Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park

Image: Harald Selke | Creative Commons


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


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

In this section

Find things to do and places to stay Nelson Lakes National Park

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


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.

Getting there

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

Nelson Lakes - thefts from vehicles

Isolated carparks are prone to theft. Don't 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.

Essential gear:

  • 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!)

Consider carrying:

  • 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

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

Weather for Nelson Lakes National Park

Be avalanche alert

Avalanche information for Nelson Lakes National Park.

Rotoroa Route closed

The Rotoroa Route alongside the eastern side of Lake Rotoroa between Rotoroa village and Sabine Hut is permanently closed. This closure will not affect trampers on the Travers-Sabine Circuit unless they were planning to end their trip at Rotoroa village.


Rotoiti / Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre
Phone:   +64 3 521 1806
Fax:   +64 4 471 1117
Address:   View Road
St Arnaud
Postal Address:   PO Box 55
St Arnaud 7053
Whakatū / Nelson Visitor Centre
Phone:   +64 3 546 9339
Fax:   +64 4 471 1117
Address:   Millers Acre/Taha o te Awa
79 Trafalgar Street
Nelson 7010
Postal Address:   Private Bag 5
Nelson 7042
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