Nelson Lakes National Park – Parachute Rocks
The Nelson Lakes National Park is approximately 1.5 hours drive South of Nelson. This magical area boasts a couple of beautiful glacial lakes – Rotoroa and Rotoiti, which are surrounded by mountains. These mountains form the beginnings of the magnificent Southern Alps which stretch most of the way down the South Island. The small town of St Arnaud is the hub of the area with some accommodation and a small shop and garage.
There are a couple of DoC camp grounds close to St Arnaud. Kerr Bay campground is on Lake Rotoiti and is the larger of the two with better services. I stayed in my van at the cheaper Teetotal campsite which is 1.5Kms out of the village. It is essentially a large car park and sites for tenting, with some (pretty decent) toilets and a water supply.
There are lots of activities to do in and around the area. I had hiked through here on Te Araroa trail, coming in from the Richmond ranges to the North, heading South down Lake Rotoiti towards the Travers Saddle. This time I was just here for the weekend so I wanted to squeeze in a couple of day hikes to the Parachute Rocks and up Mt Robert.
When you are standing at the jetty looking over Lake Rotoiti, Parachute Rocks are up in the St Arnaud range immediately to your left. The climb up to Parachute Rocks takes you from approx 700m at the lake, up to a height of over 1400m, but it’s definitely worth venturing another 200m to the top. If you have more time, turn right at the top and walk along the rocky ridge line to the high point of 1787m. I took around 4.5 hours for the (very approximate) 12Km return and I can assure you that the 1000m climb is well worth it!!
I left the Teetotal campground at 2.30pm, crossed the main road and headed left on the mountain bike track towards Lake Rotoiti. Within 20 minutes I was down at the lake and the start of the track on the Eastern side of the Kerr Bay campground. Numerous other tracks start from here too, from short nature walks to multi-day hikes.
I started the trail at 2.50pm and passed some lovely information boards almost immediately. The first 20 minutes of trail very gently climbed through beautiful forest. After about 20 minutes I passed the turn-off for the loop track. The trail narrowed considerably and became a little more tree-rooty underfoot. I crossed a dry river bed early on, making a note for my return that I would be nearly be home.
From there the trail climbed steadily through the forest. Even though there wasn’t much in the way of a view, the quite open forest didn’t give me that claustrophobic feeling. I actually enjoyed the climb. I had been climbing for just under an hour when I started up the long switchbacks. By 3.55pm the trees became more sparse and stunted, and it became more rocky underfoot.
As I climbed, I began to get the odd glimpse through the trees of just how far I’d come. I reached the treeline (approx 1400m) at around 4.20pm and realised how far I had left to go to get right up onto the tops!
I reached the rocky outcrop at 4.30pm and paused for a little break. The views were amazing! I had been wondering though, how the rocks got their name (given that this little outcrop looked nothing like a parachute). It was only upon reading an article later that I learned it was because the gravel/scree to the north fans out like a parachute – something I had clearly failed to notice.
The 200m climb to the tops was pretty brutal after the steady 700m climb beforehand. The track was gravelly and slippy (even in these dry conditions) and boy, was it steep! It wasn’t difficult technically, it was just more climbing up and up and up. I could see people coming down off the tops making switchback turns down, and they never seemed to be getting any closer! I had numerous micro-breaks…
On the tops – St Arnaud Range
I reached the top at 4.50pm. It had taken two hours to get up, which I was pretty pleased with. I could see the Richmond ranges to the North the Wairau valley to the East. To the West was the Kahurangi National Park, and to the South the Nelson Lakes National Park and the Southern Alps.
Then of course there was Lake Rotoiti shimmering in the late afternoon sun directly below.
I walked along the ridge over the smaller, rocky peaks and up to the high point of 1758m. It was narrow in places, and a bit scrambly too. The views were absolutely spectacular, and there was hardly any wind on this glorious late summer day. You certainly wouldn’t want to be up here in a gale! I had a break and marvelled at the views before heading back down.
I started back down at 5.30pm. Thirty minutes later I had traversed the ridge and the gravelly switchbacks and was back at the tree line again. It felt great to be going downhill, and I almost ran down through the forest! I reached the lake at 7.10pm.
I will definitely add this to my favourite list of day hikes! It would be great to come up on a crisp Spring day and see the snowy tops. I can’t wait!!