggested by William H. Homer, and that was to build the Homer Tunnel.
The Homer Tunnel is a large 1.3 kilometre-long tunnel that goes directly through the middle of the granite rock that is known as the Homer Saddle. The Homer Saddle is a mountain that divides Milford Sound and Te Anau. Back in the day, climbing over the saddle was the only way to accomplish this route.
Today, the Homer Tunnel is a narrow, traffic-light operated tunnel that goes straight through the Homer Saddle. It sits at 930 metres above sea level and spans well over a kilometre. It’s built on a steep slant with a gradient of one in ten – meaning for every ten metres you drive you drop one metre in elevation.
Driving through the Homer Tunnel is an attraction in itself along the Milford Road. Not only is it a fun experience to drive straight through the middle of a mountain, but it is also an important part of the history of Milford Sound and the development of tourism in the area.
History of the Homer Tunnel
Building the Homer Tunnel wasn’t an easy task. In fact, it took over 19 years to complete! In 1935 construction began on the Homer Tunnel. It wasn’t a simple decision to make though and the New Zealand government almost didn’t proceed with the construction of Milford Road at this stage because of its huge expense. New Zealand was in the middle of the Great Depression at this time so it was decided that the Homer Tunnel would help create much-needed jobs.
The climate was challenging as was the work. Workers stayed in camps nearby and braved the harsh weather conditions that sometimes meant snow for eight months of the year! Avalanches were also a common concern and problem during the construction of both the Homer Tunnel and the Milford Road. In fact, a couple of people lost their lives during construction due to avalanches.
If the climate and avalanches weren’t enough already, WWII broke out in 1939. This caused a huge delay in the progress of the tunnel. Post-war, construction continued until finally the Homer Tunnel was complete and the first private car was able to drive through it. This marked the completion of Milford Road and Milford Sound was open for exploring.
Further developments have happened since then, in 1992 the Milford Road was sealed making the drive even smoother, and in 1954 one of the best avalanche monitoring programs in the world began. Today, the Milford Road is open almost every day (except during extreme snowstorms on the odd occasion) and all vehicle types from buses, to motorhomes to tiny cars can make this journey without any problems.
SH94: Getting to Milford by road
Getting to Milford Sound by road today is so simple! The road is well-maintained and easy to navigate. However, if you want to experience the drive along Milford Road for yourself, you’ll have to decide whether to go on a coach tour or drive yourself.
Taking a bus tour along the road to Milford is one of the most relaxing and convenient ways to get to Milford Sound. No need for maps or to pay attention to driving, just sit back, relax, and enjoy the views!
We have coach trips departing daily from both Queenstown and Te Anau to suit your needs. Our coaches are luxurious offering large windows and a glass roof so you don’t miss a thing. Our experienced drivers offer live commentary so you can learn everything there is to know about Milford Road and the beautiful stops we make along the way.
If a coach tour isn’t for you, then you also have the option to drive yourself. The road is well-maintained and accessible for all types of vehicles so you don’t need to worry. Just be sure to check for road closures in the winter months and read up on some winter driving tips in New Zealand. Also, give yourself lots of time to stop along the way at some of the most beautiful places along the Milford Road. And of course, don’t forget to book a Milford Sound cruise for when you arrive in Milford!
4 Interesting facts about Milford Road
1. It was impossible to access Milford Sound via road until 1954
1954 marks the year the Milford Road was completed. After many years of challenging and gruelling work, one of New Zealand’s most expensive construction projects was finally finished! The Milford Road has allowed easier access to Milford Sound and has encouraged business and tourism development.
2. Milford Sound tours operate all year round – in rain, snow or shine!
Milford Sound is one of those rare places that is amazing any time of the year in all weather conditions! In fact, many people say that Milford Sound is even more beautiful in the rain. So, don’t worry about the weather as you’ll be able to jump on one of our Milford tours any time during your holiday. On the odd occasion, there can be road closures affecting the Milford Road, so be sure to plan accordingly and keep an eye on road reports.
3. Avalanches are fairly common, but risks are managed well by the NZTA
As we mentioned, avalanches can be quite common along the Milford road and surrounding areas. But don’t worry,NZTA has an advanced avalanche monitoring programme in place to keep everyone safe.
This programme was introduced after Pop Andrew’s, a road worker, was tragically killed in an avalanche in the ’80s. This programme predicts avalanches and ensures that any risk of an avalanche is controlled. When there’s a potential risk, the road is either closed temporarily until the avalanche naturally clears or a controlled avalanche is executed by a team of professionals. To do this, they close the road temporarily, create the avalanche with explosives, and then clear the road of debris. This just means the avalanche is cleared in a safe, monitored environment, rather than happening on it’s own accord! Since the launch of this program, there have been no deaths due to avalanches along Milford Road!
4. No other highway in New Zealand climbs as fast to the same altitude as this one which at its highest point is 940 metres above sea level.
Driving along Milford Road takes you up a steep incline to almost 1,000 metres above sea level! The views from up there are nothing short of breathtaking! Then, the rest of the drive is taking you closer to sea level, ready to jump on a boat for your Milford Sound cruise!
The top 5 sights to see on the road to Milford
1. Eglinton Valley – The first stop on your journey to Milford should be Eglinton Valley! This huge valley opens up to views of the mountains, it serves as a sneak peek to what else is in store for you for the rest of the day!
2. Mirror Lakes – Mirror Lakes are exactly as the name suggests, lakes that offer a mirror reflection in their calm water. The reflection of the mountains in the background makes for the perfect picture.
3. Monkey Creek – Here you will be able to taste some of the purest water in the world directly from the stream!
4. Pop’s Lookout – Named after Pop Andrews, the road worker who died in an avalanche, this is a quick stop on the side of the road offering incredible views from above the Hollyford Valley.
5. The Chasm – The Chasm is a powerful waterfall that has carved a rather unique path for itself in the rock around it. This powerful waterfall is only a short five-minute walk from Milford Road making it an easy detour.
Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that the road to Milford is just as much a part of the experience as Milford itself! Tick Milford Sound off your bucket list! Book in for a full Milford experience with Southern Discoveries.
Our coaches leave from Queenstown and Te Anau 365 days a year! We have an amazing team of drivers who know the Milford road inside out – you’ll be full to the brim with incredible facts by the end of the trip.
YouTube – Avalanche control programme – measuring snowpack stability – July 2017See more latest news