Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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Exploring Wanaka

Wanaka is that not-so-hidden “hidden gem” of the South Island. Similar to Queenstown, it’s full of fun-loving young folks hanging out by a beautiful lake. Unlike Queenstown though, it’s not nearly as big, which means it’s not nearly as crowded. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to go adventuring around Wanaka.

We chose to start with an excursion to the Blue Pools. The rivers are fed by glacial melt, giving them that crisp, icy tint. After spending some time tip-toeing at the edges, we finally bit the bullet and took the plunge.

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Arguably though, the drive to and from the Haas Pass area was more breath-taking than dipping into the freezing cold water. The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of (you guess it…) Lake Wanaka. Just to the east lays Lake Hawea, and at one very special place on SH 6, the isthmus between the lakes narrows to a point called (you guessed it again…) Isthmus Peak. 

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After 8 km of steep uphill switchbacks across grassy pastureland and around rocky outcrops, you reach the most stunning panorama possible at 1,385 meters high. Every direction lays glistening lake water rimmed by robust, white-frosted giants.

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Even the walk back down will get you giddy with awe. It’s like you’re tightrope walking a very wide (safe) line between sacred pools - almost like you’re not even supposed to be able to float that high above them. 

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The entire hike takes more or less a full day, summit snack included.

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It’s tiring, mostly from the steep decline going back down. Talk about a quad workout. Obviously we spent rest day lounging by the waterfront. It was absolutely lovely. The birds flutter in and out of the trees, and the entire park feels like it’s buzzing with energy. Everyone was out in the sunshine, playing at the waters edge. It’s not the warmest water, but there are docks that some bold souls were jumping off in the middle of the day. Otherwise, for those adverse to cold water, you can opt to stand up paddle board or pedal boat if you still want to get out there! 

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We didn't do nearly as much as Wanaka had to offer - but overall, we had a fantastic time! 

Arthur's Pass

A day of grey between the mountains.

 

Arthur’s Pass lays among the towering giants of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that trails the entire length of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique mountain pass is one of thirteen National Parks in the country, protected for its rugged landscape within the main divide of quite an idyllic mountain range. 

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On the way into the park (coming from the east), we stopped at the Castle Hill Conservation Area, otherwise known as Weathertop from Lord of the Rings. For those of you who need a reminder: the Battle of Weathertop, in the first movie, is when Frodo gets stabbed by the Morgul Blade and gets rescued by Aragorn.

You can’t quite get an idea of what the true lay of the land looks like from the dark, gloomy battle scene, but here’s the actual landscape of where they filmed it:

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It’s a fun stop on the way into the pass! There are a few walking trails through the big boulders, and you really do feel like you’re exploring Middle Earth for a bit - especially during golden hour.

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After our LOTR adventure, we kept on towards the mountains. Unfortunately, our entire time in Arthur’s Pass was a bit hampered by dreary weather. The fog settled in overnight, so we ended up taking the shorter, backup itinerary for the day. We started with the 252 stairs up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a waterfall that cascades down 131 meters from the ridges above the viewing platform. 

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The rain cloud really started to settle in by the time we got back to the car, so we decided to see a few more sites from the dryness of our Hyundai. The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Aqueduct are just north of the main village - you would pass it on the way out to the west coast. With the fog, the shelter felt like a magical mountainside passageway, as if we were back in Middle Earth again.

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Luckily on our way back east, we managed to sidestep the storm long enough to climb all over the park sign.

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