Upper South Island and the West Coast Feature


Nelson Lakes National Park

Snow-covered peaks and high alpine passes loom over two deep brooding lakes. Dense native forest, swampy wetlands, and tumbling rivers line the valleys, and the haunting calls of native birds stir the bush at night. It's an exhilarating environment.

Spread around two stunningly scenic glacial lakes, Rotoroa and Rotoiti, the Nelson Lakes National Park is an alpine zone of soaring mountains, rocky rivers, and bush-lined trails. Native beech forest pours down to the lakeshore. On cloudy days, mist swirls through the trees, wetting the draping mosses and silencing the birds. On sunny days the intense greens shine through and the birds' chorus resumes.

Of the two lakes, Lake Rotoroa is the most pristine, with just a few fishing cottages, a campsite, and a lodge on its shore. The village of St. Arnaud sits at the northern end of Lake Rotoiti; it's the gateway to the park, with a small service center, accommodations, and the Department of Conservation (DOC) center. Rainbow Ski Area operates in winter.


Summer is the most pleasant time of year to visit as the weather is warm (for an alpine region), the lake is swimmable, and, for climbers, the high alpine passes are usually free of snow. Voracious sandflies, however, are a problem at any time so bring your repellent.

Fun Fact

Much of the park was formed by glacial action, hence its deep lakes and huge U-shaped valleys. The last glacial action was between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Best Ways to Explore


Experienced alpine enthusiasts will love the challenges of the tracks and passes that lead high into the mountains. Experience is vital in these remote areas as severe weather can appear without warning. Always carry a mountain radio and inform the DOC center in St. Arnaud of your plans, and sign out on your return.


Both Rotoroa and Rotoiti are excellent places to kayak. Although both can attract high winds, summer conditions are usually favorable. Pack a lunch and leave from the jetty at St. Arnaud. Pull up to a quiet stretch of pebble beach, where all you will hear are the birds and the breeze singing through the trees. But remember sandfly repellent, too.


In winter two small ski areas provide the locals with acres of fun. The public Rainbow Ski Area is an hour's drive from St. Arnaud and has good facilities and excellent access (open June to October). The smaller, club-run ski area on Mt. Robert requires a grueling two-hour climb, while carrying your gear. There is ski hire in St. Arnaud village and up at Rainbow.


The park is laced with walking tracks, which center on the two lakes and range from easy 30-minute wanders to serious multiday treks deep into the mountains. In summer they are usually passable, although a cold snap can bring snow. Day walks include the Mt. Robert Pinchgut Track, the climb to Parachute Rocks, and the lakeside walk around Rotoiti.

Water Taxi

During summer water taxis work on both lakes. They save a half-day walk at the start of a long trail and give non-walkers access to pristine country. Remember to take everything you need with you as there are no shops, caf├ęs, or amenities away from the two settlements.


Lake Rotoiti is the site of a highly successful kiwi-recovery program; in 2004 several kiwi were released back into the forest after an intense pest-eradication program effectively made the area a predator-free mainland island. This has encouraged reintroduction and return of native birds that were long lost to the area. This program has recently been acknowledged internationally as one of Australasia's top 25 ecological restoration sites.

While you're here, respect nature and gather your litter. As in all New Zealand's national parks, visitors are asked to pack out all their waste. There are no garbage facilities in the park. Also be mindful of the birdlife, and don't feed them. The cheeky kea, or mountain parrot, loves to steal unwatched lunches and gloves, so don't leave anything lying around to encourage them.

View all features