Stirling Falls and the Milford Sound Waterfalls

Fiordland National Park / Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand

About Stirling Falls and the Milford Sound Waterfalls


Hiking Distance: tour
Suggested Time: 90 minutes to 3 hours

Date first visited: 2004-12-01
Date last visited: 2009-12-25

Waterfall Latitude: -44.60959
Waterfall Longitude: 167.87087

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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.

Milford_Sound_120_11302004 - Stirling Falls
Stirling Falls

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 ones 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.

The Milford Sound Cruise

Milford_Sound_110_11302004 - Closeup look at Stirling Falls in the Milford Sound
Closeup look at Stirling Falls in the Milford Sound

Julie and I managed to do this Milford Sound Cruise on multiple occasions – 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!

Milford_Sound_032_11302004 - A trio of dolphins swimming alongside our Milford Sound Cruise on our first visit back in early December 2004
A trio of dolphins swimming alongside our Milford Sound Cruise on our first visit back in early December 2004

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]).

Next, the ship passed beneath other cliffs harbouring several waterfalls including Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.

Milford_Sound_075_12242009 - Looking up at Fairy Falls and a companion waterfall as the cruise vessel went right beneath them
Looking up at Fairy Falls and a companion waterfall as the cruise vessel went right beneath them

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.

Milford_Sound_049_11302004 - Distant view across the fiord of Stirling Falls plunging beneath its hanging valley
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.

Milford_Sound_075_11302004 - Looking across the Milford Sound towards Palisade Falls with its telling S-shape
Looking across the Milford Sound towards Palisade Falls with its telling S-shape

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).

Next, 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.

Milford_Sound_104_12242009 - A group of the New Zealand fur seals hanging out near the base of Palisade Falls
A group of the New Zealand fur seals hanging out near the base of Palisade Falls

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.

Milford_Sound_122_12242009 - Our Milford Sound Cruise boat about to dip underneath Stirling Falls and get some people wet
Our Milford Sound Cruise boat about to dip underneath Stirling Falls and get some people wet

This yielded 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 (see the first photo on this page).

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.

Milford_Sound_125_11302004 - Looking into the Harrison Cove arm of the Milford Sound
Looking into the Harrison Cove arm of the Milford Sound

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.

Authorities

Stirling Falls resides in Fiordland National Park near Te Anau in the Fiordland region of South Island, New Zealand. It is administered under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Milford_Sound_013_12242009 - Looking back at Bowen Falls at the start of our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_026_12242009 - Looking back at Bowen Falls and some other ephemeral waterfalls towards the head of Milford Sound during our late December 2009 visit
Milford_Sound_048_12242009 - Looking through the rain towards Stirling Falls during our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_054_12242009 - Looking alongside some of the segments of Fairy Falls as seen during our late December 2009 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_059_12242009 - Looking across Milford Sound towards Stirling Falls from the opposite side of the fjord
Milford_Sound_062_12242009 - Portrait view towards some other waterfall tumbling into the Milford Sound, which I think might be the Palisade Falls
Milford_Sound_067_12242009 - Closer look at one of the segments that I believe to be part of the Fairy Falls on the Milford Sound as seen in late December 2009
Milford_Sound_069_12242009 - About to go beneath the thinner Fairy Falls during our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_083_12242009 - Looking back towards part of Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls while cruising the Milford Sound in late December 2009
Milford_Sound_092_12242009 - Looking towards the lower sections of what I think is Palisade Falls during our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_097_12242009 - Contextual look towards a group of New Zealand Fur Seals perched atop a flat boulder, which seemed to be a popular spot to hang out because this photo was taken in late December 2009, and in early December 2004, we saw fur seals perched atop this same rock!
Milford_Sound_023_jx_12242009 - This time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_117_12242009 - Approaching Stirling Falls in late December 2009 looking much the same as it did in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_137_12242009 - Pulling away from Stirling Falls during our late December 2009 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_147_12242009 - More sudden veins of waterfalls after passing through a squall during our late December 2009 visit
Milford_Sound_148_12242009 - This was as much of the dolphins we would see during our late December 2009 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_162_12242009 - Looking back at a very foggy (i.e. rainy) Harrison Cove towards the end of our late December 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_025_jx_12242009 - Looking up at the verticality of the walls of the mountains dropping steeply into the Milford Sound as seen from our cruise in late December 2009
Milford_Sound_177_12242009 - Looking back across Bowen Falls as we were about to conclude our Milford Sound Cruise in late December 2009
Milford_Sound_196_12242009 - Last look back at the valley where the Milford Sound Highway would be passing towards the Milford Sound Wharf as seen during the end of our cruise in late December 2009
Milford_Sound_023_11302004 - Our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise started with this view of Bowen Falls
Milford_Sound_031_11302004 - Playful dolphins were racing our cruise vessel during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_033_11302004 - Looking towards Mitre Peak starting to show itself from some low clouds clinging to the mountains of Milford Sound during our late December 2009 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_035_11302004 - View of the Milford Sound from deep within our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_037_11302004 - Looking across the Milford Sound towards Stirling Falls in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_042_11302004 - Looking towards the cliffs beneath Mitre Peak during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_045_11302004 - Looking towards Stirling Falls from across Milford Sound during our early December 2009 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_046_11302004 - Looking towards one of the more pronounced temporary waterfalls during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_060_11302004 - Looking back at a foursome of parallel waterfalls beneath Mitre Peak as seen in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_061_11302004 - The thicker waterfall was Fairy Falls, which the cruise vessel didn't go beneath during our early December 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_065_11302004 - Looking towards Bridal Veil Falls during our early December 2004 Milford Sound Cruise as we were passing before it
Milford_Sound_071_11302004 - Direct look at the stocky waterfall that was the Bridal Veil Falls in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_073_11302004 - Looking towards some of the upper tiers of the Bridal Veil Falls as seen during the Milford Sound Cruise in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_073_11302004 - This was another series of temporary waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls seen during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_078_11302004 - Context of Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls with another temporary waterfall as seen from across Milford Sound in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_085_11302004 - At the centre of this photo was the dimunitive Fiordland crested penguin, which we only saw during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_086_11302004 - Here's another look at the Fiordland crested penguin in early December 2004, which I wished I had a telephoto lens at the time
Milford_Sound_090_11302004 - Looking at a series of waterfalls along the northern wall of the Milford Sound during our early December 2004 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_095_11302004 - Looking at the context of the Milford Sound with the surrounding mountains closing in up ahead as seen from our early December 2004 visit
Milford_Sound_096_11302004 - Context of the base of Palisade Falls on the left and the contours of the northern side of Milford Sound flanking it as seen on our early December 2004 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_098_11302004 - Looking across the fiord from its north side at the context of both Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on our early December 2004 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_101_11302004 - Looking towards a New Zealand fur seal perched atop a large rock during our early December 2004 visit
Milford_Sound_105_11302004 - Closer look at the New Zealand fur seal during our early December 2004 visit to Milford Sound
Milford_Sound_109_11302004 - Context of a cruise vessel in front of us that was just done going beneath Stirling Falls during our early December 2004 Milford Sound cruise
Milford_Sound_112_11302004 - Some people were preparing to get wet as our early December 2004 cruise vessel was approaching Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_116_11302004 - Starting to pull away from Stirling Falls during our Milford Sound Cruise in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_122_11302004 - Looking across Milford Sound towards Mitre Peak and the waterfalls that were tumbling beneath it as seen during our early December 2004 visit
Milford_Sound_129_11302004 - Full context of Harrison Cove as we were pulling away from it during our early December 2004 Milford Sound Cruise
Milford_Sound_131_11302004 - Full context of Milford Sound and Harrison Cove as seen at the end of our cruise in early December 2004
Milford_Sound_132_11302004 - Nice contextual look at Bowen Falls during our Milford Sound Cruise in early December 2004

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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.

For more context, Te Anau was about 171km (2 hours drive) southwest of Queenstown and 153km (2 hours drive) north of Invercargill.

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

Trip Planning Resources


Nearby Accommodations




Tagged with: milford, fiordland, southland, south island, new zealand, waterfall, te anau, cruise, palisade, bridal veil, fairy, harrison, lion, elephant



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.