When we started planning out the details of our New Zealand South Island road trip, I was especially excited to finally get to visit Fiordland National Park.
Little did I know just how incredibly beautiful this relatively remote corner in New Zealand’s South Island truly is.
You’d be forgiven for wanting to stop at every turn to take photos or to simply just soak up the breathtaking views!
Known primarily for Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park actually encompasses an incredible amount of New Zealand’s untouched natural beauty. From ancient ice carved fjords to imposing snow-capped mountain peaks, stunning lakes and majestic waterfalls, Fiordland has an incredible list of things to do and places to visit.
Even if all you manage to do in Fiordland is to drive the Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound, you would still feel like you’ve seen one of the most breathtaking places in the world. It is the most picturesque drive we did in all of our South Island travels.
Much “oooh”-ing and “aaah”-ing went on, I can tell you that!
To help you plan your own trip to New Zealand’s incredible Fiordland National Park, I’ve put together this handy travel guide with all the details on what to do, where to stay, how to get there and much more!
PS – This post may contain affiliate links: That means that if you purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Of course, I only recommend products/services that I have used and believe are great! Please read my disclosure for more info.
Where is Fiordland National Park?
Fiordland National Park is located in the very south-western corner of New Zealand’s South Island, and is the largest National Park in the country.
Aptly named after the 14 fjords on this particular stretch of coastline, it covers over 1.2 million hectares in total!! But, large parts of the park are actually not accessible at all, due to the steep terrain and dense bush.
Fiordland as a “region” is not always clearly defined. It comprises about a third of Southland, with the picturesque lakeside towns of Te Anau and Manapouri lying on the edge of the National Park. These towns are considered to be the gateways to Fiordland National Park, and will make a great base for your Fiordland National Park activities. (More on where to stay below!)
How To Get To Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound (and the road there!) is really the only part of Fiordland National Park that you can easily visit independently. And, there is only one way in and out of Milford Sound by car! So… Pretty easy right?
The Milford Road (State Highway 94) from Te Anau to Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular road trips you’ll ever take!
The total drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is about 120km, taking around 1.5 – 2 hours if done in one stretch. However, you’ll undoubtedly want to stop often (more on this below) so make sure you give yourself all day!
If you’re not keen on self-driving in Fiordland National Park, there are plenty of tour companies that will take you by bus or plane to Milford Sound as well.
But, if you’re feeling ok to drive in New Zealand, I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s definitely the best way to visit this incredible country.
Check Out My Complete Guide To Renting A Car In New Zealand!
Driving Distances To Fiordland National Park
Let’s take a quick look at some key distances so that you can make an informed decision about whether you’re happy to drive to Fiordland National Park independently by car.
- Queenstown to Te Anau: 171km (about 2 hours)
- Invercargill to Te Anau: 152km (about 2 hours)
- Christchurch to Te Anau: 652km (about 8 hours) – I’d recommend breaking your journey up into at least two days! Ideally, explore the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins while you’re at it.
- Manapouri to Te Anau: 20km (about 20mins)
- Te Anau to Milford Sound: 119km (about 2 hours)
Insider Tip: The AA has a really useful travel calculator to help you plan your drives around New Zealand.
Top Things To Do In Fiordland National Park
What you’ll end up doing during your time in Fiordland National Park may depend in large part on how much time you have to spend here. We had two full days, but you could easily spend much longer if you want to incorporate most of the top things to do in Fiordland listed below.
1. Drive The Milford Road
As I mentioned, if you’re going to visit Milford Sound independently, you will have to drive the Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Arguably, this will be the highlight of your time in Fiordland! Along the way, you’ll find plenty of stunning spots to stop off, so make sure you give yourself enough time.
While this drive can be done in about 2 hours (one way), I’d suggest allowing for a full day if you visit on a day trip from Te Anau.
My suggestion is that you drive straight to Milford Sound in the morning, and then include these stops on your return journey. Not only will this allow you to get to Milford Sound early for any tours you’re planning to join, but most of these stops will be on your left as you drive back to Te Anau, making it super easy to pull in!
The Best Stops On The Milford Road
Eglington Valley – Some will say this is just a field. And I suppose in reality, it is just a field. But, the expansive flat of Eglington Valley covered in golden tussock is rather eye catching. Plus, for any Lord Of The Rings fans out there – parts of Eglington Valley were used for the Misty Mountains in The Fellowship Of The Ring.
Mirror Lake – This stop may not quite blow you away, but it’s a good spot to stretch your legs. The small tarns (mountain lakes) along the short 5 minute boardwalk provide some decent reflective views of the surrounding mountains.
Lake Gunn Nature Walk (At the Cascade Creek DOC campsite) – This is an easy 45 min loop walk through beech forest that is suitable for everyone! And, if reflections are your jam, there are a few good opportunities to pop off the main track and down to the stony shores of Lake Gunn. On a clear day, the reflection game here is incredible!
Pop’s View – An awesome roadside stop with a birds-eye-view of the Hollyford Valley, with a possibility of spotting some cheeky Kea!
Christie Falls – A pretty little roadside waterfall by a single lane bridge. There’s a small parking area just south of the bridge on the left-hand side of the road as you’re driving back to Te Anau.
Homer Tunnel – It might seem strange to add a tunnel to this list of things to see in Fiordland National Park, but this 1.2km tunnel is epic!! It was completed in 1954, prior to which there wasn’t actually any road access to Milford Sound. It pierces through the Darran mountain range at a bit of an angle. When we drove it, there was a one-way system in place so be prepared to wait your turn at the lights. As you come out the other end as you’re heading to Milford Sound, you’ll continue down State Highway 94 as it snakes its way down the mountain side, another pretty epic experience!
2. Fiordland National Park Hiking
Although the above list of spots along the Milford Sound road are great little road side stop-offs, there’s nothing quite like spending time exploring the park in more detail. And, what better way to do that than on a stunning hike?
Home to three of New Zealand’s ten “Great Walks,” Fiordland is truly a hiking paradise! But, even if you’re not looking to do any multi-day hikes, there are some fantastic shorter walks to do in Fiordland National Park as well.
Quick & Easy Fiordland Walks
The shortest walks in Fiordland National Park include the Milford Sound Foreshore loop and the Lake Gunn Nature Trail.
The Milford Sound Foreshore is a super easy 400 meter loop walk suitable for absolutely everyone! Best of all, it offers fabulous views of the famous Mitre Peak. So make sure you bring your camera for this one!
As mentioned above, the Lake Gunn Nature Trail starts from the Cascade DOC campground. This is a lovely and easy 45 minute loop walk through beech forest with the opportunity for some spectacular lake reflections along the shore.
Fiordland Day Hikes
Our favourite day hike option in Fiordland is the 3 or so hour return hike to Lake Marian. The incredible colour of the alpine lake surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks will honestly take your breath away!
Read More About The Best South Island Day Hikes for additional inspiration!
The 3 hour return hike to Key Summit is another popular day hike. It initially follows the (multi-day) Routeburn Track, but turns off after about an hour for the 20 minute climb to Key Summit offering stunning panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
Multi-Day Hikes In Fiordland
If you’re up for it, there is an abundance of longer, multi-day hikes in Fiordland too. In fact, three of New Zealand’s ten “Great Walks” are located within the Fiordland National Park;
- Milford Track – 53.5km; 4 days / 3 nights
- Routeburn Track – 33 km; 3 days / 2 nights
- Kepler Track – 60km; 4 days / 3 nights
Another popular option is the Hollyford Track, a 56km 4-5 day hike.
3. Go On A Fiordland Cruise
Fiordland National Park is essentially synonymous with Milford Sound. When you think of Fiordland you think Fjords, right? So, there really is no better way to see Fiordland National Park than joining a cruise along one or more of these incredible fjords!
Most likely, you’ll be choosing between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound as these are the two easiest fjords to visit.
Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound has a ridiculous amount of companies all vying for your custom. They all offer more or less the same 2 hour tour, so it can be hard to choose.
However, after a bit of research, we went with Mitre Peak Cruises and honestly couldn’t have been happier with them. They have some of the smallest boats (meaning you can get closer to the epic waterfalls), and strictly limit the number of passengers so it never feels crowded. The two hours felt just right, and allowed us to explore the length of the 16km fiord at a relaxed pace.
An added treat (although, of course, not guaranteed) was the company of a playful pod of dolphins from the mouth of the fjord all the way back into Milford Sound!
The staff on board the Mitre Peak cruise offered lots of great information along the way, and the small boat meant we were able to get up really close to the incredible waterfalls like the mighty Stirling Falls. Plus, there’s complimentary tea and coffee to boot!
I really can’t recommend Mitre Peak Cruises enough if you’re looking to join a trip up Milford Sound – book your spot below;
Doubtful Sound Cruise
For Doubtful Sound, there are fewer options making it much easier to choose. Your decision here really centres around whether or not to do an overnight cruise.
While it is possible to do Doubtful Sound on a day trip from Manapouri, it will be a very long day. If there is any way at all that you can manage it, I really, really recommend that you do the overnight cruise! Just imagine watching the sun rise over the quiet fjord, with no one else in sight.
Our overnight cruise with Real Journeys was absolutely fantastic! I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
But, Which Is Better? Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
Right, so now you’ll no doubt be wondering which fjord is “better”… Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
Which fjord do you choose?
Without being too predictable, my answer to this question is “it depends”…
They both offer very different experiences. If you have the time, I highly encourage you to visit both Milford and Doubtful Sound during your time in Fiordland National Park.
Here’s a quick summary of your two Fiordland cruise options;
Milford Sound is a great option if you don’t have a lot of time. It is easy to visit on a day trip, and offers a really spectacular condensed cruising experience.
The fiord here is narrower and there is only one “arm,” so a two hour boat cruise will allow you to see the whole thing in a good amount of detail. Plus, of course, you have the added bonus of the scenic drive along the Milford Road (see above).
Doubtful Sound can really only be seen properly on an overnight cruise (although it is possible to do it in a day as well). It will be a much more intimate experience allowing you to travel through a less touristy and unspoiled part of Fiordland National Park.
What we really enjoyed about our overnight cruise with Real Journeys was the cruising experience itself onboard the beautiful Fiordland Navigator with its old world charm. This overnight cruise really has it all – An in depth tour through Doubtful Sound and its various “arms,” knowledgeable staff with a dedicated wilderness guide, incredible food (3 course dinner!), a warm atmosphere and comfortable beds.
4. Kayak Milford Sound
A kayak is a fantastic way to experience the beauty that is Milford Sound up close and personal. With a guided kayak trip, you’ll spend 4 or 5 hours paddling along the walls of the imposing mountains that plunge into the fjord here. The slower pace means that you’ll really be able to soak up the amazing sights all around you.
5. See Fiordland National Park From The Sky
If your budget extends to this, doing a fly and cruise combo is quite a special way to see Fiordland National Park from a completely different perspective. This is also a fantastic option if you are shorter on time and don’t have the luxury of driving yourself to Milford Sound.
With Milford Sound Scenic Flights, you’ll fly return from Queenstown to Milford Sound (about 40 minutes each way). You’ll follow a different flight path on each section so you’ll get to see an extensive amount of Fiordland National Park from the sky. Once you land in Milford Sound, you’ll still get to join a 2 hour cruise on the fjord with Mitre Peak Cruises, so this really is the best of both worlds!
Where To Stay In Fiordland National Park
Unless you’re camping, Te Anau and Manapouri will likely be your base for exploring Fiordland National Park, especially for your visit to Milford and Doubtful Sounds. There is only one option in Milford Sound itself, and as such, it is a more costly option. Still, if you want to experience Milford Sound without the crowds, staying overnight at Milford Sound Lodge gives you the option to be on the first cruise and have the place almost entirely to yourself.
Having said that, camping is a really great way to see all of what Fiordland National Park has to offer in a cost-effective way. But, camping in the national park is basic. The main DOC site is at Cascade Creek where there are long-drop toilets and an open cooking shelter. There is no power or running water, and minimal phone reception (as is the case all along the Milford Sound road, not least of all in Milford Sound itself!)
You can camp at pretty Cascade Creek in a tent or in a camper, without the need to be self contained. There’s plenty of space, with 120 sites in all, costing $15 per adult per night.
If you’re staying in Te Anau or Manapouri, you will want to book well ahead during the peak months of December through February. There are plenty of options to choose from though, both budget and high-end.
And, as mentioned above, I also absolutely recommend the overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, which will include one night on-board the charming Fiordland Navigator. From only $470 per person in a quad share room (which includes a 3-course dinner and cooked breakfast), it’s a pretty awesome deal!
The Best Time To Visit Fiordland National Park
You may have heard that Fiordland is one of the wettest places on earth. It rains here half the days of the year… So, no matter what time of year you visit, be prepared for rain!
The good news is that the rain causes the mountainsides to overflow with an incredible amount of small temporary waterfalls. As a result, visiting Milford Sound in the rain could well be one of the most unforgettable times to visit! In fact, we had people tell us that while the spectacularly sunny day we had was amazing, their previous visit just after heavy rainfall was truly mesmerising because thousands of little waterfalls appear all along the Milford Road and on the mountains into the Fjord itself.
No matter what time of year you decide to visit though, I would recommend heading for Milford Sound first thing in the morning to try and beat some of the day-visitor crowds. Also, the experience of seeing the mountains light up as the sun rises is a truly unforgettable experience.
Bonus Tips For Visiting Fiordland National Park
- Phone reception is sketchy at best in all of Fiordland National Park, and there is none at all in Milford Sound. Do what you need to do before leaving Te Anau!
- Allow for delays at the Homer Tunnel. When we visited there was a traffic light system with a wait of up to 20 minutes!
- Parking in Milford Sound can be expensive. -The main car park in the ‘town’ itself charges a flat fee of $20 for 5 hours. But, I have good news for you! There is completely free parking just outside of town, a lovely 20 minute walk away. There is an established path that runs parallel with the road, which is safe and flat
- Stock up on supplies and fill up on petrol before leaving Te Anau. There are no shops or services along the Milford Road, nor in Milford Sound itself
- If you plan on camping, make sure you bring cash. Payment at the DOC campsites is cash only
- For the multi-day hikes, make sure you book your hut accommodation well in advance, especially at peak times
- Sandflies are rife in Fiordland!! Pack strong insect repellant and have some long sleeved tops and long trousers to wear in the evenings
- For amazing discounts on some of the above mentioned tours and activities, BookMe and GetYour Guide offer good deals
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