Nelson Lakes, South Island, New Zealand
Also known as: Lake Rotoiti, Lake Rotoroa, Lake Angelus, Lake Constance, Blue Lake
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Nelson Lakes visitor and community guide
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.
Custom Nelson Lakes house decor
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Things to do at Nelson Lakes
- Vacation Rentals
- Water Skiing
- National Park
Fish species found at Nelson Lakes
Best hotels and vacation rentals at Nelson Lakes
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Nelson Lakes statistics & helpful links
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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