Fiordland National Park: The Complete Guide

pointed snow-capped mountains reflected in water with blue and pink sky

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Fiordland National Park

Southland 9679, New Zealand

Fiordland National Park, in the southwestern corner of New Zealand's South Island, is the largest national park in the country. It's also the wettest and the most remote, but travelers who make the effort to reach it are well rewarded, whatever the weather. Many travelers visit Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound on day trips from Queenstown or Te Anau, while those who want a longer adventure embark on the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, or other multi-day hikes. Here's everything you need to know about visiting the Fiordland National Park.

Things to Do

The ice-carved fiords of Fiordland National Park cover 2.9 million acres on the west coast of the Southland region. A national park since 1952, it is part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage Site of Te Wahipounamu. The enormous rainfall in the area—around 22 feet of it per year!—means that waterfalls, lakes, and mist-enshrouded mountains are all part of the Fiordland experience.

Many visitors to the national park visit the popular Milford Sound, where they cruise through the fjord, get up close to the waterfalls that cascade off the steep mountains, and admire the views of famous Mitre Peak. An alternative (or additional) day trip is to Doubtful Sound; to reach it, you must take a boat across Lake Manapouri, and then a bus over a mountain pass.

The natural base for trips into Fiordland National Park is the small town of Te Anau, on the eastern shores of the lake of the same name. Te Anau itself is not within the national park boundaries, but it's within easy reach of many activities that are. From Te Anau, travelers can also check out glow worm caves, a bird sanctuary, or go jet boating.

Waterfall on Milford Track.
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Best Hikes & Trails

Aside from day trips to the various sounds and lakes, many visitors to the Fiordland National Park come for the hiking (or tramping, as New Zealanders call it). There are three major trails in Fiordland that are very popular with locals and foreign visitors, as well as a number of shorter trails. Because of the high rainfall here, hikers should be prepared to get wet and come with appropriate gear for the weather.

  • Milford Track: The Milford Track is often called the best hike in the world, let alone in New Zealand. One of the Department of Conservation (DOC's) Great Walks, this 33-mile, four-day hike takes trekkers past waterfalls, lakes, mountain views, and the dramatic Pompolona Icefield. The accommodation and trails are in good condition, but because of the hike's popularity, it's important to book huts well in advance (note that camping isn't allowed). The best time to hike the Milford Track is between October and April; any other time of year, it should only be attempted by experienced winter trekkers.
  • Routeburn Track: The 20-mile Routeburn Track is also a DOC Great Walk, and will take you two to four days to traverse. Highlights include alpine gardens, meadows with wildflowers, and great mountain and lake views. Parts of the trail will take you through Mt. Aspiring National Park, which is north of Fiordland National Park. Unlike the Milford Track, camping in tents is allowed. As it's a one-way trail, you will need to arrange for a pickup or transfer at the end of the trek.
  • Kepler Track: Another Great Walk, the 37-mile Kepler Track is a loop that you can expect to complete in three to four days. The trail follows the shores of Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, passing through forests before rising to alpine tussock. While it's classified as an easy-to-intermediate hike in the summer season (October to April), snow and ice make it much more challenging the rest of the year; it should only be attempted in the winter by hikers with strong winter mountain experience.
  • Hollyford Track: The 34-mile Hollyford Track is a good option for advanced hikers looking for a lower-altitude trek that can be done year-round. Because the Hollyford Track doesn't include any alpine sections, snow and ice are rarely a problem, even in winter. The trail starts beneath the Darran Mountains in Fiordland National Park and follows the Hollyford River out to sea at Martins Bay, on the west coast. Plan on taking four to five days.
  • Dusky Track: This eight- to 10-day trek is classified as advanced and is only recommended for highly experienced hikers. The 52-mile trail runs between Lake Hauroko and Lake Manapouri, crossing three major valley systems and two mountain ranges. It can be very muddy, so be prepared.

If you can't head off into the semi-wilderness for several days, there are a number of day hikes to enjoy in the Fiordland National Park. These include the 30-minute Bowen Falls Walk and Humbolt Falls Track; the four-hour, roundtrip East Eglinton Track; and the easy, 45-minute Lake Gunn Nature Walk. Read more about all the walking and hiking options on the DOC website.

Kepler Track hiking trail, Luxmore Hat, Fiordland National Park, Southland, South Island, New Zealand
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Where to Stay

If you are embarking on an overnight or multi-day hike in the Fiordland National Park, accommodation is almost exclusively limited to DOC tramping huts and/or campsites within the park. With limited exceptions, private accommodation isn't available within the boundaries of the national park. DOC sites range from very basic (just a site for a tent) to quite well-equipped (huts with bunk beds and toilets). Whichever grade you choose, you'll need to bring your own food and cooking gear, and carry all trash out with you.

However, there are many more options if you're planning to visit Fiordland on a day trip. Both Te Anau and Queenstown offer a range of accommodation, from standard campsites to comfortable motels and hotels. At Milford Sound, there are a handful of lodges for those who don't want to spend too many hours on the road in one day.

How to Get There

Unless you're hiking through the mountain wilderness into Fiordland National Park (such as on the Routeburn Track from Mt. Aspiring National Park), you're likely to access the park overland from the east. There are very few roads into the park. Having your own car is ideal as it provides the flexibility you'll probably need while traveling around the more remote corners of the South Island. Day tours to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound run frequently from Queenstown and Te Anau, too.

For those starting in Queenstown, drive south on State Highway (SH) 6 to Lumsden, then take SH 94 to Te Anau. The highway branches there—head south a little way to reach Manapouri, or continue north through Te Anau Downs to get to Milford Sound. From Queenstown, you can get to Te Anau in two hours, and to Milford Sound in three hours and 30 minutes.

From Dunedin or elsewhere on the east coast of the South Island, head west and pass through Gore and Lumsden. From Dunedin, Te Anau can be reached in three hours and 30 minutes, and Milford Sound in about five hours.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Accommodation on the Great Walks gets booked out months in advance, so plan ahead. Pre-booking is less necessary (and sometimes not possible) on other trails. Information about booking huts and campsites can be found on DOC's Fiordland web page.
  • As Fiordland get so much rain, be prepared with wet weather gear year-round.
  • Bring heavy-duty insect repellent, especially if you're camping and hiking. The sandflies can be a real nuisance throughout the west of the South Island.
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Fiordland National Park: The Complete Guide