Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are both beautiful fiords that are located in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Both spots offer visitors some of the best experiences in New Zealand with the backdrop of some pretty incredible scenery.
But they differ in their accessibility, size, and popularity.
In a nutshell, Milford Sound is the better-known of the two. It offers visitors easy access to its natural wonders, thanks to its close proximity to the town of Te Anau. However, it can often be quite crowded with all the visitors looking to get the best views of the area.
Doubtful Sound, on the other hand, is more difficult to access. It’s a longer drive and boat ride to reach versus the relatively easy trip to Milford Sound. But there are also perks to this – Doubtful Sound is larger than Milford Sound and it’s much less busy, so you’ll enjoy the peace and serenity of the area with fewer crowds.
In fact, Doubtful Sound has earned the nickname “the Sound of Silence” because it’s just so quiet!
No matter which fiord you choose, both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound have one-of-a-kind experiences, you won’t soon forget. But if you can only visit one, let me help you decide!
We’ll dive into a deeper comparison of these two beautiful destinations so that you can pick which one you’d rather visit.
Milford Sound is easily one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand. This is partly because it’s actually the only fiord in the country that’s accessible via the road. Couple that with its incredible scenery, and it’s easy to understand why Milford Sound is so popular.
In fact, famous English author Rudyard Kipling even described Milford Sound as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
At the fiord, you can witness stunning views of mountains such as Mitre Peak, which is so named because of its resemblance to a bishop’s mitre hat. You can also see some of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand cascading down the cliffs, as well as unique wildlife such as dolphins, seals, and penguins.
If you’re wondering what things there are to do in Milford Sound, there are plenty of activities to enjoy all year round. Cruises are the most popular activity, but there are also amazing hikes, kayaking, and even scenic flights over the fiord.
Milford Sound is an amazing place to visit in both the summer and the winter. The winter months tend to be quieter since it’s more difficult to access the fiord during this season (the road is sometimes closed, and sometimes full of snow), but it’s also absolutely beautiful during this time of year. There’s still plenty to do, you’ll see snow on the mountains, and you’ll be able to enjoy the fiord with fewer visitors around.
Milford Sound also has a rich history and in 1998, it was officially renamed Milford Sound/Piopiotahi to recognize the Maori and Pākehā heritage of the area.
Related read: Check out our complete guide to every national park in NZ for more incredible experiences!
Pros and cons of Milford Sound
There are many pros to visiting Milford Sound, including:
- Milford Sound boasts a beautiful and dramatic landscape, with towering mountains and powerful waterfalls. It really is one of the most stunning places in New Zealand.
- You can visit with or without a tour. It’s easy to plan a trip to Milford Sound whether you would prefer a guided visit or would like to explore the area more independently. You can book a full-day tour from Queenstown or Te Anau, or drive yourself and take a cruise when you get there.
- Lots to do. There are plenty of fun activities on offer in Milford Sound, including cruises, kayaking, and nature walks. You can even see it from high above by taking a scenic flight overhead!
- The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is very beautiful, with plenty of other exciting attractions and activities along the way, like Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, and Pops View Lookout.
- The fiord’s popularity means that there’s an array of activities, all of which are very well organized. You’ll have plenty of tour companies and different experiences to choose from.
- It’s an all-season destination, so whichever time of year you visit New Zealand, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. I love Milford Sound in winter!
- Milford Sound is relatively easy to access. You can drive there by yourself, or choose from many different tours on offer from Queenstown or Te Anau.
- Thanks to its popularity, there are lots of cruises on offer in Milford Sound, whether you prefer big boats with buffet-style lunches or smaller cruises that allow you to really get up close to the fiord.
- Visiting Milford Sound tends to be cheaper than visiting Doubtful Sound because it’s easier to access and its popularity means that there’s more competition between tour companies.
- Milford Sound also has more infrastructure than Doubtful Sound. There are cafes, nearby campgrounds, and a village at the edge of the fiord.
However, there are also some drawbacks to visiting the popular Milford Sound:
- Like any major tourist attraction, Milford Sound can get pretty crowded. In fact, it’s estimated that it receives over one million visitors per year. Since it’s such a popular place to visit, it can get quite busy – especially during the peak summer months.
- Due to its popularity, you’ll also need to arrange tours, activities, and transport in advance during peak season.
- Rainfall. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth! In fact, it can receive up to 10 inches (250 mm) of rainfall per day. To put this into context, Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, receives an average of 5.7 inches (144.78 mm) of rain across the whole of its wettest month.
- Sandflies. The pesky little sandflies found in Milford Sound can be quite annoying. They’re especially bad during the summer months, so it’s wise to bring insect repellent and long-sleeved clothing.
Related read: Don’t let rainy days in NZ get you down – there are also a ton of fun activities to do in Queenstown when it’s raining!
Doubtful Sound is the larger of the two fiords – in fact, it’s three times longer and ten times wider than Milford Sound. It’s also the deepest fiord in New Zealand and it branches out into three arms, which makes it one of the most stunning and unique places to see on the South Island.
One important thing to know about Doubtful Sound is that it’s pretty difficult to access. In fact, its name stems from the fact that Captain Cook initially believed that the fiord was impenetrable. In 1998, Doubtful Sound was renamed Doubtful Sound/Patea.
Like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is home to lots of wonderful wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, crested penguins, and fur seals. You can also visit at any time of year and enjoy the landscape; this doesn’t have to be a summer activity.
Thanks to its remote location, Doubtful Sound is remarkably quiet and still. The only sounds you’ll hear are the birds singing and the cascading waterfalls. It’s incredibly peaceful.
You can’t access Doubtful Sound by road as you can with Milford Sound. Instead, visitors have to take a cruise from the nearby port of Manapouri – about a 15-30 minute drive from Te Anau.
The journey to Doubtful Sound is a bit of an adventure in itself, which can be fun, but it’s definitely not as convenient as visiting the more accessible Milford Sound.
The most popular way to explore Doubtful Sound is via a cruise. This is the best way to get up close to the fiord’s stunning waterfalls and wildlife.
You can also take an overnight cruise, which allows you to break up the journey and explore Doubtful Sound in more detail. Plus, there will be hardly anybody else on the fiord at night, making it a truly serene and magical experience.
You can also go kayaking in Doubtful Sound, which helps you get a real sense of its size. But be warned, Doubtful Sound really is huge, so your arms may get tired!
Although Doubtful Sound is beautiful, its landscape is not as dramatic as that of Milford Sound. The cliffs are not as steep and the mountains are not as high – though that’s not to say that they aren’t still impressive.
Pros and cons of Doubtful Sound
As is the case with Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound has its own list of pros and cons.
The advantages of visiting Doubtful Sound are:
- It’s much more tranquil. Doubtful Sound is much quieter than Milford Sound and receives far fewer visitors. It’s a great option for those who are looking for some peace and quiet.
- Adventure. Given Doubtful Sound’s remoteness and inaccessibility, it’s a great option for travelers who are looking to get off the beaten track and have a more adventurous experience out in nature. There’s something really exciting about being able to explore a place that very few people get to see.
- Although Doubtful Sound is still very wet, it receives less rainfall than Milford Sound, making it a better option for visitors who want to avoid the rain.
- It’s huge. The sheer size of Doubtful Sound is really impressive, and exploring it by boat or kayak is a great way to appreciate it.
On the downside, Doubtful Sound is:
- Much more difficult to access than Milford Sound. While you can access Milford Sound by road, a visit to Doubtful Sound requires you to take a cruise from the nearby port of Manapouri. This makes it much less convenient and more time-consuming to get there.
- More expensive to visit, since it requires a cruise to get there, and there is less demand. Plus, if you’re opting for an overnight cruise, then the cost is even higher.
- Less dramatic in terms of landscape than Milford Sound. It’s still beautiful, but we didn’t find that it had quite the same “wow” factor.
- You have to visit Doubtful Sound as part of a tour because of the need for a cruise to get there. So, if you prefer more independent travel, then this may be a downside for you.
- There’s less infrastructure in and around Doubtful Sound. For example, if you’re looking at accommodation options in the area, then your choices will be more limited than those around Milford Sound.
Which is easier to access, Milford or Doubtful?
Milford Sound is easier to access than Doubtful Sound. In fact, the drive to Milford Sound is one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand!
You can access Milford Sound via Milford Sound Road, which takes you to the carpark at Milford Sound’s head. From here, you can take a cruise around the Fiord and/or explore the surrounding area on foot.
On the other hand, accessing Doubtful Sound requires a cruise from the nearby port of Manapouri. You’ll first need to travel from either Queenstown to Manapouri, which takes 2 hours, or Te Anau, which takes 15-30 minutes. Then, once you reach Manapouri, you’ll take an hour-long cruise to the West Arm, and then take a coach ride to Deep Cove, which is the starting point for cruises around Doubtful Sound.
It’s possible to do a day trip from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound, but while it’s an amazing experience, bear in mind that it does involve a lot of travel time.
The answer is pretty clear: Milford Sound is definitely easier to access than Doubtful Sound.
Related read: It’s also possible to see Milford Sound from the air on the most popular helicopter tours from Queenstown!
Can you spend the night in both Milford and Doubtful Sound?
Yes, you can stay overnight in Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.
Overnight cruises are an amazing way to experience either Milford or Doubtful Sound. You get to see the sunset, watch the stars come out, and enjoy the sunrise in all its glory. Plus, both fiords are quiet at night which means that you’ll feel like you have the area pretty much to yourself.
On this 3-day, 2-night cruise in Doubtful Sound, you’ll travel from Queenstown and spend the first night in Te Anau exploring the glow worm caves which is a fascinating, magical experience.
Then, you’ll head to Doubtful Sound the following morning and travel around the fiord on the cruise. You’ll have time to explore, kayak, or just sit back and take in your surroundings before spending the night in the fiord and heading back to Queenstown the next day. All your transportation and accommodations are taken care of for the $1,280 NZD price, so you can just soak up the incredible views!
If you choose to visit Milford Sound instead, you can also spend the night in the Milford Sound Lodge, which is the only accommodation option right near the fiord. This gives you the chance to explore Milford Sound at night and spend some time stargazing and reflecting on a tranquil evening.
You can also choose to spend the night on an overnight cruise in Milford. To me, this would be the ultimate experience since you’ll get to enjoy both sunset and sunrise on the water. Plus, you’ll be the only cruise on the water in the evening, so it’ll be very peaceful.
However, there are also campgrounds close to Milford Sound along the Milford Sound Road, including Cascade Creek Campsite which is a 40-minute drive away, so you can stay close to the fiord and sleep under the stars.
Overall, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to truly immerse themselves in an overnight experience of either Doubtful or Milford Sound. However, there are more options available in Milford Sound, whereas the only way to stay overnight in Doubtful Sound is on a cruise.
Related read: Make sure you grab a bite to eat at the best restaurants in Te Anau while you’re in the area!
Which fiord has the best views?
As we’ve said, both fiords are beautiful, but overall, Milford Sound has to be the winner.
Although Doubtful Sound is actually home to a greater number of waterfalls than Milford Sound, Milford’s are steeper and more dramatic. Plus, the higher amount of rainfall in Milford Sound means that the flow is pretty much always spectacular.
Milford Sound also offers amazing views of Mitre Peak, which is an iconic mountain that’s 1,683 meters (5,522 feet) high and is one of the tallest peaks in the area. In fact, it’s actually made up of five peaks, but from most viewpoints, it looks like one mountain with a very sharp peak.
Although Doubtful Sound is still very beautiful with its dense rainforest, deep waters, and rugged mountains, it doesn’t quite reach the same majestic heights as Milford Sound.
If you’re looking for the most dramatic views, Milford Sound is the clear choice.
Is there more to do in Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is a lot more popular than Doubtful Sound, and as a result, there’s more to do. In both fiords, you can take a cruise and go kayaking, but in Milford Sound, you can also do some of the top hikes in New Zealand, take a helicopter ride over the fiord, and take a boat out to the Lady Bowen Falls.
Milford Sound is also home to an observatory where you can learn about the local marine life and learn more about Maori culture. This is a great opportunity for visitors to understand the history of the area and learn about local conservation efforts.
Doubtful Sound is only really accessible via a tour, and since it’s less popular, there are fewer activities on offer. Exploring the fiord by boat is an amazing experience, but that’s pretty much it. If you’re looking for more activities and the ability to explore independently, you may enjoy Milford Sound more.
Best Tours to Milford Sound
Tours to Milford from Queenstown
If you’re planning to be based in Queenstown and looking for more of a day-trip-type of tour to Milford Sound, that’s totally possible. These are my top picks!
Award-winning small group tour
This award-winning, full-day tour from Queenstown includes a 2-hour nature cruise and plenty of stops so that you can experience the full natural diversity of Milford Sound. You’ll get to see two of New Zealand’s largest lakes – Lake Wakatipu and Lake Te Anau – as well as the Homer Tunnel and Eglinton Valley. For only $229 NZD, this is an all-inclusive type tour with everything included!
Premium Milford Sound tour with LOTR filming sites
As well as exploring beautiful Milford Sound, this small group tour takes you past filming sites for the Lord of the Rings movies! It also includes lunch, snacks, and a cruise, and you’re free to add on a scenic flight if you’d like to. The tour is $249 NZD.
Milford Sound glass-topped bus tour and cruise
Travel in style from Queenstown on a glass roof coach and enjoy a cruise, the Mirror Lakes Walk, and a stop at the Homer Tunnel on this fun day tour. You’ll learn lots from your knowledgeable guide and get to see some of New Zealand’s best scenery. Plus, lunch and filling up your water bottle with glacier water from Monkey Creek are included too! The entire tour is $215 NZD.
Tours to Milford from Te Anau
As the closest village to Milford Sound, Te Anau is the perfect place to stay for a bit if you have a few days to soak up the beauty of this area. Plus, the tours are a bit cheaper since you’re closer to Milford Sound.
Premium Milford Sound small group tour
This full-day tour from Te Anau starts with a stop at Eglington Valley, which is famed for its lowland beech forest. You’ll then visit Mirror Lakes, where you can take a short walk to see the reflections of the Earl Mountains on a still day.
Other great activities on this tour include a boat cruise, the Chasm Walk, and a stop at Pops View Lookout for an amazing view of the divide in the Alps. This $199 NZD all-day tour is packed full but doesn’t feel too rushed. The two-hour cruise is definitely a highlight!
Milford Sound glass roof bus and scenic cruise
This tour includes a glass roof coach ride to and from Te Anau for panoramic views and a nature cruise on the Tasman Sea. You’ll enjoy so many of the park’s highlights (waterfalls, mountains, and rivers galore) and several scenic stops on the way to and from Milford Sound.
Plus there’s a buffet lunch, and unlimited tea and coffee – yay! This really is a great way to cover a lot of ground for an affordable price of $209 NZD.
From Milford Sound
If you’re already here or planning to drive yourself, it’s super easy to add on a tour (or two!) to really enhance your experience. There are lots of different Milford Sound boat cruises to choose from. Some of these tours below are my favorite ways to get out on the water.
This nature cruise is a great option for anyone who wants to secure their place on a cruise in advance but wants to explore the park independently rather than taking a full-day tour.
You’ll glide past granite walls, Mitre Peak, and waterfalls including Stirling Falls, which is the famous waterfall that Hugh Jackman jumped off of in Wolverine!
What we love about this cruise is that it takes place on one of the smaller boats, allowing you to get much closer to the scenery (you’ll feel the spray from the waterfalls!) and truly appreciate it. The tour is $134 NZD if you include the add-on of a picnic lunch while on board.
This scenic cruise along the fiord and the Tasman coast is another great choice. It’s on a small boat, with a knowledgeable local guide who’ll help you to spot wildlife and learn more about the history and scenery of Milford Sound.
Make sure you head out on the boat’s viewing platform to look for fur seals, dusky dolphins, and the rare Fiordland crested penguins! The cruise is $112 NZD per person and free for kids under 3.
Small boutique cruise
This boutique cruise allows you to bring your own food and drink on board, which is ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to be restricted to the set menu on a nature cruise.
You’ll ride in comfort in luxury lounge-style seating on this boutique boat, so it’s great if you’re looking for a slightly more glamorous experience. This is perfect if you’re planning a romantic Queenstown honeymoon and want to see Milford Sound! The cruise is $115 NZD per person.
Milford Sound cruise and kayak
Not only do you get to enjoy a nature cruise on this tour, but you also get to go kayaking, which is one of our favorite things to do in Milford Sound.
The cruise starts pretty early in the morning which allows you to beat the crowds, and you’ll also get to visit the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory, which is only accessible by boat and lets you see marine life up close and learn about conversation efforts.
After that, you can enjoy a kayaking trip through Milford Sound, which is limited to just 8 people per group for a more personal experience. You’ll paddle through Harrison Cove and enjoy amazing views of Pembroke Glacier from the water. The amazing tour is $229 NZD.
Best Tours to Doubtful Sound
Tour to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown
It’s a long journey from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound, but if you’re short on time and want to explore this beautiful fiord, this tour is a super easy and convenient way to go about it.
You’ll be picked up from Queenstown by your tour bus at around 7 am and then journey to Lake Manapouri, where you’ll then take the ferry across to the Wilmot Pass. Here, you’ll have a great photo opportunity of Doubtful Sound from above, and then you’ll take a catamaran cruise through the fiord, learning all about its history and wildlife from your guide as you go.
This tour costs $289 NZD. It doesn’t include food and drinks, and it’s best to book in advance as this tour sells out pretty fast during peak season.
From Te Anau
If you’re staying in Te Anau, this day tour is a great option.
You’ll need to arrange your own transportation from Te Anau to Manapouri, which you can do via car, coach, or taxi. From Lake Manapouri, you’ll then begin the journey to Doubtful Sound via ferry and coach, and then enjoy a luxury catamaran cruise through the fiord, spotting wildlife, listening to birdsong, and learning more about Doubtful Sound’s unique ecosystem.
This tour costs $229 NZD and the price doesn’t include food or drinks, but they are available for purchase on the boat.
What is my favorite, Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound?
Even though Milford Sound is significantly busier than Doubtful Sound, it’s definitely my favorite of the two. Its beauty is simply breathtaking.
The combination of dramatic mountain peaks, steep cliffs, and lush rainforest make Milford Sound an incredible sight to behold, and there are so many more activities on offer here than in Doubtful Sound.
Don’t get me wrong – I think Doubtful Sound is a great choice for travelers who love nothing more than getting off the beaten track and exploring nature in complete peace and tranquility.
If you have time, you could even stay in Te Anau and visit both fiords. However, if you don’t have that much time and you’re looking for something a bit more dramatic and adventurous, Milford Sound is definitely the one that I would choose.
Related read: Traveling as a couple? We have lots of New Zealand romantic getaway ideas for you!
Thanks for reading!
Hopefully, this comparison between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound has been helpful as you plan your trip. Both spots are beautiful parts of New Zealand, it just depends on what you’re hoping to get out of your trip.
If you travel to both, let me know which was your favorite! In the meantime, browse around my other blogs for more ideas and inspiration to make the most of your New Zealand vacay!