REES-DART TRACK, SOUTH ISLAND Hike through classic Southern-Alps scenery on a 37-mile route that has everything but the crowds.
Just 30 minutes after leaving the Muddy Creek trailhead, where this trek begins, expect to stop for a well-deserved photo session. The Rees Valley sprawls out ahead, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering river. A fat waterfall tumbles over cliffs. Glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks slashing at the sky. Most likely, you’ll have the scene to yourself—setting the tone for this entire trip. Although just spitting distance from the world-famous Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern-Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked. Other than at the huts, expect to see almost no one else. A swinging bridge crosses the Rees River at mile 8.4, leading to a forest of moss-draped, twisted beech trees, where the ferns and greenery put Olympic National Park to shame. Stay the first night at Shelter Rock Hut, then ascend about two miles past tussock grasses and the daggerlike fronds of a plant called Spaniard, to 4,747-foot Rees Saddle. Time your arrival for morning or evening, when soft light makes the greens, browns, and grays glow on mountainsides where enormous fins of rock erupt from the earth. From there, descend steeply into a gorge wallpapered with waterfalls and cross the foaming Snowy Creek on a footbridge to reach the Dart Hut at mile 16. Allow an extra day at Dart to make the 12.4-mile, out-and-back hike to 5,000-foot Cascade Pass. The route follows the angry whitewater of the Dart River upstream, ascending hundreds of feet above the heavily cracked, dirt-streaked glacier that spews the gray river from its snout. The trail crosses a glacial moraine of rocks and dirt, where little more than mosses and lichens grow. In the open terrain, look for New Zealand’s endemic kea, an alpine parrot that sings with a high-pitched chortle as it slices the air. Cascade Pass commands a sweeping view of the lushly green Matukituki River Valley. The sharp pyramid of Mt. Aspiring towers above the valley, and icy mountains stand shoulder to shoulder for as far as you can see. The next day, from Dart Hut descend the Dart Valley for 10 miles, through more otherworldly forest interspersed with meadows below glacierdraped peaks. Spend your last night at Daleys Flat Hut before the final day’s 10 miles along the Dart River to the Chinamans Flat trailhead.
Do it Hike counterclockwise to have the strong downstream wind in the Dart Valley at your back. Don’t attempt the trek during heavy rain; some creek fords become impassable. Start at the Rees trailhead (Muddy Creek) and end at the Dart trailhead (Chinamans Flat). The shuttle between trailheads is more than an hour long and rough, so park your van in Glenorchy and get transportation (starting from $70NZ per person, buckleytransport.co.nz or infotrack.co.nz). Pack a stove and cookware for huts on this track. Infodoc.govt.nzCost $$