Awesome Hikes Near Milford Sound: Gertrude Saddle | Lake Marian | Key Summit
A mass migration of tour buses occurs daily on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound, New Zealand. Those buses are full of tourists keen to experience Milford Sound, often referred to as the 8th wonder of the world. I was one of those passengers a few years ago, and while I enjoyed the trip it was hard to fight the urge to ditch the tour and head out on one of the many hiking trails in the area. Over the last year or so I got the chance to do just that. We spent a few days in Fiordland National Park and did some awesome hikes near Milford Sound.
- Time: 5-6 hours return
- Difficulty: Tough, and it’s only doable in the summer
- Getting there: The car park is located just before the Homer Tunnel
If you want some of the best views near Milford Sound (and in New Zealand in general) you’ll want to consider hiking the Gertrude Saddle Track. I say consider, because it’s pretty tough and has been labelled as “dangerous” by many. We did it in December and there was still heaps of snow and ice at the top — don’t even consider doing it in winter or even spring! If you happen to be there at the right time (late December to March) you’ll be treated to some special views. The track first heads through the Gertrude Valley and then steadily climbs, first above a waterfall and then up to Black Lake.
Once you get above the valley the track gets steep and you’ll occasionally have to use metal ropes to pull yourself up. I say track, but there isn’t really a track to speak of, it’s just a series of orange markers and cairns guiding the way. People have died on this track but I’m pretty sure DOC have improved the marker system since then. To me, it didn’t seem that dangerous, but we went at the right time of year and were pretty careful. It’s more suited to experienced hikers, so if you have any doubts then don’t do it (or just do a small section, up to where it starts to get steep). Those who make it to the top are rewarded with an amazing view from Gertrude Saddle. The variety of views on this track make it the best day hike in New Zealand (in my opinion anyway!).
- Time: 3-4 hours return
- Difficulty: Easy, but a lot of uphill hiking
- Getting there: Turn down Hollyford Road (87 km along Milford Sound Road) — the car park is 1 km down a gravel road
One of the top hikes near Milford Sound is the mostly uphill trudge to Lake Marian. The hike starts off as a relaxing forest stroll, firstly on a bridge over a pristine blue river and then through exotic green forest. Before long you’ll reach Marian Falls, a set of wild rapids and small waterfalls. It’s a beautiful place, and if you’re only after a short, easy hike you could easily call it a day there and head back.
After leaving Marian Falls behind the track becomes more difficult. The track is rocky and it gets quite muddy if there has been recent rain (which is almost always, considering this is one of the wettest places in New Zealand). It’s also almost entirely uphill until you reach Lake Marian. Don’t let me put you off hiking to Lake Marian though. It is pretty easy and the return journey is almost entirely downhill, so that’s something to look forward to.
Something else to look forward to is seeing Lake Marian emerge from the forest. This little alpine lake, located in a hanging valley (I’d never heard of that term until researching this hike) and surrounded by snow covered mountains is a sight to behold. We arrived before the sun hit the shores of the lake and the massive boulders were covered in frost – it was cool to see but it made it hard to get to the lake’s edge. All of that surrounding scenery reflected perfectly in the clear, calm waters of Lake Marian. It was a really special experience and there were only two other people anywhere near us – winter travel in New Zealand definitely has its advantages.
- Time: 2.5 – 3 hours return
- Difficulty: Easy, but lots of uphill hiking
- Getting There: The hike starts from the Divide car park, 85 kilometres along Milford Sound Road
If you’re looking for the ultimate hike close to Milford Sound you should head straight for Key Summit. This hiking trail, part of which is on the Routeburn Track, has it all, including panoramic mountain views, alpine ponds, pristine forest and small waterfalls.
The track to Key Summit starts off in the shade of the forest. We saw a nest of native wood pigeons along the way and a couple of small waterfalls. There aren’t many views to speak of on this section but it’s a nice walk. It’s mostly uphill but the gradient isn’t too severe. After around 45 minutes you’ll come to the turn off to Key Summit.
Not long after the turnoff the track leaves the forest and the views really start to open up. This is the steepest section of the track, but again it’s really not too difficult. Once at the top you’ll see a sign for the Key Summit alpine nature walk. It takes around 30 minutes to complete the loop and the views are spectacular. You can see both the Darren and Humboldt Mountain ranges as well as numerous small tarns (ponds).
READ MORE: I wrote a full post on the Key Summit hike on my new New Zealand focused blog — check it out
From the very top of the loop track you can see stunning views of Mount Christina and, if you look closely enough, Lake Marian. Key Summit has to be one of the top spots for mountain views in New Zealand – it’s probably the best short hike in Fiordland National Park and its cool being able to walk a small section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”.
- Time: 4-5 hours return (can easily be combined with Key Summit for a 5-6 hour day hike)
- Difficulty: Easy, but lots of uphill hiking (are you noticing a theme here?)
- Getting there: The Divide car park, 85 kilometres along Milford Sound Road
The hike to Earland Falls takes you along a large section of the Routeburn Track. For the first 45 minutes or so it follows the same track as the Key Summit hike, but instead of turning up to Key Summit you continue down to Lake Howden / Howden Hut and then up to Earland Falls. The hike is mostly through the forest and it can get a little repetitive, but the payoff is worth it.
After a steady uphill climb from Howden Hut, you’ll finally catch a glimpse of this towering, 174 metre high waterfall. Before long you’ll be standing under it, and it’s quite an experience. If you’re lucky like we were you might even see a little rainbow (or waterfallbow, I don’t think that’s a real term though). It’d be fun to swim in the pool below Earland Falls but that wasn’t an option in winter. In fact, I almost slipped into the water when climbing over some icy rocks, so tread carefully!
If you’re hiking to Earland Falls it’s best to combine it with Key Summit (it’s a one hour detour). Add together a massive waterfall, the natural beauty of the New Zealand forest and spectacular mountain views and you have one of the best full day hikes in New Zealand.
Shorter Hikes Near Milford Sound
If you don’t fancy doing a proper hike but still want to get off the road and into the heart of Fiordland National Park, there are several options.
It only takes 5-10 minutes to see the Mirror Lakes, which explains why all the tour buses stop there. Apart from the at times intense crowds it’s a cool place to stop – who doesn’t want to see mountains reflecting in a perfectly still little lake?
This 20 minute round trip walk takes you to a series of rapids and waterfalls crashing between water-sculptured rocks. It’s a very easy hike and is frequented by tour buses – it’s worth doing even if you have already done the longer hikes nearby.
Lake Gunn Nature Walk
This 30-45 minute track takes you through a mossy forest to the shores of Lake Gunn. We did this walk close to sunset and it was a great experience. The track starts near the Cascade Creek DOC campsite.
Located 17 km off the main road (the same turnoff as Lake Marian); this 30 minute hike brings you to a viewpoint overlooking Humboldt Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. The road there is also pretty scenic – make sure to stop off at Moraine Creek to see some incredibly clear water.
The Milford Foreshore Walk
Some of the best photos I’ve seen of Milford Sound were taken from the shore. The Milford Foreshore Walk is a great thing to do while waiting for a cruise. The best section takes you from the car park to the cruise terminal – it’s beautiful, especially early in the morning.
Whether you’re looking for a challenge or just want some great views with little to no effort, there is a hike near Milford Sound for everyone. If you have the time I’d definitely recommend the longer hikes (especially Key Summit and Lake Marian). Most people only visit Milford Sound on a day trip but there is so much to see – try and spend at least a couple of days there if you can.
Are you planning a trip to Milford Sound? Which hike would you most like to do? Let us know in the comments below!