Visiting Doubtful Sound


By Lee-Ann McKenzie

5 minute read

Get hold of your free New Zealand Trails brochure here

Doubtful Sound is the lesser known but no less amazing cousin to Milford Sound (some even say it’s a better place to see). With endless stunning vistas of mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls and luscious forests it really is a world like no other. We’ll take you to the far south west of New Zealand’s South Island to visit Doubtful Sound on our World Heritage Walking Tour. This guide will help you get to know this beautiful utopia and hopefully inspire you to visit for yourself!

Why visit Doubtful Sound

There are 12 fiords in Fiordland and there is only one that you can access by road – you guessed it, Milford Sound. The easy access is one of the reasons it is such a popular attraction. But us Kiwis know that any good adventure is one that goes off the beaten path. And here at New Zealand Trails we live by that motto. We love exploring places that are not easily accessible and taking you to places that perhaps you might not go by yourself- that’s where the true New Zealand beauty lies.

Doubtful Sound is one of these spots. It’s a bit of a hidden gem that not everyone knows about, which we think is a good thing! Time will slip away here as you are mesmerised by the waterfalls, dramatic cliff faces and peaceful surroundings.

Doubtful Sound cruise New Zealand

Fun facts about Doubtful Sound

  • There is abundant and diverse wildlife - Bottlenose dolphins, penguins, whales, albatross and more incredible wildlife call this place home.
  • There is no settlement except for a small education centre and fleet of fishing boats so you really feel off the grid.  
  • The area is covered in thick rainforest where native plants thrive so you will be greeted with endless birdsong.
  • It is actually a fiord, not a sound. A fiord can look similar to a sound which makes them quite confusing. Put simply, a fiord was created by a glacier that carved out the valley, which is why you get the giant mountain peaks on either side. Whereas a sound was a river and the rising ocean filled up the valley.
  • Early Māori explored the area for hunting fishing and gathering.
  • It’s a 40km journey from the head of the fiord to the Tasman sea.
  • The Māori world for Doubtful Sound is Patea which means ‘place of silence’ – you will know why when you visit! It actually got its English name from Captain Cook who decided the it would be ‘doubtful’ to enter the fiord and make it back out going against the westerly wind. He called it Doubtful Harbour but it was later named Doubtful Sound by English whalers and sealers.

Things to do in Doubtful Sound

Apart from being in awe at the impressive views, there are plenty of things to do in Doubtful Sound. From a heart-pumping hike to relaxing on a nature cruise, you’ll be able to enjoy everything this incredible area has to offer.

Doubtful Sound Cruise

A Doubtful Sound cruise is one of the most remarkable ways to experience the area. Majestic waterfalls, towering mountains and hidden inlets await. Most cruises take you out to the Tasman Sea where you can see New Zealand fur seals lazing around on the small rocky islands – you might even see dolphins and penguins along the way. The return journey is no less amazing and gives you a different view of the fiord than when you were heading down. Depending on how much time you have you can also spend a night or two on the fiord. Finishing the day stargazing on the deck, bliss!

Doubtful Sound New Zealand


Immerse yourself in the luscious forest with a short day hike. There are four walking tracks that you can take in Doubtful Sound, all leaving from Deep Cove.

  • Brassell Point Nature Walk is a 1-hour easy return walk that takes you to Helena Falls lookout. The journey provides lovely views over Deep Cove and through podocarp forest. 
  • Hanging Valley Track is an advanced track taking 2-3 hours. As the name suggests, it takes you to a hanging valley via a steep track immersed in the rich forest.
  • Helena Falls Track is another advanced hiking trail taking 2 hours return. It starts out crossing a newly-built swing bridge and then takes you into the forest where you can walk up to the base of the falls in good weather.
  • Old Doubtful Sound Track is a 3-hour advanced return walk following the trail where the first tourists explored the area before the road was built. It connects up with Wilmot Pass Road and you can walk down to Deep Cove from there, or return the way you came.


Kayaking is a great way to get up close and personal to the surrounding cliffs, inlets and wildlife. Plus it’s a wonderful way to see the area from a different perspective. You can do a half day, full day or even overnight trip.

Scenic Flight

View paradise from a bird’s eye view approach. Depending on the flight you choose, you can even get alpine landings in serene remote places.


Doubtful Sound is a great place to take a fishing charter. The area is most well-known for catching blue cod and crayfish.

Doubtful Sound weather

Fiordland can be rather wet - it rains about 200 days per year. When visiting Doubtful Sound, you’ll need to take your raincoat. But the rain is the reason it is so extraordinary. When it’s raining, there is special moody feel about it. The waterfalls come alive and the true depth of the place is uncovered. On a clear sunny day, you won’t experience this magical misty feel, but you’ll be able to see all of the towering cliffs and expanse of the fiord.

So, when is the best time to visit Doubtful Sound? The views are spectacular any time of year and in any weather. The rainfall sets the waterfalls alive, with streams coming down the mountainside in every direction you look. It is truly magnificent if the sun is just piercing through over the mountain peaks, illuminating the rushing waterfalls. No matter the weather in Doubtful Sound, you’ll be amazed at the incredible landscapes to be seen.

Doubtful Sound cruise

How to get to Doubtful Sound

Your adventure to Doubtful Sound will likely start in Te Anau, Manapouri or even Queenstown. The closest settlement to Doubtful Sound is Manapouri, which is about 20 minutes’ drive from Te Anau, the main town in the Fiordland National Park.

Once you make it to the quiet and unhurried town of Manapouri, you will need to catch a boat across the scenic Lake Manapouri to West Arm. Along the way you will see New Zealand’s largest hydroelectric power station. You’ll then be driven over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. Wilmot Pass is a subalpine road that has breath-taking views of the valley, rainforest covered mountains and numerous waterfalls.

Doubtful Sound vs Milford Sound

You’ve likely heard of the famous Milford Sound but Doubtful Sound is no less impressive. It’s not as well-known because it is a bit more off the beaten track, and you can’t drive directly to it. So, which one to pick? Doubtful Sound is bigger, quieter and possibly a better place to take a cruise. Obviously, both are phenomenal and if you can, it is certainly worth seeing both. But, the variety of views and more intimate experience with nature in Doubtful Sound make it slightly better in our books.

But of course, see it for yourself and report back to us! Or, join us to discover both of these other-worldly locations on our World Heritage Walking Tour.

If you want to find out more about the amazing 5-14 day guided New Zealand adventure tours we run you can request a free copy of our brochure here.


Let’s talk – we’d love to hear what you think. Pop your details in below and have your say.

  • MmzHrrdb, USA September 2023


  • MmzHrrdb, USA September 2023


  • MmzHrrdb, USA September 2023


  • MmzHrrdb, USA September 2023


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