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Hiking to Key Summit, Fiordland National Park

Hiking to Key Summit, Fiordland National Park

The road to Milford Sound is one of the most well-worn tourist trails in New Zealand. Most visit on a day trip, but hang around a little longer and you’ll be treated to some awesome hikes. The Key Summit Track, part of the 2-4 day Routeburn Track (a New Zealand “Great Walk”), will get you off the main road and right into the heart of this natural paradise. The views from the top are stunning, and at only 3 hours return, this walk isn’t overly demanding. You can also combine the Key Summit hike with a side-trip to Earland Falls, but more on that later.

Starting the Hike

From the Divide car park, the trail runs steadily uphill through native New Zealand forest. We did it first thing in the morning and it felt like we were the only ones on the track (it was the first weekend of winter — the cold must have put a lot of people off!). After about 45 minutes you’ll see a turnoff to Key Summit. We decided to walk to Earland Falls first, which added another 3 hours or so to our hike (I’ll be writing a separate post about that).

A waterfall on the way to Key Summit, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

The Key Summit Track

We were feeling pretty tired by the time we made it back to the Key Summit turnoff. One final uphill push lead us to the top of the summit and it was definitely worth the effort. At over 900 metres, Key Summit holds sweeping views of snow-capped mountains and forest-covered foothills. The short loop track at the top takes you past several viewpoints and the terrain is quite different to what you usually see in New Zealand, including several tarns (alpine lakes) and large marshy areas.

Hiking to Key Summit, Fiordland National Park, New ZealandThe Key Summit Track, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

It’s an impressive landscape, and it’s framed beautifully by the surrounding mountains. You’ll see a sign pointing to a viewpoint of Lake Marian, and it’s worth the short detour. It’s the upper-most part of the Key Summit Track and the views over Mount Christina (and a barely visible Lake Marian) are pretty special. The Loop track continues past another viewpoint and then heads back down the hill towards the car park. There are lots of places to sit and relax at Key Summit and it’s the perfect place to rest and eat that delicious lunch you packed (if you planned ahead like we did).

Hiking to Key Summit -- amazing views over Mount Christina and Lake MarianHiking to Key Summit, Fiordland, New Zealand

Combining Key Summit with the hike to Earland Falls

The Key Summit hike takes around 3 hours to complete (you could easily do it quicker though), so if you’re looking for a longer day hike it’s a good idea to combine it with the hike to Earland Falls. This track takes you past Howden Hut and through the bush to the 174 metre high falls. It’s an incredible sight and we had it all to ourselves. All up the hike to Earland Falls and Key Summit takes around 6 hours. There aren’t many flat sections – it’s pretty much 50% uphill and 50% downhill, but if you have a reasonable level of fitness I’d definitely recommend it.

Earland Falls, a detour from Key Summit, Fiordland

Getting to the Key Summit Track

The Divide car park is located 85 kilometres along Milford Sound Road. From Te Anau it takes just over an hour. There are lots of other places to stop along this road, including the Mirror Lakes, the Chasm and Humboldt Falls. You can also hike to Lake Marian, which I’d highly recommend.

READ MORE: The Mirror Lakes, Fiordland National Park

The Routeburn Track

The Routeburn Track is a 32 km “Great Walk” which generally takes 2-4 days to complete. We haven’t hiked the whole thing yet, but if the views from the Key Summit Track (and Earland Falls) are anything to go by then we’re in for a treat when we eventually do. If you’re looking for a day hike on the Routeburn Track then the Key Summit / Earland Falls walk is your best bet. It’s great being able to get out into these landscapes without having to commit to a multi-day trek.

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.