Fiordland Southland

Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound – The Ultimate Guide

March 20, 2022

Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are two of Fiordland National Park’s most significant highlights.

Every year, travellers make the journey from all around the world (and New Zealand) in order to see some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery.

Anyone visiting this region will no doubt wonder, should they pay a visit to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?

Are they justified in visiting both?

Is one significantly better than the other?

To help you answer these questions, we’re here to compare Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound.

Known as the eighth wonder of the natural world, Milford Sound welcomes more visitors, but we think Doubtful is every bit as stunning (if not perhaps even more).

Let’s plan your visit to Fiordland!

COVID-19 has come with its fair share of challenges for New Zealand businesses. Though we do our best to share accurate information, this can change quickly as some businesses make the decision to operate under reduced hours or hibernate. We suggest you double-check they are open before finalising your plans.

Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound – Comparing Fiordland’s Biggest Highlights

Where You’ll Find Milford and Doubtful Sound

Fiordland National Park is home to both of New Zealand’s most famous sounds – Milford and Doubtful.

They are located on the west coast of the lower part of the South Island, in a region known as Southland.

The Fiordland National Park covers a significant area totalling 12,607 km². Milford Sound sits near the top of the national park, whilst Doubtful Sound is located further south, near the middle of the park.

Did you know? The Te Reo Māori name for Fiordland is Ata Whenua. This translates to Shadowland in English. Incredibly, there are 15 glacier-carved fiords in Ata Whenua, but most are tucked away, out of the reach of tourism.

The red tags above show key points on the Doubtful Sound trip, purple relate to the Milford Sound trip and yellow show the main locations that most of these trips depart from.

How Can I Access Each of These Sounds?

Regardless of which sound you are visiting, you’ll need to get yourself there.

Most travellers choose to depart from Queenstown, though is possible to arrive to the sounds from other parts of the South Island too, including the Catlins, Dunedin and Invercargill.

Travellers will generally transit Te Anau, before continuing on to either Milford or Doubtful Sound. For those wanting to stay nearby, Te Anau is generally the town of choice (and it’s wonderful!)

Related: The best things to do in Te Anau.

Related: Where to stay in Te Anau.

How to Get to Milford Sound

Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Te Reo Māori) is easily the most accessible fiord in the national park. Unsurprisingly, it is also the most visited.

There are three options to get yourself into Milford Sound — each of them with their own benefits and limitations.

Drive Yourself to Milford Sound

The road into Milford Sound is well-maintained and includes a number of worthwhile stops — including the amazing 1.2 km-long Homer Tunnel.

It is wide enough to comfortably accommodate even the largest campervans and if you’re a competent driver, you shouldn’t have any problems getting yourself in and out.

The journey takes a minimum of 1.5 hours (without any stops), but we suggest allowing 2.5 hours+ so you can enjoy the incredible scenery all around.

Advantages of driving into Milford

Driving yourself in and out of Milford Sound can help save you significant money (particularly if you’re travelling with a group of people that would otherwise have to pay for a guided tour) and will allow you complete freedom to stop as you like.

Disadvantages

Though the roads are well-maintained, the road to Milford does get snowed in a number of times each year and can also be icy in the wintertime. If you’re not used to these conditions (and don’t have the appropriate car), this can make the road practically impassable.

With that said, the weather is generally fine to drive – we have made the journey a number of times across the year and never had a problem.

If you do choose to drive yourself, double check the weather report and plan out the sightseeing stops you want to make on the way – you won’t want to miss any!

Related: The best stops to make on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

Related: Book discounted campervans in New Zealand.

Related: Freedom camping in New Zealand.


Join a Tour to Milford Sound

Many choose to organise a guided tour, travelling into Milford Sound from either Queenstown or Te Anau.

Though it’s a long day on the road (particularly from Queenstown where it takes approximately 4-hours one way), a guided tour allows everyone in your party to sit back and relax as the experts take the wheel.

These tours generally include tickets for a Milford Sound Cruise (or kayak tour) and will sometimes include lunch and/or passes to other local attractions (such as the Milford Sound Observatory).

Advantages

If you join a tour, you’ll benefit from the experience and commentary of a professional guide. Not only will they be able to share specific information about the area, but they will also include a number of memorable stops on the way in.

It also negates the need to hire a rental car and allows the would-be driver in your group to ensure the journey without distraction.

Disadvantages

If your group has already paid for a rental car, the cost of tour transport in addition can soon add up.

Also, if you prefer to travel independently, you may find a group tour somewhat limiting – particularly if you join a large coach trip.

Book Your Milford Sound Cruise

Fly into Piopiotahi

For many, flying into Milford Sound is a real bucket list experience. This can be done in a float plane, normal plane or by helicopter.

Advantages

Flying from Queenstown or Te Anau into Milford Sound will save you a lot of time (in comparison to driving).

Whilst on board, you’ll also enjoy spectacular views of Milford Sound and the surrounding region.

Pro Tip: In order to keep costs down, it is possible to fly one way and join a road tour the other way. This can help keep costs down and also allows visitors to see Milford from both the road and air.

Disadvantages of flying into Milford

Fiordland is known for its rough weather (not that it makes Milford any less beautiful – it’s stunning in the pouring rain) — this can make flying a challenge though.

If you’re planning to fly in, you’ll need to be comfortable in the knowledge that your flight might be cancelled or you may be transferred onto a road tour.

How to Get to Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is significantly more remote than Milford — this makes it more difficult to access.

It is not possible to drive yourself to Doubtful Sound, so most people choose to join a guided tour (which includes ferry and bus transport).

Guided Tours by Road

Guided tours to Doubtful Sound are the most popular way to see this incredible part of Fiordland.

It takes the same amount of time to reach Doubtful (4-hours from Queenstown, 2-hours from Te Anau) as it does Milford Sound. This is due to the remoteness of Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound isn’t as well known as Milford Sound, but it is every bit as beautiful (if not, even more so).

To get to Doubtful Sound, you’ll start with a cruise across Lake Manapouri, before joining a coach trip up and over Wilmot Pass.  

After working your way through Fiordland’s rainforest, you’ll find yourself ready to join your Doubtful Sound cruise.

Though the mountains in Doubtful Sound aren’t quite as high as the ones in Milford, the sound itself is significantly larger – three times longer, in fact. The sea surface is approximately ten times more than the neighbouring fiord too!

Doubtful is quieter than Milford and cannot be accessed unless you join a tour – this makes the trip all the more special.

Tours include passes to cruise on Doubtful Sound — a must-do experience, in our view.


Scenic Flights to Doubtful Sound

It is possible to join a scenic flight into Doubtful Sound, but unlike in Milford, it is not possible to land a plane there.

If you choose to hop in a scenic plane, they will fly you from Queesntown to Manapouri, where you will join the ferry/coach trip.

Helicopters, however, are able to land briefly in Doubtful Sound.

Did you know?  Both Milford and Doubtful were misnamed — they’re actually fiords rather than sounds.

What to Do in Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound

Activities Available in Both Milford and Doubtful

Cruise Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound by Day

No visit to Milford or Doubtful is complete without a scenic cruise out on the water! With giant mountains cut into fiords, waterfalls and plenty of native wildlife, it’s a magical spot that deserves to be seen up close.

A number of operators cruise Milford, with fewer in Doubtful.

In Milford Sound, we favour Cruise Milford. This professional, family-run operation operator large, comfortable boats that they intentionally under-sell (to ensure there’s plenty of room for everyone to move about).  The commentary throughout is engaging and there are additional staff on hand to answer any specific question you have.

If there’s only one thing you do in the region, it really does need to be a cruise into the sounds (along with the drive or flight in, of course).

Book Your Milford Sound Cruise
Book Your Doubtful Sound Cruise
Overnight Cruises in Fiordland

As magical a Milford and Doubtful are during the day, they’re even more incredible at night when all of the visitors have left.

To make the most of your time in the area, we really recommend spending a night onboard if possible. 

Not only will you be given the opportunity to kayak, go out on a tender, swim in the sounds (if you’re brave) and eat the most incredible food, but you’ll fall asleep and wake up surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world.

It really is a bucket-list experience in New Zealand.

Book: Doubtful Sound overnight cruise. NZTTPLAY to save 15%.

Book: Milford Sound overnight cruise. NZTTPLAY to save 15%.

Book: The ultimate Fiordland experience — Overnight on Doubtful Sound, day cruise on Milford Sound and visit the Te Anau glow worm caves. NZTTPLAY to save 15%.

Overnight on Doubtful Sound. Photo credit: Klook.
Take to the Water by Kayak

If you’re keen to get active in the the sounds, there’s no better way to do it than by kayak.

A number of companies run guided kayak trips through both Milford and Doubtful Sounds, offering an amazing experience.

Sitting low on the water, the fiords towering above you, the scale of the scenery all around really comes into focus.

This is an incredible way to see Fiordland!

Book: Cruise, kayak and underwater observatory combo tickets.

Book: Cruise Milford and kayak combo tickets. NZTTPLAY to save 15%.


Dive Deep into Milford and Doubtful Sound

Though the waters of Fiordland are chilly, they offer plenty of rewards to those keen to brave the cold and go scuba diving.

Kitted out in a thick wetsuit, you’ll have the opportunity to see a part of Fiordland that most people miss out on.  In the process, you’ll be checking out one of the top 10 places to dive in the world (according to Jacques Cousteau).

With unique marine life, diving in this region is unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.  

They have the largest concentration of black coral trees anywhere in the world.  This coral (which is oddly enough white in colour) is normally found 100m or so below the surface but is much closer to sea level in Fiordland due to the large amount of rainfall they receive and the shadowy fiords.

In addition, you’ll also see a selection of other white and red corals along with numerous other soft corals.  

If you’re lucky, you might spot some of the resident dolphins and seals in this world heritage marine reserve too.

Scuba diving is available in both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.


Fly High in a Floatplane

Conveniently located right on the shore of Lake Te Anau, Wings and Water are operated by a friendly husband and wife team, Ivan and Kylie.  They are both very accomplished pilots and gladly share their local knowledge and commentary whilst showing off the most incredible scenery around.

Of course, this all happens in the only floatplane found in the South Island!

The feeling of taking off and landing on the water really is unlike any other and is a must-do for plane-loving travellers (and anyone at all, really)

They also offer flights over the untouched beauty of Doubtful and Milford (along with Dusky Sound too) so it’s easy to pick a trip that suits your budget and requirements.

Book: 40-Minute Doubtful Sound Scenic Seaplane Flight.

Book: 1-Hour Milford Sound Scenic Seaplane Flight.

Book: Discounted jet boat ‘n fly combo experience from Te Anau. NZTTPLAY promo code saves 15%.

Helicopter into the Heart of Fiordland

Fiordland is stunning from the sky and Southern Lakes Helicopters are set to get you there.

With a variety of flight options (taking in both the immediate area and all of the sounds), there are plenty of choices.

The challenge is knowing which flight to land on!

We suggest heading out to Doubtful Sound by helicopter. This is because it’s much closer to Te Anau (making it more affordable than the same flight to Milford). Doubtful is also harder to access by ground, making a heli flight even more appealing.

Or, if you’re keen, they can even get you to the most remote western parts of Fiordland.  

These trips take in the stunning scenery in the area, much of which is practically inaccessible otherwise. Travelling by helicopter means you’ll have the opportunity to land and get out and about in these remote locations – how amazing!

Whilst in Te Anau, we suggest swinging by the office to chat with the team about the best flight option for you.

Book: Discounted helicopter flights from Te Anau.

Book: 30-Minute Fiordland National Park Scenic Heli Flight.

Book: Doubtful Sound Scenic Heli Flight with 2 Landings.

Book: Scenic Heli Flight to Doubtful and Milford Sound.

Book: Dusky & Doubtful Sound scenic flight from Te Anau. NZTTPLAY to save 15%.

Activities Exclusively Available in Milford Sound

Check Out the Underwater Observatory

The Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory offers visitors a look below the surface of Milford.

This is the only floating underwater observatory in New Zealand, making it a particularly unique experience in Fiordland. 

Without getting wet, you’ll be able to check out the sea life up close and personal. Just 10 metres below the surface, the variety of fish and coral is incredible.

Book: Milford Sound Cruise, Underwater Observatory, and Lunch tickets (from Milford).

Book: Milford Sound Bus, Cruise, Observatory, and Lunch (from Te Anau).


So, Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound – Which is Best?

Though we’re sure you’d like a clear-cut answer here, there really isn’t one. Both Milford Sound and Doubtful sound are amazing and worth seeing!

Milford Sound is easier to access which makes it more convenient and cost-effective to visit. You’ll have more choice when it comes to activities and operators in Milford too, and as you can drive yourself in, you’ll have plenty of flexibility in planning your own schedule.

The drive in to Milford Sound is a real highlight in our opinion — it includes a number of amazing stops (including the Mirror Lakes, Eglinton Valley and The Chasm, though the later is currently closed due to storm damage) and a ride through the Homer Tunnel.

Milford is undoubtedly stunning so though it’s hard to believe that the drive in is every bit as beautiful, it absolutely is!

If you’re travelling to New Zealand from abroad, it’s probably Milford Sound that you’ve heard of — a visit there is a bucket-list tick for sure. Whether that’s important, we’ll leave you to decide.

Though there’s not much at Milford Sound, there definitely is more in the way of infrastructure than Doubtful. There, you’ll find a few cafes and restaurants, accommodation and a campground too.

Doubtful Sound by comparison is much more difficult to get to (though we think that adds to the adventure.) There is less choice in terms of cruises and activities and the need to join an organised tour can somewhat limit flexibility, but you’ll likely encounter fewer people there, which we think really adds to the magic.

In our opinion, the trip into Doubtful Sound isn’t quite as spectacular (though it is still stunning).

However, if we had to choose which fiord is more beautiful, it would have to be Doubtful Sound! Its scale is so much bigger, making it all the more impressive.


Though Doubtful and Milford are two of the most popular fiords in this national park, they offer surprisingly different experiences.

The answer in the Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound debate is anything but clear — because of this, we highly recommend visiting both if you can find the time and money.

If not, consider which offer more of what you personally value and go ahead and book your adventure, safe in the knowledge that both options are absolutely world class!

Related: If you’re in the South Island during the winter season, check out these ski fields in Queenstown & Wānaka.

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