Nelson Lakes National Park - Guide for Backpackers©
Nelson Lakes National Park - Guide for Backpackers

Nelson Lakes National Park – Guide for Backpackers

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Article Single Pages©
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The Southern Alps Starts Here!

This adventure playground covering 102,000ha (252,047 acres) 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. Find out the things to do in the Nelson Lakes National Park in this Nelson Lakes National park guide!

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 adrenaline with some mountain biking
  • Visiting in winter? Put your skis on!©

The Lakes of the Nelson Lakes National Park

The lakes that Nelson Lakes National Parks are named for are the two 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.

Lake Rotoiti

The most popular lake of the Nelson Lakes National Park is Lake Rotoiti. The lake and campsite is just off the main highway (State Highway 63) making it extremely accessible. From the lake, you can access the Kerr Bay campground and three different walks. (More information on the walks below).

Lake Rotoroa

A little more off the beaten track, Lake Rotoroa is very similar in terms of the landscape to Lake Rotoiti, but away from the tourist crowds. You can also access a range of short walks from the lakefront. There are a couple of roads to access Lake Rotoroa from State Highway 6.

Blue Lake

An unbelievable sight is Blue Lake. The transparency of the water reaches 80 metres (262 feet) 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 (50-mile) journey includes walks through beech forest, tussock fields, clear streams and towering mountains. Alternatively, Blue Lake can be seen via helicopter with Helicopters Nelson. Check out the tour on Viator and Tripadvisor.

Nelson Lakes National Park - Guide for Backpackers©

Water Activities in the Nelson Lakes National Park

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 the Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti Walks

Lake Rotoiti and its walks are the easiest to access from State Highway 6. There is a selection of eight short walks. For a super quick walk lasting about 15 minutes, take the Bellbird Walk to see native New Zealand birds starting right next to the main jetty at the Lake Rotoiti car park.

The Black Valley Walk takes 30mins one way, reaching a mound of volcanic rock with a view of St Arnaud Village and Big Bush. Start from Kerr Bay Campground.

Another one to mention is the Brunner Peninsula Nature Walk starting from the western side of Kerr Bay. This one hour walk gives you the chance to experience the wildlife and vegetation of the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Lake Rotoroa Walks

From Lake Rotoroa, there’s the 2-hour Braeburn Walk. This forest expedition leads to a mossy waterfall. Start along Braeburn Road 400m from the Gowan River Bridge. By the jetty and main car park of Lake Rotoroa, you’ll find the 25-minute loop walk, the Nature Walk, through stunning native forest.

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. It makes for a great multi-day hiking alternative to a Great Walk.©

Mountain Biking in Nelson Lakes National Park

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

For an easy ride, not to overexert yourself, try the Teetotal Flats and Teetotal 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 steel, 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.

For more information, take a look at Mountain Biking in Nelson Tasman.

Pixabay© Pixabay

Snowsports in the Nelson Lakes National Park

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.

For more information, head to The 24 Ski Fields in New Zealand.

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
  • Snowshoe 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.


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Laura S.

This article has been reviewed and published by Laura, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Laura is a first-class honours journalism graduate and a travel journalist with expertise in New Zealand and South Pacific tourism for over 10 years. She also runs travel guides for five of the top destinations in the South Pacific and is the co-host of over 250 episodes of the NZ Travel Show on YouTube.

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