New Zealand's upper 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. But 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.
The 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 were 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 a lot of mosses and ferns nearer the forest floor. Native bird conservation efforts have also been underway, and the great spotted kiwi has been reintroduced here.
There are many lakes within the park, 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.
What to Do There
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. For a slightly longer hike, the Lake Rotoiti Circuit is a good option. While the full walk takes up to 10 hours, you can take a water taxi (in season) one-way, to shorten the walking time.
In summer, you might want to swim in Lake Rotoiti. This can be done right from the beach and jetty in front of the parking lot. Bring insect repellent as there are a lot of sandflies here (and wasps can also be a problem in the summer). And remember that Lake Rotoiti is at 2,132 feet, so even if the weather is scorching down in sea-level Nelson, it's likely to be cooler up here.
To enjoy some spectacular views of Lake Rotoiti and the mountains without the trouble of hiking for days, drive up the unsealed road to the Mt. Robert Car Park, about a half-hour drive from St. Arnaud. You don't need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. There's also a Mt. Robert Circuit, which takes about five hours and offers similar (and better) views from the car park. It's classified as an 'advanced' trail.
Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa are also popular fishing destinations. You can fly fish, or fish for salmon and trout in the lakes and nearby rivers.
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. There are many different routes you can take. Here are some options:
- Angelus Hut Track. This is a two-day advanced trek that should be booked in advance in high season, as it's very popular.
- Travers-Sabine Circuit, a four-to-seven day advanced trek.
- Lewis Pass/Waiau Pass/Blue Lake route, a 10-day expert trek.
Trekking (or tramping, as the locals call it) is very popular in New Zealand, and there is good infrastructure in the Nelson Lakes National Park, 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.
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 20 minutes' drive from Murchison.
What Else to Do Nearby
If you're visiting in winter, the Rainbow Ski Area is one of the few places to ski in the Upper 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 in winter.
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.
Where to Stay
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. In St. Arnaud itself, the Alpine Lodge offers cozy motel-style accommodation and has a great bar and restaurant (one of the few places in town to eat!). There are also campgrounds at Kerr Bay and West Bay at Lake Rotoiti, as well as at Lake Rotoroa. 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.