St Arnaud Range
Nelson Lakes National Park
St Arnaud Range Track climbs from Lake Rotoiti to Parachute Rocks and the top of St Arnaud Range, in Nelson Lakes National Park. A return trip from the lake is a physically-challenging half-day walk, but the views from the top are simply breath-taking. The name ‘parachute’ comes from the resemblance of the scree slope in the gully immediately north of the track, when viewed from St Arnaud and lake edge below.
St Arnaud, the gateway to Lake Rotoiti and Nelson Lakes National Park, is 75 km (1 hour) southwest of Nelson and 103 km (1 hr 15 min) west of Blenheim. St Arnaud Range Track begins at the eastern end of Kerr Bay on Lake Rotoiti. There is plenty of parking at the lake edge and next to the DOC campground. You will see a large board with a map and times and distances of the various tracks in the area.
There are several companies that offer drop-off and pick-up services to St Arnaud.
St Arnaud Range Track is entirely uphill on the out leg and entirely downhill on the return leg.
The track begins at the eastern end of Kerr Bay on Lake Rotoiti. There are several shorter loop walks (Bellbird Track, Honeydew Track and Loop Track) that split off from the main Lakehead Track, so pay attention to the signs indicating the turnoffs to St Arnaud Range.
St Arnaud Range Track splits off to the left from Lakehead Track after 200 m, and then again from Honeydew Track after a further 300 m. The lower slopes of the range are forested in an attractive mix of silver and red beech with putaputaweta, lemonwood and other broadleaf species in the sub-canopy. The track crosses a series of moraine terraces that indicate the advance and retreat cycles of the glacier that carved out the valley and the depression that the lake now fills. After 1.3 km of gentle climbing Loop Track splits to the right, (eventually linking back with Lakehead Track on the lake edge) and St Arnaud Range Track heads left across Borlase Stream (which is dry most of the time). The track continues to climb steadily through beech forest, making wide zig-zags across the spur. Take note of the interesting altitudinal stratification of the beech forest; red beech transitions to silver beech and then on to mountain beech, the latter becoming progressively more stunted toward the tree line. The spur the track climbs narrows with elevation; you will notice the zig-zags get narrower as you approach the tree line.
The tree line is reached at about 1420 m elevation (after 2 hr 30 min). Parachute Rock is a rocky outcrop immediately above the tree line and is a great viewpoint if you think the top of the range is a bit too far. The rest of the distance to the top of the range follows a poled route, heading straight up through alpine grass and tussock. This is the steepest section of the track; be very cautious ascending and descending this section in winter. The top of the range is 1705 m elevation. Here you will enjoy spectacular views westward across Lake Rotoiti, and across to the ranges of Kahurangi National Park, east into the unnamed tarn-dotted basins on the eastern side of St Arnaud Range, and south toward the rugged peaks deeper in Nelson Lakes National Park.
You can continue south along the range for 15 min to a high point on the ridge (1787 m elevation). The ridge is craggy and narrow, so watch your step, especially when there is snow and ice about. It is possible to head further south along the ridge to the basin that hosts Rainbow Skifield, and Mt McRae (1878 m). This will involve several hours of travel along the top of the range and requires clear, calm weather.
Return the way you came. The descent should take an hour less than the climb.
St Arnaud is an alpine route, so proper preparation and care should be made to ensure a safe trip. This track reaches a high elevation and is exposed above the treeline, so proper outdoor clothing is essential. Be sure to check the Nelson Lakes alpine weather forecast before you go. Take extreme care in snowy or icy conditions as the steep sections toward the top of the range can be very slippery.