Fiordland National Park is one of the South Island’s biggest displays of raw and unspoiled beauty. Spanning over 1.2 million hectares of rugged bush, towering peaks, and wildlife, there’s a lot to explore.
The park includes a total of 14 fiords, each a unique natural masterpiece sculpted by the elements over thousands of years. Among these, two are the most well-known and well-visited by adventurers and nature lovers; Milford Sound Piopiotahi and Doubtful Sound Patea.
A trip to Fiordland to see these famous sights is irresistible to travellers and locals alike, but a classic travel question often arises: when time and budget constrain your visit, how do you choose between these two famous Sounds. If you’re in the area and asking yourself which of these incredible must-see spots you should choose to visit, we’ve detailed all of the important factors to consider when choosing between Milford or Doubtful Sound.
Accessibility – how to get to the fiords
Milford Sound is the only fiord within Fiordland National Park with direct road access, making it convenient to get there with more transport options. The easiest and more stress-free way to get to Milford Sound is by coach. With our Coach and Nature Cruise or Coach and Discover More adventures, you can sit back and soak in the views on both the road trip and boat cruise. If you’re self-driving, Milford Sound therefore offers a more flexible experience traveling by road.
Travelling to Doubtful Sound requires a little more logistics. You will need to self-drive or book a coach from Queenstown or Te Anau to Manapouri, before boarding a cruise to West Arm and taking another drive into Doubtful Sound.
If you’re looking for easy transport solutions, Milford Sound may be best for you.
Sightseeing and activities
While there are cruise options and epic views at both Milford and Doubtful Sound, there’s a greater range of activities to choose from in Milford Sound. You can cruise, kayak, explore the walking trails, take a scenic flight, remain immersed in nature with accommodation options, and visit the Underwater Observatory to learn more about Milford Sound’s unique environment beneath the surface. With so much on offer and a range of tour times, it’s easy to personalise your trip to Milford Sound and fit it around an existing itinerary or bucket list.
Although a more pared back immersion with nature, visiting Doubtful Sound still has some unbelievable experiences on offer. These include both day and overnight cruises, scenic flights, and kayaking tours.
If you’re looking for plenty of activity choices to personalise your trip, Milford Sound may be best for you.
With Fiordland being recognised as part of the wider UNESCO World Heritage site, Te Wāhipounamu (Place of the Greenstone), sometimes a day trip simply isn’t enough to take it all in. Our spectacular Milford Lodge and campground offers a luxurious yet off-grid experience to stay immersed in the landscape a little longer. There are premium chalets nestled on the riverside or bushland as well as 20 powered rainforest campsites if you’re travelling in a self-contained campervan.
Unlike Milford, Doubtful Sound has no overnight accommodation so you will be limited to a day trip. The alternative is to stay in the nearby Manapouri or Te Anau and book another day tour to continue your adventure.
If you’re looking for accommodation in Fiordland National Park, choose Milford Sound.
Flora and Fauna
Image credit: Photo by Jake Osbourne
Both destinations offer breathtaking views that transport you to an ancient world, and we can’t choose between the raw beauty of Fiordland!
The scenery alone is like a moving painting; blankets of greenery cover the cliffs and ancient trees draped in moss stand high in the rainforests while ferns and delicate epiphytes cover the ground. The landscape of waterfalls is constantly changing with the region’s rainfall, making every person’s visit totally unique.
Among the vegetation, you may be lucky enough to spot some of the precious critters that call these Sounds home. Listen out for the calls of native birds, including the Tui and Kiwis, while watching the water may reveal fur seal black coral, bottlenose dolphins, cheeky Fiordland crested penguins and many more.
Both Milford and Doubtful Sound provide the most amazing encounters with nature.
Seclusion and serenity
Because Doubtful sound is less convenient to travel to and often more expensive, it tends to attract less crowds than the one million visitors who flock to Milford Sound per year. Early Māori named the fiord ‘Patea’, meaning ‘place of silence’. With fewer visitors, explorers can enjoy serene stillness with only birdsong or the cascading waterfalls to break the silence.
If you’re looking for a remote and peaceful experience, Doubtful Sound may be best for you. Though during shoulder seasons, Milford Sound is also just as peaceful.
We hope a little rain won’t ruin your plans, as Fiordland National Park is one of the wettest places on earth.
Being the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, Milford Sound receives an average of 6,000-7,000mm rainfall per year compared to Doubtful Sound’s 3,000-4,000mm. While both locations have a high chance of rain, this can also be the best part of your day. Rainfall creates hundreds of smaller waterfalls on the granite cliff faces that transform the already spectacular landscape into a moving, cascading panorama. The road journey and cruise of Milford Sound offers the best chance to view all of these cascades!
If you’re wanting to see as many waterfalls as possible, head to Milford Sound.