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The beautiful alpine lakes of Rotoroa and Rotoiti form the heart of this 102,000 hectare national park. Both are surrounded by steep mountains and fringed to the shore by native honeydew beech forests, which feed a variety of tuneful nectar-eating native birds.
In Maori mythology the lakes were created by the great chief Rakaihaitu digging holes with his ko (digging stick). One hole became Lake Rotoroa (large waters) and the other became Lake Rotoiti (small waters).
The nearby village of St Arnaud is a comfortable, well-equipped base for visitors.
The spectacular landscape of Nelson Lakes National Park was sculpted by massive glaciers during the most recent ice ages, and many glacial landforms remain – the alpine lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa are two most obvious examples.
The honeydew found in the park’s beech forests is formed in droplets poised on the end of a threadlike tube that protrudes from each tree trunk. It is created by scale insects, which process the tree sap into pure sugar. For many native birds, lizards and insects, the honeydew is a source of high-energy food.
The Department of Conservation is actively working in the park to create a pest-free refuge that will support greater numbers of kaka, kakariki and bush robins, as well as giant snails and native bats.
The Department of Conservation provides hikers' accommodation in the park - a mix of 'Serviced', 'Standard' and 'Basic' huts. 'Serviced' huts have bunks or sleeping platforms with mattresses, water supply, heating, toilet and hand washing facilities - some have cooking facilities.
'Standard' huts have bunks or sleeping platforms with mattresses, a toilet and water supply. 'Basic' huts provide shelter with limited facilities and services.
There is a selection of motels and lodges in St Arnaud, as well as two camping grounds. At Lake Rotoroa there is an upmarket fishing lodge and a basic camping ground.
Short and long walks
Walking and hiking are the primary reasons to visit Nelson Lakes National Park. Day walkers can follow a network of short tracks to enjoy lake views, birdsong and native beech forest. Serious hikers can strike out for Lake Angelus on a loop that generally takes 3 days. The Travers-Sabine circuit, which takes about 5 days to complete, includes soaring mountains, remote lakes and an alpine pass.
The 1920s fishing lodge at Lake Rotoroa makes an elegant base for those who want to pursue the legendary brown trout of the area. Many of the local streams and rivers are accessible by road.
High above the village of St Arnaud is the Rainbow Skifield, which offers every type of terrain for skiers and snowboarders. To keep the snow fresh and smooth, snowmaking is done through the night. Non-members are always welcome.
- Visit the Department of Conservation Visitor and Information Centre for track maps.
- You'll need to purchase tickets or passes if you want to stay in the Department of Conservation hikers' huts.
- Prepare carefully for overnight trips - the weather can change suddenly in the mountains.
- St Arnaud has a small but appealing selection of cafés, bars and restaurants.
- Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa both have a water taxi service, for lake tours or to deliver you to a more distant walking track.
- In summer, day time temperatures can reach 30°C. In winter they can go as low as -10°C.