Nelson Lakes Hiking Guide
At the start of the New Zealand southern alps lies Nelson Lakes National Park. The park is named after two larger lakes found at it’s northern end — Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa — but the real gems lie deeper in the park, at higher elevations. Nelson Lakes is home to some of the most epic alpine scenery in New Zealand.
Nelson Lakes National Park is also home to the beautiful and iconic Blue Lake, claimed to have the clearest freshwater in the world. The visibility of the lake is 78 metres, only a few metres shy of the theoretical visibility of distilled water. The colours of Blue Lake are stunning and can play tricks in the sunlight.
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
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 huts (sometimes fancy ones!), and easily navigable and well maintained trails. But the New Zealand Great Walks are popular, sometimes uncomfortably so.
Although the New Zealand Great Walks are beautiful, there are other walks in New Zealand that are equally as stunning but often less crowded (and in many cases also less expensive).
Nelson Lakes National Park is home to one of those — the Travers Sabine Circuit. The Travers-Sabine Circuit is a 4-6 day loop exploring some of the best parts of the Nelson Lakes National Park.
LENGTH: 50 miles / 80 km
DURATION: 4-7 days
START / FINISH: St Arnaud (or Mt Robert Carpark)
BEST TIME: December through April
The most popular multi-day hike in Nelson Lakes National Park is the Travers-Sabine Circuit. This 4-6 day trail takes in two beautiful river valleys (the Travers Valley and Sabine Valley), as well as one mountain pass (the Travers Saddle).
If you plan to hike the Travers-Sabine Circuit then you can start and finish the hike in St Arnaud. Alternatively, if you would prefer to save an hour or so of road walking at the end of your hike, then you can start 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 direction. Although, it is generally recommended to go clockwise, since this makes the ascent up to Travers Saddle a little gentler.
There are also several side trips and variations that are possible:
Blue Lake is a sacred lake with some of the clearest freshwater in the world. It is definitely worthwhile visiting. It is a 6-7 hour return side trip from West Sabine Hut. If you don’t think you have time for this side trip, then make time. See the Blue Lake itinerary below for more details.
Angelus Hut is an alpine hut perched on the Mt Roberts mountain range between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa. If you are completing the Travers-Sabine Circuit, then you will pass several junctions with 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 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 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).
BLUE LAKE (ROTOMAIREWHENUA)
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.
The walk to Blue Lake from West Sabine Hut is also 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.
Once you are at Blue Lake, there is a hut as well as camping space outside the hut. From Blue Lake there are a couple of side trips worth considering:
Lake Constance (1.5 hours return, moderately easy): 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, and the view from the head of lake is quite stunning. It is worthwhile taking a look at Lake Constance if you have the time.
Waiau Pass (6 hours return, difficult): 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 hours return). To do this, follow the Te Araroa trail along the western edge of Lake Constance (be careful though as the trail is quite exposed) and then on to Waiau Pass. In good weather, the view from Waiau Pass back down to Lake Constance is spectacular. Note however that Waiau Pass is a high alpine pass (elevation 1870 metres), so this is a strenuous trail on which you can encounter snow any time of year. You should only attempt the Waiau Pass if you are fit and experienced hikers.
If you only have a few days, then the Rakiura Track can be a great experience and may be worth considering. It does travel through some sections of beautiful native bush, and many of the coastal views along the walk are stunning. However, if you are keen to get deeper into the Stewart Island bush, and are willing to encounter more strenuous terrain (e.g. mud and steep hills), then there are several other options that we believe are more rewarding.
NORTH WEST CIRCUIT
LENGTH: 78 miles / 125 km
DURATION: 9-11 days
START: Oban (trailhead at Lee Bay)
FINISH: Oban (trailhead at Fern Gully carpark)
BEST TIME: December through April
The North West Circuit will be the go-to multi-day hike for most visitors who want a true taste of Stewart Island. The full circuit is a significant undertaking for most, both in terms of time and endurance. Most hikers will take around 8-10 days to complete the circuit. The exact time will depend on your entry and exit points (more details below), as well as whether you plan to jump huts along the way. And although the geography here is relatively flat (the highest point on the hike is just 400 metres above sea level), the going can be tough. Knee-deep mud is not uncommon here.
Most hikers do the full circuit in an anti-clockwise direction. One reason is that the toughest hill on this hike (in our opinion) is located between Freshwater Hut and North Arm Hut. By walking the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, you will encounter this hill at the end of the walk when you have eaten all your supplies and your backpack is lightest. Not to mention that the Department of Conservation's brochure advertising the hike describes it in an anti-clockwise direction.
But the North West Circuit can be walked in either direction. And in fact, our preference is for walking the circuit clockwise. By doing this, you are walking in the opposite direction to most hikers, and therefore are likely to encounter a different group of hikers at each campsite or hut. If you are camping, then this isn't too important an issue. But if you are sleeping in the huts, you don't want to be stuck on the trail with a snoring sleeper for ten days.
However, one potential downside of walking the circuit clockwise is that you encounter the hill over Thompson Ridge on your first day, when your backpack will be fully loaded with 10 days of food! This climb is only 300-400 metres elevation gain, but it is very tough going. Therefore, our suggestion is as follows: avoid Thompson Ridge altogether (unless you are keen for the challenge!).
You can do this by arranging a water taxi in Oban that can take you to Freshwater Hut to start your hike. The water taxis travel up to Freshwater Hut most days (usually by arrangement), and are approximately NZ$60. The ride takes about 45 minutes in total, taking you across the beautiful Paterson Inlet (if you are lucky you might see bottle-nosed dolphins or other marine life) and then up the winding Freshwater River. Note that this trip can only be made at high-tide - when the entrance to the river is accessible - and so departure times vary daily.
From Freshwater Hut you can choose to either head straight on towards Mason Bay. The 15.5 km journey between Freshwater Hut and Mason Bay is relatively flat, and in dry weather is an easy 3-4 hour stroll. It is not uncommon to encounter kiwi birds along this part of track, even during the day. But, be wary that after heavy rain this track can become severely flooded (at the beginning of this section of trail you will notice depth markers - these will help guide you as to whether or not the water is high enough to make the trail unsafe to pass along).
Or, if you aren't in a rush to set off from Freshwater Hut, then an alternative after exiting the water taxi is to climb Rocky Mountain (without your heavy backpack!). This "mountain" stands on the ridgeline above Freshwater Hut and, if the weather allows, provides panoramic views over Freshwater Flats and Paterson Inlet. You can leave your gear at Freshwater Hut, climb Rocky Mountain Track (5 km, 3 hours return), returning to Freshwater Hut for the night and heading onto Mason Bay the following morning. To find the Rocky Mountain Track trailhead you need to leave Freshwater Hut, heading a little way along the track toward North Arm Hut and you will see Rocky Mountain Track on your left.
If you don't have a full ten days available, then not all is lost. Perhaps consider one of the variations of the Northern Circuit we describe below. that can be completed in 3-4 days. These might be suitable for those hikers who are keen to experience some of the less well manicured hiking on Stewart Island, but only have available limited time.
LENGTH: 45 miles / 72 km
DURATION: 4-6 days
START: Freshwater, Freds Camp, or Rakeahua Hut
FINISH: Freshwater, Freds Camp, or Rakeahua Hut
BEST TIME: December through April
Stewart Island's Southern Circuit is a serious tramping endeavour. Until now, we have avoided using the term "tramping" to avoid confusing our international readers. In New Zealand, "tramping" is generally thought to be synonymous with hiking. But, given that the word is peculiar to this small island nation, it embodies some of the characteristics that come with the territory. Think... bush, scrub, mud, tree roots, and water (and lots of water).
The Southern Circuit covers iconic New Zealand backcountry terrain, and it can be tough going. If this is your first outing on Stewart Island, then perhaps look elsewhere. The North West Circuit is also a great challenge, and for most people will be more rewarding. Where the North West Circuit is predominantly along stunning coastline, the Southern Circuit will have you with your head down and trying to keep your footwear from getting sucked off in the bog.
Several sections of this hike are prone to flooding, and so care needs to be taken after heavy rain. In fact, after heavy rain, many sections of the circuit will be impassable.
The most natural entry and exit point for this hike is Freshwater Hut. A water taxi can be taken from Oban, across the Paterson Inlet, and up Freshwater River during high tides. See our description of the North West Circuit above for more details on this. Alternatively you can do the 1-2 day walk from Oban, over Thompson Ridge, to Freshwater Hut to start the Southern Circuit.
The other possible entry or exit points are Fred Camp Hut or Rakeahua Hut. But note that these destinations are far less frequented than Freshwater Hut, so you must prearrange any transport if you plan to enter or exit at these locations (and the journey may be more expensive that landing at Freshwater Hut).
For more info on this trail, see the Department of Conservation website. Or call the Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre direct on +64-3-219-0009 to discuss the current trail status.
WHEN TO GO
Stewart Island can be visited all year round, and it possible to do the aforementioned hikes at any time of the year. But, our recommendation is to visit sometime during the peak summer months, when the weather is warmer, sunny days are (slightly) more likely, and the daylight hours are longer.
We suggest visiting December through March. During this time average daytime temperatures are in the range of 15 to 18 degrees Celsius (59 to 64 Fahrenheit). Compare that with the winter months when average daytime temperatures are in the range of 7 to 11 degrees Celsius (44 to 51 degrees Fahrenheit) and it becomes noticeable that the extra few degrees could make a difference to your comfort levels.
The other thing to recognise is that summer does not guarantee clear skies. Not here and not anywhere in New Zealand. Stewart Island is beautifully green, but the main ingredient for the lush vegetation here is rainfall. And it falls all year round. Annual rainfall on the island can be upwards of 1.5 metres. So always be prepared for rain and - if hiking - mud.
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!)
Stewart Island's main and only village, Oban, has a small general store with limited supplies. In addition, one of the main tourism operators on the island, Ruggedy Range, operate a small store in Oban - see here for their website. However, for the most part, the options for purchasing food and/or equipment on the island are very limited. So if you need supplies, we suggest you purchase them before departing the mainland. The ferry port town of Bluff has a small supermarket. However, if you need major supplies then we suggest purchasing them in Invercargill before heading to Bluff.
In Oban you can find a number of accommodation options ranging from private house rentals or fancy bed and breakfasts through to basic hostel dorms and camping. Nonetheless it is always wise to consider booking (or at least enquiring) ahead of time, particularly in the summer season. There are also a couple of cafes (with variable opening hours), restaurants, a pub, as well as a trailer on Ayr St (just back from the marina) serving classic kiwi-style fish and chips.
There is also a National Park Visitor Centre where you can get up to date info about trail status, see here for their opening hours.
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 from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south. 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!