Lake Rotoiti, St Arnaud

Family hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park


There was ice on the car windscreen when we emerged from the tent…in the middle of summer. OK, so admittedly, we were in the alpine village of St Arnaud (elevation 638m) in the Nelson Lakes region, but ice, really? With my husband and two sons, aged 16 and 12, we were about to head off on a summer’s hike around Lake Rotoiti, with plans to extend the trip up the Travers Valley to the swing bridge and our camping spot for the night.

Not letting the chilly temperatures dampen our spirits, we enjoyed a hot, hearty breakfast of eggs and dinner left-overs, in preparation for the 15kms ahead of us. The total distance over the two days is 31km via the swing bridge, or can be shortened to 23km by making a river crossing downstream near the head of the lake.

First day in Nelson Lakes National Park

By the time we set off, the frosty morning had become a brilliant sunny day – cool enough for hiking and dry and still. Maybe it was summer after all!

The three hours to Lakehead Hut, along the Lakehead Track on the eastern side of the lake, took us through lush bush with plenty of lake views. While it is mostly flat and relatively easy walking, you still need to watch your step as there are plenty of tree roots, rocks and streams to negotiate. I would recommend tramping boots for added comfort and protection – two family members managed with running shoes but complained of sore feet at the end of the day.

At Lakehead Hut we stopped for lunch and then set off up the grassy, open Travers River Valley – a contrast to the dense bush around the lake. At this point, hikers heading directly to Coldwater Hut (50 mins) take the track to the right to cross the river. (The crossing should only be attempted when the river is low). The track to the swing bridge takes 90 minutes.

The valley is beautiful, giving us fantastic views up into the mountains ahead and of the crystal clear river running through the open grasslands to the lake behind us. About halfway up to the swing bridge the valley narrows and the track sidles right up beside the river, almost beckoning us in for a dip. Before long we cross the bridge and relax beside the river on a grassy plain, soaking up the sun, the sounds of the cascading water, and of course, the sandflies. The best way to get away from them is to zip yourself inside the tent, so as soon as dinner was cooked, we retreated inside to enjoy our hot meal in peace, and, after a game of cards, were ready for sleep.

Second day in Nelson Lakes National Park

We welcomed the warmer night and another stunning day, but still felt a bit stiff and sore from the previous day’s hike. Somehow though, when you hoist your pack and start walking, you fall into a rhythm and forget the aches. We followed the river down towards the lake during the 90 minute walk to Coldwater Hut, crossing through a mix of open grassland, beech forest and old rockfalls which offered expansive views down the valley.

Coldwater Hut is also a stopping off point for single-day hikers, who take the water taxi across the lake and then hike back to St Arnaud, on either the western or eastern side. The taxi can be a useful shortcut for multi-day trampers too who can get up into the mountains more quickly by taking the water taxi directly to the head of the lake. Numerous tracks wind their way over the Travers and St Arnaud mountain ranges, including the track to the popular Angelus Hut. On our second day we met a tramper heading back to St Arnaud who was seriously looking forward to a hearty dinner after nine days up in the mountains. With St Arnaud village approaching, we began to look forward to dinner that night as well.

Around 1 hour from the hut, a 5-min side track takes you up to Whisky Falls and is well worth the short uphill climb. Another hour took us to the point where the track leaves the lake and climbs to Mt Robert Road, and then one more hour along the road and back into the bush for the final leg back to Kerr Bay and our car … and ice creams at the village store.

Tips for hikers

Those wanting to enjoy the beautiful bush and lake over a few hours instead of two days can take a water taxi to Lakehead Hut or Coldwater Hut at the head of the lake and walk back to the Kerr Bay starting point.

For shorter stints to hear birdsong and immerse yourself in lush bush, there are also a number of other loop walks which all start from Kerr Bay.

Words and Images Millie Freeman