Rees-Dart: The Most Beautiful Glacier

December 28, 2020
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The Valleys of the Rees and the Dart surround the Forbes Mountains, north of Glenorchy at the head of Lake Wakatipu.  LINZ via NZ Topo Map, 2021, CC-BY-SA 4.0. North at top.

This post has been updated on 27 January 2023, with an account of a new trip in January 2023. The earlier content in this post refers to more wintery trip along the same route a few years previously, and has also been slightly revised itself.

IN January 2023, I decided that I was going to do the Rees-Dart Track with a friend from Auckland called Henare, who had invited another guy as well. I had done it once before, but not for four or five years.

The track is promoted as a more challenging and arguably even more scenic alternative to the Great Walks. But it is back country, and very steep in places. The track had been closed for three years after a huge slip in 2014, and that gives you some idea of the power of nature in these parts.

It’s 77 kilometers. We got the Info Track shuttle, which dropped us off at 10 o’clock in the morning at the Rees River road-end. From there, we began our journey by hiking up into the hills through beautiful river flats for several hours.

The first day was about nine hours to the first hut we stayed the night, the Shelter Rock Hut, which is at an elevation of about 900 m above sea level, meaning that it is about 600 m above the level of Lake Wakatipu.

We walked past the Kea Basin, which is partway up a ridge that has Mount Earnslaw as its highest point and a shorter but really scenic valley called the Earnslaw Burn Valley behind it. I’d like to do the Earnslaw Burn as well someday.

The track went through the Rees Valley Station, owned by Iris Scott.

It was mostly grassland, a bit of bush, but not much, and going up. There were quite a few people camping. The weather was just divine: it was really worthwhile.

On top of that, I wanted to hike to the lookout at the Cascade Saddle, which added another 19 km. We were going to spend two nights at the Dart Hut, on the Dart River., as that is the place from which you hike to the Cascade Saddle.

The Dart Glacier (top centre-right) and Cascade Saddle in relation to the Forbes Mountains. This is a closer view. There is a poled route to the Cascade Saddle, not shown at this degree of magnification. The Cascade Saddle route into the Matukutuki Valley does not actually go over the Cascade Saddle and is visible on a still closer view.  LINZ via NZ Topo Map, 2021, CC-BY-SA 4.0. North at top.

We decided to get up at 6:30 in the morning, as it was going to be a bit more of a challenge to go over the Rees Saddle (1,471 m ASL), to the Dart Hut.

There were quite a number of kea along the way, and I got some more videos and photos of kea to add to my collection.

At the top of the saddle the view was magnificent. And then we descended down to the Dart Hut and got there at about 12:30 or 1 o’clock. It was a beautiful walk that day as well.

Most of the alpine flowers had already bloomed, which seemed like a surprise as there had been a drought lately.

We got to the Dart Hut and met a guy called Gareth who was a very good hut warden. It is $20 for the huts and $5 for the camping, or, if you have a back country hut pass, the camping is free. A booking system exists for the huts on the Rees-Dart Track, and it pays to book well ahead.

The Dart Hut

There are still quite a few trying to sneak in and not pay the fees.

There are a lot of internationals who have returned, trail runners, and bikers who were hiking. We met some pretty interesting people.

The sign for the Whitbourn Track leading to the Whitbourn Glacier has been taken down. The Back Country Trust is donating a new bridge to go over to the Whitbourn, and then the sign will go back up.

We left at 6:30 again the next morning to go to the Cascade Saddle. The trail to the Saddle led up toward the Dart Glacier for most of the way. You could follow the water and the river up to the glacier, or you could follow a narrow trail.

On the route up to Cascade Saddle

An alpine pond, full of glacial meltwater

The Dart Glacier

It's actually quite a long way down into the valley!

Another view of the vertiginous drop

A selfie by the glacier

It was just stunning. I have camped before on the Cascade Saddle and been harassed by kea. I took photos all the way up. The track hadn’t been kept up as well as it had been in the past, but there were still cairns all the way up.

I ate all my food, and then it took me an hour and a half to get up to the top of Cascade Saddle, from which you can see Mount Aspiring/Tititea, and into the Matukituki Valley as well.

At the Cascade Saddle. The Matukituki Valley is on the other side.

Looking into the Matukituki Valley from the Cascade Saddle

I met more people on the way up. Apparently, there are about 14 kea at the top, at the pylon camping area, and if you stay there, you are seriously harassed. So, it seems that the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) is thinking of shutting down the pylon camping area, as the kea were there first.

And then on to Daleys Flat Hut, once more from 6:30 in the morning. It was a beautiful walk once more. It was very hot in the open, though.

Daleys Flat Hut was very comfortable. There were some alpine lakes nearby as well. There was a lot of birdlife, as there was active trapping of pests. I saw the red-crowned parakeets called kākāriki and the tiny birds called riflemen in English and titipounamu in Māori.

Displays at the road end

Some really impressive mountains that you can see from the road end as well

I made a video of a bit over three minutes of scenes I saw along the way:

Taking the shuttle from both ends was $120, while having your car relocated cost $190. So, the shuttle was cheaper. You can catch the shuttle either from Queenstown or Glenorchy, and if you want to have time to socialize and do things in Glenorchy, the latter is the best option. There is a link to shuttle information here:

You can also read about the Rees-Dart in a 2018 Wilderness Magazine story called 'Journey Past Paradise'.

My Earlier Trip

IT was cold, and boggy underfoot, as a few friends and I began our tramp up the Rees River on the great Rees-Dart Track near Glenorchy.

Part of the South Island’s World Heritage area, the Rees and Dart Valleys were first used by the Ngāi Tahu people of Murihiku/Southland and Otago for hunting moa and collecting greenstone.

Alongside its English name, the Dart River has an official Māori name which also appears on maps, Te Awa Whakatipu, meaning the river that drains into Lake Wakatipu.

The route runs up the beautiful, initially flat-bottomed river valley of the Rees River and joins with the Dart/Awa Whakatipu in quite different country, at the Tititea/Mount Aspiring National Park boundary, before looping back to Lake Wakatipu down the Rees.

It’s at that upper point that you can also go still further up the Dart/Awa Whakatipu to the Dart Glacier, or over the Cascade Saddle Track into the Matukituki Valley.

Despite its accessibility and the fact that the lower parts are mostly an easy stroll, this track gets quite ‘gnarly’ further up, with some steep bits that beginners would find scary, and it pays to read what Tramping New Zealand has to say about this loop, which normally takes five days including a day trip to Cascade Saddle and back: That web page has got some pretty good photos, too!

From the mouth of the Rees River, it’s seven kilometres hiking to Shelter Rock, the first hut on the four-day Rees-Dart Track.

We left Shelter Rock at about eight o’clock the next morning to make our way to Dart Hut. Heading over the Rees Saddle we encountered a light dusting of snow on the track. I have had experience tramping in snow and done some alpine training, but I hadn’t brought any crampons with me on this trip.

Thankfully, we managed to descend the saddle safely and re-joined the track down to Dart Hut. It was quite a long day of tramping, but it certainly was a beautiful walk, with the snow only adding to the already spectacular mountain scenery.

I found a bunk in the Dart Hut, where we were to spend two nights, and decided to take a look at the Dart Glacier.

We finally reached the Dart Glacier and I fell absolutely in love with it. As we climbed up towards the Cascade Saddle, the glacier turned from rock and scree into an icy, white slash in the landscape.

We made it back to Dart Hut, and I carried on to Daleys Flat Hut, which felt like a different walk altogether. Between the two huts, and all the way through to Chinaman’s Bluff, you follow a faint track through sprawling beech forests and across terraces – very different from the snow-covered Rees Saddle we had crossed earlier!

Lastly, there is also a high danger of avalanches in the colder times of the year, as this sign makes clear:


If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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