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KEY SUMMIT TRACK in NEW ZEALAND – The Complete Guide

The Key Summit track is a beautiful day walk in Fiordland National Park that takes you through ancient mossy rainforests with a stunning view of the Southern mountains and alpine lakes at the end of the hike. Here you can explore this impressive alpine environment and learn more about how the landscape was formed. The well-maintained boardwalks will take you along several tarns with stunning views over the snowcapped Humbolt and Darran Mountains. Overall, the Key Summit track is a fun and diverse day hike in Fiordland National Park. Find in this complete guide everything you need to know and prepare for the Key Summit track. 

Key Summit track key facts 

Before we dive into the details about the Key Summit track, let’s first have a look at the key facts of the trail so you can decide if this is a hike for you! 

Hike distance and duration: Depending on how many sidewalks you take at the tarns, the total distance of the Key Summit track is around 8 kilometers. It will take you about 3 hours to complete the whole hike including some time to take in the panoramic views of the lakes. 

Difficulty and incline: The Key Summit track has about 450 meters in elevation gain and is generally considered a moderate route. It’s never too steep and the path is very well maintained. Once you’ve passed the treeline the gravel path changes in a wooden boardwalk that follows along the tarns. In the winter there could be some snow and ice near the tarns. So make sure to check the conditions with the DOC before departing.

Be insured when you travel!

No matter how careful you are, accidents can happen.
A slip during hiking is made before you realize it, and the consequences can be bigger than you want to think of.

We are very happy with SafetyWing and highly recommend getting an insurance with them!

What is the best time to do the Key Summit track?

One of the most important things for the Key Summit track is clear weather. If there’s cloud coverage at the mountains then you won’t be seeing any view at all. The forest trail is beautiful in every weather circumstance. But the alpine view is most pretty when you can see the mountain peaks of course! Generally speaking, the best time to hike in Fiordland National Park is in the morning. You’ll have more chance of clear skies to see the mountains. But this is not guaranteed of course. The best way to decide whether you should give it a go is to just look outside and watch the weather forecast. 

In winter time there could be some snow and ice at the top, so be prepared for that in case you decide to hike up to Key Summit. As you’re walking first through the forest and then on an exposed part, you should protect yourself from harsh sunshine in the summertime. Bring a hat, sunglasses and eventually sunscreen.

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Where is the Key Summit trailhead?

The Key Summit trailhead can be found along the Milford Road at The Divide shelter where also the Routeburn Track begins, or ends. Here you will find a big, free car park with toilets and information panels. From Te Anau it’s roughly an hour’s drive over 85 kilometers and from Milford Sound, it’s 30 minutes over 30km drive. 

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Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound are also called the ‘8th Wonder of the World‘. It is one of the most popular destinations to visit on the South Island. Therefore tours are booked months in advance. Secure your spot and not miss out on the popular Milford Cruise, Milford scenic flights, or Milford Kayak tours.

Check here the best tours in Fiordland NP
Check here the best Milford Sound tours on Viator

What to expect during the Key Summit track  

The Key Summit trail begins at the Divide Shelter and follows the same route as the Routeburn Track for the first few kilometers. The well-maintained gravel path takes you along spectacular native vegetation with mossy, twisted tree branches and beautiful ferns. It almost feels as if you’re walking in a real-life fairytale as you’re slowly making your way deeper into the forest. 

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Key Summit forest track 

As you make your way gradually uphill along the winding path surrounded by spectacular mossy forests, you will pass a landslide area 1km into the track. This part is clearly signed as you should not stop here due to rock fall danger. It’s not too dangerous any more as the path has been fully restored. But especially during and after rainfall and high wind you should be extra aware of the risk of falling rocks. 

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Shortly after the landslide area, you will cross a bridge where a waterfall cascades down along the rocks and goes underneath the bridge. Quite a cool spot to stop for a moment and take some pictures. Take a sip of water here, because from this point on the trail starts to steepen more.

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The Key Summit Alpine Nature Walk

After a few steep switchbacks in the forest, you will get to a flatter part of the trail around 2.5 kilometers. Here the views of the mountains peak appear. A clear sign that you’re almost at the turnoff which takes you up the Key Summit with its tarns and panoramic views. 

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Once you reach the turn-off, it’s only about 700 meters until you reach the Key Summit track loop walk which will take you along the different tarns. There is also a toilet with an incredible view, so if you have to go you know you don’t have to do it in the bushes! 

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The path then changes from gravel into picturesque boardwalks which take you on a loop walk along the tarns. The first tarn you come across is the largest of all with an incredible view of the snow-capped Humbolt and Darran mountains. If it’s not too windy you might be lucky to get some stunning reflections in the lakes, great for photography! 

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As you continue the loop you will walk along some smaller tarns and a turnoff for the view of Lake Marian. It has to be a clear day to see the lake down in Hollyford Valley, so you have to be a bit lucky! 

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After this last lookout point, it is time to head back along the boardwalk. Once you’re back at the junction with the main Routeburn Track, you can add another 10-minute detour to check out Howden Lake. This is another stunning lake with a mountain backdrop which could be a great, quiet place for a (lunch) break before heading back to the car park. 

Make sure to put the Key Summit track on your South Island New Zealand hiking list as it’s some of the best day walks on the South Island. 

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Must do tours in Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park is one of the most beautiful National Parks in New Zealand. Known for the glacier-carved fiords of Doubtful and Milford Sound, the National Park is home to beautiful alpine lakes, ancient rainforests, and huge waterfalls. With plenty of hikes and a huge variety of other activities to do, it is highly recommended to spend at least three to four days in Fiordland National Park. Three of New Zealand’s Great Walks are in Fiordland, known as the Kepler Track, Milford Track, and Routeburn Track. But if you’re not prepared for multi-day hikes, then there are also plenty of day walk options and other fun activities to do. Here are some tours we highly recommend to do in Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour

Depart during a morning cruise on a smaller boat that travels outside of peak hours. This will give you prime viewing and more time on the water than other tours. You will listen to the informative commentary from the passionate skippers of Southern Discoveries and enjoy a provided picnic lunch. If you want to, you can include a kayak excursion and paddle Harrison Cove in a small group. Limited to 8 people you will have a very intimate experience to take in the immense scale of the bluffs and uniquely explore Milford Sound.

→ Book here your Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak tour

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Scenic flight over Milford Sound

Depart from Milford Airport and track west along Milford Sound. Fly alongside Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak for some great views of the fiords and its towering peaks before returning to our Milford base during this 20-minute flight.

→ Book here your scenic flight over Milford Sound

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Cruise to the hidden Doubtful Sound

The lesser-known and quieter version of Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound. During this full-day tour, you will journey across the clear waters of Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife while taking in the scenery. If you’re lucky you might see fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and crested and little blue penguins. Your naturalist guide will tell you everything and point out interesting sights.  

→ Book here your cruise to the hidden Doubtful Sound

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Jet boat journey through Fiordland National Park

Step into a powerful Fiordland Jet boat and cruise down the mighty Waiau River on this roughly two-hour adventure into the heart of Fiordland National Park. You will pass some famous landmarks and Lord of the Rings filming locations along the way. Departure is from Lake Te Anau with morning, afternoon, and evening trips.

→ Book here your jet boat journey through Fiordland National Park

Milford Sound Hiking Tour with Cruise from Te Anau

Book this full-day Milford Sound hiking tour including a cruise to explore the best of Fiordland National Park. Travel along Milford Road from Te Anau and enjoy panoramic views over the beautiful countryside. Then you will enjoy a relaxing boat cruise through the fjord and out to the Tasman Sea. Gaze over soaring clifftops and plummeting waterfalls while learning more about the environment. Afterward, you will go on a short guided walk and explore Fiordland’s spectacular natural scenery with a local nature guide.

→ Book here your Milford Sound Hiking Tour with Cruise from Te Anau

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Scenic cruise on Lake Te Anau

Marvel at the majestic views of Fiordland wilderness on this luxury sunset cruise. Including champagne and canapés, this tour on the impeccably preserved 1930s sailing yacht is a unique experience. You can watch the sunset over the Southern Alps and customize your cruise on this small-group cruise.

→ Book here your scenic cruise on Lake Te Anau

Where to stay near Key Summit track

The best way to explore most of Fiordland National Park is to stay in either Milford Sound or Te Anau. Milford Sound only has one accommodation and restaurant option, known as the Milford Sound Lodge. If you have a self-contained campervan then you have the option to stay at some camping sites.

Te Anau on the other hand has more options for accommodations and facilities such as restaurants and supermarkets. However, from Te Anau it is an 80-kilometer drive to Lake Marian trailhead. If you’re planning to explore Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound for a few days, then having your base in Te Anau is a great idea. With the ever-changing weather circumstances in Fiordland National Park, it is always a surprise to see how the landscape changes. And with so many places you can explore along Milford Road it is a great day trip into Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound Lodge

Milford Sound Lodge is one of the most unique accommodations in New Zealand. The mountain and river view chalets look out over the mountain peaks with waterfalls pouring down along the cliffs. Truly some of the most mesmerizing views you can have from an accommodation. We stayed here for two nights and therefore I can highly recommend booking a stay at Milford Sound Lodge. You are not only close to the action of the Milford Sound cruise and the hikes you can do. But you can also fully recharge in your cozy cabin and order delicious food at Pio Pio restaurant.

→ Book here your stay at Milford Sound Lodge

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Radfords on the Lake Te Anau

Radfords on the Lake is located across the road from Lake Te Anau with stunning lake and mountain views. The fully self-contained suites offer everything you need during your stay. From cooking utensils to a desk and comfortable bed, Radfords on the Lake in Te Anau is your home away from home. With lovely staff, daily cleaning and its central location, we couldn’t recommend Radfords on the Lake enough. We have stayed here ourselves and fully enjoyed it!

→ Book here your stay at Radfords on the Lake

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How to get around in New Zealand 

To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a carcampervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them, you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand. 

Car rental in New Zealand

Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for this kind of roads.

The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies, and terms and conditions. You can also check Rental Cars to compare at which platform you can get the best deal. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick-up date.

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Campervan rental in New Zealand

Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a road trip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen, and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will give you a true feeling of freedom and connect you with nature.

We recommend booking your campervan with Travellers Autobarn. They have a wide range of Station wagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, a 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 roadside assistance & long-term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream road trip!

More New Zealand travel guides

I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the Key Summit track. Make sure to put this beautiful hike on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!

There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides.

Fiordland National Park

20 best things to do in Milford Sound – The Ultimate Guide

Milford Sound Cruise – All You Need to Know

Lake Marian track – The Complete Guide

Mirror Lakes New Zealand – The Complete Guide

Gertrude Saddle Track – The Complete Guide

Queenstown 

30 best things to do in Queenstown – The Ultimate Guide

16 best hikes in Queenstown – The Ultimate Guide

Queenstown Hill Walk – The Complete Guide

Ben Lomond track – The Complete Guide

Moke Lake loop track & viewpoint – The Complete Guide

Bobs Cove Nature Walk – The Complete Guide

Glenorchy

20 best things to do in Glenorchy – The Ultimate Guide

Glenorchy walkway & lagoon track – The Complete Guide

Earnslaw Burn glacier valley and waterfalls – The Complete Guide

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