New Zealand's most scenic flight experience - Queenstown to Milford Sound

If you've ever thought about putting a scenic flight in New Zealand on your bucket list, now is the time to do it! Many of the airline companies running scenic flights have got crazy good deals going on this winter, so if you are heading down south it's definitely worth considering. There are several companies who offer flights over NZ's amazing mountains departing from locations like Tekapo, Mt Cook, Franz Josef, Wanaka, Queenstown and Milford Sound. I've been fortunate enough to experience a few different flights and I thought I'd do a quick blog series highlighting these and giving you some eye candy to enjoy and maybe you'll be wowed enough to take the plunge yourself!

Queenstown Milford Flight Glenorchy Air

Queenstown to Milford Sound with Glenorchy Air

Immediately after taking off from Queenstown Airport we head for the hills, flying into the Arrowtown valley on a golden autumn morning. The first notable landmark I can make out is Coronet Peak with the road to the ski resort winding its way up the hill. From here we pass into unfamiliar territory in the hills behind Queenstown, mostly barren and brown with the occasional dusting of snow on top. Be sure to check out more Queenstown landscape photography online.

Coronet Peak Aerial View

Soon Lake Wakatipu comes into view. I'm always so impressed with how big this lake is with it's curving S-shape, driving from Glenorchy at the head of the lake to Kingston at the end of the lake takes a good hour and a half. We fly almost directly over Glenorchy, and I spot Pigeon and Pig islands further down the lake, with a classic Aotearoa-style long white cloud hugging the hills halfway up.

Glenorchy Aerial view over Lake Wakatipu

From here we fly into the Routeburn valley and I am amazed to be able to make out many of the landmark features from The Routeburn Track which I'd hiked just a few months earlier. It's here that we leave Otago behind, heading into the more majestic peaks of Fiordland, and suddenly the peaks seem to be right at eye level and covered in snow.

Fiordland Mountains Hanging Lake

We pass by so close to Mt Tutoko, Fiordland's tallest peak that I feel I could reach out and touch its glacier and it's here that I notice just how close we are to the coast. There are some amazing lakes nestled in among the peaks here and I wonder how many of these are unnamed, untouched and unreached by humans.

Mt Tutoko Glacier Fiordland

Flying down the coast for a short while makes an interesting change from the mountain views, but it's not long before we bank left and head in through the narrow Milford Sound (see more Milford Sound landscape photography), passing by Stirling Falls which doesn't appear to be flowing as full with all the fine and clear weather these past few days. Before long we've touched down and the first half of our journey is completed.

Milford Sound Flight Coast View
Stirling Falls Milford Sound

Usually this is a fly-cruise-fly scenic flight but as I'd been out into the fiord in the past and travelling with my photographer buddy, we were keen to capture something new, we decided to explore Lady Bowen Falls up close instead. We'd been told that for a small fee ($10) you can get transported the short distance across the inlet to visit the falls, and on such a glorious day why wouldn't you?!

Lady Bowen Falls Milford Sound

Lucky for us, the falls weren't raging. Often when standing at the Milford foreshore you can see the velocity of the falls is so extreme that water shoots out almost vertically, but today it's more subdued. They still make an impressive sight though and on our return journey, our skipper takes us further out into the sound to see them from a distance. We really can't believe our luck at the perfect conditions here today, more often than not on my other visits it's been a typically moody Milford day, so this is a rare treat.

Milford Sound Reflections
Glenorchy Air Milford Airport

All too soon, it's time to re-board for our return flight, and I'm excited to see what flight path we take on the way back. We climb steeply out of the sound and within minutes the runway below seems like like a toy version of itself. The landscape rises up to meet us once again with sheer cliff faces reaching up a thousand metres on each side and hidden valleys deep below.

Milford Airport Aerial View

My first sight of Sutherland Falls is a wow moment, I've been wanting to see this waterfall for a long time and the only way to really do it justice is from the air. It was long thought to be New Zealand's tallest waterfall at 580 metres tall, that's half a kilometre of vertical drop! And although the title of tallest waterfall now lives with Browne Falls in Doubtful Sound, there's no doubt it's an impressive sight with the sunlight catching rainbows glinting off the flow. To my surprise we head directly towards the falls and make a circle directly over Lake Quill, and it is here that my favourite view of the trip unfolds, capturing a unique shot of the many V-shaped valleys layered into the distance as far as the eye can see. I'm sad to leave this view behind but I'm immediately distracted when I see the highest point of the Milford Track at Mackinnon Pass to our right with its alpine tarns obvious on such a clear day.

Sutherland Falls Lake Quill Mackinnon Pass

From here, we fly west and the breathtaking views continue, out one side is Lake Te Anau stretching off into the distance almost as far as the eye can see. Out the other side we pass over Lake Erskine and I'm quite astonished by the incredible aqua colour of the lake. We get a brief glimpse up the Greenstone Valley with Lake McKellar in the distance before passing over the Ailsa mountain range to Lake Wakatipu.

Lake Te Anau & Lake Erskine

The lake is no less lovely second time round and this time we fly directly down the lake getting a close up view of Pigeon and Pig islands as we head back towards Queenstown. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is one of my favourite drives in New Zealand and it's so great to get a different perspective of it from the air.

Lake Wakatipu Pigeon Island Pig Island
Queenstown Glenorchy Scenic Drive

The roofs in Queenstown are glistening on such a sunny day as we fly by on our descent, and we get a peek down the southern end of the lake towards Kingston and the Kawerau river before touching back down at the airport.

Queenstown Frankton Aerial View
Lake Wakatipu Southern Arm Aerial

I really feel as if I've seen most of NZ's most incredible scenery in the space of two hours and I'm on a complete high after this flight which stays with me for many days. Even now looking back, I still can't quite believe we saw so many incredible views in one short flight, and if there is only ONE scenic flight you do in New Zealand, make it this one!

Flights with Glenorchy Air leave from Queenstown Airport daily.

Check out more Fiordland images in my Fiordland & Milford Sound Gallery.

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