10 of the best walks in Nelson

Discover the best walks in Nelson. From short ambles to multi-day tramps, these hikes are not to be missed.

New Zealand’s art and sunshine capital at ‘the top of the South’ is very popular with visitors for so, so many reasons. It has a vibrant food, culture and arts scene, featuring many galleries, museums, cafes, restaurants, and surrounding vineyards – which produce world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc.

What I appreciate even more than Nelson’s world-class exhibitions and performing arts however is the city’s fantastic location on the eastern shores of Tasman Bay and its proximity to three national parks – Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes, and Kahurangi.

Having lived in Nelson for many years, I may be a little biased, but the diverse landscapes in the upper South Island are arguably home to many of New Zealand’s best walks.

Golden sandy beaches, rugged clifftops plunging into the ocean, headlands cloaked in coastal native forest, and towering snow-capped mountain ranges are all within easy reach of Nelson. These stunning features make for exciting multi-day tramping adventures, fabulous day hikes, and pretty short walks.

These are my favourite walks in Nelson. They include 10 of the best walks and hikes – ranging from a leisurely 30-minute stroll to the centre of New Zealand, to a multi-day coastal tramp in stunning Marlborough Sounds scenery. For those wanting a challenge, I’ve also included an amazing day hike in alpine terrain in Kahurangi National Park.

All of these walks are located within a 90-minute drive of Nelson and I’ve included all of the most relevant track details below each trail description to help you with your planning.

Happy hiking!

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A foot wearing a brown shoe pressed against the rocks of a river.

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The Top 10 Walks in Nelson

1. Abel Tasman Track in Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park yet features some of the country’s most beautiful coastal scenery for hiking, swimming, and kayaking. It is also home to one of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks (soon to become 11 with the addition of the Hump Ridge Track in south-west Fiordland) – the 3-5-day Abel Tasman Coast Track.

This Great Walk skirts the coastline for 60 kilometres between Mārahau and Wainui Bay at the westernmost point of Tasman Bay. There, temperate rainforest flows down to a string of granite headlands and secluded bays. You’ll also find long golden sand bays that touch on the sparkling ocean. It really is a magical place!

Whilst walking the Abel Tasman Track you’ll notice fur seals lazing on boulder beaches along with plenty of native birds at home in the coastal forest, and dolphins that often visit the bay. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a humpback whale.

The only downside to this gorgeous, family-friendly track that I can think of is that the DOC-operated huts and campsites on the trail book out very quickly in peak season (January and February). To counter this, you’ll want to be organised and ready for when bookings open.

If you’ve missed out on the huts or don’t fancy an overnight trip, the track can easily be divided into shorter day walk sections. Two companies operate water taxis and shuttle services from Kaiteriteri and Mārahau to several points along the route, allowing you to catch a ride one way and walk the other.

Plan Your Walk

  • Point-to-point trail.
  • Start: Mārahau.
  • Drive from Nelson: 1 hour.
  • Distance: 60 kilometres.
  • Time: 3-5 days for the Abel Tasman Track but day hikes are also possible.
  • The trail section between Bark Bay and Tōtaranui is not suitable for a day walk as the Awaroa Inlet can only be crossed within 1-2 hours either side of low tide.

A beautiful sunset facing a calm beach.

2. Mt Arthur Summit Track in Kahurangi National Park

Five prominent peaks in Kahurangi National Park dominate the mountain skyline across Tasman Bay from Nelson: Mt Owen (1875m), The Twins (1809m and 1796m), Mt Snowdown (1859m), and Mt Arthur (1795m). While summiting some of these peaks requires mountaineering experience and equipment, the Mt Arthur Summit Track is a splendid 6-8-hour hike suitable for people with good navigation and backcountry hiking skills – mountaineering experience isn’t required.

The trail is still the most demanding walk on this list though as it climbs into sublime alpine scenery to almost 1,800m.

The first stretch from Flora car park to the 8-bunk Mt Arthur Hut follows an easy walking track through beautiful mountain beech decorated with strands of fuzzy lichen. Above the tree line, however, the terrain is very different; it is stunningly beautiful but rugged and exposed. It’s there that the walking track transitions into a more difficult route.

To continue past the hut, you should be comfortable following cairns and markers across loose scree slopes and along steep drop-offs as you climb up the ridge to a slanting marble plateau at the summit.

If this is outside your comfort zone, Mt Arthur Hut still makes for a rewarding day hike and an optional overnight stay. The hut sits just below the tree line, but if you continue uphill for another ten to fifteen minutes, you’ll find yourself on a rocky bluff with magnificent views over Tasman Bay towards Nelson.

As one of the best walks in Nelson, this track is definitely worth checking out.

Plan Your Walk

  • Out & back trail.
  • Start: Flora car park.
  • Drive from Nelson: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
  • Distance to Mt Arthur summit: 17 kilometres return.
  • Time: 6-8 hours return.
  • Elevation gain: 950m.
  • This is a beautiful spot to go for sunrise or sunset but be prepared for a long up- or downhill climb in the dark (take a headlamp).
  • It will be significantly colder on the summit than at Flora car park, especially with wind chill factored in, and you’ll need warm clothing also in summer.
  • Mt Arthur Hut operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • The DOC recommends a 4WD on the track access road to Flora car park which is in pretty bad condition.
Mountain peaks and ranges as seen from Mount Arthur.

3. Dun Mountain Trail (or Coppermine Trail)

The Dun Mountain Trail is a walking trail that also functions as a grade 3-4 mountain biking trail. It’s found in Nelson’s backyard, linking the Brook and Maitai Valleys via Coppermine Saddle. This track also goes by the name of Coppermine Trail – one of New Zealand’s 22 Ngā Haerenga (‘The Journeys’) Great Rides.

This beautiful track starts off with a gradual but unrelenting climb through mature beech forest on the old Dun Mountain Railway track to Coppermine Saddle (the halfway mark).

The forest allows only occasional glimpses of Nelson and Tasman Bay, but above the tree line where stunted beech and manuka give way to alpine shrubs and tussock grass growing sparsely on the barren rock, you’ll be rewarded with splendid views over the Richmond Range and down into the Maitai Valley.

Moving on from Coppermine Saddle, you’ll find a long and steep downhill walk (or ride) to the Maitai Dam. This is the most challenging trail section and extra care should be taken on a mountain bike coming down the rocky track – this is due to loose scree on the track’s many tight corners.

After this tricky downhill slog, the gentle homestretch from the dam into the Maitai Valley that comes next is all the more rewarding with many beautiful waterholes strung along the river. These are the perfect place to cool off in the summertime.

This beautiful walk is amongst the best things to do in Nelson.

Plan Your Walk

  • Loop trail.
  • Start: Brook Street, Nelson.
  • Drive from Nelson: The trailhead is located on Brook Street in Nelson City.
  • Distance: 38 km – to shorten the trail distance by 11 kilometres, ask someone to pick you up at the Maitai Dam car park.
  • Time: 3-4 hours cycling, 8-10 hours walking.
  • Elevation gain: 930m.
  • Difficulty: easy-moderate hiking; intermediate – experienced cycling (Grade 3-4).
  • Most riders will find it easier to walk some downhill sections.
  • The trail caters to people with moderate hiking experience in alpine terrain and advanced singletrack riders with full suspension bikes.
  • The gradients on this loop trail favour walking or cycling in an anti-clockwise direction.

Maitai, Nelson 7010

The Cable Bay Walkway on top of a hill showing the view of the rocky shores and vast ocean.

4. Lake Rotoiti Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park, an hour south of Nelson, is renowned for excellent hiking in the park’s pristine scenery. With stunning mountains and lakes, there are several short walks, day hikes, and overnight tramping trails waiting to explore. With hanging, U-shaped valleys that rise to towering mountain ranges cloaked in a thick blanket of greenery, this is a beautiful part of the country!

A popular 1-2-day loop trail in the Nelson Lakes National Park is the 23-kilometre Lake Rotoiti Circuit that leads around glacier-carved Lake Rotoiti.

Starting from Kerr Bay in St Arnaud this trail enters beautiful beech forest and swoops around the eastern lakeshore towards Lakehead Hut. In the forest, with its muffled sounds, the track is strewn with tiny beech leaves and framed by thick moss cushions. You’ll also notice the blackened trunks of beech trees – this is sooty mould feeding on ‘honeydew’ secreted by small insects buried in the bark.

Every so often, the trail spills into a small bay skirted by dark greenery and scarlet rata flowers that reflect beautifully in the dark blue water surface.

Returning along the western lakeshore, beech trees mix with sweet-smelling mānuka and kānuka. You’ll soon come to a short detour forking off to Whisky Falls, a 40- metre waterfall that plummets down a rock overhang.

The walk from St Arnaud to Whisky Falls (starting near the Buller River outflow or West Bay jetty) is a great alternative to the full lake circuit if you’re short on time.

Plan Your Walk

  • Loop trail.
  • Start: Kerr Bay, St Arnaud.
  • Drive from Nelson: 1 hour.
  • Distance: 23 km.
  • Time: 7-10 hours (1-2 days).
  • Elevation gain: 350m.
  • Between Lakehead Hut and Coldwater Hut there’s a direct river crossing route that follows markers strung across the valley floor. This may may become impassable after heavy rainfall or snowmelt; if this happens, the longer loop via a swing bridge higher up in the valley is the safer alternative.
A motorboat moored beside a pontoon facing the mountain ranges.

5. St Arnaud Range Track in Nelson Lakes National Park

The St Arnaud Range Track starts from the same trailhead as the Lake Rotoiti Circuit, at the far end of Kerr Bay in Nelson Lakes National Park. This track offers very different views and a very different hiking experience too.

Moving away from the lakeshore, the trail climbs tight switchbacks up the beech-clad mountainside to Parachute Rocks, just above the tree line.

On the ascent, the track rarely allows a glimpse of the lake, but beautifully demonstrates the changes in vegetation with increasing altitude. Red beech giving way to silver beech and eventually mountain beech takes over, growing crooked and dwarfed as the canopy thins close to the tree line.

At the point where the trail emerges from the bush into a magnificent sub-alpine landscape, the barren Parachute Rocks stand exposed on the windswept mountainside covered in tussock grass and sub-alpine shrubs. At the rocks, your drudgery and patience are finally rewarded with brilliant panoramic views over Lake Rotoiti, St Arnaud, and the surrounding mountains.

These beautiful views make the St Arnaud Range Track totally worth the effort!

Plan Your Walk

  • Out & back trail.
  • Start: Kerr Bay, St Arnaud.
  • Drive from Nelson: 1 hour.
  • Distance: 12 km return.
  • Time: 3-5 hours return.
  • Elevation gain: 870m.
  • Freezing conditions are possible in alpine areas throughout the year.
View of a lake, surrounding forests, and St. Arnaud Range.

6. Cable Bay Walkway

Cable Bay is a bay and small township 20 minutes north of Nelson City. This is where New Zealand’s first international submarine telegraph cable came ashore between 1876 and 1914 – hence the name.

A skinny causeway connects the mainland with privately-owned Pepin Island forming an elongated bay. There you’ll find the Tasman Sea to the east and a sheltered inlet that connects with Delaware Bayto the west. On either side of this narrow strip of land, there’s a long shingle beach lapped by turquoise water.

You could easily spend all day at the beach, but there’s also a gorgeous 3-hour coastal walkway to explore that links Cable Bay with Glenduan Bay (The Glen).

This trail skirts the headland’s spectacular clifftop overlooking the inlet and Pepin Island, then meanders north, across crumpled green hillocks dotted with pockets of beautiful coastal native bush.

As you near the Glenduan end of the trail, Nelson City, the Boulder Bank, and Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks dominate the views before the track drops along Waihi Creek and meets with a 4WD track running down to Airlie Street in The Glen.

Apart from the steep climbs at either end of the trail, the track is gently undulating and can be walked in either direction.

This is another walking track that has beautiful views.

Plan Your Walk

  • Point-to-point trail.
  • Start: Cable Bay.
  • Drive from Nelson: 20 minutes.
  • Distance: 7.5 km one-way.
  • Time: 2.5-3.5 hours one-way.
  • Difficulty: easy-moderate.
  • Parts of the track cross a working farm (leave gates as you found them) and are closed off for lambing for a few weeks between August and October.
  • Be aware that there’s no public transport in the area and limited cell phone reception. Unless you’re being picked up at the other end or swapping car keys with someone walking in the opposite direction, you’ll be returning on the same track.
The Cable Bay Walkway on top of a hill showing the view of the rocky shores and vast ocean.

7. Centre of New Zealand Walk

The Centre of New Zealand track on Botanical Hill is an easy 30-minute walk starting at the Botanical Reserve on the eastern edge of the city centre. It’s a short uphill climb through the bush to the 147m hilltop. This track is well rewarded with sprawling views over Nelson, the port, and Tasman Bay to the northwest and the Maitai Valley spreading east.

Since it’s such a pretty and somehow fitting spot to mark the heart of the nation, it may come as a disappointment to learn that despite its promising name, the large white spearheaded marker on the summit marks the exact coordinates of a location that is in fact not the centre of New Zealand. Instead, it was a central surveying point in the 1870’s.

Later studies have included more landmass above the sea and recently even the undersea continental shelf in their calculations. Because of this they have located not one but two true geographical centres – in the Spooners Range in the Golden Downs Forest south of Kohatu (based on landmass only), and in the Tararua Ranges northwest of Greytown (including New Zealand’s underwater territory).

With that said though, the Centre of New Zealand walk in Nelson is still a lovely place! It is still of some importance too, as no one has yet contested Nelson’s claim to have hosted New Zealand’s first-ever game of rugby at Botanical Reserve in 1870.

Plan Your Walk

  • Out & back trail.
  • Start: Botanical Reserve, Nelson.
  • Drive from Nelson: The trail is located in Nelson City, at the corner of Hardy and Milton.
  • Distance: 2 km return.
  • Time: 30+ minutes return.
  • This is a beautiful spot to watch the sunset over Nelson.

8. Queen Charlotte Track

The Marlborough Sounds’ pointed ridge-lines, islands, and peninsulas thickly cloaked in native coastal forest at the north-eastern tip of the South Island were once part of the Richmond Ranges. When rising sea levels drowned the valleys at the end of the last ice age, an elaborate maze of winding deep blue waterways, turquoise inlets, and white sandy bays was created. This area is home to one of the best coastal walks in the world – the 70-kilometre Queen Charlotte Track.

The trail traces the coastline of Queen Charlotte and Keneperu Sounds. It runs from Anakiwa and historic Ship Cove and usually takes 3-5 days to walk. It’s a well-formed, family-friendly track that wanders along in a steady up-and-down fashion, between forested saddles and sheltered bays with white sailboats rocking on the sparkling water.

Apart from the magnificent scenery, luxury and comfort hugely contribute to the popularity of this walking trail.

Anyone, who (like me) sorely misses fluffy pillows and a hot shower on a tramp in classic Kiwi fashion (one without the comfort) will love the Queen Charlotte Track.

The Sounds are populated, although sparsely, and as the trail crosses private land it’s possible to hike in style without having to join an expensive guided tour. Swap a tent or DOC backcountry hut (and your heavy backpack) for comfortable accommodation and luggage transfers, and dine on fresh seafood instead of freeze-dried meals.

Best of all, you’ll get all of this without having to compromise on stunning coastal scenery or a rewarding hiking experience. There’s a reason this hike is considered one of the best in New Zealand!

Plan Your Walk:

  • Point-to-point trail.
  • Start: Anakiwa or Ship Cove.
  • Drive from Nelson: 90 minutes to Anakiwa.
  • Distance: 70 km.
  • Time: 3-5 days.
  • The track is also well suited for day hikes or shorter overnight tramps as many points along the trail are accessible by road or boat.
  • Elevation gain: 350m.
  • As the track crosses through privately owned land, you’ll need to purchase a Q.C.T.L.C. multi-day pass before your hike for $25 (to be used over 5 consecutive days).
A white yacht surrounded by the bay and forest while anchored on the calm waters of Queen Charlotte Sounds.

9. Nydia Track

The 27-kilometre Nydia Track links Duncan Bay (at the end of Tennyson inlet) to Kaiuma Bay (in Pelorus Sound). It follows historic bridle paths across two saddles – Nydia at 347m and Kaiuma at 387m.

Compared with the famous Queen Charlotte Track or shorter Archer Track, this coastal walk is less frequented. Though it doesn’t offer quite as many magical vistas of weaving waterways, turquoise-blue inlets, and secluded bays, it is a more varied hiking experience, with lavish native coastal bush and beech forest instead.

Forested hillocks dominate the views from a rocky spur above Kaiuma Saddle – the best lookout point on the trail.

It’s a bit of a scramble up the rock face, but on a fine day, you can spot Marlborough’s highest mountain, Tapuae- o’Uenuku (2,885 metres), in the distant Inland Kaikoura ranges.

With On The Track Lodge offering accommodation and homecooked meals at the halfway mark and a DOC hut located at Nydia Bay, you can comfortably walk this trail in two days.

Plan Your Walk

  • Point-to-point trail.
  • Start: Duncan Bay.
  • Drive from Nelson: 75 minutes.
  • Distance: 26 km.
  • Time: 1-2 days.
  • Elevation gain: 1,115m.
  • Pelorus Sound Water Taxi & Cruises provide shuttle van transport to the trailhead in Duncan Bay.
View of the lake and its surrounding forests taken from Nydia Track.

10. Archer Track

The third coastal walk in idyllic sounds scenery on this list is the 9-kilometre Archer Track in Tennyson Inlet. This track is located on the western arm of Pelorus Sound, north of Havelock.

You can think of this trail as a mini-version of the Queen Charlotte Track. It’s equally spoiled with views of sparkling turquoise-blue waters and headlands. Plus it includes islands clothed in dense greenery – but won’t take you more than three hours to walk one way.

Starting from Penzance Bay, the track runs north through native bush and pine forest, past Deep Bay, before finishing in Elaine Bay.

You can also walk in the opposite direction or make this a return trip, but do plan in extra time at Penzance Bay. This picture-perfect bay and bush-fringed pebble beach (where you’ll often find stingrays gliding through the water in the shade of a long wooden jetty) also has a little swing hanging from a tree. It is the most sublime spot along the track!

Plan Your Walk

  • Point-to-point trail.
  • Start: Penzance Bay.
  • Drive from Nelson: 90 minutes.
  • Distance: 19 km return.
  • Time: 4-7 hours return.
  • Elevation gain: 690m.
  • Ask to picked up in Elaine Bay (there’s no public transport) or swap car keys with someone walking in the opposite direction if you don’t want to return to Penzance Bay on the same track.
View of the lake and its islands taken from Archer Track.

If you’re looking for yet another beautiful walk in the Nelson Lakes region, why not check out the Mount Robert Circuit?

With so many stunning walks in this region, which will you choose first?

Interested in Other South Island Walks?

By Anninka Kraus

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