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An Adventurer’s Guide to Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

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Established 1952

Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s awe-inspiring wilderness, captivates with its dramatic fiords, lush rainforests, and towering peaks. This untouched paradise offers unforgettable adventures, unparalleled beauty, and a haven for nature lovers and explorers.


Fiordland National Park, a jewel in New Zealand’s crown of natural wonders, is a breathtaking expanse of pristine wilderness that offers a glimpse into the untamed beauty of the country’s rugged southwest corner. Encompassing over 12,500 square kilometers, Fiordland is one of the largest national parks in New Zealand and forms a significant part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. This designation underscores its extraordinary natural value, highlighting the park’s ancient rainforests, dramatic mountain ranges, deep and mysterious fiords, and abundant wildlife.

Fiordland’s landscapes are among the most dramatic and awe-inspiring in the world. The park is famous for its spectacular fiords, such as Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Dusky Sound, where sheer cliffs rise vertically from the dark waters, often shrouded in mist and rain. These fiords, carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age, are interspersed with cascading waterfalls that tumble hundreds of meters down the rock faces, creating a scene of almost otherworldly beauty.

In this guide, we will delve deeper into what makes Fiordland National Park a must-visit destination. From its awe-inspiring geological formations and rich ecological diversity to the best places to stay and the myriad activities on offer, this comprehensive overview will equip you with all you need to know to plan an unforgettable adventure in one of the world’s most extraordinary natural landscapes.

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Getting to Fiordland

Reaching Fiordland National Park requires some planning, but the journey is well worth it. The nearest town to the park is Te Anau, which serves as the gateway to Fiordland. Te Anau is approximately 170 kilometers from Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. The most common route to Fiordland is by car, taking State Highway 6 from Queenstown to Lumsden, and then State Highway 94 to Te Anau. The drive takes about two and a half hours and offers stunning views of the Southern Alps and the expansive Southland countryside.

For those preferring not to drive, there are bus services from Queenstown and Invercargill to Te Anau. Once in Te Anau, visitors can access various parts of the park via tour operators offering transport to popular destinations like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and the Kepler Track.

Milford Sound, one of Fiordland’s most iconic attractions, is about 120 kilometers from Te Anau. The drive along the Milford Road (State Highway 94) is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. The road passes through breathtaking landscapes, including the Eglinton Valley, the Mirror Lakes, and the Homer Tunnel, before reaching the sound. There are also flights available from Queenstown to Milford Sound, providing a bird’s-eye view of the rugged terrain.

Doubtful Sound, another popular destination, is less accessible but equally rewarding. To reach Doubtful Sound, visitors must take a boat across Lake Manapouri, followed by a bus ride over Wilmot Pass. This journey can be booked through various tour operators in Te Anau.

Human History

Fiordland has a rich human history that dates back centuries. The first known inhabitants of the area were the Māori, who arrived around 1,000 years ago. They called the region “Te Rua-o-te-Moko,” meaning “the place of Moko,” referring to the god of earthquakes and volcanoes. The Māori used the area for hunting, fishing, and gathering pounamu (greenstone), which was highly valued for tools, weapons, and ornaments.

The Māori legends tell of the demi-god Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, who carved the fiords with his adze to create safe havens for his people. According to legend, the rough coastline of Fiordland is a testament to his work, with steep cliffs and deep waters.

European exploration of Fiordland began in the late 18th century. Captain James Cook was the first European to set foot in Fiordland when he anchored in Dusky Sound in 1773. Cook’s maps and descriptions of the area attracted sealers and whalers in the early 19th century. The sealers were the first Europeans to establish temporary settlements in Fiordland, exploiting the abundant seal population for fur.

By the mid-19th century, the seal population had been decimated, and sealers turned to whaling. Whaling stations were established in several fiords, including Preservation Inlet and Te Awaroa (Long Sound). However, the whaling industry in Fiordland was short-lived due to the depletion of whale stocks.

The harsh and isolated environment of Fiordland deterred large-scale European settlement, but exploration and surveying continued. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, surveyors and explorers mapped the region, often facing extreme challenges due to the rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions. One notable figure was Donald Sutherland, a Scottish settler who lived at Milford Sound from the late 1800s and became known as the “Hermit of Milford.”

Tourism in Fiordland began to develop in the early 20th century, with the construction of the Milford Track in 1888. The track quickly gained a reputation as one of the world’s finest walks, attracting hikers from around the globe. The development of roads and infrastructure in the mid-20th century further opened up the area to tourism, making Fiordland more accessible to visitors.

Today, Fiordland National Park is a major draw for tourists seeking adventure and natural beauty. The park’s rich history is preserved through historical sites, such as the Milford Track and remnants of early European settlements, providing a glimpse into the lives of those who braved this remote wilderness.


Fiordland’s diverse ecology is a key reason for its designation as a World Heritage Site. The park’s varied landscapes, from coastal fiords to alpine peaks, support a wide range of ecosystems and species. The dense rainforests, alpine grasslands, and freshwater habitats are home to many endemic plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

The rainforest that blankets much of Fiordland is dominated by native tree species such as beech (Nothofagus) and podocarp, including rimu, totara, and kahikatea. These ancient trees provide a habitat for a variety of ferns, mosses, and lichens that thrive in the humid conditions. The understory is rich with shrubs, ferns, and ground cover plants, creating a lush, green environment.

Fiordland is also known for its unique birdlife. The park provides a sanctuary for several endangered and rare bird species, including the flightless takahē, which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948. The park is also home to the kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic flightless bird, as well as the kea, a highly intelligent alpine parrot. Other notable birds include the mōhua (yellowhead), kākā (forest parrot), and the whio (blue duck), which inhabits fast-flowing rivers.

The waterways of Fiordland are teeming with life. The deep fiords and lakes support a variety of fish species, including trout and salmon, which were introduced by European settlers. Native fish species, such as the longfin eel and the galaxiid, are also found in the park’s rivers and streams. Marine mammals, including dolphins and seals, are commonly seen in the coastal waters of the fiords.

Fiordland’s marine environment is particularly unique due to the phenomenon of “deep-water emergence.” The high rainfall in the region causes tannin-stained freshwater to flow from the land into the fiords, creating a layer of dark, fresh water that sits on top of the clearer, denser saltwater. This creates a unique environment where deep-sea species can live at relatively shallow depths. Black coral, typically found at great depths, can be seen in the fiords at depths of just 10 meters.

The alpine regions of Fiordland are equally diverse. The high peaks and plateaus are home to hardy plants adapted to the harsh conditions, including tussocks, alpine herbs, and cushion plants. The alpine zone provides a habitat for specialized animals, such as the rock wren, the only true alpine bird in New Zealand, and the alpine gecko.

The isolation and ruggedness of Fiordland have helped preserve its ecological integrity, making it a vital refuge for many of New Zealand’s native species. Conservation efforts, including pest control and habitat restoration, are ongoing to protect and enhance the park’s unique biodiversity.


Fiordland’s dramatic landscapes are the result of millions of years of geological processes. The region’s geology is characterized by ancient rocks, glacial activity, and tectonic movements that have shaped its distinctive features.

The foundation of Fiordland is composed of some of the oldest rocks in New Zealand, dating back over 500 million years. These rocks, primarily schist, gneiss, and granite, were formed deep within the Earth’s crust and later uplifted to the surface. The formation of Fiordland’s mountains began during the Paleozoic era, around 300 million years ago, when tectonic forces caused the collision and compression of the Earth’s crust, leading to the creation of the Southern Alps.

One of the most significant geological processes that shaped Fiordland is glaciation. During the last Ice Age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, massive glaciers carved their way through the landscape, creating the deep U-shaped valleys and fiords that the park is known for today. As the glaciers advanced, they scoured the rock, leaving behind steep cliffs and deep basins. When the glaciers retreated, they left behind a series of deep, glacially-carved fiords filled with seawater.

Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Dusky Sound are among the most famous fiords in Fiordland. These fiords are characterized by their sheer rock walls that rise vertically from the water, often reaching heights of over 1,000 meters. The fiords extend inland for several kilometers, with their depths often exceeding 400 meters. The steep, glacially-carved walls create dramatic waterfalls that plunge directly into the fiords, particularly after heavy rainfall.

The park’s geology also features a range of other glacial landforms, including cirques, arêtes, and hanging valleys. Cirques are amphitheater-like depressions formed by glacial erosion, often found at the head of glacial valleys. Arêtes are sharp ridges that form between adjacent glacial valleys, while hanging valleys are smaller valleys that were cut off by larger glaciers, often creating spectacular waterfalls where they meet the main valley.

In addition to glacial features, Fiordland’s geology includes evidence of ongoing tectonic activity. The region is located along the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, which are slowly converging. This tectonic activity has resulted in the uplift and deformation of the landscape, contributing to the rugged topography of the area. Earthquakes are relatively common in Fiordland, reflecting the dynamic nature of the Earth’s crust in this region.

The geological complexity of Fiordland is further enhanced by the presence of various rock types and formations. The park features a mix of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks, each telling a part of the region’s geological history. Intrusions of granite and diorite, formed from molten rock, can be seen in various locations, while layers of sedimentary rock, such as sandstone and limestone, provide evidence of ancient environments that existed long before the current landscape.

Overall, the geology of Fiordland is a testament to the powerful natural forces that have shaped this remarkable landscape. The combination of ancient rocks, glacial sculpting, and tectonic movements has created one of the most breathtaking and geologically fascinating regions on Earth.

Best Places to Stay

Fiordland offers a range of accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets. Whether you prefer a luxurious lodge, a cozy bed and breakfast, or a backcountry hut, there are plenty of choices to make your stay in Fiordland comfortable and memorable.

Luxurious Lodges

For those seeking a high-end experience, Fiordland is home to several luxurious lodges that provide stunning views and top-notch amenities.

Fiordland Lodge: Located just outside Te Anau, Fiordland Lodge offers a luxurious retreat with panoramic views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding mountains. The lodge features elegant rooms and suites, gourmet dining, and a range of activities, including guided fishing, hiking, and birdwatching tours.

Milford Sound Lodge: Nestled in the heart of Milford Sound, this lodge provides a unique opportunity to stay within one of New Zealand’s most iconic landscapes. The lodge offers modern chalets and riverside rooms, allowing guests to immerse themselves in the beauty of Milford Sound. Activities include kayaking, boat cruises, and guided hikes.

Comfortable Hotels and Motels

Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland, offers a variety of hotels and motels that provide comfortable accommodations for visitors.

Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas: This lakeside hotel offers a range of rooms and villas with stunning views of Lake Te Anau. The hotel features an on-site restaurant, bar, and outdoor heated swimming pool. It’s an ideal base for exploring Fiordland’s attractions.

Lakefront Lodge: Located just a short walk from the center of Te Anau, Lakefront Lodge offers modern studios and apartments with kitchen facilities. The lodge’s convenient location and comfortable accommodations make it a popular choice for travelers.

Bed and Breakfasts

For a more intimate and personalized experience, consider staying at one of Fiordland’s charming bed and breakfasts.

Te Anau Lodge: This historic former convent has been transformed into a charming bed and breakfast. Set in beautiful gardens, Te Anau Lodge offers cozy rooms, a delicious breakfast, and warm hospitality. Guests can relax in the comfortable lounge or explore the nearby walking trails.

Blue Ridge Boutique Bed & Breakfast: Situated in a quiet location in Te Anau, Blue Ridge offers stylish rooms with private patios and garden views. The friendly hosts provide a hearty breakfast and can offer local tips and recommendations for exploring Fiordland.

Backcountry Huts and Campsites

For those seeking a more rustic and adventurous experience, Fiordland National Park has a network of backcountry huts and campsites managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). These accommodations are ideal for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Milford Track Huts: The Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, has several huts along its route. These huts provide basic facilities, including bunk beds, communal kitchens, and toilets. Booking is essential, especially during the peak season.

Routeburn Track Huts: Another Great Walk, the Routeburn Track, also has a series of huts offering similar amenities. The huts are located at key points along the track, providing shelter and a place to rest for hikers.

DOC Campsites: Fiordland has numerous DOC campsites, offering basic facilities such as toilets and water. These campsites are located in scenic spots throughout the park, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural surroundings. Popular campsites include Cascade Creek, Lake Gunn, and Henry Creek.

Whether you choose to stay in a luxurious lodge, a cozy bed and breakfast, or a backcountry hut, Fiordland offers a range of accommodation options to enhance your adventure and make your visit unforgettable.

Enjoying the Park

Fiordland National Park is a playground for adventurers and nature enthusiasts, offering a wide array of activities to suit all interests and fitness levels. From world-renowned hiking trails to scenic cruises and wildlife encounters, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Hiking and Walking

Fiordland is famous for its exceptional hiking opportunities, with tracks ranging from short walks to multi-day treks. The park is home to three of New Zealand’s Great Walks: the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, and the Kepler Track.

Milford Track: Often referred to as “the finest walk in the world,” the Milford Track is a 53.5-kilometer journey through some of Fiordland’s most stunning landscapes. The track starts at Glade Wharf on Lake Te Anau and finishes at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound. Highlights include the Clinton Valley, Mackinnon Pass, and the spectacular Sutherland Falls. The track takes four days to complete, with accommodation in DOC huts along the way.

Routeburn Track: The Routeburn Track links Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks, covering 32 kilometers of breathtaking scenery. The track can be walked in either direction, starting from The Divide near Te Anau or the Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy. Key features include the Routeburn Falls, Harris Saddle, and the panoramic views from Conical Hill. The track typically takes two to three days to complete.

Kepler Track: This 60-kilometer loop track starts and ends near Te Anau, offering a diverse range of landscapes, including beech forests, alpine ridges, and wetlands. The track takes three to four days to complete, with highlights such as Luxmore Cave, the Luxmore Hut, and the stunning views from the Kepler Track ridge.

For those seeking shorter walks, Fiordland has plenty of options. The Lake Marian Track is a three-hour return walk to a beautiful alpine lake, while the Key Summit Track offers a three-hour return hike with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Scenic Cruises

Exploring Fiordland’s fiords by boat is a must-do activity. Scenic cruises are available in both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, providing a unique perspective of the dramatic landscapes.

Milford Sound Cruises: Milford Sound cruises range from short two-hour trips to longer excursions that include kayaking and underwater observatory visits. These cruises take you past iconic landmarks such as Mitre Peak, Stirling Falls, and Bowen Falls. Wildlife sightings, including dolphins, seals, and penguins, are common.

Doubtful Sound Cruises: Often described as the “Sound of Silence,” Doubtful Sound offers a more tranquil and remote experience. Cruises in Doubtful Sound typically include a boat trip across Lake Manapouri and a bus ride over Wilmot Pass before reaching the fiord. The cruises provide ample opportunities to spot wildlife and enjoy the serene beauty of the area.


For a more intimate and adventurous experience, kayaking in Fiordland’s fiords is a popular activity. Kayaking allows you to explore hidden coves, waterfalls, and wildlife up close.

Milford Sound Kayaking: Several operators offer guided kayaking tours in Milford Sound, ranging from half-day to full-day trips. Kayaking in Milford Sound provides a unique perspective of the towering cliffs and waterfalls, with opportunities to paddle beneath Stirling Falls and explore sheltered bays.

Doubtful Sound Kayaking: Doubtful Sound is also a fantastic destination for kayaking. Guided multi-day kayaking trips are available, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the remote wilderness. These trips often include camping overnight on the fiord’s shores and exploring hidden inlets and coves.

Wildlife Watching

Fiordland’s rich biodiversity makes it an excellent destination for wildlife watching. Whether you’re on land or water, there are plenty of opportunities to encounter the park’s unique fauna.

Bird Watching: Fiordland is a haven for bird enthusiasts. The park is home to several rare and endangered bird species, including the takahē, kiwi, and kea. Birdwatchers can explore various trails and habitats to spot these elusive creatures. The Kepler Track and Milford Track are particularly good for bird watching.

Marine Mammals: The coastal waters of Fiordland are teeming with marine life. Dolphins, seals, and penguins are commonly seen on boat cruises and kayaking trips. Dusky dolphins and bottlenose dolphins often accompany boats, while New Zealand fur seals can be spotted basking on the rocks. Fiordland crested penguins, one of the world’s rarest penguin species, can also be seen during their breeding season.

Scenic Flights

For a truly unforgettable experience, consider taking a scenic flight over Fiordland. Helicopter and fixed-wing flights offer stunning aerial views of the park’s dramatic landscapes, including the fiords, mountains, and lakes.

Helicopter Flights: Helicopter tours provide the flexibility to land in remote locations, offering unique perspectives and photo opportunities. Some tours include glacier landings, allowing you to step out onto the ice and take in the breathtaking surroundings.

Fixed-Wing Flights: Fixed-wing aircraft offer a more economical option for scenic flights. These flights provide panoramic views of Fiordland’s vast wilderness, with routes typically covering Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and the Southern Alps.


Fiordland’s pristine lakes and rivers offer excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers can try their luck at catching trout and salmon in the park’s clear waters.

Lake Te Anau: The largest lake in the South Island, Lake Te Anau, is a popular fishing destination. The lake is home to brown trout and rainbow trout, with several good fishing spots accessible by boat or from the shore.

Lake Manapouri: Another great fishing location, Lake Manapouri, offers opportunities to catch trout and salmon. The lake’s secluded bays and inlets provide a peaceful setting for fishing.


Fiordland’s stunning landscapes provide endless opportunities for photography. Whether you’re capturing the misty fiords, cascading waterfalls, or vibrant sunsets, the park offers a wealth of photographic subjects.


Fiordland National Park is a true wilderness wonderland, offering a diverse range of activities and experiences for adventurers and nature lovers. From its ancient rainforests and glacially carved fiords to its unique wildlife and rich cultural history, Fiordland is a destination that captivates and inspires. Whether you’re hiking one of the Great Walks, cruising through the fiords, or simply soaking in the breathtaking scenery, Fiordland promises an unforgettable adventure. With its unparalleled natural beauty and wealth of outdoor activities, Fiordland National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone seeking to experience the best of New Zealand’s great outdoors.

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