Nelson Lakes National Park

Route:  St. Arnard –> Lakehead hut –> Angelus Hut –> Speargrass Hut –> St. Arnard.
Appx 30 miles.


 “Beautiful, and surprisingly difficult for the altitude.”


We packed enough food for a lifetime (or a week).  Being our first true wilderness trip where we actually had to carry our own food for more than a day (imagine that), we were worried about starving.  With the way we both eat, this meant 35lbs of food, maybe more, for what we thought would be a 6-day hike, or “tramp”.

We were prepared – for rain, snow, making our own meals and fires on a camp stove.  We had it covered.  Except that my pack weighed about 40ish-lbs and Griffin’s 50ish-lbs.  Compare to Nepal: 25-lbs and 40-lbs, respectively, and Africa (with porters) 0-lbs and 15-lbs.

Lakehead Hut
After 1 hour of walking – get it, this is not even hiking yet – our legs were screaming at the injustice.  Apparently we are not in shape for this. Good thing our first day was only 6 miles and relatively flat.  Drenched but warm, we arrived to find we had the entire hut to ourselves.  We made a roaring fire in the wood stove, dried our gear, and had a luxurious meal by candlelight.


Since we didn’t make it very far the first day, and because the weather was bad, we decided to forgo the Traver’s Saddle, which was still under a good deal of snow and looking dangerous from the photographs at the vistor center.  Instead, we went for the Angelus Hut via Cascade Track.  What a great decision this would turn out to be.

Surviving the Cascade Track in an almost-blizzard
We left Lakehead Hut and headed upriver until we hit the footbridge to cross the river, and then doubled back along the other side of the river towards the trailhead to Angelus Hut.  We arrived at the junction after abou 2 hours of walking. The sign read “4-5 hours to Angelus hut depending on snow and rain”.  It wasn’t raining, and seemed easy enough.  It was 1:30pm (yes, we like to sleep in – this is vacation right?! So we got a late start)

The Cascade Track went up nicely through the forest, in some areas more steep than others, but in general pretty simple.  There were a few areas that were muddy and a few small creek crossings, but our feet were still dry.

Then things got interesting.  All of a sudden it started sleeting, and we heard a huge clap of thunder.  We were still in the forest, but my concern now was “what about once we are up top on the ridge?”.  Being in a storm and exposed did not sound fun.  Then we got to a river crossing deep enough I had to take my boots off.  And then several huge landslides and scree fields – several years old from the looks of them – but clearly we were in an “active” landscape.

In one place, a boulder the size of a car had blown a path 150′ through the trees to come to rest in the valley near the trail, and had left a 3′ diameter tree in splinters.

(no pics, it was raining and sleeting pretty heavily)

Then we finally broke free of the trees, and saw our final ascent, and what it would take.  The rain subsided just a bit for a picture:

Yes - we need to climb up and out...

Just to get to this place from where I took the photo involved climbing up a stream bed.  The water was a trickle, but we got completely wet, and it was more like rock climbing than hiking.  We crossed a foot bridge over a raging little river, out of the trees, and the real challenge began.

The hike was very, very steep, and loose footed because it was so wet.  But then the sleet started to accumulate, and the visibility dropped.  We were glad for the trail markers.

We had to cross snow fields, which was creepy because we did not have crampons, but even so, not sure they would have helped much should the whole slope decide to give way.  But the snow wasn’t that deep – the weather had been good the whole previous week, this was just a freak late spring storm.

So up we went.  One area was particularly tricky, with a drop to our right down into a frozen river, with a steep snow field we had to cross, over to a rocky outcrop which was more mud and grass than secure handholds.  After some talking about where best to place feet for purchase, we made it up the slope.  From there it got easier, and at 6:30pm we finally made it over the top ridge to the hut.

Angelus Hut
The hut was beautiful, but sadly there was no firewood to warm us, and we are all alone (after that day we were really hoping for some other people to share our misery!).

There are four ways to the Angelus Hut.  I was concerned that we would have more trouble getting back down the next day.  The route we came up was barely do-able in those conditions, and I decided I would sooner get helicoptered out before heading back down that way.  But knowing nothing of the other routes, we were not sure if they would be any better!  Another soul at the hut, along with some hiking advice, would have been a nice end to the day.  Alas, we took out the topomap and figured it out for ourselves. We decided the Cascade Track had to have been the worst as it was the steepest and south facing.

The next morning was a bit foggy but otherwise pretty nice for the high mountains, so we packed up early and tried to take the Robert’s Ridge – supposedly a spectacular hike with amazing views.  We made it about 1.5 hours on this ridge before turning around at a incredibly steep snowfield of an estimated 8′ depth.  The only other way was to rock climb the needle-like ridgeline, which also did not sound safe.

So, our backup plan took the Speargrass Route down.  Not as exciting as it ends up in the forest and left us with about a 6 mile hike in the trees with no view, but the descent was gentle, and in the slippery areas there were no crevices or precipices to fall off, so slip and fall we did, several times, until the snow ended and the mud began.  A few hours later we were down in the trees again, safe, and at a hut with a fun crowd.



Speargrass Hut
Seven elder gentlemen – ranging in age from 72-79, occupied this 12 person hut, and they were planning on heading up to Angelus the next day.  Each year this group of friends gets together (or those that make the wait list, there is a limit they say) and does a tramp somewhere on the south island. With full packs, all their food – this was impressive!  We can only hope to be so fit at their age. Needless to say, our experience was good advice for them, and while no one was able to help us, we were happy to help them – based on how slippery the trail was and how much snow was still present up top (“You mean the lake is still frozen?! It’s never frozen this late”), they decided against heading up to the top and took an easier route instead.  Good choice my lads.

After an amazingly sound sleep (adrenaline finally drained), we headed out to the Robert’s car park, and were lucky enough to meet two German buddies with a van, who drove us back to St. Arnard, turning a 12-mile hike into only 6-miles.

We ended up still having abot 20lbs of food, since our trip was cut short.  We ate really, really well – from oatmeal with berries and honey, curry chicken soup and mint cookies to popcorn, salami, cheese, stir-fired veggies with butter and pumpkin seeds.

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3 Responses to Nelson Lakes National Park

  1. Claudia says:

    Omg! I so want to be there too!! So beautiful!

    Kia Ora 😉

  2. Glen K says:

    I guess I don’t have to say how jealous I am about your trip! If you’re in the area, you should overnight over at the Rongo Backpackers in Karamea and hang out at the pirate radio station they run out of the garage out back in the evening when all the local characters come over- nice place to meet some totally random people in that extremely rural part of the island. There was also another motel out there that was run by a legendary equipment operator from the Antarctic program by the name of Jake Speed and I can’t remember what the name of it was for the life of me at this point, or even if he still owns the place, but you might be able to inquire about him at Rongo (who could forget a name like that?)- if you do manage to find him, make sure to say hi for me!

    • Chez and Griffin says:

      Sweet advice – not sure if we’ll make it all the way over there, but if we do, I’m hunting that backpackers down because it sounds amazing!

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