Key Summit Track: The Most Rewarding Milford Sound Hike in New Zealand
Fiordland National Park is a pristine natural wonder in Southern New Zealand but did you know that there are some amazing hikes in Milford Sound? Key Summit Hike is one of my favorite Milford Sound hikes and in this post I will show you what to expect on the Key Summit Hike.
Before I visited Milford Sound I had spent a few days in Wanaka. While researching for things to do in Wanaka, I realized I actually didn’t want to do more hikes in Wanaka because they all seemed really steep and exposed (I had already done a couple of hikes in Wanaka).
While searching for a good Milford sound hike I came across the Key Summit Track, which is actually part of the Routeburn Track, one of the 10 Great Walks in New Zealand.
Little did I know that Milford Sound actually has 3 Great Walks: 1) The Routeburn Track 2) The Milford Track, and 3) the Kepler Track. That must mean there are a lot of things to see in Milford Sound right?
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Where is Key Summit Track?
Key Summit Track is part of Routeburn Track near Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand.
- From Te Anau: 85 km (53 miles), 1 hour drive
- From Queenstown: 254 km (158 miles), 3 hours drive
How To Get To The Key Summit Track Trailhead
As you drive down Highway 94 after entering Fiorland National Park, you will eventually come to a stop called The Divide.
There are signs during your drive to Milford Sound so you shouldn’t be able to miss The Divide. The Divide is about 85km on Highway 97 to Milford Sound from Te Anau.
Once you reach The Divide you will see a bus stop, a few bathrooms and a decent sized parking lot. You will also see hikers with huge backpacks coming down from the trail as the Routeburn Track is a one way track, so you can technically either start or end at the Key Summit Track trail.
How Hard is Key Summit Track?
Distance: 3.5 km (2.2 mile) one way so times 2 for round trip
Elevation Gain: ~400 meter (1300 ft) to climb from The Divide to Summit
Time It Takes to Hike: 2.5-3 hours return
Best Time to Hike Key Summit Track
As Key Summit Track is located near Milford Sound, the weather there can be unpredictable and frankly, quite wet. It actually rains over 200 days a year in Milford Sound.
Unless it’s heavy rain you can still hike the Key Summit Track/ Routeburn Track, but the clouds and fog will affect the view of the surrounding mountains from the view points. It may also get quite windy on the summit which happened when I was there.
Therefore the best time to hike Key Summit Track is when it’s not raining or snowing. Yes I know, that’s hard to say. In general there is the least amount of rainfall in Milford Sound in February, June to August.
Since you really do not want to risk it snowing in the winter (June to August), you should consider hiking Key Summit Track in February.
Why Should You Hike The Key Summit Track?
I really think the key Summit track is one of the most rewarding hikes I did in New Zealand!
Why? It’s because the effort to reward ratio is so high! Even though the Key Summit track is an uphill hike (as most of the tracks in New Zealand), the incline of the trail is not as steep as some other hikes we did.
The view from Key Summit Track is nothing short of stunning especially on a sunny and clear day. For such a short and relatively low effort hike in Milford Sound the Key Summit Track view is definitely an amazing reward.
I also liked the fact most of the hike is in the forest so you can be shielded from elements of the weather and you get to experience how it feels to hike in a rain forest (even though it’s really beech forest).
Not as many people are willing to (or can) do a Milford Sound hike. There are also several different hikes in Fiordland National Park to choose from as well as the multi-day New Zealand’s Great Walks.
Who Should Hike The Key Summit Track?
If you are curious whether Key Summit Track is for you, consider the following factors:
Your fitness level: fitness level and health is always the most important consideration when considering any hikes in New Zealand. You should be moderately fit as it’s a gradual uphill for 1.5 hours. It’s not super steep but if you don’t like up hills or walking then this hike is not for you.
Do you have enough time: the entire Key Summit Track takes about 2-3 hours round trip. If you don’t have enough time or it will get dark before you come back it’s probably best not to do this trail.
Are you prepared: even though the Key Summit Track is not a difficult hike, you should still be prepared for the unpredictable Milford Sound weather (rain, wind, etc). You should have water, snacks, sunscreen, hiking shoes, and bug spray. Most of the Key Summit Track is in the beech forest and Milford Sound is known for vicious sand flies so you should bring bug sprays with you.
What to Expect The Key Summit Track Based On Our Own Experience
After you park the car near the Divide on the road to Milford Sound, you will see a sign for the Routeburn Track with Key Summit Hike/ Howden Hut.
Follow the sign to start your hike to Key Summit via Routeburn Track. Immediately you will enter a dense beech forest with a gradual uphill. Continue to Hike along the wall in the forest and after 10-15 minutes you will see small waterfall on the right side.
Continue on the Key Summit Track trail after the small and pristine waterfall and the hike gets slightly more steep, but still in the forest. I don’t know about you but personally I love hiking in the forest because it shields you from the sun, the rain, and the wind (which are all common occurrences of the infamous Milford Sound weather).
The sign for Key Summit Track is well marked so you should not be able to get lost. This part of the trail is part of the Routeburn Track and you will occasionally see people with huge backpacks coming down.
Remember that in New Zealand you are supposed to be walking on the left side so make sure to give way to those coming down the mountain with huge backpacks.
After about 20-25 minutes on the trail, you will come to the sign that shows the summit is 1 hour return. Before you reach the sign you will start seeing the valley and peaks of mountains.
Occasionally during the hike you can peak out of the tree line to see the outrageous view of the Hollyford Valley in front of you. On the Key Summit hike you really do feel like you are above it all and the views are just unbelievable. Even when we went on a rainy and cloudy day the view still took my breath away.
When you are about to reach the Key Summit Track summit, you are no longer in the forest so you are exposed to the wind and trust me the Milford Sound weather can change quickly.
The hike to the Key Summit Track summit itself from the sign is actually more like 15 minutes instead of an hour. The sign says the hike is an hour is to include a “nature walk” which you do not have to do in order to see the view.
The Key Summit Track’s Alpine Nature Walk is a self-guided paved trail that you can follow to see a range of native vegetation. There are signs on the ground that will tell you what vegetation you are looking at and why it’s important.
Remember that all of the vegetation on the hike is protected and that is why DOC built a particular board walk for you to walk on (so you don’t destroy the plants). Do not go off trail, do not touch anything or take anything home so you can keep the vegetation and plants protected. When you hike in New Zealand you will see this type of “boardwalk” trail to protect the native vegetation.
Around the summit area you can follow the sign to the two viewpoints, one is Lake Marian (says 5 min but more like 10-15 min up hill walk) and another is the nature walk view point.
You don’t need to reach the actual Lake Marian view point for the view. The view is better half way there and we only found out on the way back.
If you are lucky enough to hike the key Summit track or the Routeburn track on a sunny and clear day you can see Lake Marian very well! If it happens to be rainy and foggy when you are on top of the Key Summit then Lake Marian May be hidden behind clouds.
If you are not familiar with Lake Marian, it is an alpine lake in a hanging valley in the Darren Mountains. You can hike to Lake Marian on a separate trail that takes 3-4 hours round trip and you practically will have this alpine lake to yourself.
We already had plans to hike to Lake Marian the next day so it was cool to see the lake from far away and understand how far up we will have to hike the next day.
We decided to go to the Lake Marian View Point first then backtracked to continue on the Alpine Nature Walk. Along the nature walk we reached the second view point I mentioned above and the mountains were just gorgeous!
Once you reach all the view points on Key Summit Track you can either spend some time on the summit to enjoy the view and take a break or take the same route down. I highly recommend that you explore the Key Summit area a bit more to fully take in the panoramic views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
What to Pack On the Key Summit Track
Since Key Summit Track is a short and quick hike, you really don’t need to bring a lot of things with you. I will just list the essential things you should have with you to hike this trail.
- Water and snacks: bring at least 1-2 liters of water and snacks, especially if you are hiking on a sunny and hot day
You don’t really need hiking shoes or hiking poles for Key Summit Track but I always wear hiking boots since they just make walking on the trail a lot more comfortable.
Summary on Hiking the Key Summit Track in Fiordland National Park
If you only have a couple of hours after your Milford Sound cruise then the Key Summit Track is what you need to do. The view of the mountains, lakes and valleys from the top is one of the best I’ve seen on hikes in New Zealand and this Key Summit Track really has it all.
You don’t need to be particularly fit and even kids (under adult supervision) can do this track as I had seen some on the track. Bring your camera, wide angle lens, zoom lens, sunscreen, sun glasses, and rain jacket and you will not be disappointed.
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