The Rees-Dart Track is another primo example of a New Zealand multi-day hike that flies a little below the radar, but still brings the ruckus with 4-5 days of spectacular mountain vistas, lush forests and a sprinkling of ancient glaciers.
Mostly contained within the South Island’s Mount Aspiring National Park, the Rees-Dart Track is an alpine trek catering more to experienced hikers who aren’t worried by a little rock scrambling and the odd creek crossing. The route meanders for around 83km (factoring in an unmissable side trip) through beech forest, up two vast river valleys, and over a number of saddles.
The scenery along the track is grand and quintessentially kiwi – not to mention strikingly Tolkien-esque, having played host to several scenes from the Lord of the Rings films (the bits featuring Lothlórien and Isengard, for the geeks out there).
Access is from the nearby town of Glenorchy (an hour from Queenstown), where you’ll generally need to organise a minibus transfer to the trailhead (unless you’re a particularly optimistic hitchhiker, and don’t mind tacking on an extra few clicks of walking).
Your hips can also rest easy, as the trail passes by three cosy backcountry huts complete with bunks, benches and fireplaces – i.e. no tents or sleeping mats required. Heck, there are even flushing toilets.
Unlike the better-trodden ‘Great Walks’ you’ll also dodge the crowds, pricy overnight huts, and cringe-inducing permit system. The huts here operate on a first-come-first-served basis, so just pick up a few Hut Tickets or a Hut Pass from the DOC office beforehand, then get tramping. Worth noting that I did the hike in early January (just about peak season) and the huts were never more than ~60% filled.
Day 1 – Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut
Travelling in an anti-clockwise direction (as is the norm on the Rees-Dart) the hike starts you off at the Muddy Creek Car Park, or however far up your transport can get you.
The first few hours are an easy saunter through leasehold farmland and across a few streams, following marker poles through the boggy sections north of Arthurs Creek.
A swing bridge indicates you’ve crossed over into national park land after about 12km of hiking.
From here, the trail winds through forest and across the Rees River, before eventually opening up into a valley framed by views of the snow-draped Forbes Mountains. Once you’re past the bush’s edge, the 22 bunk Shelter Rock Hut is just another half hour along.
Day 2 – Shelter Rock Hut to Dart Hut
If day one impressed you, then day two’s views will knock your merino-wool socks clean off.
The track follows the northern bank of the Rees River through a gorgeous, tussock-lined valley for an hour or two, before ascending up to the 1471m high Rees Saddle.
At its peak you’re treated to spectacular views of rugged mountains in just about every direction. The trail veers north from here, along a bluff above Snowy Creek, until eventually cruising down to a bridge crossing.
If you’re brave enough to attempt a mid-year jaunt around the Rees-Dart, keep in mind that this bridge is often removed for the winter then returned once the snow starts to thin out. Crossing at these times can be sketchy, so take care.
Next, follow a scattering of orange markers until you reach a swing bridge, over which you’ll find the generously sized Dart Hut (32 bunks).
Day 3 – Optional side trip to Cascade Saddle
Distance: 20km return
If you can stretch out your time on the Rees-Dart to five days (and don’t be a chump, you absolutely should), then don a day pack and set off for a trip up to Cascade Saddle on day three. The signposting indicates 8-10 hours for the return journey, but fit hikers usually knock it over in almost half that time.
The journey leads you up the Dart River in the shadow of some spectacular (if not ominous) cliff lines.
There are a number of streams to hop across, so pick your crossing points carefully – glacial fed water tends to be on the chilly side.
Keep following the orange trail markers until you’re treated to excellent views of the Dart Glacier, before the ascent continues on up to Cascade Saddle (1524m). Watch out for the notoriously cheeky keas up around here.
Day 4 – Dart Hut to Daleys Flat Hut
Today is a relatively cruisy day, descending through lively beech forest (birdwatchers prepare yo-selves) before sidling out onto the rolling pastures of Cattle Flat.
From here, the track is well formed and wanders along the Dart River past Rock Bivvy (a camping spot) to Daleys Flat Hut (20 bunks).
The water is gorgeous and turquoise down here, so with four days of backcountry fragrance accumulated it’s advisable to brave the cold and get a quick afternoon dip in. Also watch for sand flies, and keep the hut door closed as much as possible.
Day 5 – Daleys Flat Hut to Chinamans Carpark
The last day isn’t to be underestimated, particularly if you’ve arranged for pickup at Chinamans Car Park (which tends to leave at 2pm). Get up as early as possible to avoid a last-ditch dash through the final stretch.
The track is easygoing to begin with (expect to be joined by a few curious South Island Robins on your way), but eventually becoming more challenging and slippy as it ambles high up above the Dart River.
At the time of writing, a large chunk of trail had been derailed by a landslide, and the detour veers off left up a steep and narrow bush-bash. Eventually the track opens up onto Surveyors Flat, up over Chinaman’s Bluff, before winding around to the carpark and trail’s end.
- Sleeping gear – as a hut hike, just a sleeping bag and maybe a pillow are necessary. In peak season it could be worth packing a lightweight mat, in case all the bunks are taken. If you’re really worried, chuck in a tent as well.
- 5 days of clothes, food and general hiking gear. Pack warm – we still got overnight snowfalls when I did the track in January.
- A good-sized hiking pack, and a smaller day pack (if possible) for the side trip to Cascade Saddle.
- Shoes – expect plenty of stream crossings and a few marshy sections, so something waterproof, or at least quick drying, is advisable.
How to Get There
Access is from Glenorchy, where hikers generally pre-arrange drop-off and pick-up from a local provider – we used Glenorchy Journeys.
Around 83km over five days.