Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Visited: March 2019
Encompassing nearly 4,900 square miles, Fiordland National Park is the largest National Park in New Zealand and is a true paradise for hikers and backpackers. The park is in the extreme southwestern part of the South Island of New Zealand, and contains 14 long, glacier cut fiords, including the famous Milford and Doubtful Sounds. As we drove through the park in our campervan, we were awestruck at the jagged peaks and dramatic valleys that were created as ancient glaciers slowly carved paths through the mountains over millennia.
Nearby Fox Glacier
New Zealand is currently home to more than 3,000 glaciers. Glaciers are basically huge masses of compacted ice and snow. As gravity pulls the enormously heavy sheets of glacial ice downhill towards the sea, pieces of rock are picked up and frozen into the ice. As the ice slides downhill, the rocks trapped in the glacier work like sandpaper to grind down mountains into dramatic vertical u-shaped canyons. This entire process can take millions of years to carve the rocks into the fiords like those found in Fiordland National Park.
Bridge in the Kepler Track, Fiordland National Park
Te Anu Lake is a good first stop on any visit to Fiordland National Park. The cute little town is a great place to pick up supplies or groceries before heading down the long one-way Milford Road to venture deeper into the park. The Fiordland National Park Visitor Center is also located here. The helpful Department of Conservation staff can help you plan your visit, and give you weather and trail closure info. You can also book stays in back-country cabins if you are looking to do a multi-day hike in the park.
The moss-covered forest along the Kepler Track looked like something out of a fairy-tale
You can pick up the Kepler track from just outside of the Visitor Center. The world-famous hiking trail stretches for a total of 60 kilometers through mossy forests, over mountain peaks, along lakes, and through wetlands. Experienced backcountry hikers can usually complete the full loop track in about 4 days. We weren’t equipped for overnight backpacking, but we were able to hike the first day of the track starting at Rainbow Reach. The forest was like something out of a fairy-tale, with bright green moss covering the forest floor like a thick carpet. Lichen hung from every branch, and steadily dripped water into the greenery below. It rained the entire time that we walked the Kepler Track, but the water only enhanced the beauty of the trail.
About an hour drive north of Te Anau, Mirror Lakes provide crystal clear pools to reflect the nearby Earl Mountains. The short walk takes about 10 minutes from the parking lot. It is a beautiful stop, and worth a look, although it can become crowded with tour buses.
One of the waterfalls on the hike to Lake Marian
It takes about three hours to do the full hike to Marian Lake. The alpine lake provides beautiful views of the Hanging Valley. The first 15 minutes of the trail is particularly spectacular, as you will cross a suspension bridge, and walk along a fast flowing river filled with roaring waterfalls.
We were in Fiordland National Park while Cyclone Trevor was ravaging the South Island of New Zealand. The fierce rains made it a particularly good time to visit The Chasm. The Chasm is a short 20-minute walk to a bridge passing over a raging waterfall. The pounding water has carved intricate patterns in the rock over time, providing amazing views as you walk above the falls.
Our Escape campervan on the way to Homer Saddle
Before the Homer tunnel was completed in 1953, Milford Sound was only accessible by Sea. The tunnel pierces Homer Saddle, for 1.2 kilometers, with rough-cut stone roof and walls, just wide enough to form a single lane for traffic to cross the pass into Milford Sound. It took nearly 20 years to complete the tunnel, and work began with just 5 men who were equipped with hand picks and wheelbarrows. To this day, the tunnel is just wide enough for a single car lane and driving through it continues to be an exciting experience.
Author Rudyard Kipling once called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world. Today, Milford Sound is the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand, and for good reason. The 15 kilometer fiord is carved through steep cliffs that rise upwards of 4,000 feet, forming sheer cliffs that jut from the water below.
Milford sound is also one of the wettest places on Earth, with a median annual rainfall of over 250 inches. This rainwater creates enormous rushing waterfalls as it runs from the surrounding mountains and makes its way through Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea.
As freshwater leeches through the surrounding forests and into the sound, it picks up tannins in the vegetation, turning the surface of Milford Sound a deep black color.
Visitors can hike along the shores of the sound, climb one of the surrounding peaks, or take boat, plane or helicopter tours to experience the natural wonder from a different perspective.
Knobs Flat Campground
Milford Road is literally littered with Department of Conservation campgrounds. Most of these do not have running water or flush toilets, but if you can live without these luxuries, the D.O.C campsites provide the best scenery in the park.
Knobs Flat provides the last flush toilets and hot showers on Milford Road as you head towards Milford Sound. The campground can accommodate everything from tents to large RVs and includes a decent camp kitchen for NZD $20 per person per night.