Nelson Lakes big circuit | Nelson Lakes National Park

There’s more to Nelson Lakes than the four-day Travers-Sabine circuit, why not do the full spin of the park. That will keep you out of civilisation for a while, if you are feeling frisky.

Main features: long wanders up or down the various major valleys, the Matakitaki, D’Urville, West Sabine and Travers, through terrific beech forest and watching huge trout levitate in clear green river water. Check out the clearest freshwater in the universe at Blue Lake.

There’s more: a few passes, all under 1800 m, to stagger up and take in extensive views over terrain that lacks roads, or much sign of humanity at all. The passes start easily with the gentle Speargrass track over Howard Saddle to Lake Rotoroa, Tiraumea Saddle, does that count, Mole Saddle, easy enough plod, but David Saddle has a steepish south facing chute that can be icy late into summer, Moss Pass is a heart starter at least from the D’Urville, with a loose east facing chute near the top, and even Travers Saddle can have its moments in cold, windy conditions. If you feel you require additional hill climbing you can always add Sunset Saddle up to Lake Angelus and finish by zipping down Robert Ridge.

For some reason not so many venture over to Bobs Hut or the East Mataki. The tracks and huts are well maintained, just not often used.

The alternative possibility is the Lewis Pass to St Arnaud straight run, adding the scenic Three Tarns Pass to the hill climbs required.

where | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

an anti-clockwise circuit from St Arnaud—west to Lake Rotoroa, Mataki Valley and up the East Branch, over David Saddle, down the D’Urville, over Moss Pass to Blue Lake, over Travers Saddle and back to St Arnaud. That direction has the easier half at the start, to get you acclimatised, before the three bigger passes.


click to view larger, more interactive topographic map from, err, topomap.co.nz

distance | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

more than 150km, she’s a long, long way

time | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

minimum 10 days walking for comfort, more depending on daylight hours and enthusiasm for marching

when | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

if wanting to avoid David Saddle ice, March, April or May is best, otherwise pack your crampons and ice axe

maps and GPS | Nelson Lakes circuit, Nelson Lakes NP

It’s essential to have a paper map in case GPS batteries die.

Land Information New Zealand, LINZ, Topo50 maps, both digital and paper: BS23 Matakitaki, BS24 Mount Robert, BS23 Lewis Pass, BS24 Ada Flat.

Download free digital versions from LINZ Mapchooser, or buy the real thing, ie, on old fashioned paper, at DOC offices, outdoor shops and bookshops where maps sold. There’s a nationwide list at LINZ Map Retailers.

Need a custom map for your GPS device, download a more compact .klm format file from topomap.co.nz for free, although if you download a few maps consider a small donation, there’s considerable work gone into getting that info onto the internet and we should support these useful resources.

route description | Nelson Lakes circuit, Nelson Lakes NP

The anti-clockwise direction starts with the easier stretches and builds to the bigger passes once the tide level on the food supplies has dropped, and you’ve become used to trudging uphill.

nelson lakes topography

huts | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Here’s most of the huts you will encounter in Nelson Lakes National Park. The bivvies and standard huts tend to have more character than the serviced barn-like variety.

Blue Lake Hut
Bobs Hut
D’Urville Hut
Downie Hut
East Mataki Hut
John Tait Hut
Lakehead Hut
Mole Hut
Sabine Hut
Speargrass Hut
Tiraumea Hut
Upper D’Urville Bivvy
Upper Travers Hut
West Sabine Hut

tramping times | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Here’s the DOC stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website or from their on the ground signage, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DoC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to slash times for more popular sections. With more remote sections the stated time is close to the actual time required.

Unfortunately this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, go down to the river and spot a huge trout, watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to occupy the full 10 hours a day racing through the landscape.

St Arnaud to Speargrass Hut
Time: 3 hours 


Speargrass Hut to Sabine Hut
Time: 5 hours 


Sabine Hut to D’Urville Hut
Time: 2.5 hours 


D’Urville Hut to Tiraumea Hut
Time: 2.5 hours 


Tiraumea Hut to Mole Hut
Time: 4.5 hours 


Mole Hut to Downie Hut
Time: 8 – 9 hours 


Downie Hut to Bobs Hut
Time: 6 hours 


Bobs Hut to East Mataki Hut
Time: 2 hours 


East Mataki Hut to Upper D’Urville Bivvy via David Saddle
Time: 6 hours 


Upper D’Urville Bivvy to Blue Lake Hut
Time: 8 – 9 hours 


Blue Lake Hut to West Sabine Hut
Time: 3 hours

West Sabine Hut to Upper Travers Hut
Time: 6–9 hours, depending on conditions

Upper Travers Hut to John Tait Hut
Time: 3 hours

John Tait Hut to Lakehead Hut
Time: 5 hours

Lakehead Hut to St Arnaud
Time: 3 hours

getting there | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes Shuttles do the Nelson to St Arnaud run for $40 per person. There is a regular scheduled service for the summer season (December to April inclusive), on Monday, Wednesday and Friday leaving St Arnaud at 9:30am and Nelson iSite at 11:30am although they will pick you up along the way, ie, the airport or your accommodation, if previously arranged. They have very much fewer scheduled trips during the off peak season although the timetable is not so easy to find, try the budget fares page. Or, if you have a few people, or are rich enough, you can charter your own trip to suit your timetable. Phone 03 547 6896, mobile 0275 476 896. They are a helpful lot so just ask if they will accommodate your special requirements.

There is also an occasional scheduled trip Nelson to the Lewis Pass if you want to do the straight run by Nelson Lakes Shuttles for $75 per person. It makes sense to start that variation from the harder to access end, ie, get dropped off at Lewis Pass and make it to the Cannibal Gorge hut, or Ada Pass Hut for the night and finish in St Arnaud where you can clean up before you reacquaint yourself with civilisation.

Alternatively you can jump on the East West Coaches bus departing Westport at 8:15am, arriving Lewis Pass at 10:10am, or, departing Christchurch at 2:15pm and arriving at 4:35pm. Phone 03 789 6251, or 0800 142 622 for further information and pricing.

The competition Trek Express has recently taken over Nelson Lakes Shuttles so it remains to be seen how these services are rationalised. Currently Trek Express is advertising Nelson to St Arnaud at $50 per person, or up to the Mt Robert carpark for $60. They can also drop you off at Lake Rotoroa for $60. Free phone within New Zealand: 0800 128 735.

Getting around by hitching is also possible but, of course, entirely unreliable. Probably easier to hitch back to Nelson or Blenheim from St Arnaud.

People seem comfortable leaving their cars in the Mt Robert carpark for a weekend but maybe it would be better to leave a car somewhere more secure for a longer trip, ie, down in St Arnaud.

supplies | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson, Blenheim and Richmond have the usual major supermarkets, Countdown, New World, Pak’nsave for getting the main supplies. Shellite or Fuelite for your stove can be obtained at outdoor and hardware stores in Nelson or Blenheim, if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it.

The small store at St Arnaud has a reasonable, if expensive, supply of food and basic camping needs, matches, candles, Fuelite, etc, and operates normal business hours, seven days a week.

warnings | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

The Mataki Base hut shown on some older maps at the end of the Mataki Road no longer exists having been removed in 1995. That means it is a biggish day to get the approximately 25km distance from Mole Hut to Downie Hut.

The three bigger passes are all around 1800 m high and can get snow at any time of the year. The southern approach to David Pass is verging on “steep” and would require crampons when icy which might in fact be much of the year. Moss Pass also has a steepish, and somewhat unstable, descent towards Blue Lake. Travers Saddle is somewhat easier although nearer to the Upper Travers Hut the track is potentially equally treacherous in icy conditions.

Guess I should mention that you are getting out quite remote in some of the park, eg, East Mataki Hut gets less than 10 parties through a year, so carrying a personal locator beacon is sensible. It’s a long walk out to the nearest doctor.

other websites | Nelson Lakes big circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

There’s a few websites about the Travers-Sabine circuit.

The DOC site has fairly extensive information.

a big image slideshow | Nelson Lakes circuit, Nelson Lakes NP

Here’s a 49 image slideshow from this big Nelson Lakes circuit giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.

Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.

Nelson Lakes circuit, Nelson Lakes NP

Images of the Nelson Lakes circuit huts can be found in the, umm, Nelson Lakes huts section.

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