We only had two days in the Fiordland area, but we wanted to cram in as much as we possibly could. We woke up early, drove down to Milford Sound and went on a fantastic boat tour. After our boat tour had finished, we both fancied stretching our legs. I had read that ‘if the weather is fine’ the Key Summit day hike would be pretty and fun. We were expecting more rain, but after being soaked by waterfalls, we figured we could handle it.
The track to Key Summit is the first part of the Routeburn track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. This means it is well paved, busy and easy to follow. This is not a difficult trail. We saw quite a few children hiking up, and although some folks were huffing and puffing, I didn’t hear any serious complaints! Unlike the Grouse Grind in Vancouver, where I’ve often heard people complain that they’re sure they are about to die! This is a walk almost anyone can manage.
Key Summit Day Hike Map
Key Summit Day Hike – the basics
Distance: 6.8 km (there and back)
Height: 918 m (elevation gain is 386 m)
Time: 3 hours at a leisurely pace. It took us less than 2 hours.
What to bring: The path is well paved, but it is still best to bring walking boots. We didn’t need hiking poles. Don’t forget to bring a waterproof coat and bug spray! (Read through the 10 essentials.)
How hard is it: It’s definitely doable. If yo are not used to wandering up mountains, your legs might get tired. But there are plenty of switchbacks so the path is not too steep. The Key summit is pretty high, but as you start at 532 m above sea level, it is not a huge amount of elevation gain. Anyway it’ll be worth it for the views!!
Gorgeous Silver Beech Forest
Right from the car park, this walk is interesting and pretty. You start by hiking up through some moss-covered forest full of silver beech trees. At least, I think that’s what they are! The humid fiordland weather means that this Key Summit day hike will show off a lot of moss! It wasn’t quite as mossy, as the amazing Boyd Creek Track where we’d hiked the previous evening. But these beech trees were pretty covered in beautiful hanging moss!
Switchbacks through sub-alpine shrubs
Once you get out above the beech trees, the sub-alpine shrubs are really fun to walk through. They grow closer to the ground, so you can peek over the plants and start to see the gorgeous mountain views. As this area receives plenty of rainfall, it was all very lush and exotic. If you saw my post about our Milford Sound boat tour, you’ll know we arrived on a soggy day that was very overcast, but the views were pretty gorgeous anyway!
Once you are out of the forest, you are almost to the summit! The last section zig-zags its way up the mountain. This is a really easy, pleasant section of the walk, where you can feel a breeze and see other trampers zooming (or meandering) up the path behind you. I loved catching glimpses of the surrounding mountains as the misty-clouds moved over them.
Don’t let the weather hold you back!
We did not have particularly beautiful weather for our time in the Fiordland. It was really overcast (with slight spitting rain) when we started the walk. But the Key Summit day hike is lovely even if the surrounding mountains are covered in mist or clouds. I actually really loved the misty views we were treated to.
Key Summit Flora
The plant-life is really interesting on this hike. I loved the forest of silver beech, but once we made it to the sub-alpine area, there was even more to see! I have no idea what most of the plants were. From a distance, some of them looked similar to the kind of plants I am used to seeing in the boggy areas in Ireland, but I I didn’t recognize any of the plants or flowers. They are probably quite normal for Kiwi trampers, but they were all new and interesting for me!
It took us about an hour to reach the top (we were expecting it to take about an hour and a half) so we had fun exploring the nature walk around the alpine tarns and bogs. New Zealand is so kind to us. The weather got better and better and even flashed a few patches of blue sky our way. I think this even counts as seeing the views (even if some mountains were shy behind their veils of mist!)
Do you know what a tarn is? I didn’t before this trip! It is basically a pool or small lake that has been created by a glacier. They normally have steep sides, and can be perfect places to reflect the sky or the surrounding mountains. We found a few of them up on Key Summit.
Not a bad view for a rainy day eh!?
Lake Marian Viewpoint
This was my favourite view from Key Summit. You can see the hanging valley between the mountains behind us. If you look carefully, you can see the gorgeous Lake Marian, at a similar elevation to Key Summit. I looked over at it longingly, as that was an alternative walk that I had been considering (instead of this Key Summit day hike.)
Here was our last view over to Lake Marian. You can just about see the edge of the water if you look really carefully just above the frees in that hanging valley.
The thing is, while we were looking at that view, I told Marc that there was an alternative walk up to that lake and that I thought it sounded really fun. Marc looked at his watch, and said that as this walk was meant to take 3 hours, if we finished it early, maybe we could take a peek at that track too…
Time to zoom to the next walk!
It took us about an hour to walk up Key Summit, and then we had explored the nature walk at the top for about half an hour…so if we could walk down this mountain quickly, we thought we might just have enough daylight to walk up to Lake Marian and drive back to Te Anau. We figured that this might mean we’d be too late to have a good dinner that evening, BUT we could fit in a whole extra hike that we hadn’t expected! (squeeeee!!)
Speedy Mountain descent
Once we got started, Marc asked if I was up for trying to run just a little way down the mountain. Neither of us is particularly fit and neither of us are trail runners, so we were planning to just run a little way, then walk, then run again. I was (of course) up for giving it a go! I normally don’t like to run on mountains as I know I’m likely to hurt my ankles, but the paths on Key Summit are so good, that it was pretty flat and easy to run on. So we started to run, well, jog. And we didn’t stop! Somehow, we managed to jog the whole way down the mountain back to the car park! We walked the last couple of hundred meters as a cool down (Marc was a bit sweaty in the humidity!)
It was soooo fun! You shouldn’t get the wrong idea and think we are super-fit running types! We’re not. It’s just that gravity did most of the work! We both just had to concentrate on keeping our footing and make sure we didn’t twist ankles or doing anything to injure ourselves! This meant we were back at the car park within 15 minutes!! We didn’t actually time ourselves (apart from the photos I took on my camera) but the whole Key Summit Day Hike took 1 hour 45 minutes – less than 2 hours! That basically meant that we had time to go for one more walk up to Lake Marian. Yaaaay!
So, I’ll write about that in my next post.