One of New Zealand’s lesser-visited national parks is also one of the country’s most spectacular, with a loyal band of regulars visiting each summer to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing and tramping.
- Established in 1956
- Area of 1019 sq km
- The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project covers around 50 sq km of the park
Framing the dual attractions of (‘Small Lake’) and Lake Rotoroa (‘Long Lake’), Nelson Lakes National Park offers a rugged alpine landscape of glaciated valleys, craggy mountain ranges, and the opportunity to negotiate long ridges offering 360-degree views of some of the South Island’s most spectacular terrain. And with none of the country’s super-popular Great Walks, Nelson Lakes National Park also tends to be less crowded than other alpine tramping regions throughout the country.
Classic multi-day tramps for fit and well-equipped trampers include the Lake Angelus Track and the Travers-Sabine Circuit, with river flats, beech forests and alpine ridges all being negotiated to reach smaller, equally spectacular lakes. Views from the spidery Robert Ridge include Lake Angelus, while adding an extra day onto the Travers-Sabine Circuit to view Rotomairewhenua/Blue Lake is also recommended. The lake is reckoned to be the clearest freshwater lake on the planet.
Beyond Nelson Lakes’ multi-day tramps, day hikes around Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa are both challenging but achievable, and water taxis are on tap to deliver visitors to other shorter and more accessible walks and hikes all around the park.
Kayaking, rowing and paddleboarding on the lakes are all popular, and an option for all visitors is to secure a photo of the iconic jetty at Kerr Bay near the lake’s easygoing village of St Arnaud.
When to go
Summer from November to April is the best time to explore Nelson Lakes National Park, especially if you’re planning on tramping amid the alpine environment of the Travers-Sabine Circuit, Lake Angelus Track and St Arnaud Range Track. January to March usually offers the most settled weather. Note it’s important to book well ahead for popular huts and campsites in the park during holiday periods.
What to do
Experiences in Nelson Lakes National Park range from day tramps for fit and energetic visitors to the challenging five-day adventure of the Travers-Sabine Circuit and the two-day experience of the Lake Angelus Track. There are also easier day walks around Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. Download the Walks in Nelson Lakes National Park brochure from www.doc.govt.nz for comprehensive information on all the walking and tramping options in the park.
The Mt Robert Circuit Track (five hours return) is a challenging loop track circumnavigating the northern face of Pourangahau/Mt Robert. Climbing through beech forest, the track transitions to the tree-line and segues to a rugged and exposed landscape of alpine herbs and shrubs. Look forward to spectacular views of Lake Rotoiti.
Also taking around five hours, the St Arnaud Range Track begins and ends in Kerr Bay on the eastern side of Lake Rotoiti, just a short walk from accommodation in St Arnaud. Following a steep ascent through beech forest and alpine terrain, there are superb views from the top of the range across glaciated valleys and lakes. For maximum safety, both these day tramps should only be undertaken in fine weather. In misty or rainy weather there will be nothing to see anyway.
More accessible and shorter day walks around Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa include the following. Departing from Kerr Bay near St Arnaud, the Loop Track (90 minutes) traverses an area being reinvigorated by native flora and fauna and the excellent work of the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project, while the Brunner Peninsula Nature Walk (one hour) leaves from the lake’s western side to twice cross the Alpine Fault. En route, information panels showcase the history of the area.
From Lake Rotoroa, accessible by water taxi or via road from SH6, the gentle ramble of the Rotoroa Nature Walk (30 minutes) includes a wide variety of vegetation including soaring beech–podocarp forest, climbing vines, and ferns and mosses. Lake Rotoroa’s Braeburn Walk (two hours) is rich in birdlife and features a waterfall.
Bookings during summer months and on key holiday weekends are required for the most popular huts and campsites in the Nelson-Lakes National Park, especially the Kerr Bay and West Bay campsites. Check online at www.doc.govt.nz, especially if you’re keen on staying at the Angelus Hut – voted NZ’s ‘Hut of the Year’ in 2017 by readers of Wilderness magazine – or travelling with a campervan or caravan and looking to camp near the lakes.
Popular accommodation around St Arnaud includes Nelson Lakes Motels & Travers-Sabine Lodge, a good-value combination of hostel and motel owned by keen and knowledgeable trampers, and just a short walk from Lake Rotoiti. St Arnaud House is a welcoming three-room B&B, while options at the timber-clad Alpine Lodge include apartments, family rooms and backpacker dorms. There’s also a good onsite bar and restaurant open daily from November to April and Wednesday to Sunday, May to October. At the lake’s northern tip, Lake Rotoroa Lodge was originally built in the 1920s and is now a luxury base for fly-fishing and hunting.
The village of St Arnaud is the relaxed lakeside base for exploring Nelson Lakes National Park. From St Arnaud, it’s a drive of around an hour north to Nelson, and around an hour and 15 minutes through the vineyards of the Wairau River valley to Blenheim. Air New Zealand fly from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Nelson and from Auckland and Wellington to Blenheim. Sounds Air flies from Wellington and Paraparaumu to Nelson. From Christchurch to St Arnaud is a journey of around across the Lewis Pass and via Murchison.
In Nelson, MD Outdoors has a good range of camping, tramping and outdoor gear including freeze-dried camping-ready curries and chilli. For fresh supplies, head to FreshChoice supermarket on Collingwood St. Highlights of Nelson’s great eating and drinking scene include Asian-inspired street food at Harry’s Hawker House and Tasman region beers at The Free House. Ask if anything from Townshend Brewing or Hop Federation is on tap. The bohemian courtyard at DeVille is good for coffee and brunch, and they also have occasional evening live gigs.
In Murchison, just 45 minutes west of St Arnaud, Zen’s Kitchen dispense tasty ciabatta burgers – often with an organic and vegan spin – from a funky repurposed retro caravan, and there’s also backpackers, holiday park and motel accommodation. If you’re staying in St Arnaud, there’s good coffee and a concise cafe menu at the St Arnaud Alpine Store.