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  • Writer's pictureLauren H

Te Anau: Exploring Milford and Doubtful Sound


 Lake Te Anau
Lake Te Anau

Te Anau is a quaint town that serves as a home base for some of the most spectacular and world-famous hiking in New Zealand. Kayaking, boating through glow worm caves, watching local New Zealand documentaries and endless hiking are all easily accessible from Te Anau.


When I traveled to New Zealand I made plans to spend two days visiting Milford Sound. Unfortunately, the road to Milford Sound was washed out a week before my arrival. My friends and I ended up exploring the nearby Doubtful Sound instead, so I am outlining both itinerary options below. If Milford Sound is open, the Doubtful Sound area will likely be significantly less crowded if you want to avoid crowds!

This area also has multiple world-famous multi-day treks. We were supposed to hike the Routeburn trail but it was also canceled during our trip. I outlined a quick summary of the multi-day hikes in the area for you to consider as an add-on.


Jump Ahead to a Section Below:


Milford Sound


Doubtful Sound


Multi-Day Treks



Milford Sound


Day One

Milford Track Guided Walk and Milford Sound Boat Ride


We had planned to hike the multi-day Routeburn trek but also still wanted to see part of the renowned Milford trek. There is an option for a short day hike on the Milford Trek where you are able to see the Sandfly Point and Giant Gates Waterfall, but it is required to be a guided hike. Trips and Tramps offers a day tour with a 2-hour boat ride through the sound, and 3 hours of hiking on the Milford trek. It costs $132 NZ per person.


In the evening, book tickets for a movie at the Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau. It is a small local theater with a bar (Black Dog Bar) attached. Grab a drink and snack and watch a local documentary in a cute theater. They typically showcase local films about the area and usually have a short film (30 minutes) option as well.



Day Two

Milford Sound Kayak and Hike to Lake Marian

Rosco’s Milford Kayaks offers a wide variety of kayaking tour options in Milford sound for all levels of kayaking and times of the day.


We had booked the Morning Glory tour which was 3.5 to 4 hours of paddling. The early morning hours are supposedly the best time to see Milford Sound. The tour boats don’t start as early as the kayaking tours, so you will have quieter, calmer waters for experiencing the sound. The kayak tour takes you past waterfalls and then all the way out to the entrance of Milford Sound. It costs $225 NZ per person for the Morning Glory tour.


In the afternoon we had planned to Hike to Lake Marian. It is a 3.1 km out-and-back trail with 1,381 feet in elevation gain. The trail leads you past a series of waterfalls and then is a steep climb up to Lake Marian, a spectacular turquoise alpine lake. On a calm day, the mountains behind the lake will reflect in the water. It will take about 3 hours to complete out and back.


That evening back in Te Anau, experience a glow worm cave tour. The 2.5-hour tour includes a boat ride across Te Anau to access the cave and then a small boat ride into the grotto with the glow worms. The tour costs $99 NZ per person.


Heading into the Glow Worm Cave
Heading into the Glow Worm Cave

Doubtful Sound


Day One

Kayak Doubtful Sound


Go Orange offers an all-day kayaking experience in Doubtful Sound for $295 NZ per person. They will pick you up from your lodging in Te Anau and then drive you to Lake Manapouri. You then ferry across Lake Manapouri and are picked up by a shuttle bus on the other side. The road to Doubtful Sound goes through Wilmot Pass and is not accessible to vehicles that aren’t with a tour company. The drive itself is beautiful and the driver teaches you about the history of the area on the way. You arrive at Doubtful Sound and are provided with all the gear you need for kayaking (waterproofing clothing, a dry bag, etc).

This may sound strange, but bring a pair of wool socks to wear while kayaking. The sandflies in this area are terrible. Any skin left exposed will get bitten, no matter how much bug spray you put on.


Kayaking In Doubtful Sound
Kayaking In Doubtful Sound

We spent about 2 hours kayaking through the sound and it was magical. They only take out small groups of 8 people so we were easily able to learn about the area from our guide. Doubtful Sound is significantly less popular than Milford Sound (partially because it is harder to get to), so it was a relatively quiet kayak ride. We only saw a handful of tour boats. Note that they require you to ride in a tandem kayak with another person. If you are traveling with an odd number they will match you up with someone.




After kayaking, you take the bus ride back but stop at a viewpoint on the way.

Viewpoint of Doubtful Sound
Viewpoint of Doubtful Sound

Then you ferry back across Lake Manapouri and are driven back to your lodging in Te Anau.


Ferrying Across Lake Manapouri
Ferrying Across Lake Manapouri

In the evening, book tickets for a movie at the Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau. It is a small local theater with a bar (Black Dog Bar) attached. Grab a drink and snack and watch a local documentary in a cute theater. They typically showcase local films about the area and usually have a short film (30 minutes) option as well.


Fiordland Cinema
Fiordland Cinema

Day Two

Boat Ride and Hike The Manapouri Circle Track


Head back to Pearl Harbor on Lake Manapouri again but instead of taking one of the large tourist ferries across, hire a small taxi boat for $20 NZ to take you across the Waiau River to the trailhead of the Manapouri Circle Track. You don’t need to book this in advance and can pay when you arrive at the harbor.


The Manapouri Circle trail isn’t well known and isn’t as well groomed as most of the other trails we hiked in New Zealand. It leads you to a breathtaking panoramic view of Lake Manapouri and its islands. It is a 6.2-mile loop with 1,587 in elevation gain. It will take 3 to 3.5 hours to complete.


That evening back in Te Anau, experience a glow worm cave tour. The 2.5-hour tour includes a boat ride across Te Anau to access the cave and then a small boat ride into the grotto with the glow worms. The tour costs $99 NZ per person.


Multi-Day Treks


Kepler Track

This multi-day hike is a 60 km loop that takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete. There are 3 huts and 2 campsites along the route. With the huts, you can avoid carrying a tent in your pack. Huts and campsites must be reserved in advance and cost $65 per person per night. There are no options for guided overnight hikes on this trail.

The trail takes you around the shoreline of Lake Te Anau and Manapouri and through exposed mountain ridgelines with stunning vistas. There is 7,270 feet in elevation gain over the 4 days.


We hiked a small portion of the Kepler Track that is easily accessible from Te Anau.

A Swing Bridge on the Kepler Track
A Swing Bridge on the Kepler Track



Routeburn Track

This track is a 33 km one-way hike (plan to arrange transit for pick up and drop off at the beginning and end) with 5,364 feet in elevation gain throughout it. The hike typically takes 3 days and 2 nights to complete. The trail varies with uphill and downhill sections so there is no straight incline for full days. There are 3 huts and 2 campsites for overnight options. They also must be reserved in advance and cost $65 NZ per person, per night. For this track, there is also a company that offers guided treks and private lodgings. They handle carrying food and cooking meals for you as well. Depending on which type of lodging you chose, a guided trek with food and lodging can start at $1,500 NZ per person. For more information visit this website.


The trail leads you through Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Park. You will pass through meadows, and gardens and then climb to panoramic vistas on exposed mountain ridges. It is New Zealand’s 2nd most popular multi-day trek.


Milford Track

New Zealand’s most popular multi-day trek and arguably its most well-known trek is the Milford Track. It is a 53.5-mile hike one way (plan to arrange transit for pick up and drop off at the beginning and end). The hike takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete and has 9,458 feet in elevation gain. There are three huts but no campsites on this trail. The huts cost $70 per person per night and need to be booked 11 months in advance.

There is a company that offers guided treks and private lodgings for this trek. They handle carrying food and cooking meals for you as well. Depending on which type of lodging you chose, a guided trek with food and lodging can start at $1,500 NZ per person. For more information visit this website.


The trail traverses through Fiordland, passing through ancient forests, glacier-carved valleys, and magical waterfalls. Day three is the toughest day with a long climb up Mackinnon Pass.


Build an Itinerary for Te Anau and Milford Sound

This itinerary works well as a stand-alone long weekend trip. Our trip to the area was part of a month-long trip throughout New Zealand. My post on putting together the whole trip is here. Any of the South Island stops (Queenstown, Nelson, Te Anau) or Auckland work as easy add-ons to make a longer trip. Queenstown is only 2 hours away so it is the easiest add-on.


Lodging for Te Anau and Milford Sound

For this itinerary, I recommend staying in Te Anau. There is one lodge in Milford Sound but it books up far in advance and is expensive. Te Anau is a 1.5-hour drive from Milford Sound and is a cute town with other attractions as well.


View From our Airbnb in Te Anau
View From our Airbnb in Te Anau

Advanced Bookings for Te Anau and Milford Sound

Any of the multi-day treks need to be booked almost a year out. The huts and campsites will sell out before the private guided options, those can be booked a few months out, depending on the trek. The Milford Sound Trek will sell out earliest.

I recommend booking guided hikes and kayaking tours at least a month in advance as well. They all have a limited number of spots available.


What to Wear and Pack for Te Anau And Milford Sound


What to Wear

  • Hiking boots or shoes


What to Pack

  • A daypack for hiking

  • A water bladder

  • Bug Repellant- the areas near Doubtful and Milford are both known for biting sandflies


Where to Eat in Te Anau and Milford Sound


Bao Now

This is a gourmet food truck located next to the grocery store in town. They serve creative Asian fusion bao sandwiches (with the option to sub a lettuce wrap) and fries.


Bao Now Food Truck
Bao Now Food Truck

What to Eat

  • Roadside fruit- If you travel during New Zealand’s Summer make sure to stop at any berry, peach, or cherry stand that you see on road trips. Their produce straight from the farm will make it hard to go back to grocery store fruit at home.

  • Ice Cream- New Zealand dairy products come from grass-fed cows that can graze year-round. This makes for creamy, fresh ice cream.

  • Cheese- They make a variety of local cheeses. Gouda, Cheddar, Brie, Goat, and Blue Cheese were regulars that we saw in restaurants. They make a milder blue cheese that was unlike any blue cheese I had eaten before, so be sure to try it. Their cheese boards at restaurants are filled with creamy local cheese, raw honeycomb, nuts, meats, and more. We ordered them frequently.

  • Honey- New Zealand is known for its honey, especially Manuka honey, and its healing properties. Make sure to try many honey varieties throughout the trip.

  • Craft Peanutbutters- If you stop in a grocery store for hiking snacks, try a variety of local artisan peanut butters. Pic’s Peanut Butter was our favorite brand, but there are many flavors (smoke and fire, chocolate) and other New Zealand brands to try.

  • Snack Balls- This is another one to look for in grocery stores to buy for hiking snacks. They have many varieties of date-based snack balls (mango, salted caramel, chocolate peanut butter) that work well for healthy hiking snacks.

  • Passionfruit YoYos- We found these cookies in grocery stores and in roadside cafe stops. They are two butter biscuits with passion fruit frosting sandwiched in between.

  • Afghan cookies-Another grocery store find that became a favorite road trip snack of ours. They are a chocolate and cornflake-based cookie and a New Zealand favorite.


Getting around

Te Anau is a small walkable town. Many of the tour operators offer pick-ups from your lodging in Te Anau as well. If you want to hike all of the non-guided trails mentioned in this post you will need a car.


When to Go

December, January, and February are New Zealand’s Summer and its high season. The summer wildflowers make hikes and drives even more beautiful and you don’t have to worry about coming across snow on hiking trails. Temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. Summer also means crowded trails, overfull parking lots, and more expensive lodging. The local New Zealand Summer holiday runs from late December to late January so you will fight local tourism during those months as well. In Spring and Fall the weather will be much more unpredictable with chances of freezing temperatures and many trails could be snow-covered.


Other Tips

  • Be ready to adjust your itinerary based on the weather. One advantage of road-tripping is that the weather may vary in each location you are going. We were able to move around what day trip we took each day to avoid any rainy days affecting us during our hikes.

  • Credit cards are widely accepted in New Zealand. The only times we used cash were at farmer’s markets and when we stopped to buy roadside fruit.

  • Entrance to National Parks for day hikes in New Zealand is free

  • Parking at trailheads and parks in New Zealand is free.

  • Clean, modern, (and occasionally even music-playing) public restrooms are easy to find in New Zealand.

  • Tipping at restaurants is not customary in New Zealand

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