Nelson Lakes & Blue Lake Hiking GUIDE
At the northernmost end of New Zealand’s Southern Alps lies Nelson Lakes National Park. It is one of the most stunning alpine wilderness areas in New Zealand’s South Island, consisting of several dramatic mountain ranges interspersed by river valleys covered in dense native bush.
The park is named after two glacier-carved alpine lakes found at it’s northern end — Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. These two lakes are tranquil and idyllic, making them great locations for car camping or day walks.
However, the real gems lie deeper into the park at higher elevations. Travers Saddle rewards the keen fit hiker with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Blue Lake — claimed to have the clearest freshwater in the world — is quite surreal, with colours that dance magically in the sunlight. Lake Constance offers the solitude of a true high-alpine lake environment.
Stunning native New Zealand rainforest
Some of New Zealand’s most epic alpine scenery
The iconic Blue Lake — claimed to hold the world’s clearest freshwater!
Extensive network of huts
Quite a lot of sandflies and wasps in summer months
Weather can be changeable (be prepared for rain!)
Public transport options to the trailhead aren’t great
The Travers-Sabine Circuit is a multi-day hike (4-7 days) taking in some of the most epic scenery in Nelson Lakes National Park. Combined with a side trip to Blue Lake & Lake Constance, this circuit is one of the most stunning multi-day hikes in New Zealand. This trail can get relatively busy in the peak season, although it is not nearly as crowded or expensive as one of the “New Zealand Great Walks”.
LENGTH: 50 miles / 80 km
DURATION: 4-7 days
START / FINISH: St Arnaud (or Mt Robert Carpark)
BEST TIME: December through April
…NOT A “GREAT WALK”
Most hiking tourists in New Zealand end up walking one or more of New Zealand’s official “Great Walks”. The Great Walks are a group of ten hikes covering some of the most beautiful regions of New Zealand with well maintained huts and easily navigable trails.
However, the New Zealand Great Walks are extremely popular and therefore they can be expensive, crowded, or hard to get access permits for (i.e. the huts book out long in advance, especially on the most popular ones). There are numerous other walks in New Zealand that are equally as stunning but less crowded and expensive. Nelson Lakes National Park is home to one of those — the Travers Sabine Circuit.
This 4-7 day trail is the most popular multi-day hike in Nelson Lakes National Park. It takes in two beautiful river valleys — the Travers and Sabine Valleys — as well as one mountain pass —the Travers Saddle.
If you plan to hike the Travers-Sabine Circuit then you can start and finish in St Arnaud. If you would prefer to save an hour or so of road walking, then consider starting your hike at either Mt Robert Carpark (at the top of Mt Robert Road, approximately 15 minutes drive from St Arnaud township on a partially unsealed road) or from the Lakeside Track Carpark (about halfway up Mt Robert Road, approximately 10 minutes drive from St Arnaud township on a partially unsealed road).
The circuit can be completed in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. However, it is generally recommended to travel clockwise, since this makes the ascent up to Travers Saddle a little gentler.
The hike up over the Travers Saddle can be tiring, and the descent from Travers Saddle to West Sabine Hut is long (including a 1000 metre elevation change). However, this circuit should be achievable for any reasonably fit hiker, since it doesn’t contain any technical terrain. But note that the Travers Saddle is an exposed alpine pass that can be subject to treacherous weather any time of year. Make sure you have appropriate gear, including a waterproof/windproof jacket as well as waterproof pants and gloves.
There are also several side trips and variations that are worth considering. We describe these separately in the next section.
SIDE TRIPS & VARIATIONS
DURATION: 6 hours return from West Sabine Hut
Blue Lake (Maori name Rotomairewhenua) is a sacred lake with the clearest freshwater in the world. The claimed visibility of the water in Blue Lake is as high as 80 metres, making it only a few metres shy of the theoretical visibility of distilled water at 83 metres. The water coming into Blue Lake (from neighbouring Lake Constance) is filtered naturally through landslide debris. The purity of this water makes for some amazing and spectacular colours in the sunlight. The light reflecting through the lake produces greens, yellows, and blues that need to be seen to be believed.
Out of respect to the Ngati Apa people — and to preserve the purity of the water in this sacred place — please do not swim in Blue Lake, nor wash dishes, clothes, or yourself.
If you are completing the Travers-Sabine Circuit, then Blue Lake is definitely worth the 6-7 hour return side trip from West Sabine Hut. If you don’t think you have time for this side trip, then we suggest making time! The walk to Blue Lake from West Sabine Hut is a treat in itself. This section of trail is some of the most beautiful in New Zealand. In the space of three hours, the trail takes in views of dramatic Yosemite-like cliffs with waterfalls, peaceful and idyllic moss-covered streams, and a powerful raging alpine river.
If you don’t have time to complete the full Travers-Sabine Circuit and you only want to see Blue Lake, then we suggest the following itinerary. Travel to the small village of Rotoroa, where you can take a water taxi (preferably booked in advance) to Sabine Hut. The village of Rotoroa is pretty tiny, so you will need your own transport to get there. Once the water taxi drops you at Sabine Hut, it is about 9 hours walking to Blue Lake Hut (you have the option of staying the night at West Sabine Hut if you are not keen to complete the full distance in one day). From Blue Lake Hut, you can return the way you came — i.e. back to Sabine Hut for the water taxi back to Rotoroa village. The water taxi cost (one way, as at 25/2/19) is either NZ$170 (for 1-3 people) or NZ$50 per person (for 4-12 people). There is no discount for a return trip.
DURATION: 1.5 hours return from Blue Lake Hut
If you find yourself at Blue Lake Hut, then the short trip up to Lake Constance is worthwhile. From Blue Lake Hut, neighbouring Lake Constance is about 45 minutes walk south, just up the moraine wall. Lake Constance is a high alpine lake surrounded by dramatic alpine scenery. The view from the head of lake is quite stunning.
DURATION: 6-7 hours return from Blue Lake Hut
If you have a full day to spare and the weather is good, then consider the day trip from Blue Lake Hut to Waiau Pass and back (approx 6-7 hours return). The Waiau Pass is a high alpine pass (elevation 1870 metres), that — in good weather — offers spectacular views back down over Lake Constance. Many thru-hikers completing the long-distance Te Araroa Trail — which covers the full length of New Zealand — say that this is one of the best views they encounter.
The return trip from Blue Lake Hut to Waiau Pass can be completed in a day. Follow the Te Araroa trail southbound along the western edge of Lake Constance (be careful though as the trail is quite exposed) and then on to Waiau Pass. Note however that this a strenuous trail that should only be completed by fit, experienced, hikers equipped for bad weather. The Waiau Pass is subject to snow and storms any time of year. If the weather closes in, be sure to turn back (you won’t see any views anyway!). Outside of the peak summer months this is a winter crossing that should only be attempted by those equipped for snow travel (i.e. crampons, ice axes, avalanche training and equipment).
DURATION: 10 minute side trip from Travers-Sabine Circuit
On the Travers-Sabine Circuit, about one hour south of John Tait Hut, you will encounter a sign for Travers Falls. This is just a small side trip off the main trail. However, the path down to the falls is very steep! Leave your backpack at the top of the path and take care when walking down to the viewpoint.
Travers Falls are something very special. They are definitely worth checking out. The falls thunder out through the thick native bush into a water hole that resembles something from a gorgeous tropical pacific island.
DURATION: varies depending on route
Angelus Hut is an alpine hut perched high on the Mt Roberts mountain range. If you are completing the Travers-Sabine Circuit, then you will pass several junctions with side-trails leading up to Angelus Hut. Some of these trails are more challenging than others. The best options are likely to be heading there at either the start, or the end, or your Travers-Sabine Circuit.
If you want to head to Lake Angelus at the start of your Travers-Sabine Circuit, then you can follow the Robert Ridge Route from Mt Robert Carpark (approx 6 hours), stay the night at Angelus Hut, and then in the morning head down the Cascade Track (approx 4.5 hours) to link up with the Travers-Sabine Circuit. Linking up with the Travers-Sabine Circuit you will be about 1.5 hours south of Coldwater Hut, meaning you won’t have missed any major highlights of the Travers-Sabine.
If you want to head to Angelus Hut at the end of your Travers-Sabine Circuit, then you can head up the Speargrass Creek Route from Speargrass Hut (approx 4.5 hours), stay the night at Angelus Hut, and then in the morning head down the Robert Ridge Route back to Mt Robert Carpark (approx 6 hours).
Note that Angelus Hut requires bookings during the peak season (late November until 30 April). This is because it is accessible as an overnight hike from Mt Robert Carpark, and is therefore popular. [This may mean that it is easier to head to Angelus Hut at the start of your Travers-Sabine Circuit, when you are sure of what date you will arrive at the hut. Otherwise you may limit the flexibility in your timeline.]
If you are completing the Travers-Sabine Circuit, then — similar to most other hikes in New Zealand — you will find plenty of water sources along the way. In addition to the abundance of flowing freshwater sources (i.e. creeks, streams, rivers), all New Zealand backcountry huts are fitted with rain water tanks. So for the most part, you will not walk more than about one hour without passing a water source.
The obvious exceptions are on the high alpine passes and mountain ranges, where you may need to carry sufficient water. Most notably, when crossing the Travers Saddle there is a 2-3 hour dry section. Approaching Travers Saddle from the eastern side (i.e. from Upper Travers Hut), you will cross a small creek about 30 minutes before reaching the top of the saddle — this will be the last water source until you reach the river in the Sabine Valley on the other side (about 2 hours walking from the top of the saddle). Also, if you head to Angelus Hut from Mt Robert Carpark (along the Robert Ridge Route) there aren’t any reliable water sources so you’ll need to carry sufficient water for the day.
In general, you should be fine to drink untreated water from the hut rain water tanks and most of the alpine streams and rivers in Nelson Lakes National Park. Nonetheless, we always recommend using an appropriate water treatment. Our preferred approach is a SteriPEN Adventurer Opti. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and allows us to carry spare batteries if we need. But the USB-rechargeable SteriPEN Ultra is also another good lightweight choice. Or if you prefer a water filter system, then the Sawyer Squeeze is a great lightweight option.
Food storage is less of an issue in the New Zealand wilderness. At least in comparison to North America where bears demand a significant amount of extra care and concern!
The main characters hoping to get a share of your dinner are: (i) possums, and (ii) rodents.
Possums — although not dangerous to humans — are very bold. They will take any opportunity they can to get into your food, including coming into the hut. Make sure you always close the hut doors behind you.
Also be sure to pack away your food at night, otherwise rodents may well gnaw through any easy packaging — this is true regardless of whether you are sleeping in the huts or camping!
CAMPSITES & HUTS
For the most part, bookings and permits are not required for Nelson Lakes National Park. The one exception is Angelus Hut. In peak summer, from late November to 30 April, bookings are required for Angelus Hut and the Angelus Hut campsite. You can make bookings online, over the phone, via email, or in person at a DOC visitor centre. Bookings must be made in advance during this period. Note that outside of the peak summer season, Angelus Hut operates on the usual backcountry hut ticket system, as described for all other huts below.
The New Zealand backcountry hut network is one of the best in the world. They may not be as fancy or well serviced as some European huts, but they are reasonably priced, reliable, forms of shelter. And Nelson Lakes National Park is no exception. In fact, you can easily travel the entire Travers-Sabine Circuit (and elsewhere in the park) using only huts for shelter. That means not having to carry a tent!
Bookings are not required for the huts. Instead, they operate on a “first-come first-served” basis. The general philosophy is that “the hut is never full” — meaning no-one will ever be forced out into the cold without shelter. However, with the long-distance Te Araroa Trail now passing through Nelson Lakes and with Blue Lake seeing increasing fame and popularity, some of the huts (particularly Blue Lake Hut, West Sabine Hut, and huts in the Travers Valley) are getting increasingly busy. If you don’t like snoring, then be sure to bring earplugs. If you don’t like crowded huts or snoring, then consider bringing a tent.
Each of the huts will have mattresses, a rain water tank, some form of bush toilet (bring your own toilet paper), and space for cooking indoors. Cooking supplies are not provided, so you will need to bring your own pot(s) and cooker. Mattresses are supplied in the huts, but you will need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow (if you so desire such luxuries).
The huts are generally not staffed, although some are at peak times (e.g. Blue Lake Hut during peak summer). Payment works on a ticket system — you need to purchase the tickets in advance from a Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre before starting your hike! You then deposit the appropriate number of tickets for your stay into a sealed payment box inside the hut. There are DOC visitor centres in St Arnaud and Nelson, as well as elsewhere in New Zealand.
Most of the huts on the Travers-Sabine Circuit cost $15 per person per night, although some are cheaper at $5 per person per night. The staff at the DOC office will guide you on the costs of the huts you think you will to stay at. Unfortunately, any unspent tickets can’t be refunded, so you need to just make an educated guess at how many you will need. In any case, the money is all going to a good cause (maintaining the huts and the New Zealand backcountry!).
If you prefer sleeping out under the stars, then that is also possible! There are clearings outside each hut for camping. This allows you to use the facilities of the hut (i.e. water, toilets, and the hut for cooking if need be). If you camp outside the hut, then in most cases you will need to pay a small fee of $5 per person per night (a bargain really), although some huts are free to camp outside. To do this, you will need to deposit a hut ticket into the deposit box inside the hut — as mentioned in the previous section, you need to purchase these tickets from the DOC office before starting your hike.
Although not heavily encouraged, wild camping is allowed in the backcountry of Nelson Lakes National Park, including along the Travers-Sabine Circuit. Just be sure to leave no trace. Most importantly, aim to either do your poo business at the hut before/after reaching your campsite, or — at the very least — practice proper bush toilet etiquette. If you wish to wild camp along the Travers-Sabine Circuit, then a few suggested spots are:
Travers Saddle: If you have a good quality tent that can withstand severe winds, then — if the weather allows — consider camping on the saddle. There are plenty of flat spots suitable for a tent. The view are stunning. However, Travers Saddle can be subject to treacherous weather at any time of year. So only camp here if conditions are favourable, the forecast is good, and you have appropriate gear. Also note that there is no water source on the top of the saddle. When coming from Upper Travers Hut, there is a small stream that crosses the main trail about 30 minutes before you reach the top of the saddle, so fill up there. If you are coming from West Sabine Hut, then the last water source is the Sabine River, about 2 hours before you reach the top of the saddle.
Riverside camping in the Travers Valley: There are several nice stream-side camping spots in the Travers Valley between the Travers River swing bridge and the junction with the trail to Hopeless Hut. This location makes a reasonable first night camp if you are doing the Travers-Sabine Circuit clockwise and start walking in the afternoon. Arguably, these campsites are nicer than staying at Coldwater Hut or Lakeside Hut, since both of those huts are prone to wasps and their toilets are pretty dire too. There is also a nice clearing next to a stream about 90 minutes walk south of John Tait Hut.
Riverside camping in the Sabine Valley: There are several nice clearings along the side of the Sabine River, roughly about one hour out from Sabine Hut.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Nelson Lakes National Park is during the peak summer months. Between December and April the weather is likely to be most stable and temperatures will be the warmest. From late November onward you are unlikely to encounter any significant snow on the alpine passes.
The downside of the warmer weather is that it brings sandflies and wasps!
At lower elevations the sandflies can be particularly bad: you are almost certain to encounter sandflies when below the treeline. Be sure to bring insect repellent, and have appropriate clothing on hand (i.e. long sleeves and long pants). Bringing a head net is also a good idea. Above the treeline, the wind generally keeps the sandflies away.
Wasps are most common around the edges of the main lakes, Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. The wasps generally keep to themselves. Nonetheless, if you are allergic to wasp stings, then be sure to bring antihistamines and/or appropriate medication.
Note that during winter months the backcountry trails (e.g. Travers-Sabine Circuit) should only be attempted by those with appropriate gear and expertise for winter alpine travel. The mountain passes will be snowbound, and there is a significant amount of serious avalanche terrain along the higher elevation slopes in the park (including along the Travers-Sabine Circuit). Nonetheless, it is still perfectly safe to visit the lower elevations of Nelson Lakes National Park. Lake Rotoiti is a beautiful place for day walks in winter and you may well have the lake all to yourself! Just be aware that the temperatures will be colder and the weather more changeable.
HOW TO GET THERE
The town of St Arnaud is the main entry point for the national park. The easiest way to get to Nelson Lakes National Park is by car, however, hitchhiking and public transport (bus/shuttle) are also viable options.
Approximate driving times to St Arnaud from other relevant main centres in the South Island are as follows:
Nelson (nearest domestic airport): 1 hour 20 mins
Christchurch (nearest international airport): 4 hours 30 mins
Picton (nearest ferry terminal with connections to the North Island): 1 hour 40 mins
If you are flying from elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas, then there are plenty of rental car agencies operating at both Nelson and Christchurch airports. In fact, if you manage to find a good deal (e.g. through Kayak) then renting a car may be cheaper than booking a shuttle, especially for 2+ people.
There is parking available in the township of St Arnaud, or alternatively at each of the potential trailheads (Lake Rotoiti Carpark, Mt Robert Carpark, or Lakeside Track Carpark about halfway up Mt Robert Road).
The carparks outside the township are relatively isolated, and therefore occasional thefts do occur (although they are relatively rare!). Nonetheless, if you do have valuables then preferably do not leave them in your car — there are bag storage facilities at the Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre. If possible, it would be wise to use them.
If you fly in to Nelson airport, then it is possible to arrange shuttle transport to St Arnaud. A number of operators provide shuttle services, including scheduled services and/or on request.
The following links might be helpful:
Nelson Lakes Shuttles provide services between Nelson and St Arnaud. As at 14/2/19 a one way trip costs NZ$45 per person, but a minimum charge of $225 applies. They also provide shuttles from Nelson or St Arnaud to other trails in the Nelson, Marlborough and West Coast regions (e.g. the Abel Tasman track or Heaphy track).
Trek Express provide chartered (i.e. not scheduled) services between Nelson and St Arnaud. As at 14/2/19 a one way trip costs NZ$45 per person, but a minimum charge of $225 applies. If you don’t have enough people to fill the van, then you can check their existing trips page — it lists all the scheduled trips for the upcoming week, so you can see if you can jump onboard with someone else already heading in that direction (…but when I browsed that page, St Arnaud appears less common than other destinations in the region!)
TE ARAROA TRAIL
It is also worth noting that New Zealand’s new long distance trail, the Te Araroa trail, also passes through this region. The 3000 kilometre Te Araroa trail travels the entire length of New Zealand’s main two islands, from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south. Since being officially opened in 2011 it has become one of the most sought after thru-hikes in the world.
The Travers Valley, Travers Saddle, Blue Lake, Lake Constance, and Waiau Pass are all part of the Te Araroa trail (however, the Sabine Valley is not). If you are hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, you are almost certain to cross paths with several of the keen thru-hikers covering the full length of New Zealand on foot!