Key Summit Track | Milford Sound’s Best Short Walk For All Levels

Sometimes the best views aren’t found on the highest summit but rather from a humble peak encased by colossal snow-dusted mountain ranges – which is exactly what you’ll experience when you hike the Key Summit Track.

Key Summit sits amidst the mighty Darran and Humboldt Mountains, surrounded by deep glacially carved valleys, in the Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island. A walk to the easily accessible summit affords you panoramas of the imposing southwest landscape and is the perfect addition to your Milford Sound Itinerary.

On our recent visit to New Zealand, we climbed the Key Summit Track to watch the sunrise from the rambling peak and were mesmerised by the dramatic scene that unfolded from the mountain’s central location.

In this trail guide, you’ll find all the essential information about the Key Summit Track, including additional side trips and the best time to visit. We’ll also advise when it may not be worth your while and alternative options to consider.

Beautiful Tarn bordered by snow capped peaks of Lake Marian from Key Summit

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Essential Information About Hiking The Key Summit Track In Fiordland National Park

Quick Statistics For The Key Summit Track

Distance
10 km return (including Lake Howden)

Time
3 – 3.5 hrs

Grade
Grade 2/3

Elevation Gain
550 m

Highest Elevation
949 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Toilets, car park, shelter, information boards
Along the track: Toilet

Where Does The Key Summit Track Start?

Key Summit’s easily accessible peak is wedged between two dominating ranges – the Humboldt and Darran Mountains – in Fiordland National Park. The Key Summit Track shares its beginning with the famous Great Walk, the Routeburn Track, which begins or ends at The Divide on Milford Road.

The Divide car park and shelter are 40 minutes southeast of Milford Sound and 1 hr north of Te Anau. You’ll find toilets, untreated tank water, a large undercover area with plenty of seating and a spacious free car park at The Divide.

Key Summit Trailhead

How To Get To The Key Summit Trailhead

The Divide car park, where the Key Summit track begins, is located 85 km north of Te Anau on Milford Road. The closest cities to the trailhead are Queenstown, 3 hrs 10 minutes east and Dunedin, 4 hrs 30 minutes southeast.

You’ll have no trouble finding your way to the scenic Milford Sound Hwy that weaves north from Te Anau in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island. Plenty of road signs direct you to the iconic destination, and you’ll find a bus connecting Te Anau to Queenstown.

By Public Transport

You can catch an Intercity bus to Te Anau from Queenstown, which is an excellent base if you plan to spend a few days exploring the region. From Te Anau, you have the option of many tours that will take you to Milford Sound, and Tracknet provides a daily summer shuttle service from Te Anau that stops at The Divide.

Unfortunately, there are very limited public transport options outside of the summer season, which generally runs from mid-October to the end of April.

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By Car

Travelling to the Key Summit trailhead by car is undoubtedly the easiest way to complete this hike and enjoy the surrounding adventure opportunities at your own pace. To reach The Divide car park, you’ll head north out of Te Anau and jump onto Milford Sound Hwy. After 85 km and roughly 1 hour, you’ll find signs to The Divide car park that lies just off the road on your right.

If you’re in need of car hire for the Key Summit track, we suggest checking out Rental Cars to find the best deals and for the most seamless experience. Alternatively, if you plan to spend a couple of days in the southwest, camping in Milford Sound is hands down the best way to enjoy the landscape, and Jucy Rentals is by far the most popular campervan hire in New Zealand.

Tour Options For The Key Summit Track

The Key Summit track is easily manageable on your own, with clear navigation and a well-maintained trail throughout. However, if you’d rather have some company or you’re struggling to get public transport to The Divide, then Trips & Tramps has you covered.

Operating from the 1st of September to mid-May, Trips & Tramps offers a full-day Key Summit Guided Walk from Te Anau. A professional guide, afternoon snacks, and hotel pick-up and drop-off from Te Anau are included.

Who Is This Hike For?

Walking the Key Summit Circuit in Milford Sound

There are many reasons to love the Key Summit Track, but its greatest allure lies in its accessibility, welcoming almost all levels of walkers. The track follows a wide gravel path with gentle switchbacks assisting the ascent. And once you reach the summit, the breathtaking scene before you emits feelings of insignificance as you stare in awe at the colossal mountain ranges surrounding Key Summit.

That said, there may be better choices than the Key Summit if you’re seeking solitude and a true challenge. Its easy nature makes it one of the most popular short walks along Milford Road. For a more challenging option that is slightly less congested, consider hiking Gertrude Saddle instead.

What To Pack For Your Key Summit Hike

Hiking with a day pack on the Key Summit Circuit in New Zealand

The walk to Key Summit follows a well-maintained path and takes an average of 3 hours to complete. A small daypack with the basic essentials and a pair of sturdy trail runners or light hiking shoes will be more than sufficient for this hike.

Here is a list of items we suggest packing for the Key Summit Track:

Best Time To Hike The Key Summit

Key Summit’s 918 m peak is relatively low compared to the surrounding mountain ranges, making it accessible year-round. That’s not to say you won’t encounter snow or ice during the cold winter months, but with a somewhat gentle gradient, the walk continues to be doable for most levels of walkers during this time.

That said, the best time of year to hike Key Summit – in our opinion – is late autumn. During this time, you’ll often share the trail with far fewer people and enjoy a snow-dusted landscape from the summit.

Hiking at dand with headlamps on the Key Summit Trail in New Zealand

Best Time Of Day To Hike The Key Summit Track

If you’re comfortable walking in the dark with a headtorch, the best time of day to hike the Key Summit is at the crack of dawn to enjoy the sunrise from the peak. But if early mornings aren’t your jam, sunset still provides a breathtaking experience that almost matches the magic seen at sunrise.

Pro Tip: Key Summit offers sensational views out across the Darran and Humboldt Mountains. However, it’s not worth the walk if visibility is low, as you won’t see anything. A great alternative in this circumstance is Lake Marian, which winds through a prettier forest and arrives at a scene that will blow you away no matter the weather.

Key Summit Track Notes

The Divide Shelter To The Routeburn And Key Summit Track Junction

Hiking in the green forest on the Key Summit Walk

The Key Summit Track begins via the Routeburn Track – one of the iconic Great Walks in New Zealand – which can be found in the northeast corner of The Divide car park. A collection of signs at the trailhead inform you of the general times and directions for the Key Summit Track and other relevant destinations found along the same or similar routes.

Stepping onto the wide gravel path, you’ll begin a gentle ascent as the trail traverses the northwestern slopes of the Livingstone Mountains. Tangled branches of native beech trees create a shady canopy, encompassing you in a world painted in a million shades of green and gold.

Beautiful trail of Key Summit surrounded by tree ferns

After 1 km, a red warning sign will inform you that you’re about to enter a landslide-affected area for the next 100 m. Even though the path has been restored, it’s advised to move quickly through this section. The break in the dense forest, courtesy of the landslide, allows your first glimpse of Milford Road snaking through the Eglinton and Hollyford Valleys below.

Land slide area on the Key Summit Track
Walking across bridge on the Key Summit Track

Almost immediately afterwards, you’ll cross over a small bridge that cuts in front of a pretty little waterfall tucked into the creases of the fern-laden mountainside. The gentle incline increases slightly after the bridge, aided by a few tight switchbacks to make the climb easier.

The Track Junction To Key Summit

Key Summit Summit Track Sign

2.7 km and roughly 40 to 60 minutes later, you’ll arrive at the trail junction of the Key Summit and Routeburn Tracks. Turning onto the Key Summit Track, you’ll begin a moderately steep climb south along the zigzagging path.

As you continue to ascend the winding gravel track, the tall moss-covered trees disperse as the terrain shifts into sub-alpine shrublands. The lower vegetation reveals the much-anticipated landscape of monstrous mountains, their peaks sprinkled with pockets of permanent snow and ice.

Hiking to the Summit of Key Summit in New Zealand

Eventually, after 1 km and between 10 to 20 minutes, you’ll find yourself standing next to a picturesque alpine tarn that marks the start of the sprawling Key Summit. You’re afforded endless majestic views of rugged mountains and deep sweeping valleys no matter which direction you turn.

Exploring The Key Summit Circuit

Once you’ve had a moment to absorb the sensational scene before you, continue on to complete the Key Summit Circuit. You’ll gain new perspectives of the unravelling landscape as you wander along the circuit, which winds in an unruly figure-8 configuration across the vast peak.

Key Summit overlooking distant valleys and snow capped mountains

Follow the trail as far south as you can (using the many signs to assist you) to a set of bench seats that look out upon a deep hanging valley at the southern edge of the Darran Mountains – home to the beautiful Lake Marian.

When the weather cooperates, we strongly suggest packing a picnic and taking extra time at the summit to truly immerse yourself in the beauty of the formidable landscape. There are many exploration opportunities at the peak to keep you busy for a little while.

Returning To The Track Junction

Hiking on the Key Summit trail navigating the technical rock section

When you’re ready to leave Key Summit, return to the main track on the northeast side of the peak and begin descending the switchbacks to the Routeburn and Key Summit Track junction.

Note: A toilet can be found off to the side of the trail just below the peak, which is the only one you’ll come across before arriving back at The Divide Car Park – unless you decide to visit Lake Howden.

Continuing Onto Lake Howden (Optional Side Trip)

If you’re keen on more adventure, you can turn right at the track junction and continue on the Routeburn Track, which will lead you to Lake Howden after 700 m. This short but steep descent takes roughly 10 to 20 minutes and traverses through a dense forest filled with spongy moss and gnarled silver beech trees.

Hiking on the rocky trail to Lake Howden, a grat side trip from the Key Summit Walk
Lake Howden on a moody day

At Lake Howden, you’ll find a collection of picnic tables, a shelter and toilets. In our opinion, the forest is the main appeal of this optional side trip, and Lake Howden is not particularly worth it unless you’ve got plenty of time to spare or you’re searching for a protected location for lunch.

Returning To The Trailhead

Walking down the groomed trail of Key Summit Track

Whether you decide to visit Lake Howden or not, you’ll return to the trailhead via the Routeburn Track and likely make it back to The Divide in roughly 1 – 1.5 hrs.

The Key Summit Track, including the side trip to Lake Howden, took us a total of 3 hours, with plenty of time spent on photography along the way. The wide and well-maintained path allows for a leisurely walk, and even though we weren’t challenged on this hike, we thoroughly enjoyed the views at the summit. We highly recommend including the Key Summit in your itinerary if you’re gifted with good visibility.

Other Important Information For Walking The Key Summit Track

Leave No Trace

Key Summit Trailhead warning sign

Fiordland National Park is part of the Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Site and holds many precious flora and fauna species that need protecting.

We can all do our part to protect the fragile and rich landscape by following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. It’s as simple as packing out what you pack in, staying on the designated trails and leaving the wildlife alone.

There are no rubbish bins along the Key Summit Track, or at The Divide, so please keep all your rubbish with you (including food scraps and tissues) until you reach Milford Sound or Te Anau.

Where To Stay Near Key Summit

The Key Summit Track is located 85 km along the iconic Milford Road. The closest town to the trailhead is Te Anau, which offers a wide range of accommodation options. But for the best views and a unique experience, indulge in the beautiful Milford Sound Lodge – the only accommodation in the fiord.

Camping Near Key Summit

Personally, we think that staying in one of the many campsites in Milford Sound is the best way to experience the phenomenal landscape. You have a choice of 10 campgrounds lining Milford Road, but the closest to the Key Summit Track is Cascade Creek.

Final Thoughts

Clouds rolling in towards snow capped mountain peaks

We hope this guide has provided all the information you need to include the Key Summit Track in your Milford Sound itinerary. While there are other Milford Sound walks that we rate higher, if you’re searching for the best easily accessible mountain sunrise location, you won’t beat Key Summit.

However, we will remind you once more that we don’t suggest bothering with this walk if the visibility is low. The ultimate attraction for the Key Summit is the vistas of the surrounding mountain ranges, which will often be hidden in a blanket of white mist in low visibility.

Please feel free to reach out with any additional questions you have on the Key Summit Track, and we will do our best to respond as quickly as possible.

Happy Hiking 🙂