Hiking in Fiordland: Key Summit Track

Updated April 17, 2018

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

Hiking in New Zealand (or tramping, as we Kiwis call it) is definitely a must-do activity when you visit. I’d been away from home for awhile and missed getting out in the bush, so I knew when we visited for our New Zealand honeymoon there were at least a couple of walks I really wanted to do, including the Key Summit Track! Although the husband wasn’t quite as keen…

Even if you only take the time to go on a short bush walk, getting out into the beautiful natural environment that covers much of New Zealand will give you a whole other perspective on the country.

Fiordland is a region in the southwest of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s some of the most rugged and remote landscape in the country, with beautiful glacier-carved valleys, deep lakes, and high mountains stretching right down to fjords, and the ocean. Before my last trip I had never been, and now, it’s somewhere I really want to go back to.

Many people spend the majority of their time in the South Island in the main cities and tourist towns, and make a quick visit to Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown, skipping much of what Fiordland has to offer. I truly think that’s a mistake! If you can spare the time in your New Zealand itinerary, then spending more time here is a must.

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

Multi-Day and Day Walks in Fiordland

When it comes to hiking in Fiordland, there are fantastic multi-day walks like the Milford Track (arguably New Zealand’s most famous walk, along with the Tongariro Crossing), the Kepler Track, and the Routeburn, which are all part of New Zealand’s Great Walks network. You can also try the Hollyford Track or the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track.

However, if multi-day hikes aren’t your thing, or you simply don’t have the time, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the other available short walks in Fiordland. There are easier options like the Milford Foreshore Lake Walk (30-minute loop), or the Lake Gunn Nature Walk (45-minute loop).

But if you’re like me and you want to feel like you’ve really gone tramping and had a bit of a challenge (aka, climbed a hill), then there are some more adventurous options available for Fiordland day walks. You could try the Gertrude Saddle, a (very) challenging day hike off Milford Road, or Lake Marian, a steep 3-hour walk to a stunning alpine lake.

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

The Key Summit Track

I researched the tracks that we would be able to do while driving the road to Milford and I decided to give the Key Summit Track a go! The walk begins at The Divide, 85 kilometres along the Milford Road from Te Anau. It’s actually part of the Routeburn Great Walk, so you can expect to see a lot of people with bigger backpacks who are either just starting out their 32-kilometre walk, or just ending it. We decided on this walk because we would reach it at a good time to stop on our journey from Manapouri to Milford, it’s meant to be easier than Lake Marian, and it’s also said to be the best day walk in Fiordland.

Well, it turns out that although it’s often described as an easy walk, you are walking at an incline from the very beginning of the track, so be prepared!

Key Summit Track Need to Know Info

  • 3.4km return
  • Approximately 3 hours
  • Intermediate Level
  • Part of the Routeburn Great Walk
  • Walk beings at The Divide, 85 kilometres along the Milford Road from Te Anau

Key Summit Track Description

The first part of the walk was in the bush, under a beautiful canopy of trees, ferns, and with the small waterfalls tumbling along the sides of banks you’re walking alongside. The gentle incline of the track turns into switchbacks until you emerge out of the bush into the more alpine terrain of tussocks, shrubs, and smaller trees. You definitely need to remember your sunscreen for this one!

Shortly afterward, you’ll come across the turn-off to the Key Summit Track itself (the previous part of technically the Routeburn). It gets even steeper on this part and you’re not under any cover, so if you’re walking in sun make sure you use sunscreen or wear a light long-sleeved shirt. It’s only about 20 minutes to the top from the turn-off, and then you’ll be treated to stunning panoramic views of Fiordland National Park. Looking north is the Hollyford Valley, with the Alisa and Darren mountains on either side and above the Lake Marian bowl are Mount Christina and Mount Crosscut. Looking east is the Greenstone Valley.

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

Bring a snack for the top (take your rubbish with you!) and sit back and enjoy your efforts. There is a small boardwalk track at the summit passing identified native vegetation.

The Routeburn track was historically used by Maori taking greenstone from sources in Fiordland to settlements over on the coast. The first Europeans to reach Key Summit were George Gunn and David McKellar in 1861. It’s amazing to stand at the top and wonder how things have (or haven’t!) changed.

Between EB (the husband) and I, I’m definitely the keen walker. Unfortunately, he got blisters shortly after we began the walk so it wasn’t as pleasant for him. But I thought it was amazing! The viewings are enthralling, and it’s a chance to feel like you’ve really experienced getting out into the National Park.

Key Summit Track - Fiordland Hiking and Tramping

Top tips for walking the Key Summit Track

  • Try to go early or late. It will be most popular between 11am and 2pm when more people are passing along the road to Milford.
  • There are only facilities at the start of the track, so make use of them there.
  • Be sure to carry water and a snack.
  • Wear sunscreen or protective clothing.
  • We didn’t see any mosquitos or sandflies but it’s worth using some repellent just in case.
  • Don’t rush it, there are beautiful views all along the way. It’s a steady incline the whole way and steeper at the end so take your time.
  • Bring your camera!

The pictures really say it all! Do you like hiking when you travel?

Sonja x

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A guide to hiking the Key Summit Track in Fiordland, New Zealand. Do the Key Summit walk on your way to Milford Sound! A guide to hiking the Key Summit Track in Fiordland, New Zealand. Do the Key Summit walk on your way to Milford Sound!

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