Fiordland National Park is home to what many consider New Zealand’s most stunning natural attraction – the breathtaking Milford Sound. You won't be surprised that Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth wonder of the world.
Beautiful ice-carved fiords and snow-capped peaks make this area of Aotearoa an absolute must-see for visitors, domestic and international alike. The national park, established in 1952, is the largest in New Zealand, with over 1.2 million hectares of conservation area.
Rising above Milford Sound is the stunning Mitre Peak – 1692 metres above sea level and a dramatic sight in any weather. The landscape is largely untouched, the peaks, lakes and waterfalls looking the same today as they did hundreds of years ago.
Some of the particular attractions of the park are must-dos in their own right: Doubtful and Milford Sounds and the Hollyford Track. But these leave much of the Fiordland area untouched.
Once you’ve experienced the wonders of the park from the ground, whether by driving through to Milford Sound or joining a Doubtful Sound excursion, and preferably by walking one of the great tracks in the area such as the Milford, the Routeburn, the Hollyford or, for the experienced, the Dusky, the very best way to experience Fiordland is by air. There are plenty of local businesses to help you with this.
Milford Sound is named after Milford Haven in Wales. Māori named the sound Piopiotahi – meaning a single piopio, the native thrush which is now extinct.
Māori used to gather pounamu from Anita Bay and elsewhere in Piopiotahi, but few were permanent residents in the inhospitable land. Captain James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to visit Fiordland, and his maps and descriptions soon attracted sealers and whalers to the region. In the middle of the nineteenth century, gold prospectors explored the interior of Fiordland but the boom in the area was brief.
The fiords are flooded u-shaped valleys, carved out by glaciers over millions of years, then flooded by the sea. Māori attributed the creation of the fiords to a giant stonemason called Tute Rakiwhānoa, who carved out the steep-sided valleys with his adzes.
Fiordland National Park is a place where mountains, rock, ice, lakes, forests and grasslands collide with stunning beauty. Some of the best examples of animals and plants that were once found on the ancient super-continent of Gondwana still exist here.
Fiordland weather is often dramatic and extremely unpredictable. Rain falls in Fiordland on more than 200 days a year!
On the upside, this rainfall creates the thousands of spectacular waterfalls which cascade from sheer-sided mountains. Fine weather will reward you with amazing views, but a true Fiordland visit wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it in the rain.
Unique and wonderful
Much of Fiordland National Park’s wildlife is unique and frequently endangered. It’s home to the Takahē Recovery Programme – after the rediscovery of this amazing bird, long thought to be extinct, in the Murchison Mountains in 1948, a special area of 500 sq km was set aside in the national park for its conservation.
Visitors are likely to see forest birds like tomtit, brown creeper, grey warbler, fantail, tūī, bellbird and native wood pigeons on day walks in the area. The Eglinton valley is also a stronghold for kākāriki, robin and kākā. The cheeky mountain parrot, the kea, is a regular entertainer at higher altitudes and can often be seen around the Homer Tunnel.
There are also 10 marine reserves in the park, and black coral can be seen at shallow depths. At 421 metres, Doubtful Sound is the deepest of New Zealand’s fiords.
It’s a haven for nature, with resident bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and penguins.
Diving in Fiordland provides a rare chance to see deep-water sea plants growing near the surface.
Taking a boat or scenic flight through Milford Sound is an experience you’ll never forget. On the ground, three of New Zealand’s Great Walks can be found in Fiordland National Park. The most famous (and consequently most popular) is the Milford Track, which takes five days to complete. The Kepler Track is an adventure above the clouds and takes four days, and the Routeburn, which crosses into Mount Aspiring National Park, generally takes three days. There are many other less famous – but just as spectacular – tracks to explore for a day or just a few hours.
Several of the fiords can be explored by sea kayak, as can lakes in Te Anau and Manapōuri.