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.

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!

Milford_Sound_120_11302004 - Stirling Falls
Stirling Falls

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.

The Milford Sound Cruise

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.

Milford_Sound_018_12242009 - Low clouds and rain are the norm in Milford Sound
Low clouds and rain are the norm in Milford Sound

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!

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.

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.

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.

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

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).

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_105_11302004 - One of the New Zealand fur seals hanging out near the base of Palisade Falls
One 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.

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.

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

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.


Stirling Falls resides in Fiordland National Park in the Fiordland region. 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_023_11302004 - Our 2004 cruise started with this view of Bowen Falls
Milford_Sound_031_11302004 - Playful dolphins were racing our cruise vessel during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_032_11302004 - A closer look at the dolphins during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_035_11302004 - View of the Milford Sound from deep within our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_037_11302004 - Looking across the Milford Sound towards Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_042_11302004 - Looking towards the cliffs beneath Mitre Peak during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_046_11302004 - Looking towards one of the more pronounced temporary waterfalls during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_060_11302004 - Looking back at a foursome of parallel waterfalls beneath Mitre Peak
Milford_Sound_061_11302004 - The thicker waterfall was Fairy Falls, which the cruise vessel didn't go beneath during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_071_11302004 - This stocky waterfall was the Bridal Veil Falls
Milford_Sound_073_11302004 - This was another series of temporary waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls seen during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_075_11302004 - Looking across the fiord towards the S-shaped Palisade Falls
Milford_Sound_085_11302004 - At the centre of this photo was the dimunitive Fiordland crested penguin, which we only saw during our 2004 cruise
Milford_Sound_086_11302004 - Here's another look at the Fiordland crested penguin, 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
Milford_Sound_098_11302004 - Looking across the fiord from its north side at the context of both Fairy Falls and Bridal Veil Falls
Milford_Sound_101_11302004 - Looking towards a New Zealand fur seal perched atop a large rock
Milford_Sound_105_11302004 - Closer look at the New Zealand fur seal
Milford_Sound_109_11302004 - A cruise vessel in front of us was just done going beneath Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_112_11302004 - Some people were preparing to get wet as our 2004 cruise vessel was approaching Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_129_11302004 - Full context of Harrison Cove as we were pulling away from it
Milford_Sound_013_12242009 - Looking back at Bowen Falls at the start of our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_026_12242009 - Looking back at Bowen Falls and some other ephemeral waterfalls towards the head of Milford Sound
Milford_Sound_048_12242009 - Looking through the rain towards Stirling Falls during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_069_12242009 - About to go beneath the thinner Fairy Falls during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_092_12242009 - Looking towards the lower sections of what I think is Palisade Falls during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_104_12242009 - This time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_023_jx_12242009 - This time there were many more fur seals atop the rock during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_117_12242009 - Approaching Stirling Falls looking much the same as it did in 2004
Milford_Sound_122_12242009 - This time there were many more punters standing outside aboard the vessel as we got beneath Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_137_12242009 - Pulling away from Stirling Falls
Milford_Sound_147_12242009 - More sudden veins of waterfalls after passing through a squall
Milford_Sound_148_12242009 - This was as much of the dolphins we would see during our 2009 cruise
Milford_Sound_162_12242009 - Looking back at a very foggy Harrison Cove towards the end of our 2009 cruise


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

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

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