Exploring the Top-Rated Attractions of Fiordland National Park
Fiordland is a slice of nature at its best. This remote corner of New Zealand is the country's finest national park and covers 1.2 million hectares of wilderness, with mountains, vast swaths of untouched rainforest, and towering coastal fiords that were carved out by receding glaciers. UNESCO awarded the region World Heritage Status in 1986, recognising what they called its "superlative natural phenomena," and the dramatic landscapes of Fiordland are just as awe-inspiring today. This is an ecological wonderland of the highest order and it sits at the forefront of New Zealand's renowned conservation efforts with several rare and endangered endemic species calling the region home. Whether you set off on one of Fiordland's lauded multi-day treks or just come to cruise the magnificent scenery of Milford Sound, this stunning national park will surely be the highlight of your New Zealand journey.
The Big Four Sights
Even in a country packed to the brim with majestic landscapes, Milford Sound stands out. The sheer cliffs of the fiord rise up from the water in jagged rock triangles, lushly carpeted in bush towards the water's edge, with the supreme centerpiece of pyramid-shaped Mitre Peak - often brushed with snow on the summit - lording it up over the surrounding rock faces.
The first European to see this scene was Captain Stokes who sailed into the sound upon the survey ship HMS Acheron in 1851. Today, this pristine and startlingly beautiful coastline remains unchanged from when he first saw it and still has the power to wow all who visit. A cruise trip around the fiord is a must and can be booked at either Te Anau beforehand or at Milford Sound itself.
Location: 119 kilometers from Te Anau along the Milford Road.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Milford Sound
First named as "Doubtful Harbour" by Captain Cook in 1770, who sailed past deciding not to enter due to worries of whether it would be navigable, Doubtful Sound is the largest fiord in Fiordland. Unlike Milford Sound, which can be easily reached by road, Doubtful Sound can only be accessed by water. Cruise trips start from the village of Manapouri, journey across Lake Manapouri, and then go over the Wilmot Pass by bus and arrive at Deep Cove to begin touring the fiords. Due to this schedule, cruises are either day-long or overnight options.
Doubtful Sound is a major wildlife spotting destination with the tiny islands scattered across the mouth of the fiord home to Fiordland crested penguins and New Zealand fur seals. Bottlenose dolphins are often seen in the water here, and whales are sometimes spotted as well.
Location: Manapouri, 22 kilometers south from Te Anau, is the base for Doubtful Sound visits.
The mighty Lake Te Anau is rimmed by native forest with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Luxmore and Mount Murchison rising up in the background. Hugging the lake is the pretty settlement of Te Anau, often called the "walking capital of the world." This is Fiordland's main base, and the unhurried and relaxed charm of this tiny town (with a population of 2,000) beguiles all who make the long journey here.
The lake is the South Island's largest and the second biggest in New Zealand (only beaten to the number one spot by Lake Taupo), and plenty of cruises and kayaking tours explore the lake's gorgeous setting. Great day walks are also available in the vicinity for keen hikers who don't have time to tackle one of the longer treks. Just out of town is a family-friendly attraction, Te Anau Wildlife Centre, where you can meet the endangered Takahe bird, which was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948.
Location: Te Anau; 171 kilometers southwest from Queenstown.
Tiny Manapouri, on the shore of Lake Manapouri, lays claim to being the most westerly town in New Zealand. Although Manapouri is best known as the gateway to Doubtful Sound, the town itself is a nature-lover's paradise with a vast amount of boating, kayaking, fishing, and day-hiking opportunities to explore. Staying here for a few days to just revel in the unhurried charm and soak up the lake views is a must-do for travelers looking for a get-away-from-it-all experience. The Manapouri Track is an excellent way to explore Fiordland's knock-dead gorgeous native forest scenery with both day hikes and overnights possible. While film fans will want to spend some time here to visit the Waiau River and Kepler Mire, locations that were featured in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.
Location: 20 kilometers south of Te Anau
Fiordland's Famed "Great Walks"
Fiordland boasts a wide range of trekking and hiking opportunities, from a bundle of day hikes around Lake Te Anau and Manapouri to multi-day treks. The three most famous (known as New Zealand's "Great Walks") are the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks.
Trekking the phenomenally popular Milford Track is one of New Zealand's most awe-inspiring experiences and is called by many "the finest walk in the world." The four-day trek (covering 53.5 kilometers) retraces the footsteps of early explorers, heading out from near Te Anau, traversing the Mackinnon Pass, and then heading down to Sandfly Point on the remote Fiordland coast. Along the way are stunning vistas of mountains, ice fields, lakes, waterfalls, and finally Milford Sound itself. Booking in advance is essential as only 40 independent hikers are allowed to start the track each day.
The Routeburn Track offers incredible alpine views and is the favorite option out of New Zealand's "Great Walks" for anyone who wants a walking-at-the-top-of-the-world experience. The 32-kilometer trail takes two to four days and can be started from either the Fiordland trailhead (on the Milford Road) or the Glenorchy Road trailhead (near Queenstown). If choosing the latter, it's a magnificent way to enter Fiordland. Along the way, the trail passes through meadows and alpine pastures, past waterfalls and traversing swing bridges, over gorges, and up into the mountain highlands with extensive vistas across the Southern Alps. All treks on the Routeburn need to be booked in advance as does transport to and from the trailheads.
A showcase of the diverse scenery of Fiordland, the Kepler Track (60 kilometers) is a three-to-four-day loop within the Kepler Mountains between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. The trek heads through dense beech forests up to ridges with astounding views over the Te Anau Basin and mountain ranges behind, then down through podocarp forests to the secluded beach on Lake Manapouri's shore where it traverses wetlands. The Kepler is a favorite "Great Walk" for families as it's a less strenuous trek. Like all the other "Great Walks," book well in advance.
Tips and Tactics: How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit to Fiordland National Park
- When to go: November to April (late spring to early autumn) is the best season for a Fiordland visit as there is a better chance of sunshine. All visitors should be aware though that Fiordland is the wettest place in New Zealand and one of the wettest places in the world with Milford Sound recording an average annual rainfall of between 1,200 and 800 millimeters. The weather is extremely changeable, and even during the height of summer torrential rain often hits the region.
- Try to avoid: Peak season is February, and Te Anau township can be extremely busy during this month with accommodation solidly booked. Try to avoid this month or, book your accommodation well in advance.
- Where to stay: Te Anau is the main base for Fiordland National Park and has excellent accommodation facilities ranging from campsites and basic hostels for budget travelers to comfortable midrange-style hotels and self-catering holiday cottages as well as more luxurious lodges. Manapouri has less options.
- Don't forget to bring: Wet weather gear is a must, even in summer.
- Organising multi-day treks: All multi-day walking tracks are looked after by New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC), and most need to be booked in advance (for hut accommodation and sometimes transport) through DOC's website (www.doc.govt.nz). Be aware that the "Great Walks Season" runs from November to April and, as the weather is best for walking during this time, you need to plan as far in advance as possible to get a place. The walks are all open throughout the year, but due to adverse weather conditions from May to October (and the threat of flooding and avalanche), Fiordland's multi-day walks should only be attempted during this time by extremely experienced and well-prepared trekkers.
- By Car: The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau along State Highway 6 and State Highway 94 takes around 2½ hours and is extremely scenic.
- By Public Bus: Daily public bus services run between Queenstown and Te Anau.
- By Plane: During summer, three flights per week operate between Queenstown and Te Anau airport. The nearest big airports for flights to Auckland and Wellington are at Queenstown, Dunedin, and Invercargill.
- The main base for the park is the small town of Te Anau, 171 kilometers southwest of Queenstown. Te Anau is fully geared up for tourists with accommodation options for all budgets and plenty of cafés and restaurants.