Hiking Fiordland

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After spending more than two weeks in New Zealand, I can definitively say that the best way to experience the pure nature of this country is through hiking.  There are a network of well developed trails spread over the North and the South islands. From the volcanic terrain of Tongariro National Park, to the mountainous Rob Roy glacier, to the lush forests of Fiordland National Park; New Zealand has almost every type of hiking trail with picturesque and jaw dropping scenery.  It was here that I developed a new found love for hiking. So it was bittersweet to know that these would be our last hikes in New Zealand.  After 2 weeks of camping and hiking, I have to admit, I was ready to check into a hotel and relax at a spa, but the experience has taught me so many things and my appreciation for nature increased each time I pushed my body to the limit.  Here are two of my favorite hikes in Fiordland National Park:

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Fiordland National Park features glacier carved fjords, high peaks, and is one of the most visually spectacular portions of the country.  Routeburn Track, located inside the national park,  is one of the nine “great walks” of New Zealand. While most of the great walks are multi-day affairs, the Key Summit hike can be easily be done in a few hours.   It is located on the first section of the Routeburn Track and offers panoramic views of the area.

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The 3 hour return Key Summit Track lets you to take in the stunning rainforest and glorious alpine scenery of the Fiordland mountains. The well-formed uphill track goes all the way to the summit where you have an unforgettable 360-degree view all the way to Te Anau.  On a clear day, you can see the vistas of the nearby Humboldt and Darran mountains. Unfortunately for us, the weather was terrible the day we went. It was windy, wet, and bone-chillingly cold at the top with minimal visibility.  We were glad we brought extra layers and rain coats – it’s important to remember to be prepared with proper gear for all conditions, as the weather in the alpine regions can change abruptly.

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The trailhead starts at the Divide car park and ascends steadily through lush beech forest.   The first part of the hike is pretty level with a slight incline until you get to the waterfall, then it turns into a rocky scramble for about 5-10 minutes. Continue on the same path winding around the mountain until you get to the fork in the road where Routeburn Track intersects with the Key Summit trail. Beyond this point, the forest thins out and you enter into the alpine shrublands. 

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The steep climb gains a total elevation of 1,158 feet. After a series of zigzags, we emerged near the top and were greeted with thick clouds enveloping the area instead of the panoramic views of snowy peaks, alpine lakes, and deep bush clad valleys we expected to see. Even though we couldn’t see much, there was still something hauntingly beautiful about this place.

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At the top of Key Summit is a self-guided nature walk that introduces you to the native fauna and flora in the area. There are small number of standing pools and bogs nestled in between the rocks and the trees. The grey outlines of the moss-covered trees stood out in the sea of fog like furry monsters.  We were the only ones around, and the desolate setting made it feel like we were transported to the set of a scary movie.  The wind and rain whipped across our faces as we struggled to walk. We rushed through the summit nature loop, and headed back down the mountain when we couldn’t feel our frozen fingers. The whole trip was supposed to take 3 hours, but we were done in 2 including the Alpine walk. I’m sure we would have enjoyed the hike a lot more on a nicer day.

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After the pouring rain from the day before, we weren’t sure we wanted to hike Lake Marian, but luckily, we woke up to a bright warm sun and decided to give it a go – and boy was I glad we did. Lake Marian is one of those hidden gems tucked away just far enough off the beaten track to remain unspoiled. Very few of the visitors to Milford Sound would have even heard of this track, let alone attempt it.  But it’s their loss, because I think this has one of the best views in Fiordland National Park.

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Set in a hanging valley formed by glacial action high above the bush line, Lake Marian is an alpine lake surrounded by the magnificent Darran Mountains. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the stunning reflection of the mountains on the calm lake surface making this one of the most beautiful settings in Fiordland. The steep and challenging 2.4 km return hike to the lake is classified as advanced according to the NZDoC.  Although the track can be demanding, your effort is well-rewarded at the end when you break through the tree line and feast your eyes upon the calm lake nestled under the mountain ranges.  The recommended time is 3-4 hours, but it took us almost 5 hours to complete, including a long break at the lake.

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Lake Marian Track starts soon after you turn off onto the unsealed Hollyford Rd off of the main Milford Highway.  From the car park, we crossed a swing bridge over the Hollyford River. The trail starts gently enough alongside mountain streams through silver beech forest. After about 10 minutes, the track approaches Marian Creek via “The Gantry” where you can see a series of raging waterfalls. Marian Falls is a shorter excursion for those who don’t want to do the full hike to Lake Marian.

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Once we passed the falls, the path became steep and muddy as we ascended through a dense canopy of fuchsia, ribbon wood, and beech trees.   It became more difficult to find our footing as the once even road turned rocky. There were occasional sections that required some balance and care to avoid falling as we climbed over mud pits, tree roots, and boulders.  The trail continued to climb for another hour or two (depending on how fast you hike) through forest and avalanche clearings. Once you pass the second rocky river bed, then you still have another 20 minutes to go – and keep going, as I assure you, it’s really worth it. The grade lessened towards the end of the trail as we descended into the “hanging” portion of the valley.

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After two and a half hours of a grueling climb, we finally emerged from the trees, right onto the banks of Lake Marian. What we saw left us speechless: an alpine lake sits center stage, surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains. On a calm day, the peaks of Mt Crosscut, Mt Marian, and Sabre Peak can be seen reflected in the dark green waters of the lake.  This dramatic setting is the spot where we sat to enjoy our well-earned lunch.  We were especially lucky to be the only ones there for the majority of the stay.  After lunch, we ventured out into the water to dip our weary feet into the ice cold water. There were some pesky sand flies around, but even they couldn’t bother us much. We sat there in quiet solitude, drinking in the the view, and breathing in the beauty.  This was a fitting end to our hiking adventures in New Zealand. Next up, we headed to Queenstown for some adrenaline fueled escapades.

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2 thoughts on “Hiking Fiordland

  1. I think after 2 weeks , I would also be ready to get pampered in the spa but then you would have earned it!! Good thing to know that the Key Summit only takes a couple of hours, that one is down on my list!

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