Fiordland’s Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound – the differences explained…

Fiordland NZ is home to both Milford & Doubtful Sounds, but which one to visit?

You may notice Fiordland’s Milford Sound/Piopiotahi or Doubtful Sound/Patea featuring prominently in many New Zealand Tours.  There’s a good reason they do. They are both stunning remote parts of the country, boasting some of Aotearoa’s most spectacular scenery — must-sees. But which one to visit?

Both sounds — technically fiords — are located in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Think sheer, towering mountains plunging into the ocean, waterfalls and nature all around. Then you’ll be starting to get a picture of what the hype is all about.

Among many of the fiords/sounds that make up this region, Fiordland is home to both Milford and Doubtful Sounds. But what are the merits of each place and why would you visit one over the other?

Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park is internationally recognised as part of the wider UNESCO World Heritage site, Te Wāhipounamu (Place of the Greenstone). It is home to glaciers, alpine ranges and unique wildlife and plant species that has been in existence since New Zealand was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

Fiordland National Park itself covers 1.2 million hectares of mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. It is administered by the Department of Conservation.

Human activity within Fiordland has been limited because of its challenging and wild landscapes.  This and the fact that this is one of the wettest places on earth, help make parts of it remote and untouched. And all the more beautiful for it!

Early visitors to remote Milford & Doubtful Sounds

Early Māori visited Fiordland for hunting, fishing and gathering takiwai (a unique form of New Zealand jade or pounamu). Much later, European sealers & whalers took shelter in the fiords and built a handful of small settlements. Indeed, these were New Zealand’s earliest European settlements.

But, overall, the sheer steepness of the terrain, the incredible isolation, and the wet climate deterred all but the hardiest from settling in the region.

Fiords? Sounds?

Fiordland is known for its vast collection of fiords, confusingly mostly named “sounds”. Interestingly, both terms are correct. A “fiord” is a geologically classified as an ice-carved landscape that has been inundated by water (usually the sea). Whereas, a “sound” is a geographical term for a large ocean inlet.  In order to convey the sense of majesty that the landscape provides the entire area was named Fiordland.

A destination taken in by many NZ & South island tours, Fiordland’s largest town, Te Anau is a great point to set out from to access the park.

Visiting Fiordland today

Every year thousands of people visit this remote region in search of stunning views and breath-taking scenery. Often Milford and Doubtful Sound appear as parts of the tours we offer, which raises the age-old question: “visit Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?”

The answer to this isn’t exactly straight forward, there are a few things you’ll need to consider before making your choice.  To start, Milford Sound sits to the north of Fiordland and is the last fiord in the national park. Doubtful Sound, is located much further south, is more remote and is roughly in the middle of Fiordland National Park.

Mitre Peak , Milford Sound, NZVisit Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is, by far, the most visited place in Fiordland National Park and arguably one of the most beautiful. However, many visitors are shocked to find out that Fiordland National Park is home to not one, but 15 glacier-carved fiords! Many of these are far too remote to visit on a tour and they remain relatively untouched by visitors.

Visiting Milford Sound lets you cross off a bucket list destination that’s talked about all over the world. There is more infrastructure here – multiple cruise optios, accommodation, a couple of cafes, a campground and there is road access right to the Sound.

And the trip to Milford from Te Anau is an experience in itself with many attractions along the 240km(144mile) trip.

Milford Sound is a lot busier than Doubtful Sound, thronging with visitors on most summer days. And there’s a huge variety of experiences you can do in Milford from short cruises to kayaking and guided walks… They didn’t build a road through some of the harshest terrain in New Zealand for nothing. It is breathtakingly beautiful and worth the journey!

On Milford Sound you can:

  • Day cruises
  • Helicopter/plane rides (there is an airstrip where planes can land)
  • Underwater Observatory
  • Kayaking
  • Overnight stay in accommodation or on boat

Visit Doubtful Sound?

Getting to Doubtful Sound isn’t as easy as Milford Sound. There is no direct road to Doubtful Sound and the jour

ney by bus requires a ferry across Lake Manapouri.  On a tour, you can reach the fiord in around four hours from Queenstown and two hours from Te Anau.

This is a very similar travel time to visiting Milford Sound. But the prices certainly aren’t. In fact, a tour to Doubtful Sound will cost a lot more than a tour to Milford Sound.  This expense and it’s off-the-beaten-path location make Doubtful Sound an untouched paradise, in comparison to its more-famous neighbour.

It’s an adventurous journey and one you’ll share with fewer people. The sound is 3 times longer in length and has much more water area, the mountains aren’t as high here so it is a different feeling to Milford.  Once t

here, the activities available are less, but made up for by the untouched beauty and less people.  You are also more likely to see dolphins, fur seals and penguins.  It’s not uncommon to be kayaking among a pod of dolphins!

On Doubtful Sound you can:

So where should  you go?

There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to visiting these sounds in Fiordland National Park. It all depends on your preference. Both are stunning rain or shine. In fact, when it rains the steep mountains create hundreds of beautiful waterfalls that cascade down into the Sound — a true “sight to see”.

We offer more tours that include a Milford Sound visit, but Doubtful Sound, being less accessible, is available on less tours. Talk to a tour specialist for help finding a tour that includes the Fiordland “Sound” you’d like to visit.