Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns, Hector Mountains, Otago NZ

More tarns than you could ever hope for on this route past Wye Creek and on to the Doolans Creek tarns in the rugged Hector Mountains.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

At the rugged northern end of the Hector Mountains, and behind the iconic Remarkables Range near Queenstown, are about fifteen scenic tarns. There are five in the Wye Creek Basin, and ten in the rather more remote area above Doolans Creek East Branch. A ridge of rugged peaks separates the two clusters. Most of these tarns are enormous, deep, and all of them scenic. The Wye Creek tarns are set amongst tussock grassland with Single Cone towering overhead. And the Doolans Creek tarns are dotted around rocky terrain with patches of golden tussock. For anybody that likes tarns I can’t imagine a better two day route.

The Wye Creek tarns are easily accessed on a day trip from the Remarkables ski field car park, and I can recommend climbing towards point 2046m south-east of the tarns for spectacular views over the area. You can bag the peak if you like but the views start early, so you don’t have to. To visit the Doolans Creek tarns is a more substantial route that gets harder as you progress.

There are options to climb peaks in the area, including Mt Tūwhakarōria (2307m),  the highest mountain in Central Otago. We would have needed an extra day and didn’t have a long enough weather window. Route notes at the end.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns: The Scenery

Day 1

Queens Drive & Lake Alta, Remarkables
Lake Alta with Single Cone and Double Cone behind (Feb 2024).
Queens Drive-Wye Creek Circuit, Remarkables Range
Lake Alta as we descended from the saddle. (Actually replaced with a very similar shot on a sunny day in 2024).
Queens Drive - Wye Creek Loop, The Remarkables
Wye Creek Basin (photo from Feb 2024)
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Two campers next to one of the Wye Creek tarns.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
A pleasing panorama as we ascended to the ridge.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Single Cone looking gnarly as we made our way to 2020m through boulders and rocks.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Lunch on day 1, just below the saddle between 2115m and 1967m. The first of the Doolans tarns lie ahead.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Instead of climbing to the right here, we proceeded straight ahead to the east of 2130m.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
One of the most unusual setting for a tarn I’ve ever seen. It was completely surrounded by a boulder field, and there were submerged boulders as well.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
That same tarn taken from the other end., as we climbed up to the point from which we made our scary descent.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Our descent route centre (photo actually taken the next day).
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Arriving at perhaps our favourite tarn, which we chose as our camp for the night.

Day 2

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Morning light on our campsite.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
My camera’s HDR function worked hard to capture this sunrise, creating an otherworldly scene.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Leaving camp.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Passing by another new tarn.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
More boulders!
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
At (or near) 2127m, looking back at the route up from our campsite, with Mt Tūwhakarōria and Te Kārearea Peak behind.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
A bit of Lake Wakatipu viewed from 2127m.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Sophia providing a bit of scale, looking at 2130m from near 2127m.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Not very good lighting for this shot but you could see the way forward clearly, passing by four trans on our way back to the saddle.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Me trying to look like a mountaineer, and a very well coordinated one at that. With so much style it’s a shame we met no one for two days 😉
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
We descended from up there entre left. There was loose rock but nothing too troublesome.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Another new tarn. We didn’t visit this one, opting to stay high and descend directly to one of the tarns we passed on day 1.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Lunch was instant noodles.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Looking into Central Otago from the saddle between 2115m and 1967m.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
The southern end of the Remarkables lining Wye Creek.
Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
One of the money shots of the trip – the Wye Creek tarns and Single Cone from a bit below 2046m.

Route Notes

Doolans Creek Tarns via Wye Creek Tarns
On a marked track to Lake Alta, then an unmarked route to the Wye Creek tarns. From there you choose your own adventure, crossing over to the Doolans Creek tarns, but read my detailed route notes about the lay of the land, because its quite rugged. The dotted red line was our return route, where it differed from the outward route.

Wye Creek Tarns

Start at the Remarkables ski field car park ($15 access fee for vehicles, payable at the bottom of the mountain). Follow the track to Lake Alta, then climb south to the saddle. Drop down into the Wye Creek basin and head off towards point 2046m. There is an impact track in parts up this ridge, but also sections of boulders. Great views already of the Wye Creek tarns, and this could be a turnaround point for a day-walk.

Doolans Creek Tarns

If you are going further then you can walk below 2046m, over 2020m, and on to a shallow tarn. From there sidle around the hillside to the saddle between 1967m and 2115m. From here you can choose your own route amongst the Doolans Creek tarns. (Taking the ridge seems to involve too much scrambling, and possibly more than scrambling, and I don’t know of any documented routes going that way).

We set off past three sizeable tarns over undulating terrain. From there we consulted the map and decided to take the flattest onward route, noting there was a short but very steep ascent and descent involved. I guess I was feeling lazy and optimistic, but the short descent was scary, especially with full packs on. Sidling around to the tarn east of 2130m was somewhat challenging as it was – it’s quite steep on sometimes loose rock. The tarn itself is in an unusual setting, surrounded by boulders. There’s a steep ascent at the far end of the tarns – keeping to the right is best.

Tricky Descent

At the top you might see a couple of very small cairns (one was just two rocks – that’s a cairn right?). These gave us some confidence that people had chosen this route in the past. The first part of the descent is very steep on rock slabs. It was hard to climb down a couple of sections with full packs on, and the exposure is real. Soon it’s back to broken rock and some boulders.

Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns
Our scary af descent. The right hand photo was taken first.

Alternative Route through the Doolans Creek tarns

After camping next to a very picturesque tarn we decided to leave by an alternative route that involved roughly 300m change in elevation. We climbed through boulders past another nice tarn to nearby 2127m, and then descended from there through coarse scree/ loose rocks and boulders. The terrain around the saddle further east (closer to 2130m) did not look very good. We could have visited another tarn here but decided to stay high and descend directly to one of the big tarns we visited the previous day. If you are doing this bit in reverse note that 2127m is not very prominent when viewed from the north. This route will still require careful route finding, but it’s possible to minimise exposure.

Other Options

This route fit comfortably into two days in February. I recommend having a third day if you want to explore more. This could include climbing to get views of Lake Hope (- I can recommend 2090m, which I visited on a day-walk two weeks later). There are a few ways of getting up Mt Tūwhakarōria, but if approaching from the north, climbing up scree onto the east ridge looked to be the easiest. You could also consider returning via Wye Creek, but I like tarns so I was happy to go back through them again.

See this trip report by Southern Alps Photography (always good for epic NZ trips) for a similar trip but returning up Wye Creek and summitting Mt Tūwhakarōria.

Author: Edward Hathway

I'm a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

2 thoughts on “Doolans Creek tarns via Wye Creek tarns, Hector Mountains, Otago NZ”

  1. Informative post. Nice to see those spot heights and the lake have now got evocative Maori names. We climbed Ben Nevis as at the time it was the highest named peak on F42 but now I see the highest named peak is Mt Tuwhakaroria!

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