Going to New Zealand, mate? Good on ya! One of the most famous routes is the Routeburn Track, a classic for a few reasons: it’s not too hard to hike and has incredible scenery going from lush forest to an alpine path with expansive views and nice huts. In fact, at 19.8 miles, fit people could dayhike it (though being a point-to-point traverse complicates transportation logistics for doing it in one long day).
Gary Kuehn hiking above the Dart River.
But it’s so well known that the big challenge is getting a hut reservation. And once you have one, you’re committed you to dates, allowing no flexibility to delay for a day or two if New Zealand’s characteristically fickle and very wet weather goes south.
As an alternative, I prefer the Rees-Dart Track . Linking the valleys of the Rees River and Dart River via 4,747-foot Rees Saddle, it has Routeburn-caliber scenery—it’s in Mt. Aspiring National Park, basically next-door to the Routeburn—and comfortable, well-spaced huts. But because it’s longer (37 miles) a bit harder, and simply not as famous as the Routeburn, hut reservations aren’t necessary. I trekked it with a friend who’s a mountain guide in New Zealand but had not been on the Rees-Dart before, and he was blown away by how beautiful it is.
People generally hike the Rees-Dart counter-clockwise: up the Rees Valley and down the Dart Valley, which makes sense particularly if you’re using a trailhead transport service (as I’ll recommend below). And don’t miss the 12.4-mile, out-and-back side trip to Cascade Saddle, done as a dayhike from Dart Hut. On a clear day, it’s the highlight of the trip, with its panoramas of Dart Glacier and the Southern Alps, including Mt. Aspiring.
Plan five days total, following this itinerary:
Day one: Muddy Creek trailhead to Shelter Rock Hut, 11.8 miles.
Day two: Shelter Rock Hut over Rees Saddle to Dart Hut, 5.6 miles.
Day three: Dayhike to Cascade Saddle, return to Dart Hut, 12.4 miles.
Day four: Dart Hut to Daleys Flat Hut, 11.2 miles.
Day five: Daleys Flat Hut to Chinaman’s car park, 9.9 miles.
Fit hikers can combine the first two days, but be forewarned: the 5.6 miles from Shelter Rock Hut to Dart Hut is rough and can take a few hours—longer if you’re tired—and Rees Saddle is very exposed to weather and wind. Plus, you might appreciate having an easy day between the 12-mile first and third days.
If you want some flexibility, extend your itinerary to six days, so that if it’s rainy and overcast on the day you planned to hike Cascade Saddle, you can hang out at Dart Hut and hope for clear skies the next day.
The Muddy Creek Trailhead and Chinaman’s car park are about a 90-minute drive apart in good weather, on roads that can get rough and require driving across streams. Don’t take a chance on getting stuck with a rented economy car. Use one of the transport services from Queenstown: Buckley Transport (buckleytransport.co.nz) or Info & Track, (infotrack.co.nz).
WHAT TO KNOW AND WHEN TO GO
When to Go
The best time to hit the Rees-Dart Track is late February through March. New Zealand is jammed with Kiwi and international trekkers from Christmastime into February, and pleasant, drier weather (relatively speaking) often lasts into April.
The Rees-Dart has extremely muddy and boggy sections—bring good waterproof boots and gaiters—and some streams can be impassable after a recent rain. Stream levels are often lower and muddy stretches relatively dried out by late summer. When I did the Rees-Dart in the third week of February, we had mostly clear weather, mild nights (rarely below 50° F.), only some light rain on our last day, not too much mud, and no trouble with stream fords. There are bridges over the Rees River and Snowy Creek.
Bring a tent; the huts can fill up by late in the day, especially the Dart Hut, because so many trekkers spend two nights there in order to dayhike to Cascade Saddle. You might even prefer sleeping in a tent over a hut, which can be noisy and badly infested with biting sand flies (especially the valley huts).
When my friend Gary and I arrived late at the Dart Hut, we grabbed extra mattresses and slept under the stars on the outside deck on a clear night. There are nice tent sites near the hut, too. But do not leave a tent up or gear out when you leave your campsite at Dart Hut—New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the kea, is notorious for shredding unguarded tents.
Two last notes: If you’ve never heard of sand flies, steel yourself for the equivalent of the Northeast’s black flies, but arguably worse (and I’m a New England native). And in this mild maritime climate, they’re around all summer. Bring bug dope.
Also, New Zealand’s air is so clean—thanks to the constant ocean winds blowing pollution away—that UV exposure is extreme. Use sunscreen with the highest SPF rating you can find. Clothing that’s cool but covers arms, legs, and head protects against sun and sand flies.
Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. It will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press (beacon.org). michaellanza.com/