South Island Hikes – Nelson Lakes and Arthur’s Pass National Parks

After a month working in a vineyard, we were happy to hit the road once again. We took a roundabout path, winding across New Zealand to hit a few highlights. Here are a few South Island hikes worth detouring for!

Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes is not actually in Nelson, but about an hour south. There are 2 lakes in the park, but we stopped at the more popular Lake Rotoiti. Stop at the Visitor’s Center for information about wildlife and hiking.

After getting some info from the park rangers, we continued on to the lake. Kerr Bay is a lovely spot with a large parking lot, boat ramp, and campground. You can swim, rent kayaks, or hire a water taxi here.

Nelson Lakes NP - Small --12

Nelson Lakes NP - Small --2

Nelson Lakes NP - Small --7

There are also a few hikes that start here, from short nature hikes to longer hikes to a hut. I walked the Lakehead Track for a few hours, but beware! If you stop too long, the sandflies will get you. And don’t leave any food unattended. The ducks are always hungry!

Jake completed the Travers-Sabine Circuit in record time, while I hung out at the lake.

If you’re looking for a bite to eat, there are only 3 options in town (St Arnaud). The St Arnaud Alpine Store has a cafe, quick grab-and-go treats, and a small selection of groceries. I had lunch at The Clinker Cafe, which was a bit expensive for this backpacker’s budget, but delicious nonetheless. There’s also a lodge with expensive pizza.

Spending the night? You can pay $$ to camp in one of the DOC campgrounds, or drive a few minutes NW of town to a nearby recreation area and camp for free (Self-Contained only).

Arthur’s Pass National Park

After a few stops along the West Coast, we traveled to Arthur’s Pass.


At this overlook, we caught our first glimpse of the mischievous Kea! The world’s only mountain parrot is native to New Zealand’s South Island. They are incredibly smart, but for some reason this one was biting tires and rubber weather sealing… Luckily this wasn’t our van! They’re called Kea due to their distinctive call.




These birds are so smart, they’ve been known to turn on water taps, hide behind hikers for protection from other birds, and even lock hikers in the bathroom!


Kea are protected. For many years they were shot and killed by farmers, as they have been known to land on sheep and peck the fat from their livers, which eventually kills the animals. They are also endangered by introduced predators such as stoats.

Now the Kea are banded so you can report sightings and activity, much like bears in the U.S.


We continued on to the Visitor’s Center, which is directly across from a train station. This stop is part of the TranzAlpine rail journey, which we’ve heard is amazing. Maybe next time!

If you’re looking for a quick hike, Devils Punchbowl is an easy walk from the Visitor’s Center. It takes you up a steep series of stairs to a closer view of the waterfall.



From the base of this hike, you can climb Avalanche Peak or go up Arthur’s Pass.

We camped about 10 minutes down the road from town. It was very picturesque, and the lupines were in full bloom.


Backpacking the Cass-Lagoon Track

While in Arthur’s Pass, we completed a 2 day backpacking trip. It was very scenic, and we had warm, clear weather to enjoy the trek.




This trail climbed up to a ridge, then descended down to the river, taking us through various types of forest.

After a long, arduous day of P.U.D.’s (pointless ups and downs), we finally arrived at Hamilton Hut. This 20 bed backcountry hut was very luxurious by backpacker standards! It had a kitchen, dining area, large fireplace (sadly it was too hot inside for a fire), and 2 rooms with bunk beds. There were even magazines to read, and a radio in case of emergencies. The sandflies were too vicious to spend much time outdoors, but we were ready to eat and rest anyway.

The next morning took us up another pass.


The trail gave way to river walking, with many river crossings. Thankfully the water wasn’t too high, but it was COLD!


Towards the end we opted for a slight detour. Walking along the river was tiring, and these fragrant yellow blooms were worth a little extra distance.



Castle Hill

A popular spot for rock climbing, Castle Hill also featured in a Narnia film. These limestone boulders are a photographer’s paradise! Sadly we had a short time to explore before the sun set, but I’d highly recommended this place as a quick stop on your tour.





The landscape was so expansive I couldn’t fit it all in, even with a wide angle lens!




Then on to Christchurch! We’re spending the holidays exploring the city and meeting up with some friends from the vineyard, and then we’ll be continuing further south.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy new year!

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