Lake Rotoiti. Lake in New Zealand, Oceania

Lake Rotoiti

Lake in New Zealand, Oceania

Lake Rotoiti Photo © Craig Chapman-Hall

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Lake Rotoiti

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	Rotoiti - Lake Rotoiti
Lake Rotoiti - Lake Rotoiti. Photo by Sid Mosdell
At the north of the South Island, Lake Rotoiti is a stunning mountain lake within the borders of Nelson Lakes National Park. With incredible lake and mountain views and plenty of hiking trails, be sure to add Lake Rotoiti to your South Island itinerary.


During the last ice age, massive glaciers gouged out troughs in the mountainous headwaters of the Buller River. Today, these troughs are filled by Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa, giving the Nelson Lakes National Park its name.

The mountains have been thrust up by the continental collision along the Alpine Fault which crosses the track in places between Sabine Hut and Lake Rotoiti. Extensive glaciation, erosion and weathering have left a characteristic landscape of steep valley sides, scree slopes, share ‘arete’ ridges and many tarn-filled basins.

The forested valleys once cradled glaciers, which excavated the hollows now filled by the waters of Rotoiti and Rotoroa. Today Lake Rotoiti is a substantial mountain lake, fed by the Travers River, and flowing out into the Buller River. At its deepest, the water runs 269 feet deep.

Lake Rotoiti from Parachute Rock - Lake
Lake Rotoiti from Parachute Rock. Photo by John Abel


According to the legends of indigenous Maori, Rakaihautu was a chief and explorer who came to Aotearoa (New Zealand) and travelled with his people to the great mountains. With his ko (digging stick) Rakaihautu dug enormous holes that filled with water. He filled them with kai (food) for those who followed. The lakes, Rotoiti (little lake) and Rotorua (long lake) remain today. The food – eel, freshwater mussels and waterfowl – was important for Maori.

The first European to see the lake was John Sylvanus Cotterell on 18 January 1843. Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy reached the lake in November 1843, and renamed it Lake Arthur, after explorer Captain Arthur Wakefield. The Maori name of Rotoiti remained, however.


The Lake area is a hikers paradise, with tracks circling the lake and running throughout the national park. The Lakehead track is located on the east side of the lake, and the Lakeside track on the west. A water taxi service traverses the length of the lake, carrying hikers from the Coldwater and Lakehead huts at the head of the lake.

One of the favorite tracks is the Mount Robert Circuit: a 5-hour loop track around the northern face of Mt Robert, with spectacular views over Lake Rotoiti. You can choose to start this walk from either the Pinchgut Track, which begins at Mt Robert car park, or from Paddy’s Track, which starts 1,640 feet before the Pinchgut Track on Mt Robert Road.

Other shorter walks around the Lake include Anglers Walk (1 hour), Bellbird Walk (15 minutes), Black Hill Walk (1 hour 30 minutes return), Black Valley Walk (30 minutes one way), and Brunner Peninsula Nature Walk (1 hour). Check out the Department of Conservation website at for more detailed information on walks in the area.


The Lake is also home to introduced trout, attracting recreational fishermen. Eels are fully protected in the lakes and rivers of the national park, and no fishing of eels is allowed. Other fishing is only permitted in the rivers in the national park between 1 October and 30 April each year. You must have a Fish & Game license, which can be purchased from the Nelson Lakes Visitor Center, or from Fish & Game New Zealand.

Lake Rotoiti - Lake Rotoiti
Lake Rotoiti. Photo by Chrissy H

Flora and fauna

Tranquil beech forest surrounds the lake. In the valley floors are red and silver beech, and on higher slopes where the soil is thinner, the small-leaved mountain beech takes over. Sprinkled throughout the forest are the occasional totara, and a range of shrubs, many of which display an unusual wiry form that is thought to have evolved as a defense against browsing by moa (a now extinct large bird).

The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project aims to restore approximately 5000 hectares of this beech forest on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. Take one of the many walks through the project and you’ll see and hear the results of this work; a forest alive with the sights and sounds of birds.

Bellbirds and faintails are common in the forest, and the tiny rifleman can often be heard flitting up beech trunks in search of food. Raucous kaka, a forest parrot, are often heard but rarely seen. The area within the Nature Recovery Project is also now home to the reintroduced great spotted kiwi.

Getting there

Lake Rotoiti is easily reached from both Nelson and Marlborough. From Nelson City, follow State Highway 6 south. After passing through Wakefield, take the turn off to the left that is sign-posted Nelson Lakes. This road reaches a T-junction with State Highway 63: turn right to reach the village of St Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti.

From Blenheim take State Highway 63 southwest out of town and follow it all the way to St Arnaud. If travelling north on State Highway 6 from Springs Junction, you can reach St Arnaud by turning right onto State Highway 63 at Kawatiri Junction north of Murchison.

There are limited bus services to Saint Arnaud. Contact the Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre on View Road in Saint Arnaud for updated information.

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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Mar 17, 2016

Pictures of Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti
Lake Rotoiti. Photo by unknown


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