Nelson Lakes, South Island, New Zealand

Lake Locations:

New Zealand - South Island - Nelson -

Also known as:  Lake Rotoiti, Lake Rotoroa, Lake Angelus, Lake Constance, Blue Lake

The Nelson Lakes in New Zealand’s Tasman District are some of the most famous yet most remote in the country. Nelson Lakes National Park, located at the northern tip of the Southern Alps, consists of 252,048 acres of protected public lands, snowcapped mountains, gushing streams, waterfalls and hidden lakes. Two large lakes are the only ones easily accessed; Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. Both are accessible by road, although Lake Rotoroa is primarily a protected lake. Lake Rotoiti is far busier and better known, having been a favored vacation spot for many years. The official entrance to Nelson Lakes National Park is located at St. Arnaud, on the north end of the lake.

All of the Nelson Lakes are glacial in origin, having been gouged out of the valleys by the movement of ice 15,000 years ago. Although some evidence of Maori visits have been found, there is no real sign that the Maori ever settled in the region and visited only to hunt, fish or pass through on their treks to the coasts. The five large, named lakes – Rotoiti, Rotoroa, Constance, Angelus and Blue Lake – are in pristine condition. Several other smaller lakes dot the region as well. Other than Rotoiti and Rotoroa, all may be accessed only via ‘tramping’, the New Zealand term for difficult and skilled trail hiking.

Lake Rotoiti gets the most visitors in all seasons as it is filled with tourist cottages, beaches, tour facilities and fishing guides. The only ski area in the Tasman area is located nearby, although not within the park. The lake is a favored trout fishing destination, and water sports are allowed here such as water skiing, power boating and tubing. Lake Rotoiti is the kind of lake that suits the entire family, with plenty of activities for all ages. Its 276-foot depth and the cleanliness of the water give the lake a lovely blue hue, and visitors often engage in ‘walks’ – an easier form of hiking – along its 14-mile shoreline.

The biggest of the Nelson Lakes, Lake Rotoroa is accessible by car and tour bus, but the tiny town of Rotoroa on the Gowan River outflow has few accommodations. Two fishing /guest resorts occupy the north end of the 476-foot deep lake, one of which has been in business since the 1920s. A water taxi takes tourists and fishermen the length of the lake for sightseeing, or to be dropped off to access walking and tramping trails at the south end where the Sabine and D’Urville Rivers flow into the lake. Two ‘huts’ maintained by the New Zealand Department of Conservation may be reserved for very reasonable fees. Visitors should be aware that most huts are rudimentary and offer only bunk rooms that may well be shared by other hikers. Some boats are allowed, but most visitors use the equipment and guide services offered by the fishing resorts. A small car park, campground and picnic area provide for visitors who wish to bring their own amenities. A boat ramp allows for launching personal small boats; no water skiing is allowed. Both sides of Lake Rotoroa are supplied with walking paths, and one may circle the entire 20-mile shoreline of the lake. Several short ‘walks’ are marked for local exploration, taking anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours, with opportunities for viewing native birds, trees, and even a picturesque waterfall.

Tiny Lake Angelus is the easiest lake to reach via trail. The entire trail stretches from the Sabine River near Lake Rotoroa, climbs to the pass near Mt. Cedric and leads to little Lake Angelus at the Bristol Pass. Lake Angelus has only a 1.5-mile shoreline, but has a Dept. of Conservation hut where one can get a night’s sleep. The trail then follows the Robert Ridge to Mount Robert where one picks up the trail to Lake Rotoiti. The entire tramp takes between three and five days and is not an activity for beginners! The mountain slopes are often steep, streams flood often, taking out makeshift bridges, so trampers should be in top shape before attempting these hikes. Several variations of this tramp follow different paths across Nelson Lakes National Park through the mountains. Usually, trails follow valleys and cross mountains via saddles and passes, but hikers may find it necessary to ford rivers or turn back if a critical portion of the path is taken out by landslide. Tramping to Lake Angelus is one of the more popular treks, and hikers often do not complete the entire trail, turning around at one of the huts or Lake Angelus.

Far longer and even more strenuous, the Nelson Lakes National Park trails to Blue Lake and Lake Constance take anywhere from five to seven days. Hiking guides can be hired for the trek, but all who attempt the tramp should be experienced hikers with proper equipment and in good physical shape. The track follows the Sabine River south from Lake Rotoroa to the Sabine Forks, then follows the west branch of the Sabine on down to Blue Lake. Lake Constance is about a mile south of Blue Lake and drains into it via an underwater river. Both are relatively small; Blue Lake offers a half-mile of shoreline, while bigger Lake Constance is three miles around. A hut can be reserved near Blue Lake.

The lakes are among the purest in the world, according to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Blue Lake has a visibility of 263 feet, nearly the same optical clarity of distilled water! This is apparently caused by the filtering of water flowing from Lake Constance. Since the fame of this pristine blue-violet lake has spread, up to 700 visitors a year have come to see the lovely sight. The two lakes have a legendary history among the Maori. Blue Lake was once used for cleansing the bones of dead Maori males; female bones were washed in Lake Constance. The lakes were formally given over to the New Zealand government via a 2010 treaty. Visitors must retrace part of the route to pick up one of several other trails heading back to Lake Rotoiti.

One could spend years tramping the Nelson Lakes National Park, and many hikers do. The forest, primarily beech, is being returned to its original condition and invasive species such as opossum removed. A large number of native and rare birds live within the park. The forested mountain slopes extend above the treeline and give way to alpine plants and bushes. Wild-running streams tumble from spectacular waterfalls, and climate varies from cool mountain heights to warmer and far wetter valley forest canopy. Trampers could easily spend a New Zealand summer exploring these beautiful mountains and feel as though they had barely touched the surface. Two adjacent National Parks, Abel Tasman National Park and Kahurangi National Park, extend the tramping possibilities. For those who can’t get their fill in a few days, there are plenty of lodgings available at St. Arnaud, from private guest cottages to apartments, motels, lodges and motels. Some real estate may be available at times near Lake Rotoiti but not along most of the protected shoreline. This is surely a ‘bucket-list’ destination; if you have a chance to visit New Zealand’s South Island, at least come to Lake Rotoiti and take the water taxi along the beautiful shore. We’re sure you’ll be hooked, just like all of those trout in Nelson Lakes.

*Statistics listed are for Lake Rotoiti only. What other statistics are know are shown in the summary.

Things to do at Nelson Lakes

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Water Skiing
  • Tubing
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Hunting
  • Waterfall
  • Birding
  • National Park

Fish species found at Nelson Lakes

  • Trout

Nelson Lakes Photo Gallery

Nelson Lakes Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Shoreline Length: 14 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 1,896 feet

Maximum Depth: 276 feet

Trophic State: Microtrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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