Around the world, Fiordland is most widely recognized for its astounding collection of fiords. Fiordland National Park is 1.2 million hectares of glaciers, alpine ranges, lakes, fjords, and rainforest environments.
Gain an understanding and appreciation of the vastness of this immaculate environment by land, sea, and air. Or, if all else fails, check Fiordland out on the big screen in the film Ata Whenua – Shadowland.
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An introduction to Fiordland National Park
Around the world, Fiordland is most widely recognized for its astounding collection of fiords.
Fiordland National Park is 1.2 million hectares of glaciers, alpine ranges, lakes, fjords, waterfalls, and rainforest environments. The terrain is steep, wet, and isolating.
Approximately 20,000 years ago glaciers filled the region and, when the ice melted, the sea came in and filled the glacier-carved valleys creating fjords.
A fiord is simply a geological term for an ice-carved landscape that has been inundated by water.
In Fiordland, there are fourteen long, narrow inlets of ocean (also called sounds) that have been gouged out by glaciers. Because the fiords were carved out of the mountains they have steep sides and minimal water exchange with the sea. This adds to their isolating beauty.
Fiordland National Park was individually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. In 1990, together with three other national parks to the north, it was recognized as part of the UNESCO Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area.
This recognition was on the basis of exceptional and outstanding natural characteristics. We find examples of tectonic, climatic, and glacial processes. The flora and fauna is also the best intact representation of the ancient Gondwana supercontinent with examples of plant succession after glaciation.
Viewing the beauty of Fiordland National Park
Given that Milford Sound, George Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Dusky Sound are the only fjords accessible via tracks or routes, we have limited options for marked methods of viewing the exceptional landscapes within Fiordland National Park. And for this we are grateful. Preservation and conservation depends on careful management of these natural resources.
Fiordland National Park by Land
Fiordland is a world renown hiking and tramping destination. Three of New Zealand’s Great Walks are located, or partially located, within Fiordland National Park. With over 500 km of tracks and more than 60 backcountry huts, it’s no surprise that Fiordland is a trampers’ paradise.
However, it is also possible to experience some of the beauty of Fiordland via car or coach. Awesome viewpoints and short walks are located along driving routes as well.
Milford Sound Road
Milford Sound is the most popular and most accessible destination within Fiordland National Park. It is the only fjord accessible by road and is famous for its cascading waterfalls on the steep, glacially-carved cliffs that surround the 16km of the sound out to the Tasman Sea.
Milford Sound is located at the end of Milford Road (State Highway 94): an alpine drive of two hours without stopping from Te Anau. However, you’ll want to stop at the viewing points and short walks along the route.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Milford Sound Road self-drive here.
Often packages combine a scenic coach ride with a scenic cruise to allow you to enjoy both the stunning Milford Road and its stops, as well as the scenery from the water.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Real Journeys Milford Scenic Boat Cruise here.
The most popular tramp in Fiordland National Park is the Miford Track. The Milford Track is also New Zealand’s most popular Great Walk and has also been labelled as the finest walk in the world!
NOTE: Although the track is only accessible by boat transfer, we’ll still consider this to be a land-based activity because once you step off the boat, you’ll stay on land until the finish.
The Milford Track covers 53.5 km over four days and can be undertaken as a guided walk or independently. Bookings are required during the Great Walk season (October – April/May) and it sells out extremely quickly.
A great amount of information can be found online about the popular Milford Track.
The Routeburn Track covers terrain in both Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park and is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
The track is 33 km one-way and is typically walked over three to four days. It’s often said that the scenery is the one of the most varied of the Great Walks as it includes mountains, valleys, waterfalls, meadows, tarns, and alpine gardens.
Bookings are required during the Great Walk season (October – April/May) and it sells out quickly.
Information about the Routeburn Track can be found online here.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Routeburn Track tramp here.
The Kepler Track is a 60 km loop track that begins on the shores of Lake Te Anau and Manapouri before climbing to tussock-covered ridgelines for spectacular alpine views.
This track is typically walked over three to four days.
Information about the Kepler Track can be found online here.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Fiordland Helicopters: Dusky & Doubtful Sound Heli Experience, where we viewed the Kepler Track from above, here. Those views made us want to get on the Kepler Track ASAP!
The Dusky Track links Lake Hauroko with Lake Manapouri. This challenging 84 km track is typically walked over eight to ten days. A two-day detour to Supper Cove in Dusky Sound is possible as well.
NOTE: Similar to the Milford Track, the Dusky Track start and finish points are accessible by boat transfer.
The terrain includes three major valley systems and two mountain ranges! Not for the faint-hearted.
Information about the Dusky Track can be found online here.
TIP: For an even more adventurous and challenging route, check out the George Sound Route. Information here.
The Hollyford Track is a mountain-to-sea walk. It begins at Hollyford Road (off the Milford Road) and finishes at Martins Bay.
The track is the only major track in Fiordland at low altitude which allows the walk to be accessible in all seasons.
The 56 km tramp is typically walked over four to five days and can be undertaken as a guided walk or independently.
Information about the Hollyford Track can be found online here.
Fiordland National Park by Sea
With Fiordland most widely recognized for its fjords, it’s no surprise that many adventures within Fiordland National Park involve the sea and a boat.
FUN FACT: Milford Sound is classified as a Marine Reserve to protect the sea-life within Fiordland.
The waters of Fiordland are home to mammals and birds such as bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, and Fiordland crested penguins.
FUN FACT: The Fiordland crested penguin (tawaki) is one of three penguin species on the mainland of New Zealand and one of the rarest penguin species in the world. It is estimated that there are 2,500 – 3,000 nesting pairs left in the world with 180 pairs located within Milford Sound. The best time of year to view the Fiordland crested penguins is during breeding season from July to November or during moulting season from mid-January to early March.
A scenic cruise is by far the most popular water-based experience within Fiordland National Park. There are a number of operators of day and overnight cruises catering to all types of tourists.
Many people opt to cruise Milford Sound but we highly recommend a cruise on Doubtful Sound as well.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Real Journeys Milford Sound Scenic Boat Cruise here.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Real Journeys Doubtful Sound Scenic Boat Cruise here.
For a more up-close experience, It is also possible to kayak in Milford and Doubtful Sounds.
We planned to kayak as part of the GoOrange Doubtful Sound Overnight Kayak and Camp adventure but unfortunately the activity was cancelled due to weather conditions.
This is something we’d love to do on our next trip to Fiordland.
A Southern Discoveries Milford Sound boat cruise includes a stop at the Southern Discoveries Underwater Observatory to view the unique sea life found in Milford Sound. Here you’ll observe black coral, starfish, sponges, and more.
FUN FACT: In Milford Sound, the top layer of dark freshwater doesn’t mix with the saltwater below. As a result, light is blocked and Milford Sound is home to species usually found only at great depths. This phenomenon is called deep-water emergence.
Can you believe it is possible to dive in Milford Sound? I can only imagine the unique experience this perspective offers.
I’d love to hear from folks that have done this!
Fiordland National Park by Air
With 1.2 million hectares of glaciers, alpine ranges, lakes, fjords, waterfalls, and rainforest environments, it is a challenge to explore Fiordland National Park by just land or sea. The steep, varied terrain lends itself to be viewed from above.
Scenic flights above Fiordland National Park are a unique way to take in the scale and uniqueness of the landscape.
It is possible to fly in fixed-wing planes, floatplanes, or helicopters. We opted for a helicopter scenic flight and highly recommend this experience if it can be worked into your budget. This was a huge splurge for us but we couldn’t be more happy with how we chose to spend our United States COVID stimulus checks. Thank you New Zealand for keeping us safe, sane, and wishing we were Kiwis more than ever.
TIP: See photos and read more about our Fiordland Helicopters: Dusky & Doubtful Sound Heli Experience here.
Fiordland National Park by Screen
The Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau has daily screenings of the ~30 minute film Ata Whenua – Shadowland. This film is the closest you can get to the very amazing experience of viewing Fiordland from a helicopter without taking off. Highly recommend it!
New Zealand Planning and Resources
If you’re planning for your vacation or holiday in New Zealand, more resources – including our trip map with points of interest and camping spots – can be found in our New Zealand planning and resources post.
Our travelogue and the details of our day-to-day activities can be found in our New Zealand itinerary and travelogue post.
travel dates: February 15, 2020 & July 14 – 19, 2020 & September 2 – 3, 2020
last updated: 01-Sep-2021