Nelson Lakes National Park: The Complete Guide

Lake Rotoiti

Elen Turner

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Nelson Lakes National Park

South Island, New Zealand
Phone +64 3 521 1806

New Zealand's Nelson Lakes National Park marks the start of the Southern Alps mountain chain, which runs through the center of the South Island. The 252,047-acre area of mountains, lakes, and forests became a national park in 1956. The valleys formed during the Ice Age, and lakes now fill some of the troughs formed by glaciers. The forests are mainly comprised of beech trees, with mosses and ferns nearer the forest floor. Native bird conservation efforts have also been underway, and the great spotted kiwi has been reintroduced here.

The park has many lakes, the largest of which are Rotoiti and Rotoroa. Lake Rotoiti is the most accessible for day-trippers, and Lake Rotoroa also has easy road access. Other lakes in the park can only be reached after long hikes, such as the Blue Lake. This very special lake, which is also sacred to the Maori people, is best known for having the clearest water on the planet, but it can only be reached by those willing to embark on a 10-day hike, and swimming in the lake is prohibited.

The northern end of New Zealand's South Island is such a naturally beautiful part of the country that many visitors overlook the Nelson Lakes National Park in favor of the nearby Abel Tasman or Kahurangi National Parks. Whether you're looking for an easy day trip from Nelson, are passing through on a road trip south, or seeking multi-day hiking opportunities, the Nelson Lakes National Park has it all.

Things to Do

The lakes are a particularly attractive destination in the summertime when swimmers come to refresh in the cool mountain waters. Lake Rotoiti is located at 2,132 feet, so even if the weather is scorching down in sea-level Nelson, it's likely to be cooler up here. Swimmers are welcome in all of the lakes in the parks and during the summer, a swimming raft will be set up between the jetties at Kerr Bay. On both lakes, you'll find places where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and canoes, but jet skis are prohibited. You can go waterskiing on Lake Rotoiti, but it's not allowed on Lake Rotoroa. Jet boats and overnight mooring are not allowed on either lake. Both lakes are popular for fly fishing and you can find salmon and trout in the lakes as well as nearby rivers.

To enjoy some spectacular views of Lake Rotoiti and the mountains without the trouble of hiking for days, drive up the unsealed road to Mount Robert Car Park, about a half-hour drive from St. Arnaud.

Best Hikes & Trails

The Nelson Lakes National Park offers excellent short and long-distance hiking. For an easy hike of a couple of hours (or less if you prefer), head to Lake Rotoiti and follow one of the lake-side trails, which are well marked. These mostly skirt the pebbled beaches of the lake, passing through damp native forest. Short walks like this are ideal for travelers with kids, or who are just passing through.

If you are up for a big adventure, the Nelson Lakes National Park is one of the best places in the country for multi-day treks. Trail infrastructure is very good with many huts along the way to provide shelters to trekkers on multi-day hikes—but you still need to know what you're doing. Alpine conditions can be very challenging, and the weather can change quickly. Unless you have extensive trekking and backcountry experience, consider going on a shorter guided trek.

  • Mount Robert Circuit: This advanced circuit is a good choice for ambitious hikers who may only be visiting for the day. It takes about five hours and offers similar (and better) views of Lake Rotoiti. Along the trail, there is a 14-bed hut that needs to be booked in advance.
  • Angelus Hut Track: This is a two-day advanced trek that should be booked in advance in the high season, as it's very popular. The final destination is the 28-bunk Angelus Hut, which sits at 1,650 meters next to Lake Angelus, a stunning and very remote lake. Only hikers with alpine skills are advised to take on this route in the winter months between May and October, as you will need ice climbing equipment and gear that can withstand subzero temperatures.
  • Travers-Sabine Circuit: This four- to seven-day advanced trek takes you through beech forests and up into mountains at 2,000 feet of elevation, starting at St. Arnaud and with overnight stops possible at multiple huts. Alpine skills and gear are required for certain sections of this hike, so less skilled trekkers might consider doing part of the route to the first hut and then turning back the next day.
  • Blue Lake Route: To see the title-holding world's clearest lake, you need to be ready to embark on a 10-day expert trek through the Lewis and Waiau passes. There are many huts along the way to stay in, but only experienced trekkers are encouraged to take this route, and snow skills are required.

Mountain Biking

Nelson Lakes National Park is full of well-maintained mountain biking trails. The trails, or "tracks," range from the short and flat lake loops to ambitious long-haul routes and tracks that will challenge your technical skills.

  • Teetotal Tracks: There is a wide selection of shorter trails in the Teetoal Recreation Area that range from 1 to 5 miles (1.7 to 8 kilometers) in length like the Skating Pond Loop and the Sidewinder track.
  • Porika Road: This Grade 3 route passes through stream fords and beech forests, eventually reaching an overlook of Lake Rotoroa. It takes about 90 minutes to travel each way.
  • Braeburn Road: From the Gowan Bridge at Lake Rotora, you can take this Grade 2 and 6.5-mile (10.5-kilometer) long one-way trail. There is also the option of connecting to one of two even longer tracks: one one-way route leading to the Matakitaki Valley— 22 miles (35 kilometers)— and the other a through-route to the town of Murchison— 14 miles (22 kilometers).

Where to Camp

If you're on a multi-day hike through the Nelson Lakes National Park, you'll need to stay in a Department of Conservation (DOC) hut or campsite. Some in the park can (and should) be booked in advance, while others are first-come-first-served. Otherwise, there are four much more accessible campsites with facilities and amenities for more casual campers—no hiking necessary.

  • Kerr Bay Campsite: Next to Lake Rotoiti, this campsite is surrounded by beech trees and is next to a boat ramp. There are 15 regular campsites and 10 campsites with electrical hook-ups, plus amenities like hot showers and accessible restrooms.
  • Lake Rotoroa Campsite: This campsite near the lake edge is easy to access and has a boat ramp, but it is smaller and has only 10 non-powered tent sites.
  • Teetotal Campsite: West of St. Arnaud, this is a great place to camp if you plan to make use of the mountain biking trails. However there are just 12 non-powered tent sites and basic facilities that include restrooms, but no showers.
  • West Bay Campsite: This campground is large, accommodating 40 non-powered tent sites, but it is only open during the summer. Amenities include restrooms, a boat ramp, and cold showers.

Where to Stay Nearby

Nelson or Murchison are convenient bases if you're just planning to visit the park on a day trip. There's an extensive range of accommodation in Nelson, while in Murchison, there's a riverside campground with simple cabins, as well as backpacker hostels.

  • The Alpine Lodge: In St. Arnaud itself, the Alpine Lodge offers cozy motel-style accommodation and has a great bar and restaurant.
  • Nelson Lakes Motels: At the boundary of the park and a ten-minute walk to Lake Rotoiti, this area-based motel chain offers a variety of accommodation across different motels from studios to two-bedroom units.
  • Lake Rotoroa Lodge: In an isolated location, this lodge offers views of Lake Rotoroa and the peaks of the Travers Range. Rooms are cozy and even have heated tiles.

How to Get There

If you're visiting the park on a day trip, the most accessible place to head to is the small settlement of St. Arnaud, on Lake Rotoiti. This is about a 75-minutes drive from the city of Nelson. Unless you're on a guided tour, you're better off with your own vehicle, as there are few bus services to the park. Some private shuttles operate for long-distance trekkers on a charter basis. From Nelson, travel south on State Highway 6 through Richmond and Wakefield, turning off the highway and onto Wai-Iti Valley Road past Belgrove.

Alternatively, you can reach St. Arnaud from the town of Murchison, a drive of about 45 minutes. Travel east on SH6 until the Kawatiri Junction, then turn onto SH63, also called the St. Arnaud-Kawatiri Highway. Lake Rotoroa is also accessible from Murchison. Turn off SH6 at Gowanbridge, just a 20-minute drive from Murchison.


For travelers with disabilities, there are some wheelchair-accessible walks around Lake Rotoiti's Kerr Bay. The Bellbird walk is a 15-minute walk on a paved pathway that passes through the Nature Recovery Project Area, where information panels provide context to the flora and fauna. Branching off from the Bellbird Walk, the Honeydew Walk takes about 45 minutes on a paved surface, however, there are some steep slopes that may require a push. All campgrounds except for the Lake Rotoroa Campsite are wheelchair-accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Visitors are advised not to leave any bags in their cars and to instead check their luggage at the bag storage facility at the Rotoiti/Nelson Lakes Visitor Center.
  • Dogs are not allowed in the park, as they can endanger the fragile and beloved kiwi population that has been reintroduced to the area.
  • If you're visiting in winter, the Rainbow Ski Area is one of the few places to ski in the northern part of the South Island (most South Island ski fields are further south). The ski fields are about a 40-minute drive from St. Arnaud. Chains are required for the last part of the drive.
  • White-water rafting is another popular adventure activity that can be done from Murchison, a 45-minute drive from St. Arnaud. Murchison is on the confluence of four rivers—the Buller, Matakitaki, Mangles, and Matiri Rivers—so there are plenty of places to find exciting rapids.
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Nelson Lakes National Park: The Complete Guide