Key Summit Track

Key Summit Track

Routeburn Track - Fiordland National Park

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Details

128 Rankers Reviews

118 Face-to-Face

257 Walking

9 Milford Sound - Fiordland National Park

Maps

Photos

Just before sunset on Key Summit
The view during the walk to Key Summit
View from the top at Key Summit
Kaka

Information

7.2 km return | 3 hours return

Few places summon such vast enthralling views as Key Summit. Looking north is the Hollyford Valley, flanked to the east by the Alisa Mountains and to the west by the Darrans. Above the Lake Marian bowl are the pyramidal Mount Christina and Mount Crosscut. Looking east from the Lake Marian lookout is the Greenstone Valley, with the Eglington sneaking in to the south.

Timing

This is the most popular of the longer walks off the Milford Road. If you are there between 11am and 2 pm, it is unlikely you will have the place to yourself.

Access

The Divide is signposted 83.5 km from Te Anau and 15.5 km from the Homer Tunnel. It is also the start of the Routeburn Track. A shelter, toilets and large parking area are at the same location. Key Summit is signposted from the parking area.

Track

The well-used and even track is a steady climb from 540 metres at the Divide to 919 metres at Key Summit.

Numerous small rivulets cascade down the hillside, smothered with silver beech forest. The moisture levels are so high all trunks, branches and decaying forest litter are cloaked with a green smothering of mosses and Weymouthia.

Approaching the bushline, mountain flax, snow totara and dracophyllum are amongst the alpine species coming into the mix. After a junction with the track to Howden Hut (following the Routeburn Track), the track commences a series of zigzags in the alpine zone. Stunted silver beech are a feature, growing slowly in the harsh environment.

After a further 20 minutes the track forks at the start of the Alpine Nature Walk. At the DoC sign, a number of information cards are there to borrow, which guide you along the 30 minute loop exploring the natural features.

This is a different world of stunted silver beech, alpine bogs and tarns. You are spoiled for choice which way to look. The interpretation plaque helps identify the main mountains and valleys on the 360 degree panorama.

Make sure you take the 15-minute-return detour along the Ridge Track to the benches at the lookout to Lake Marian. More alpine bogs and vegetation occupy the glacially smoothed summit flats.

Geology

A drop of rain falling on Key Summit can end up in one of three oceans:

1. Should it head south it would flow into Lake Fergus, at the source of the Eglington River, into Lake Gunn, the Eglington river, then pass through Lake Te Anau, the Upper Waiau into Lake Manapouri. If we conveniently forget about the possibility of being diverted through the power station into Doubtful Sound, then our drop of rain may continue through the Waiau River to Te Waewae Bay and the Southern Ocean.

2. If our raindrop heads north, it would reach the mighty Hollyford River and flow into Lake McKerrow and then on to the Tasman Sea on the wets coast.

3. If by some quirk of fate it heads east into the Caples River, it ends up in Lake Wakatipu and the Clutha River system. After a quick jaunt down the Kawerau, it reaches Cromwell and joins the Clutha River, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean at Balclutha.

This is how the European name ‘Key’ is accorded, as the hill is the key to three watersheds travelling to three oceans.

Fauna

Alpine tarns such as those on the summit plateau are characteristic of Fiordland. Despite the harsh conditions, they teem with life, mainly micro-crustaceans, tiny waterfleas and cyclops. These herbivorous organisms feed off the vegetable detritus in the water and in turn provide food for carnivorous creatures such as the water beetle larvae. Sandhoppers also frequent the tarns, preying on water’s edge insects hiding in the reeds, sedges, rushes and bladderworts.

Polynesian History

The Routeburn Track was once followed by Maori travellers, plying their route from greenstone sources in Fiordland to settlements on the coast. Between 1650 and 1800, the Maori settlement at Martins Bay was a strategic stopping off point in the search of pounamu. Using the Greenstone Valley as the main route, Harris Saddle was also traversed as a major east-west link. Their series of names stretches from Lake Wakatipu through Te Komama (Routeburn) to the Tarahaka Whakatipu (Harris Saddle) and Whakatipu Waitai (Lake McKerrow). The generic term for the region was ‘Titiraurangi’, meaning ‘the land of many peaks piercing the clouds’. Those early travellers traded with coastal settlers, pounamu, kiwi and kakapo feathers exchanged for muttonbirds, mere, adzes and fish hooks.

European History

The first Europeans to reach Key Summit were George Gunn and David McKellar in 1861. These wealthy Southland runholders were looking for pastures new and climbed the Greenstone Valley. They looked down the Eglington Valley and saw three lakes (hence the naming of Lake Gunn) and thought the Hollyford too heavily timbered for their purposes. They mistook Lake McKerrow for the coast.

Key Summit is the first major landmark on the famous Routeburn Track - a DoC Great Walk which traverses Harris Saddle on its way to Lake Wakatipu. In 1863, Government employed prospector Patrick Quirk Caples, travelled up from the Dart Valley along a route roughly following today’s track. His description of a lake ‘surrounded by glacier covered pinnacles’ at the head of the valley is Lake Harris, which he named after John Hyde Harris, the Superintendent of Otago. Harris Saddle also follows in this same praise-seeking vein. Although it was January, Caples was forced to use his shovel and excavate snow steps in the ice bordering the lake. After crossing the saddle, he took a route down to the fast flowing river, which he named the Hollyford after his birthplace in Tipperary, Ireland. Following the river downstream, the first sizeable obstacle was the large tributary he named ‘Pyke Creek’, after Vincent Pyke, Secretary of the goldfields.

Caples was in search of gold to sustain the burgeoning rushes of Central Otago. The lack of any noteworthy prize and dwindling food resources forced his return down the Routeburn. Encountering clear skies, he looked down the Hollyford Valley all the way to the coast at Martins Bay. He clearly deciphered the sizeable lake before the coast, which he called Lake McKerrow after surveyor James McKerrow, who was exploring the Lake Wakatipu region at the time. He also spied an insignificant plume of smoke rising from the beach. After restocking from his food stash, he descended via the Caples Valley and bumped into McKerrow, determined to prove that the Hollyford indeed flowed to the coast at Martins Bay.

On his next foray, Caples ascended the Greenstone Valley, then followed the Hollyford, skirting the shores of Lake McKerrow to the coast. In his search for gold he failed. In the first European east-west crossing of Otago, he succeeded. At Martins Bay he encountered the rudely constructed huts of a Maori camp, whom he presumed was peopled with cannibals. He must have been a scared man as he recorded in his diary “It is easy for a person to find courage when he has law and assistance at this back, but let him be alone and beyond any assistance, near the camp of savages, and he will find how fleeting courage is.”

Caples’ unease was soon discovered to be completely unfounded, based on the experiences of James Hector, provincial geologist for Otago. In August 1863, Hector visited Martin’s Bay and struck up a lasting friendship with Chief Tutoko. Hector returned to Queenstown with no hint of gold, but an idea for a road via the Harris Saddle.

This proposal was taken up by the egotistical Superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew, who held grandiose plans for a port on the West Coast, to be named Jamestown of course. Surveyor McKerrow supported the route over the Routeburn and Harris Saddle and estimated a cost of £400 to construct a bridle track. He reckoned on a days walk from Lake Wakatipu to the Hollyford Valley. The saddle, he surmised, would only be impassable for a few weeks each winter. These overoptimistic judgements grossly underestimated practicability of the project, so after 4 years work ceased. This abandoning of the road was one of the nails in Jamestown’s coffin.

In the last two decades of the 1800s, as tourism started to creep into the lives of the station owners at the head of Lake Wakatipu, guided parties began exploring the Routeburn area. 15-year old Harry Bryant would accompany tourists on an overnight horse trek up to Harris Saddle. Along with Harry Birley from Glenorchy they would guide parties of up to 17 people. After traversing the gorge on a benched track above the Routeburn River, riders would enter the Routeburn Flats and the hut, where they camped for the night.

The following morning the foot journey commenced with a grunty climb to the bushline and Lake Harris, the source of the Routeburn River. Circumnavigating the lake, these first trampers would scramble up the rocky bluff behind the lake to the saddle and take in the view.

In 1912 Minister of Tourism Sir Thomas MacKenzie enthused about the possibility of completing the track from Harris Saddle to Lake Howden. This was the catalyst for Harry Birley to discover Lake Mackenzie during his early forays. Tom Bryant was entrusted with the task of supplying the work gangs on the far side of the saddle and used teams of packhorses. Prince was the workhorse of the operation and nearly came a cropper one day near the saddle when he became jammed in a narrow rock crevice with precipitous drops on either side. Bryant was able to unload the gear and repack the horse to continue the journey, but not without a drop of perspiration or two. The peat bogs near Lake Harris also turned to quagmires with the repeated hoof falls, making Bryant feel he was earning his pay.

Details

Feature Value Info

Location

South IslandFiordlandMilford Sound - Fiordland National Park

Categories

  • Walking
  • Free

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Reviews

Showing 13 reviews of 119.

Sally Caboche's avatar

Sally Caboche

Australia

Ranking: 10/10

May 2017 We overnighted at Kiosk Creek to make the early cruise on the Sound, which set us up perfectly to stop at The Divide for the afternoon on the way back into Te Anau. Both hubbie and I had walked the Routeburn over 30 years ago, so were looking forward to reliving some of our steps. Back then, finishing the Routeburn at The Divide, as with many walks if you are trying to make transport connections, you tend to rush the last part. This time, we could take our time on this segment of the Routeburn before heading up to Key Summit track. On the way up we stopped to enjoy every view we could and once on top of Key Summit, we took our time to take in the glorious panoramas as the cloud swirled around us. A steady climb, but very manageable for us (age 55-60). Don't rush, do the nature trail as well. As with all the walks we did, the tracks are so well maintained. Traveling in the off season, we rarely encountered many other walkers and savoured having the stunning mountains to ourselves.

Reviewed over 1 year ago and experienced in May 2017

Hannibal Winther's avatar

Hannibal Winther

Denmark

Ranking: 6/10

Easy track to find, but really hard to walk. OK views, but not even close to Abel Tasman and Hooker Valley!

Reviewed almost 2 years ago

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Brigitte CREPLET's avatar

Brigitte CREPLET

Belgium

Ranking: 10/10

Really nice walk. Not too steep, easy level. Outstanding 360 degree view on the Summit.

Reviewed almost 2 years ago and experienced in March 2017

Andreas's avatar

Andreas

Germany

Ranking: 10/10

Great three hour walk with stunning views and good paths to walk on. You do meet some people, but it never felt overcrowded.

Reviewed almost 2 years ago and experienced in March 2017

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Ingrid Kiselka's avatar

Ingrid Kiselka

Austria

Ranking: 8/10

Well maintained and signed.

Reviewed about 2 years ago and experienced in January 2017

Marjolen Klomphaler's avatar

Marjolen Klomphaler

Netherlands

Ranking: 9/10

This is a great alternative since the Milford Track was no option (full). A very well maintained path, fantastic views and a nice extra walk once you are up at the top.

Reviewed about 2 years ago and experienced in January 2017

Katarina's avatar

Katarina

Austria

Ranking: 9/10

Easy track, around three hours round trip. We unfortunately had bad weather, so I cannot tell anything about the views from the top, but the rainforest was great!

Reviewed about 2 years ago and experienced in January 2017

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Sebasitian's avatar

Sebasitian

Austria

Ranking: 8/10

Short walk (three hours return), exactly as stated on the map in the carpark. Through dense rainforest, low visibility when we went there (so no views) but very mystic and adorable setting.

Reviewed about 2 years ago and experienced in January 2017

Katharina Koch's avatar

Katharina Koch

Ranking: 10/10

Really liked this area, kept so naturally.

Reviewed about 2 years ago and experienced in February 2017

Laia Pujol's avatar

Laia Pujol

Spain

Ranking: 10/10

Hard three hour walk at the beginning but worth it once you get to the top. Really nice alpine walk with excellent views.

Reviewed over 2 years ago and experienced in December 2016

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Max Mueller's avatar

Max Mueller

Germany

Ranking: 9/10

Nice little trip, had a great view. Everything perfect.

Reviewed over 2 years ago and experienced in December 2016

Lucie Colpin's avatar

Lucie Colpin

France

Ranking: 10/10

Three hour round trip on the track, well equipped, marvellous. We have seen some Kea at the top of the mountain.

Reviewed over 2 years ago and experienced in October 2016

Ross D's avatar

Ross D

United Kingdom

Ranking: 10/10

A fairly steep and well maintained track. Awesome views at the top and an added bonus of a nature walk when you are there.

Reviewed over 2 years ago and experienced in October 2016

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Nick Morrison

Rankers owner