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Nelson Lakes National Park – Guide for Backpackers


The Southern Alps starts here!

This adventure playground, covering 102000ha, has mountain biking, hiking, boating, mountaineering and skiing. Nelson Lakes National Park is the beginning of the Southern Alps, meaning all these activities can be done in alpine environments, glacial lakes and beech forests.

The national park is under conservation to protect species, such as the giant snail, native bats, kaka, kakariki and bush robins. Take a look in the lakes to see freaky giant eels.

Did you get Nelson Lakes and Nelson city mixed up? Maybe you should look here: Nelson – Guide for Backpackers.

Things you can’t miss in Nelson Lakes National Park

  • Jump in a lake! You have plenty to choose from, our favourites are Lake Rotoroa, Lake Rotoiti, and Blue Lake.
  • Go on a boat cruise, kayak or fish on the lakes.
  • See spectacular scenery on the national park walks.
  • Feel the adrenalin with some mountain biking.
  • Visiting in winter? Put your skis on!
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The Lakes

The lakes that Nelson Lakes National Parks are named after the 2 largest lakes: Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. This first lake is well known for photos of people jumping off the jetty, but both can be recognised by the mountains that just seem to emerge from the water.

An unbelievable sight is Blue Lake. The transparency of the water reaches 80 metres making it appear to have different sections of blue and green colours. The Blue Lake is your reward for doing the mammoth 4-7 day Travers-Sabine Circuit. This 80km journey includes walks through beech forest, tussock fields, clear streams and towering mountains.


Water activities

With great lakes comes great water activities.

Explore the lakes by passing snow-capped mountains and up to waterfalls, such as Whiskey Falls. You can do this by guided boat tours, while learning about the cultural and natural history of the area. You can also take a sunset cruise to get marvellous photos.

Don’t want someone telling you what you can and cannot do? There is the option to free kayak on Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. Just paddle and see where you end up.

Both lakes are also good for brown trout fishing. Guides can take you on fishing boats or follow the Angler’s Walk near Lake Rotoiti to find good fishing spots. The 1 hour walk starts from the Buller River Bridge.


Walks in Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti and its walks are the easiest to access from State Highway 6. There are a selection of 8 short walks. For a super quick walk lasting about 15 minutes, take the Bellbird Walk to see native New Zealand birds. The Black Hill Walk takes 1h30mins, reaching a mound of volcanic rock with a view of St Arnaud Village and Big Bush.

From Lake Rotoroa, there’s the 2 hour Braeburn Walk. This forest expedition leads to a mossy waterfall. By the jetty and car park, you’ll find the Flower Brothers Walk taking 15 minutes to see New Zealand’s tallest trees: kahikatea.

For a full-day alpine hike, take the Mt Robert Circuit. Starting from Mt Robert road, follow the trail zigzagging up the mountain through forest until you reach alpine shrubs. Of course, the higher the track goes, the more spectacular the view of the lakes and mountain scenery appears.


Mountain Biking

There are specially made biking trails around the national park, as it is forbidden to bike elsewhere in the area.

For an easy ride, not to overexert yourself, try the Teetotal Flats and Teetoal Road, follow State Highway 6 to Lake Rotoiti. The 1h30mins Braeburn Road is a grade 2 taking you through farmland and beech forest.

The Mt Robert Road is for the adventurous mountain biker, incorporating intermediate and advanced tracks. It is a quick 1h15mins bomb along the mountain.

If you know no fear and have legs of steal, take the Matakitaki Valley and Glenroy Valley. Both are similar in that they follow 4WD tracks, rivers, beech forest and take 4 hours to complete.



Rainbow Ski Area sits on the outskirts of the national park. The lifts are an assortment  of  basic lifts taking you to bowls, a terrain park, 25% beginner trails, 55% intermediate runs, and 20% advanced runs.

The ski field has all the facilities needed for the slopes: piste machine grooming, cafe, rentals, repairs, shops, first aid, and snow-making facilities.

If you have more time in Nelson Lakes National Park…

  • Hunt for pests such as red deer, chamois, pigs and feral goats. Remember you must have a permit.
  • Snow shoe your way around the mountains in winter.
  • Avoid the sandflies by spraying yourself with insect repellent.
  • Stay in the mountains, by staying in one of the Department of Conservation‘s huts. You must purchase a pass first.
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