Fiordland feels like another planet compared to the rest of New Zealand, tucked away in the bottom southwest corner of the South Island. For landscape photography it is a never-ending wonder of jaw-dropping scenery, whether that's mountains rising up from the sea thousands of vertical metres, lush clear aqua rivers surrounded by mossy, green beech forest, or pristine lakes hidden in quiet, alpine valleys where the only sound you might hear is avalanches cascading like waterfalls from hillsides in winter or the sound of kea calling overhead.
When you consider that via road access there isn't a great distance to travel within Fiordland National Park (there's really only one road 120km long between Te Anau and Milford Sound) it's quite incredible just how varying the views can be even along this stretch of road. It's also fascinating that a huge chunk of Fiordland is really only accessible via sea, air or via good old fashioned hiking, but perhaps that in itself is testament to the real beauty of this place.
It always blows my mind to speak to other New Zealanders who haven't yet travelled to this part of the country - sure it's about as far away as you can get from the bright lights of the North Island cities, but it's really NOT that hard to get to, especially if you fly into Queenstown or Invercargill. Day trips leave daily from Queenstown but in my opinion, this is such a poor way to see this amazing place. You only get to stop where the bus driver is scheduled to stop, rather than all the fantastic roadside viewpoints which mean that done well the 120km drive in should really be an all-day affair. Staying the night in Milford Sound is a luxury and albeit expensive unless you can stay in the campervan park, but is well worth the investment when you have opportunities to see the Sound at different times of the day and in different weather conditions - I think I've seen almost every kind of weather during different visits!
Having spent time in Fiordland, both hiking and specifically for landscape photography, these are my pick of the top spots to visit and photograph (in order of the closest to furtherest spots along the drive to Milford Sound):
Not long after you enter the boundaries of Fiordland National Park, the sign for Mirror Lakes appears, intriguing enough to make you want to stop! On a calm day these small lakes reflect the vertical mountain cliffs soaring up behind them, framed beautifully by trees. It's definitely worth stopping even if only for a brief minute!
You might think I've been eating some interesting mushrooms, but the views here always reminds me of the African savannah and I half expect to see a lion popping out of the undergrowth. I find it so strange how one minute you can be in the depths of the southern beech forest, and the next you pop into this vast valley with layers of mountains disappearing off into the distance. There are a couple of pull-in spots along the road with great views, and it's worth jumping out and going for a bit of a wander to take it all in.
I'll be first to admit haven't spent as much time at Lake Gunn as I've wanted to, and I for now I keep leaving with the Nature Walk here still on my to-do list. To date, I've really only shot from the side of the road or at the lake's edge from the northern end - not saying that those views aren't gorgeous though! It's even a great spot for star gazing on a calm night too.
Just after Lake Gunn is The Divide carpark and this is also where you start or finish The Routeburn Track. We walked this 3-day Great Walk back in January 2019 and if you want to read all about the epic photography opportunities on this hike, check out my Routeburn Track post. But if you are walking out of season or can't spare the time or can't get a booking to do the whole hike, you can still enjoy some amazing views on the short 1.5 hour hike up to Key Summit.
For most of the hike up, you'll be heading through stunning Fiordland forest. I've done this hike twice, once in summer as our start to the Routeburn Track, and once in the depths of winter for a sunrise, and on a side note I have NEVER been so cold in all my life as I was on this morning standing on an exposed peak with a strong wind blowing when it was already below zero and frozen up the top, I'd say with wind chill it would have been close to -10 Celsius, needless to say I didn't last very long for photos and it took me all day to warm up! The view however is sensational, and from the top looking across the wee alpine tarn there are views of some impressive peaks of the Darran mountains - Mount Christina and Mount Crosscut at over 2,300 metres tall. There's also great views down the Hollyford valley and up to the Humboldt mountains behind.
Staying on the main road just after the turnoff to Hollyford Valley you'll come upon Christie Falls (also known as Falls Creek Falls - how original!) and a parking area on the right hand side of the road. It's worth stopping here to cross the road and check out the falls which are usually pumping after a lot of rain) as well as the beautiful river flowing down the valley - the colour of the water has to be seen to be believed and the surrounding mossy rocks and forest make a stunning backdrop.
A little further up the road (not long before you reach the Homer Tunnel) you'll find Monkey Creek. There's a carpark on the left hand side and if you are lucky you'll find kea hanging out here - I've seen them a few times and we even had one doing laps on the roof of our campervan as we drove round and round in circles. The view at Monkey Creek is amazing as there's a tall peak (Mount Talbot) right in the middle of a very impressive V-shaped valley - I stopped to shoot here at sunset on my most recent trip to Fiordland and the light on the peak was pretty special.
Not far after Monkey Creek is the Homer Tunnel. I haven't added this as a specific location because at times it's not safe to stop here during winter with the avalanche risk, but depending on how long you have to wait for the traffic lights to get through the tunnel, you might get a brief opportunity to hang out with the kea - always a thrill! You can also look up the numbers on their bands in the NZ kea database to see which friendly parrot you've been interacting with which makes it a more personal experience too - this friendly guy is Guille who we saw just outside the Homer Tunnel in April 2021.
If you're feeling energetic, this day walk has THE best rewards at the end! It's not for the faint of heart though as it is a true tramping track (certainly not as easy as Key Summit) of about 2 hours each way, and there are some fairly gnarly bits (including one somewhat vertical climb of 3-4 metres up the side of cliff with tree roots to grab onto). I've only ever done this hike in winter when there was snow at the end of the track and once just after heavy rain which made for a few unexpected stream crossings (and yes my hiking boots did get a bit damp!).
If you are pushed for time, you can just go as far as the river rapids which are well worth photographing, and that's only about a 15 minute gentle walk from the road. The flow through here is spectacular, though it can be prone to flood debris so you may need to be clever about the angle you are shooting to avoid this in your scene.
The first time I did the full hike to the lake we had been stuck at Milford Sound most of the day waiting for the road to open due to snow overnight to get back through the tunnel which at 920m is very prone to snow and avalanche risk. What was meant to be a day hike turned into a hike for sunset and walking back out in the dark. Despite clear skies on the hike, some high cloud magically appeared right on sunset to light up the sky. Definitely worth the effort!
On my most recent trip to Fiordland, we hiked in during the day and didn't see A SINGLE soul for the whole day and had the entire place all to ourselves - that in itself was pretty special, and was partly due to the fact the road into Milford Sound was closed and didn't open until that afternoon. On this trip we saw an incredible number of avalanches cascading from the cliffs above the lake, they looked like waterfalls in slow motion, it was pretty awe inspiring to watch!
Milford Sound was once described by Rudyard Kipling as the 8th wonder of the world, and when arriving at the foreshore and seeing Mitre Peak rising up before you, it's easy to understand why. There are a few different spots to capture this iconic scene, and this will partly depend on the tide. Yes, Milford Sound is tidal, and it pays to look up the tides before you go to see what it will be like when you are there. At high tide, the best location is close to the terminal where the boats leave so that you can hopefully get a reflection in the calmer waters there.
If you visit when the tide is further out, you can go puddle hunting and find a variety of interesting foregrounds, from rocks to logs and grasses. Gumboots are a great idea as it can be a bit squelchy. It's hard to say whether sunrise or sunset is better here, I'm yet to get a banger sunset here but I have had some rather lovely sunrises with moody mist coming and going. Do be mindful of putting your gear down anywhere if the tide is coming in, it's very calm here so the tide sneaks in quickly and before you know it you can be ankle deep in water without even noticing, which is why it's a bit easier on an outgoing tide.
If you walk all the way along the boardwalk to the last viewpoint to the peak at a lower tide you can also get a good view of Lady Bowen Falls, which looks especially impressive after recent rain when the top of the waterfall spills over in spectacular fashion.
Word of warning: BEWARE THE SANDFLIES! In all the times I've visited here they have only been unbearable twice. But when I mean unbearable I mean REALLY unbearable, to the point of having to wave my hand in front of the camera and use a dust blower to keep them off my lens whilst shooting, not to mention having zero skin visible! It seems that calm, warmer weather is the catalyst so visiting during winter or on a colder day (think <5 degrees) or a breezier day is ideal though that doesn't work so well for reflections!.
You can't visit Milford Sound and NOT take a trip out into the Sound itself. There are a number of operators who will take you, all the way out to the Tasman sea and back. It's a great opportunity to spot wildlife, if you are lucky seals, penguins and maybe even dolphins. On the way back, the boat will take you right underneath Stirling Falls for either a soaking and/or a great photo opportunity of the waterfall up close, so come prepared to capture this with the right waterproof gear to do it justice!
To really experience Fiordland, hiking the Milford Track should also be on your bucket list. I'm well aware that even getting a booking on this track is like winning the lottery as the season's bookings normally sell out in about 10 minutes of opening. I was lucky enough to walk the track in April 2021 and though we had wanted January dates, we had to take what we could get!. Walking in almost the last week of the season was a little risky, and we did have some pretty chilly weather including A LOT of rain, and even some snow, but personally I think it only added to the experience and I'd take our weather over blue skies and sunshine for photography any day! The mood we were able to experience and capture was incredible, and for me having a clear view as we went over Mackinnon Pass more than made up for walking in 6 hours of torrential rain on the last day!
If you want to experience a small portion of the track, you can actually walk to Giant Gate Falls in the summer by taking a boat from Milford Sound over to Sandfly Point and walking about 1.5 hours each way on a very easy, flat track to get there.
To really appreciate the immense scale of Fiordland, you have to see it from the air. I've experienced two flights with Glenorchy Air from Queenstown to Milford - one with a landing in autumn, and one as a flyover in winter. Both were equally mind blowing in their own ways. During the autumn flight we flew directly over Lake Quill which is where NZ's tallest accessible waterfall Sutherland Falls flows from, but in winter seeing the lake surrounded by peaks covered in what looked like icing sugar was also pretty magical.
On this route you'll fly directly past Mt Tutoko, Fiordland's tallest peak at 2,723m, and all the way out to the Tasman Sea before banking around to fly in directly through the Sound.
Landing and taking off here is quite the experience so if you can get a flight that lands I do recommend it! The route back to Queenstown also takes you through much of the terrain that the Routeburn and Milford Tracks pass through while hiking so it's a great way to see a good chunk of these parts of Fiordland if you aren't able to complete the hikes.
This last one is a top tip for a location in Fiordland that's not even on the road to Milford Sound, so if getting away from it all and experiencing a remoter side of Fiordland appeals, then a trip to Doubtful Sound should be top of your list. Real Journeys offers day trips to Doubtful Sound that leave from Manapouri about 15 minutes south of Te Anau, but again staying on their overnight or 2-night cruises gives you a FAR better sense of the huge scale of this place - it's three times longer than Milford Sound with a vast number of coves to explore for a start. Doubtful Sound is also known as Patea - the Place of Silence and there's a sense of remoteness here that is far greater than any location accessible from the road to Milford. On our 3-day cruise, we explored every inch of the Sound including two trips out to the Tasman Sea, and saw an abundance of wildlife not to mention some pretty incredible light and reflections at different times.
Despite being about as far away a place as you can get from where I live, Fiordland has this way of calling me back over and over - I worked out that I've been here 8 times in the past six years and yet I feel I still there is so much more to explore in the region that I will always have to keep coming back for more. Every time I visit, the conditions and light are so different, that it almost feels like I'm coming for the very first time, and it still blows my mind that we have this incredible place in our country waiting to be captured and enjoyed - we are truly blessed.
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