NZ's Best Waterfalls - Fiordland & Milford Sound

New Zealand has the best waterfalls!

It's no secret, I love chasing waterfalls! And lucky for me (and you if you are a waterfall hunter too) New Zealand has hundreds of amazing waterfalls from the Far North of the North Island all the way to the very bottom of the South Island down in the Catlins. There's so many worthy waterfalls worth visiting that I've broken them down into regions so you can plan your visit accordingly - you're welcome!

Photographing waterfalls is a great past-time for any landscape photographer during the day when you're in-between sunrise and sunset and looking for a way to pass the day. You'll get the best results from your waterfall shots if you use a set of neutral density filters and a circular polariser  - I use KASE filters and highly recommend them as they are drop-proof and are multi-coated so that they're easy to clean when they get spray on them at waterfalls!

I've also rated each waterfall for:

Ease of Access: 1 = a long or hard walk or drive to get to  vs 3 = easy to get to by car and/or on foot

Photography Options: 1 = hard to photograph with a lot of spray or to get good compositions vs 3 = lots of choice and easy to photograph

Overall Experience: 1 = I wouldn't necessarily go back vs 3 = I'd want to visit anytime I was in the area

1) Lady Bowen Falls - 7/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 2

There's nothing ladylike about these falls. Lady Bowen Falls is one of only two permanent waterfalls that you'll see in Milford Sound - the other being Stirling Falls.  The beauty of these falls is that you can see them (although partially obscured) right from the foreshore. On a day when the waterfalls are raging in the Sound you won't miss the sound and the waterfall becomes and overflowing powerful beast!

Photography Options = 2

Until my autumn trip to Milford Sound I was unaware that you can actually get up close to the waterfall if you take a water taxi from the main boat docking area across to the base of the waterfall. There used to be a track you could walk across to get there but this has been closed for some time to the danger of falling rock. It cost $10 to take the 2 minute trip across to the falls and our water taxi host stayed with us while we had our fill of taking photos there before ferrying us back across.

The water taxi only runs in certain seasons and weather conditions so you would need to check in at the information area to see if it is running.

Overall Experience = 3

This waterfall is majorly impressive - it's 162 metres tall and quadruples in volume on a typical rainy Fiordland day. Its power actually generates electricity for some of the facilities at Milford Sound, and even if you can only see it from the foreshore you'll still be wowed.

Lady Bowen Falls Milford Sound
Bowen Falls Milford Sound

2) Stirling Falls - 7/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 1

The only way to see Stirling Falls up close is to take a cruise on Milford Sound with one of the many tour operators there which means paying for the privilege. However, if you are visiting Milford Sound for the first time, a cruise is a must-do to really experience the beauty here so you'd be silly not to book one.

Photography Options = 3

During a cruise on the Sound, you'll go past Stirling Falls twice on the way out and back, and if you're lucky you'll get taken up so close to the Falls you can stand right under them at the front of the boat and get a drenching while you're at it - bring a raincoat and be careful of your camera gear!

Overall Experience = 3

Stirling Falls is only 10 metres shorter than Lady Bowen Falls at 151 metres and given there's very few places in the world where you can experience standing under a waterfall while on a boat this alone makes it a pretty unique experience!  

Stirling Falls Milford Sound

3) Falls Creek Falls (Christie Falls) - 5/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 3

These falls are viewable from the road as you drive into Milford Sound, just past the Hollyford Road turnoff. There's also a small carpark on the other side of the road by the river so you can pull in here and walk back to the falls for a close up view.

Photography Options = 1

As you can really only stand on a small footbridge directly in front of the falls, the photography options are limited to 1 or 2 compositions only, and if it's in full flow after rain, the spray can make shots a wee bit challenging as you can see from all the spots on my lens in this shot!

Overall Experience = 1

I love the setting of this waterfall hidden in a crevasse and tumbling down in two sections and the fact it's so easy to access but there are definitely more impressive waterfalls in the region than this one.

Falls Creek Falls Milford Sound

4) The Chasm 5/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 2

The Chasm is found after the Homer Tunnel and not far from the end of the Milford Road. There's a nice big carpark to park in and you might have the added bonus of having some cheeky kea to come and say hi as have often happened to me when I've visited here.

Photography Options = 1

The main place to take photos is standing on the bridge and looking upstream or downstream for different compositions. Taking photos from a bridge always makes compositions a bit more challenging as you have to be a able to get your camera and tripod to a certain height to avoid getting railings in your shot, and it's hard to do justice to the depth and volume of the water and gorge here.

Overall Experience = 2

This spot is well worth a visit even if it isn't the easiest place to capture great images. Seeing the sheer volume of water in the Cleddau River being forced through this tiny gap and the unusual rock formations it has created is a pretty awesome experience in any case.

The Chasm Milford Sound

5) Marian Falls Rapids

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 2

This series of river cascades are effectively  like a mini waterfall are a 10-15 minute walk from the Lake Marian trail carpark on the Hollyford road. It's a pretty easy walk in although slightly uphill on the way there. You can stop at the first set of rapids or carry on a few minutes on a rougher part of the track to find more rapids upstream.

Photography Options = 2

The best viewpoint is from the viewing platform but as it skirts along the side of the river you can choose from several different compositions, and again if you follow the track further uphill there are more options to capture the river rapids there too.

Overall Experience = 2

Being Fiordland, you'll have to watch out for sandflies here, although going in colder weather makes this less of an issue. The falls are just one stunning viewpoint on the start of what is an amazing day hike to Lake Marian, I love the setting surrounded by the beech forest. Definitely worth the short detour from the main Milford road.

Marian Falls Rapids Fiordland

6) Sutherland Falls 6/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 1

At 580 metres, Sutherland Falls was long believed to be NZ's tallest waterfall though apparently the Brown Cascades in Doubtful sound are higher. These falls can only be seen while walking the Milford Track or on a scenic flight which makes it even more special when you get the opportunity to set eyes on them.

Photography options = 1

If you walked to the base of Sutherland Falls on the Milford track, you may find more compositions than from the air but I think it would be almost impossible to get the true scale of the falls from the ground, so shots from the air definitely do it more justice. That being said, when you're flying past in an aeroplane you usually only have a few seconds to get the vantage point you want, so snap that shutter fast!

Overall Experience = 3

My experience of seeing Sutherland Falls was on the return leg of a Queenstown - Milford scenic flight. Flying right into and around Lake Quill (which Sutherland Falls empties from) was as enjoyable as seeing the falls themselves, and you do have to be quick to take a good shot from a moving aeroplane. It's a majorly impressive sight and feast for the eyes even if you don't come away with the perfect image.

Sutherland Falls Fiordland Milford Track

7) Earland Falls, The Routeburn Track 5/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access = 1

Earland Falls makes a great day hike from The Divide end of the Routeburn Track OR a great viewpoint on Day 1 of the full hike starting from the Milford end. If you choose to do it one day it's about a 6 hour return journey.

Photography Options = 1

Given that the waterfall pretty much lands on the track you have to walk past, you're guaranteed to get a bit wet from the spray so standing as far back as possible on the Mackenzie Hut side of the track will enable the best viewpoint to get the entire 175 metres of waterfall in your shot  - and it's best to try this with a wide angle lens.

Overall Experience = 3

Let's face it, The Routeburn Track is one of NZ's best hikes so I could hardly rate this waterfall any less. The hike from the Divide to the Falls has ever-changing mountain vistas and lush forest views so you won't be disappointed even if you find the falls a challenge to photograph. If you have time to carry on a little further, try and find number 8 - it's my personal favourite!

Earland Falls Routeburn Track Fiordland

8) Turtle Falls, The Routeburn Track  6/9 (Meghan's PICK!)

Where to find it

Ease of access = 1

OK, so I might have made up the name of this unnamed waterfall on The Routeburn Track but it definitely suits it - can you spot the Turtle in the image below? Check out the rock right in the centre of the image below the highest waterfall. This waterfall is about another half an hour's walk further on from Earland Falls, and if you're doing the hike in one day - it's definitely worth carrying on to this spot. On the map link above you can see a bridge marked to the north of Earland Falls - that's where the waterfall is

Photography Options = 2

You can shoot from the bridge or down beside the bridge which is where I took my shots. Or if you have plenty of time you could try a few other angles as well - we didn't have time on our side as we were on a mission to get to Lake Mackenzie Hut after a long first day on the track.

Overall Experience = 3

For the sheer beauty of the setting of this waterfall with the wee turtle rock and the way the water tumbles down in this quiet spot on the track,  this is MY PICK for most beautiful waterfall in Fiordland. I have since sold this image as a kitchen splashback as well!

Turtle Falls Routeburn Track Fiordland

9) Any rainy day in Fiordland

I couldn't very well finish a post about the best waterfalls in Fiordland without mentioning that on any rainy day, the drive into Fiordland produces views of hundreds if not thousands of waterfalls pouring from the sheer and vertical cliffs on either side of the road.

Even parking up at Homer Tunnel to wait for the traffic lights (which can take up to 5 minutes) gives opportunities to quickly hop out of the car and snap some shots of the amazing cascades before you.

And if you choose to stay the night in Milford Sound at the Lodge or Rainforest campervan park you'll be treated to amazing views through the trees of tumbling water right from where you are staying.

Everyone should experience the drive to Milford Sound in the pouring rain at least once in their lifetime - it is the stuff dreams are made of!

Milford Sound Waterfall Cliffs
After rain Milford Sound waterfalls

For more waterfall inspiration check out the other posts in NZ's Best Waterfall series:

NZ's Best Waterfall - Northland & Waikato

NZ's Best Waterfalls - Coromandel & Bay of Plenty

NZ's Best Waterfalls - The Catlins Edition

5 reasons why Tarawera Falls is NZ's most epic waterfall location

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