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Introduction

Nelson Lakes National Park is situated in the north of New Zealand's South Island. The gateway to the park is St Arnaud, a 1-2 hour drive from Nelson or Blenheim.

Place overview

Activities

  • Bird and wildlife watching
  • Boating
  • Camping
  • Climbing
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • Mountain biking
  • Skiing and ski touring
  • Walking and tramping
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      About this place

      Nature and conservation

      Nelson Lakes National Park (established in 1956) protects 102,000 hectares of the northern most Southern Alps. The park offers tranquil beech forest, craggy mountains, clear streams and lakes both big and small.

      The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project aims to restore approximately 5000 hectares of this beech forest on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. Take one of the many walks through the project and you'll see and hear the results of this work; a forest alive with the sights and sounds of birds

      Buttercup in a bed of moss. Photo: www.skylark.co.nz
      Buttercup in a bed of moss

      Landform

      During the last Ice Age massive glaciers gouged out troughs in the mountainous headwaters of the Buller River.

      Today these troughs are filled by Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa, which give the park its name. They are the largest lakes in the area.

      The mountains have been thrust up by continental collision along the Alpine Fault which crosses the track in places between Sabine Hut and Lake Rotoiti. Extensive glaciation, erosion and weathering have left a characteristic landscape of steep valley sides, scree slopes, sharp ‘arete’ ridges and many tarn-filled basins.

      The forested valleys once cradled glaciers which excavated the hollows now filled by the waters of Rotoiti and Rotoroa.

      Vegetation

      The park’s forests are dominated by the beech tree. In the valley floors are red and silver beech; on higher slopes where the soil is thinner, the small-leaved mountain beech takes over. Sprinkled throughout the forest are the occasional totara, and a range of shrubs, many of which display an unusual wiry form that is thought to have evolved as a defence against browsing by moa.

      Kea. Photo: C. Rudge.
      Kea

      Ferns and mosses proliferate on the forest floor where light is subdued and dampness clings. At the bushline, forest gives way to shrub and herb fields where white-flowered  hebe, flax, rust-red dracophyllum and the spiky flowerheads of spaniard plants create visual interest.

      Beyond the shrublands are the alpine grasses and carpet plants. Tall tussocks soften the harsh texture of broken rock. In damper places in early summer, yellow buttercups, white daisies and a host of tiny specialised plants flourish in the brief growing season.

      Birds

      The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project has reduced predator numbers on the eastern side of Lake Rotoiti. In this area, birds, including reintroduced great spotted kiwi, thrive but outside you can still enjoy the friendly robin that ventures close, alert to any insects stirred by your passing.

      Bellbirds and fantails are common in the forest and the tiny rifleman can often be heard before it is seen, flitting up beech trunks in search of food. Raucous kaka, a forest parrot, are often heard but rarely seen.

      Diminutive rock wren and cheeky kea visit the higher areas. On the river flats paradise ducks flee from disturbance with noisy fuss while in forest-fringed streams, the rarer blue duck deftly rides the rapids, taking insects from the stony riverbed.

      History and culture

      Po outside Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre depicting the Maori Chief and explorer Rakaihautu.
      Po outside Nelson Lakes Visitor
      Centre depicting the Maori Chief and
      explorer Rakaihautu

      Legend tells the story of Rakaihautu, chief and explorer who came to Aotearoa and travelled with his people to the great mountains. With his ko (digging stick) Rakaihautu dug enormous holes that filled with water. He filled them with kai (food) for those who followed.

      The lakes, Rotoiti (little lake) and Rotoroa (long lake) remain today. The food — eel, freshwater mussels and waterfowl — was important for Maori travelling the Pounamu (greenstone) trails to and from the West Coast.

      From their arrival in the 1840s, Europeans rapidly occupied open land close to Rotoiti for grazing sheep. By the turn of the century people were holidaying on the shores of the lake and a hotel was built at Rotoroa.

      Soon cottages were being built at Rotoiti and people began to explore the mountains. The scenic values of the mountains and lakes were recognised by the creation of a national park in 1956.

      Getting there

      Ski tourers, Angelus Peak, Nelson Lakes National Park.
      Ski tourers, Angelus Peak, Nelson Lakes National Park

      You will find Nelson Lakes National Park in the north of the South Island. The gateway to the park is St Arnaud, a picturesque village just 1.5 hours drive from Nelson or Blenheim.

      St Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti are accessed by State Highway 63 from Blenheim. A side road, about half way between St Arnaud and Murchison leads to Lake Rotoroa.

      Bus services to St Arnaud operate on an irregular basis. Phone the Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre for more information. 

      Water taxis operate on both lakes.

      Several companies offer on-demand transport to Rotoroa from St Arnaud and Nelson.

      Know before you go

      Mt Robert carpark is an isolated site and may be prone to vehicle break-ins. It is advisable not to leave any valuables in your vehicle. A bag storage facility is available at the Rotoiti/Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre.

      Dogs and other domestic animals are not allowed in the national park. This has become particularly important since the reintroduction of kiwi as dogs are known killers of kiwi.

      Mountain bikes are only permitted on formed roads in the national park.

      Keep to the tracks so as not to damage vegetation and to avoid toxins and traps used to kill pests.

      If you are going to be using the track system in the park for overnight trips make sure you are properly equipped and well prepared. Winter conditions can be experienced at any time of year.

      Changing weather conditions in the park can cause frost, snow and freezing temperatures overnight. Be prepared: have adequate gear and check the weather before you go.

      Make sure your group has a capable leader and that everyone is carrying a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, sufficient high energy food (with some extra for emergencies), a waterproof raincoat and overtrousers, gloves, a hat, and several layers of warm (wool or fleece) clothing.

      Check-in at the DOC visitor centre for up-to-date information on weather and track conditions. Fill in the visitors book if you are staying in a hut. 

      Weather for Nelson Lakes National Park

      Before you go into the outdoors, tell someone your plans and leave a date to raise the alarm if you haven't returned. To do this, use the New Zealand Outdoors Intentions process on the AdventureSmart website. It is endorsed by New Zealand's search and rescue agencies and provides three simple options to tell someone you trust the details about your trip.

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