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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 SH63 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.
Wasps - There are high numbers of wasps particularly between January and April. Consider carrying an antihistamine product and if you are allergic to their stings ensure you take your medication.
Keep to the tracks so as not to damage vegetation and to avoid toxins and traps used to kill pests.
Backcountry trips - It’s important to plan, prepare and equip yourself well. Make sure your party has a capable leader and that you have plenty of food, warm and waterproof clothing, the right skills and fitness level required for the trip. Always check the latest information about facilities, tracks and local weather conditions.
- waterproof raincoat and over-trousers
- several layers warm clothing
- spare dry socks
- strong tramping boots
- food (enough for the duration plus extra for emergencies)
- first aid kit
- sunscreen and sunglasses
- hat & gloves
- sleeping bag
- portable fuel stove & cooking utensils
- hut tickets or annual hut pass
- map and compass (and know how to use them!)
- putties (gaiters)
- personal locator beacon/or mountain radio
- tent and bed roll in the summer months
- During winter and snow conditions you will need an ice axe and crampons, snow gaiters and goggles. You might want to consider carrying an avalanche transceiver, probe and snow shovel.
Freezing conditions and/or heavy rain can occur at any time of year. If you doubt your abilities or the weather, particularly near Poukirikiri/Travers Saddle or at un-bridged stream crossings after heavy rain, turn back. Fill in the visitor book if you are staying in a hut or at a campsite.
In winter, navigation and alpine skills are essential for your survival. For more information about these visit www.mountainsafety.org.nz.
It is strongly recommended that you take a personal locator beacon with you. A mountain radio is an optional extra that can be taken for communication.
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.
Your safety and the decisions you make while on the track are your responsibility. Know the outdoor safety code. Check out www.doc.govt.nz/safety.
Weather for Nelson Lakes National Park
The Nelson Lakes National park contains a large amount of avalanche terrain. There are numerous avalanche paths, which may bring avalanche debris to the valley floor– their start zones cannot be seen from the track. There are a number of relatively easily accessible areas that contain challenging avalanche terrain while seasonal snow is present. There are some significant areas of complex terrain.
All visitors should consider carefully the class of avalanche terrain they are getting into and check the avalanche danger advisory prior to undertaking any trip.
If you are going into places avalanches could occur, be sure you:
• Have checked the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory (NZAA) and the Avalanche Terrain Exposure scale system (ATES) for the area where you want to go.
• Have the skills for the ATES class you are going into.
• Have checked what avalanche advisory and alert information is available from the DOC visitor centre nearest the area where you want to go.
• Take an avalanche transceiver, a snow shovel and a probe. Know how to use these tools!