Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand

Paradise on a Budget in the South Island of NZ

Staying at Nelson Lakes, the visitor is spoilt for choice in outdoor recreational activities that combine relaxation and exploration in a tranquil, natural environment.

Nelson Lakes National Park features mountains, beech forests, bird life, numerous hiking and walking tracks, and of course lakes – what began as deep depressions scoured out during the ice age. The crystal clear alpine waters of the two major lakes in the system, Rotoiti and Rotoroa, welcome visitors as they reflect the most northerly peaks of the New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Nelson Lakes Past and Present

Nelson Lakes National Park is the result of the great forces of nature at work. The major Alpine Fault runs through the park, and tectonic forces of millennia have created the basic geological structure. The added effects of glacial movements during the great ice ages have further shaped mountain passes, valleys and lakes. The enormity of nature at work is illustrated in displays at the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre in St Arnaud.

Today a feature of the park is the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project, in which the Department of Conservation is taking a ‘mainland island’ approach to the re-establishment of the native fauna. Intensive pest control measures are being conducted over 5000ha of land around Lake Rotoiti. This work is clearly obvious to the visitor, and there is plenty of informative signage about the project, one of several around New Zealand.

Walking at Nelson Lakes

Most visitors will start their Nelson Lakes holiday at St Arnaud, the small town situated at Lake Rotoiti. The Visitor Centre provides a wealth of information about the park, is well stocked with brochures and maps for guidance, and has very helpful and knowledgeable staff to assist with enquiries.

Walking the great New Zealand outdoors – low cost, sociable, and good for body and soul in the fresh South Island air – that’s what visitors to Nelson Lakes do. Regardless of age or physical condition, there is a nature walk for everyone. Day walks range from the short, flat, wheelchair-accessible Bellbird to the challenging St Arnaud’s Range and the longer Lake Rotoiti Circuit.

Overnight hut accommodation is available on mountain trails such as Angelus (new hut under construction) and Robert Ridge, and for the really serious and experienced hikers and trampers there is the 4-7 day Travers-Sabine Circuit.

As well as their varying degrees of difficulty, the park’s walks make their way through a variety of changing environments and landscapes – the regenerating kanuka-dominated bush, the mature beech forests of the lake perimeters, the alpine meadows and barren mountaintops, along lake and riverside, through wetlands and around lichen-covered rocks where ancient glaciers flowed.

Lake Activities at Nelson

Due to its proximity to St Arnaud, Lake Rotoiti is the more popular lake for water-based activities. While the water may be a little cold for more than the shortest of dips, there is always something happening afloat. Both lakes provide good ramp and jetty access for messing about in small sailboats, kayaks and canoes – lifejackets should always be worn.

The trout fishing is good on Nelson Lakes – a licence is required. Water-skiing is permitted at Lake Rotoiti only, and overnight mooring is prohibited.

Lake Rotoroa is a 40-minute drive from St Arnaud, and many would consider that with so much space in the park, this the bigger lake can be bypassed. But it’s worth a day for its own series of fine walks, the peacefulness and splendor of the scenery. The journey on the South Island’s fine and relatively quiet roads is a pleasant way of seeing more of the countryside.

For train enthusiasts and history buffs, the historic remnants of the Nelson Railway at Kawatiri merit a short diversion.

In the ski season, Rainbow Ski Area is a short drive from St Arnaud, making the park a popular year-round destination.

Where to Stay at Nelson Lakes

New Zealand’s national parks offer comfortable and inexpensive options for a holiday stay in the great outdoors, and Nelson Lakes is no exception. While there are superb alpine lodges and hotels in the vicinity for those who seek some pampering, the park has excellent sites for backpackers, campers and motorhome travellers. In between there is a wide range of holiday homes for rent and bed & breakfast providers.

Whatever the time of year, the use of Nelson Lakes National Park requires some planning. Winter conditions can occur at any time, so warm clothing, good equipment and a food supply are essential. Hikers and lake users should check conditions with the Visitor Centre before venturing out. Those going on overnight tramps should register their plans, and notify of their return.

St Arnaud is about an hour’s drive from both Nelson and Blenheim.

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