Everyone planning a trip to New Zealand has heard of Milford Sound, part of the Fiordland National Park. Imagine drifting on a ferry, dwarfed by the rugged mountains that appear through the mist. It is a spectacular and romantic thought, but when my husband and I visited Milford Sound earlier this year, it was no tranquil nature getaway. Instead, it was swarming with cars, coaches and tourists pouring over the footpath, armed with cameras and backpacks. Anxiously we tried to find a car park but left in a flurry of panic and angst. We hadn’t even seen the sound itself!
We did make the drive out to Milford Sound again, but that time we went at dusk and the place was nearly deserted. Here and there a couple walked hand in hand, or a photographer set up his tripod. We saw the sound and walked on the foreshore under the impressive Mitre Peak. I was glad we returned, although earlier in the day I couldn’t wait to get away from the place. Fiordland National Park (including Milford Sound) is very beautiful, but it is also very popular. I wish I had been able to plan my visit more effectively in order to engage with the landscape peacefully. So for you travellers who are also averse to a crowd but still want to see the splendour of Fiordland National Park, I have put together a guide for you.
There is only one road into Fiordland National Park which stretches from the town Te Anau to Milford Sound. It takes about 1 hour 45 minutes to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, although it’s best to spend time popping into various lookouts and hikes along the way. As we discovered, a popular way for tourists to explore the park is by coach. There are numerous companies who operate from Te Anau and take visitors to all the main attractions. Of course, for me this was not a desirable option: I wanted to go my own pace and to stop places along the way that are less well-known. We drove a hire car and camped two nights in the park.
Some of the roads are quite windy and narrow in places, which can be scary if you’re trying to overtake a slow coach! There’s a fantastic stretch of road towards the end of the highway where you have to pass through Homer Tunnel. It’s a one-way 1.2km tunnel that is controlled by a traffic light. You’ll probably have to wait for a while as traffic comes from the other way, but you won’t be bothered: the view from there is incredible.
LOOKOUTS & SHORT STOPS
Even though we were going our own pace, we were often engulfed by swarms of tourists streaming off their coaches in many of the spots. I suggest making the most of the early hours of the morning and the final hours of daylight to avoid the crowds, especially for the places that you particularly want to visit. Below are some of my recommendations, but there are plenty more hidden gems to discover. I have starred the stops that we encountered a crowd.
- Eglinton Valley* – Stop on the side of the road in a vast grassy valley which was carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago. Enjoy the view of the towering snow-capped mountains on every side.
- Mirror Lakes* – Go for a very picturesque short stroll and pause to marvel at the stillness of the lakes. On a calm day, the reflections of the Earl Mountains are so precise and sharp.
- Lake Gunn – Enjoy a 45-minute forest walk or just sit on the pebbles of Lake Gunn’s shore and bask in its tranquility. There’s even a table for your picnic lunch.
- Pop’s View – This is a nice little stop, dedicated to Robert Andrew (Pop) who was killed in an avalanche. There is a wonderful view of the mountains and a chance to learn from a sign about the way traditional Maori people would hike through the landscape.
- The Chasm* – A very easy 400m stroll here offers views of powerful waterfalls and deep chasms. It’s fascinating to see how water has sculpted the landscape.
HIKING & WALKING
While the short stops and lookouts were nice, I always find hiking (or tramping as they call it in New Zealand) to be a more satisfying way of exploring a place. The physical demand on my body, as well as the extended time spent in the landscape, make the experience pleasurable. There are so many hikes to do in Fiordland National Park, catering to every ability level. I would love to return and try a multi day hike, but for now, here are my favourite shorter ones we did:
- Milford Sound Foreshore | 30min | Easy | More Info
This is a very easy and accessible walk that I mentioned in the introduction. We didn’t do a ferry cruise, kayak or helicopter flights to explore Milford Sound this time, but just the foreshore itself was spectacular. At dusk, Mitre Peak and the other mountains settle into dark shadows and the mist of the water. Enjoy the pretty beech forest and sights of waterfalls in the distance.
- Key Summit | 3 hour return | 3.4 km | Intermediate | More Info
Beginning at The Divide car park, this hike follows the overnight Routeburn Track before branching off towards the summit. It is a steady climb, but not altogether difficult. The first section is through a shady forest and the last section is open and full of alpine vegetation. Take some time at the top to explore: there are lots of places to sit down and enjoy a view. We even managed to spy the alpine Lake Marian which we climbed up to the next day.
- Lake Marian | 3-hour return | 2.4 km | Advanced | More Info
This was my favourite experience in Fiordland National Park. Discouraged by the crowds of people on our first day in the park, we woke up before sunrise and hiked up to Lake Marian. It was a lonely walk, full of fog and beautiful forest. Within the first 15 minutes, the track passes the thundering Humboldt Waterfall which is worth seeing if you don’t have time to do the whole hike. But I do recommend making the effort!
Lake Marian is a sight not easily forgotten. Her water is a lovely deep green, and she is framed by snowy mountains on each side. As we paused to take her in, the sun started to show behind the clouds and dissipate some of the fog. I didn’t want to leave this slice of heaven.
WHERE TO STAY
If you plan to do a day trip into Fiordland National Park, you can find plenty of accommodation in Te Anau, although you might want to book ahead in peak season (December – February). There are also a couple of high-end accommodation options at Milford Sound.
If you’re up for it, I recommend camping in the park. The department of conservation (DOC) has several campgrounds along the Milford Highway that don’t cost much to stay at. They are fairly basic with toilets, but no showers or running water. We stayed our first night at Henry Creek Campsite which has cosy spots for tents in the forest. We loved waking up next to Lake Te Anau. Our second night was at Cascade Creek Campsite which was very popular, but convenient for us since we got up so early the next morning to hike Lake Marian.
BEFORE YOU GO
- Take appropriate clothing and footwear. We saw a girl hiking up Key Summit in open-toed dress sandals! It can be cold but also be prepared with sun protection.
- If you’re driving your own vehicle, make sure you fill up with petrol in Te Anau before you head in the national park.
- If you’re planning on camping, take the right amount of cash. You can find pricing details of the DOC campsites on their website.
- Pack plenty of water and food to last you the trip.
- Sandflies can sometimes be a pest. We weren’t too bothered by them, but you might want to buy some precautionary repellent.
- Plan a little bit. Research the places you really want to see and try to visit early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid crowds.
- Try not to take pictures all the time or rush from one highlight to the next. Take your time and enjoy being in all that beautiful nature.
Despite the crowds, I am so glad we visited Fiordland National Park. Like the rest of New Zealand, it was wild and majestic and has given me memories I will not forget. I would love to visit again in winter and observe the changes in the landscape.
Have you ever been to New Zealand? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay Near Fiordland National Park
- Fiordland Lodge
- High Leys Lodge
- Radfords on the Lake
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