Spotlight on St Arnaud

St Arnaud gateway to the Nelson Lakes National Park


It is sometimes easy to forget the Nelson Tasman region is home to three national parks. While the Abel Tasman is undoubtedly the most famous of the three, the Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes are both larger and feature a metric crap tonne of far wilder and more remote backcountry.

Nelson Lakes National Park encompasses the northernmost ranges of the South Alps. Although the lakes, Rotoiti (little lake) and Rotoroa (long lake), are the most visited parts of Nelson Lakes, this is 101,733 hectare national park with an abundance of mountain ranges, beech forest, rivers and a vast network of tracks and huts. Although European settlers occupied land close to Rotoiti for grazing their sheep in the 1840s, by the turn of the century people began holidaying on the shores of the lake and also exploring the mountains in the area. The national park was then created in 1956.


Nelson Lakes is an area that I keep intending to explore more, and specifically to do a decent multi-day tramp or hunting trip exploring the mountain areas. I have skirted around the edges of the national park and have flown over it on a helicopter, but I have never quite gotten around to traversing the Park on foot. I have, however, spent a bit of time exploring St Arnaud, the small alpine village located at Lake Rotoiti and the gateway to Nelson Lakes National Park. This includes our first ever trip away in a caravan with my family, not long after we returned to live in Aotearoa. That weekend trip began the process of me having to learn how to back caravans, boats and trailers. This skillset is not specifically required when you’ve previously been something of a city dwelling metrosexual all of your adult life. Anyway, I eventually navigated my parent’s 7.5m caravan into its site at Kerr Bay and we had a wonderful midwinter stay.

St Arnaud

St Arnaud is largely made up of holiday homes but also has enough local residents for the small two-room, Lake Rotoiti Primary School, with a roll of 16 at the time of writing. Although St Arnaud is therefore largely a tourist town it is still very much a rustic and authentic township that hasn’t been over-commercialised. Lake Rotoiti has a couple of jetties on its northern shores and with the mountains surrounding and at the head of the long lake, the end of these jetties are fantastic spots for a photo that has become something of a regional icon. The jetty is also the place where you will find kids jumping off in the winter although some are put off by the presence of masses of eels under and around the jetty.
Jetty at Lake Rotoiti

"The facility, service, food quality and general vibe at the Alpine Lodge is unwaveringly awesome.."

The commercial enterprises there largely consist of a combined general store, service station, tearooms, the Alpine Lodge and a bunch of options for accommodation throughout the year. With the Rainbow Ski Area located close by this makes St Arnaud a year-round visitor destination. There is also the Lake Rotoiti Water Taxi company which does scenic tours, ferries people to the far end of the lake to the tracks over that way and also rents kayaks. The social hub of the village, the Alpine Lodge, is one of those places in New Zealand, being located in a small village and basically being the only show in town, could perhaps be forgiven
for not really trying too hard to create an outstanding experience. But these people clearly don’t do average. They do amazing. The facility, service, food quality and general vibe at the Alpine Lodge is unwaveringly awesome.

Lake Rotoiti & Rotorua

In the summer months, Lake Rotoiti is where people from Marlborough and Nelson Tasman bring their boats to fish, water ski or just muck about in and around the lake. But even when visitation is at its peak the place never gets to the point where it feels overcrowded. There are three DOC managed campsites around the lake at Kerr Bay, with the Jetty and Buller Campgrounds located further around the lake in West Bay. Just south of the village is the Teetotal DOC Campsite which, although not located on the lake shore, is situated among mountain bike tracks and a skating pond when it freezes over. Dogs are permitted at Teetotal while the rest of the area, as a national park, is a K9 free zone.

St Arnaud - Water Fall at Nelson Lakes National Park
Waterfall at Nelson Lakes

The huge, friendly eels all around the jetty at Lake Rotoiti are protected, but the trout in the lake can be fished with a trout licence and the appropriate back-country endorsement. Having said this,the closest I’ve ever gotten to catching a trout there has been to see one follow my lure for a short time before disappearing back into the darkness. During a visit to Lake Rotoroa a few years back I became quite over excited when I saw the large number of rainbow trout from the small road bridge that leads over to the campsite. After spending hours casting however, the only thing that got eaten was me. By sandflies. Big thick clouds of the bloody things. Hours afterwards while sitting in our campervan we looked over to see a young back-packer exit his own van to cook a BBQ with every piece of bare skin covered, aside from his face. Even thusly protected he was forced to wave his hands around his face like a fiend to shoo away the bugs.

Short walks in the Nelson Lakes National Park

There is a fantastic array of short walks accessible in the area beside Lake Rotoiti and around the village. The Peninsular Nature
Loop goes from just beside the jetty on the waterfront around to Kerr Bay but can be shortened if you walk back via the short uphill track that comes out onto View Road. The walk can also be extended if you continue back to the village via Moraine Walk or wander up the more rugged Black Hill Track. The route all the way around the lake, which is what Nelson Events’ Loop the Lake trail run entails, is a wonderful +24km circuit. The track on the western side is more technical, then you cross the Travers River at the northern end of the lake and the track on the eastern side makes for easier going. The Paddys Track walk on Mount Robert/Pourangahau is another fantastic day walk. When you’ve made your way up the hill you’re treated to a magnificent view of Lake Rotoiti below before you traverse a flatter area of alpine grasses. The Bushline Hut makes a wonderful spot for lunch before you wander down another track to the roadhead a short distance from where you will have parked your car. There is also a  network of mountain biking trails around St Arnaud, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the wonderful MTB Trust who have already built  over 50km of tracks for riders of all levels.

Peninsular Nature Loop

Located on view road, a short distance up the hill from Lake Rotoiti is the DOC visitor centre. This place is a wonderful resource for information on the whole area, and particularly the local flora and fauna, conservation efforts and early human history. It also has a cool little gift shop and is where you pay your fees for the campsites. 

I’m now hoping that before we put together the next edition of this magazine I am through with making excuses and have finally done that tramp through the interior of Nelson Lakes National Park.

Blog by Brendan Alborn
Owner Operator

Brendan has a long association with the Abel Tasman, visiting it for the first time when his parents moved to Marahau in 1997. After spending much of his life overseas, Brendan and his family moved to the area at the end of 2010. When Brendan is not spending his time in the outdoors he seems to spend much of his time creating even flimsier justifications for spending more time in the outdoors.

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