Stirling Falls and the Milford Sound Waterfalls

Fiordland National Park / Milford Sound / Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area, Southland Region (South Island), New Zealand

Rating: 4     Difficulty: 1
Stirling Falls
Stirling Falls was the second of two permanent waterfalls that we encountered in the Milford Sound (with Bowen Falls being the first one). Since this waterfall was far deeper into the fiord (yes this was actually a fiord as opposed to a sound), I made this my waterfalling excuse to talk about the typical Milford Sound Cruise experience. Not only did the cruise get us several views of this 155m waterfall, but it also literally got us up-close and personal views of it from right beneath its drop! The cruise also let us see other waterfalls; most of which were temporary waterfalls yet some were so reliably visible thanks to the frequent rain here that they even had names given to them. Then, there was the awe inspiring landscape and the surprise wildlife sightings that further added to the mystique and aura of New Zealand's most famous fiord (by the way, the Maori name for this place was Piopiotahi after an extinct native bird).

Julie and I managed to do this Milford Sound Cruise twice - once in December 2004 and again in December 2009. Each time followed a particular route pattern, which I'm about to describe, yet they were also different in their own way. For starters, the weather on our first experience was during a day when a rain storm was just starting to clear after three straight days of it. The weather on our second experience was in the midst of such a rain storm, which shouldn't have been surprising considering this area averages near 7m (or 23ft) of rain per year!

Looking up at Fairy Falls and a companion waterfall as the cruise vessel went right beneath them Our typical route left the wharf and followed closer to the southern cliffs of Milford Sound. After getting a passing look at Bowen Falls, we then traversed a large area of the sound where on both of our visits here, we saw playful dolphins swimming around our cruise vessel. The cruise then passed beneath the steep cliffs at the bottom of Mitre Peak (so-named because it reminded someone of a bishop's mitre [i.e. that hat he might wear]) before passing beneath other cliffs harbouring several waterfalls including Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.

Fairy Falls was a plunging columnar waterfall that was just west of a succession of four parallel waterfalls. In our second cruise experience, our vessel actually went right beneath this waterfall to try to drench punters willing to stand outside on its front deck. On the other hand, Bridal Veil Falls was really a smaller but seemingly more permanent waterfall at the bottom of a convergence of what seemed to be a series of temporary waterfalls coming down like veins. These waterfalls were examples of what I believed to be named temporary waterfalls as I'd imagine the Milford Sound Cruises would frequently see these waterfalls reliably thanks to the frequent rains here despite their true ephemeral nature.

Distant view across the fiord of Stirling Falls plunging beneath its hanging valley As our cruise passed along the southern cliffs of Milford Sound, we managed to get distant views of waterfalls on the north side of the fiord. This included Stirling Falls, where it was clear that it was leaping off a wide U-shaped hanging valley between the Lion and Elephant Mountains. We also got a distant views of Palisade Falls, which like Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, was a temporary named waterfall that got named due to its reliability of being seen thanks to high rainfall. This particular waterfall was memorable in that it had a twistying S shape that could best be appreciated from this far away.

Ultimately, the cruise vessel reached the choppier waters of the Tasman Sea. This was about as far as the vessel would go before returning back into the fiord beneath the northern cliffs. As we made our way back into the calmer waters, we were able to see Fiordland crested penguins in our 2004 visit (we were too late to see them in our 2009 visit), then we passed by the base of Palisade Falls and other ephemeral waterfalls before getting a closer look at a colony of New Zealand fur seals, which Julie and I saw on both of our experiences. A jutting rock outcrop seemed to be especially popular for these fur seals where it was real easy to get wildlife photos of these residents contrasted against the bright rock.

After the fur seal colony, we then headed further east where we approached the base of Stirling Falls. On both of our cruise experiences, the vessel went right beneath the waterfall to allow willing punters at the front deck of the boat to really get drenched under its frigid waters. As the boat was pulling away from the falls, we also managed to get very majestic angled views of Stirling Falls beneath the forced perspective of the hanging valley beneath its neighbouring mountains yielding perhaps one of our most memorable photos of this waterfall that I recalled our graphic designer wanting to put a full-paged photo of it in our New Zealand Waterfalls book.

After Stirling Falls, the cruise vessel then briefly passed before Harrison Cove. At the tip of the cove, there was an underwater observatory, which was included on some of the cruise tours. However, on both times that we have done this visit, it wasn't included so we can't say or show anything more about what that was like. After leaving the mouth of Harrison Cove, the both then returned to the wharf where we got one last look at Bowen Falls before wrapping up this 2.5- to 3-hour cruise.

Directions: Stirling Falls was best experienced from the very common Milford Sound Cruise, which took off from the very end of the SH94 (Milford Sound Highway) about 118km north of Te Anau. Allow a little over 2 hours (depending on traffic) for this drive.




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PHOTO JOURNAL
This was the famous view of the Milford Sound from the car park near the end of the SH94, but whether you see it in this form or not largely depends on the weather (it rains a lot here)
Looking back at Stirling Falls spilling out of the hanging valley and onto the Milford Sound as our cruise vessel was pulling away from it (this was our graphic designer's favourite photo)
Looking back towards the head of Milford Sound with Palisade Falls on the left and Fairy Falls and Bowen Falls way off in the distance
On our 2009 visit, we returned to Milford Sound at the end of a rainy day when the weather was starting to clear up and show waterfalls coming down like veins along the Milford Sound Highway
Our 2004 cruise started with this view of Bowen FallsOur 2004 cruise started with this view of Bowen Falls

Playful dolphins were racing our cruise vessel during our 2004 cruisePlayful dolphins were racing our cruise vessel during our 2004 cruise

A closer look at the dolphins during our 2004 cruiseA closer look at the dolphins during our 2004 cruise

View of the Milford Sound from deep within our 2004 cruiseView of the Milford Sound from deep within our 2004 cruise

Looking across the Milford Sound towards Stirling FallsLooking across the Milford Sound towards Stirling Falls

Looking towards the cliffs beneath Mitre Peak during our 2004 cruiseLooking towards the cliffs beneath Mitre Peak during our 2004 cruise

Looking towards one of the more pronounced temporary waterfalls during our 2004 cruiseLooking towards one of the more pronounced temporary waterfalls during our 2004 cruise

Looking back at a foursome of parallel waterfalls beneath Mitre PeakLooking back at a foursome of parallel waterfalls beneath Mitre Peak

The thicker waterfall was Fairy Falls, which the cruise vessel didn't go beneath during our 2004 cruiseThe thicker waterfall was Fairy Falls, which the cruise vessel didn't go beneath during our 2004 cruise

This stocky waterfall was the Bridal Veil FallsThis stocky waterfall was the Bridal Veil Falls

This was another series of temporary waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls seen during our 2004 cruiseThis was another series of temporary waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls seen during our 2004 cruise

Looking across the fiord towards the S-shaped Palisade FallsLooking across the fiord towards the S-shaped Palisade Falls

At the centre of this photo was the dimunitive Fiordland crested penguin, which we only saw during our 2004 cruiseAt the centre of this photo was the dimunitive Fiordland crested penguin, which we only saw during our 2004 cruise

Here's another look at the Fiordland crested penguin, which I wished I had a telephoto lens at the timeHere's another look at the Fiordland crested penguin, which I wished I had a telephoto lens at the time

Looking at a series of waterfalls along the northern wall of the Milford SoundLooking at a series of waterfalls along the northern wall of the Milford Sound

Looking across the fiord from its north side at the context of both Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil FallsLooking across the fiord from its north side at the context of both Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls

Looking towards a New Zealand fur seal perched atop a large rockLooking towards a New Zealand fur seal perched atop a large rock

Closer look at the New Zealand fur sealCloser look at the New Zealand fur seal

A cruise vessel in front of us was just done going beneath Stirling FallsA cruise vessel in front of us was just done going beneath Stirling Falls

Some people were preparing to get wet as our 2004 cruise vessel was approaching Stirling FallsSome people were preparing to get wet as our 2004 cruise vessel was approaching Stirling Falls

Looking into Harrison Cove towards the end of our 2004 cruiseLooking towards Harrison Cove towards the end of our 2004 cruise

Full context of Harrison Cove as we were pulling away from itFull context of Harrison Cove as we were pulling away from it

Looking back at Bowen Falls at the start of our 2009 cruiseLooking back at Bowen Falls at the start of our 2009 cruise

It was a lot rainier on our 2009 cruise as opposed to 2004 cruiseIt was a lot rainier on our 2009 cruise as opposed to our 2004 cruise

Looking back at Bowen Falls and some other ephemeral waterfalls towards the head of Milford SoundLooking back at Bowen Falls and some other ephemeral waterfalls towards the head of Milford Sound

Looking through the rain towards Stirling Falls during our 2009 cruiseLooking through the rain towards Stirling Falls during our 2009 cruise

About to go beneath the thinner Fairy Falls during our 2009 cruiseAbout to go beneath the thinner Fairy Falls during our 2009 cruise

Looking towards the lower sections of what I think is Palisade Falls during our 2009 cruiseLooking towards the lower sections of what I think is Palisade Falls during our 2009 cruise

This time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our 2009 cruiseThis time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our 2009 cruise

This time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our 2009 cruiseA more contextual look at the group of fur seals atop the rock this time

Approaching Stirling Falls looking much the same as it did in 2004Approaching Stirling Falls looking much the same as it did in 2004

This time there were many more punters standing outside aboard the vessel as we got beneath Stirling FallsThis time there were many more punters standing outside aboard the vessel as we got beneath Stirling Falls

Pulling away from Stirling FallsPulling away from the falls

More sudden veins of waterfalls after passing through a squallMore sudden veins of waterfalls after passing through a squall

This was as much of the dolphins we would see during our 2009 cruiseThis was as much of the dolphins we would see during our 2009 cruise

Looking back at a very foggy Harrison Cove towards the end of our 2009 cruiseLooking back at a very foggy Harrison Cove towards the end of our 2009 cruise


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VIDEOS OF THE FALLS

Bottom up sweep from the boat to the falls as we approach it


Getting closer to the falls


Real close to the falls now


Right in front of the falls amidst the swirling mist and wind


Pulling away from the falls


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MAP OF THE FALLS

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TRIP REPORTS
For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.




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TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES



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Bonked Stirling Falls Not rated yet
Took a girl I met from Queenstown, dutchy number 1 on a sea kayak down Milford Sound. Steamed full pelt into the base of the waterfall to hit the rocks …

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