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December 2015 Issue
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15 of NZ’s best backcountry lakes

Ringed with bluffs, Hidden Lake is an alpine gem in Oteake Conservation Park. Photo: Pat Barrett

Often the highlight of a great trip in the hills, backcountry lakes provide idyllic camping spots, bracing dips and scenery second to none. We take you to 15 of the very best.

1. Heart of darkness: Hidden Lake, Oteake Conservation Park

Although Oteake Conservation Park is characterised by very high, bleak slopes and large and dry alpine basins, there are some remarkable features here including numerous alpine lakes. The largest of these is also the most accessible; Hidden Lake (not named on maps) at 1553m on the northern end of the St Bathans Range. This deep, dark lake is ringed with bluffs on its northern edge and littered with large striking boulders. Campsites are few and far between, but the setting is beautiful and offers great photography.

The St Bathans Range is easily climbed and can be traversed southwards for many kilometres. – Pat Barrett

Access Broken Hut Road, south of Omarama to DOC boundary

Grade Moderate

Time 5hr.

2. Cratered lakes: Tama lakes, Tongariro National Park

Upper Tama: Upper Tama and Mt Ngauruhoe. Photo: Mark Watson

Upper Tama and Mt Ngauruhoe. Photo: Mark Watson

In the stark desert-like environment of Tongariro National Park, bodies of water are always a welcome interruption to the stretches of scoria and rock. Like most lakes in the park, Tama Lakes fill ancient explosion craters, this pair situated on a broad and gentle saddle stretching between Mt Ngauruhoe to the north and Mt Ruapehu to the south.

Accessed via a short detour from the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the track provides a viewpoint of Lower Tama before climbing 200m to a spectacular overlook that provides views of both Upper and Lower lakes, and panoramic views of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.

Few people explore these lakes beyond the trail itself and a detour to reach their shores would be a worthwhile and peaceful escape if the track itself is busy.

The lakes are a popular day walk from Whakapapa Village, but are also part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. It’s also possible to camp above the lakes – though ensure you’re 500m from any tracks. Outside of winter you’ll need to carry water. – Mark Watson

Access Whakapapa Village, Tongariro National Park

Grade Easy

Time 5-6hr return

3. Prized destination: Lake Turner, Fiordland National Park

Lake Turner with the Central Darrans peaks of Makere, Tarewai, Milne, Tutoko and Madeline beyond. Photo: Mark Watson

Lake Turner with the Central Darrans peaks of Makere, Tarewai, Milne, Tutoko and Madeline beyond. Photo: Mark Watson

Remote, challenging to reach, and in an extraordinary location, Lake Turner is a prized place to visit.

Situated at the head of Cleft Creek, this body of water is cradled by the steep peaks of Te Wera, Karetai and Patuki; the névé that clings to their slopes is one of the lake’s sources. Lake Turner’s outlet provides no gentle escape for the water that courses from it, for it soon passes over a 265m fall to the isolated valley below.  

It is said sometimes of travel that the ‘journey is the destination’ and this will be the case for any visit to this lake. It’s a location visited on the classic Central Darrans Traverse route between Tutoko Valley and Moraine Creek, and it can also be utilised as a climbing base for the surrounding peaks. The nearest helicopter landing site is at Turners Bivouac, several hours’ travel away. Reached by any route, basic glacier travel and rock climbing skill and a head for heights will be required on this alpine adventure. A boulder-dotted grassy flat near the lake outlet provides a beautiful camping spot and exploration base.

I visited this dramatic spot during a climbing trip, based out of a rock bivouac higher above the lake on the north-west face of Karetai Peak. We flew to Turners Bivouac, then traversed Tarewai to reach the lake, an easy climb and scramble that required just one pitch of belayed climbing. – Mark Watson

Access Milford Road, Cleddau Valley; or Turners Bivouac

Grade Difficult

Time 3-5 days.


4. Cool off: Hellfire Tarn, Leatham Conservation Area

Hellfire Tarn is a perfect place to cool off. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Hellfire Tarn is a perfect place to cool off. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Hellfire Tarn isn’t known to many. It’s not named on any topographic map, but without doubt, it’s one of the best swimming tarns and most idyllic camping spots you’ll find.

Hellfire Tarn lies at the head of Hellfire Stream, a minor tributary of the Wairau River, in Marlborough’s Leatham Conservation Area. It’s set in a cirque beneath several unnamed peaks, all around 1900m. Reaching the tarn is not unduly difficult, but will require good fording skills and some navigation ability.

In recent years, members of Nelson Tramping Club have maintained an informal track up the lower reaches of Hellfire Stream. First, however, you must ford the substantial Wairau River – which may be impossible when in anything but low flow. Once in the Hellfire Valley, pick up the marked track on the true right. It stays mostly on this side, but a huge windfall has partially wiped out a section of track for several hundred metres, which will require some scrambling, bush-bashing, sweat and probably swearing.

The track then negotiates a way through the gorge. Above, the valley opens out and the gradient eases, with the tramping becoming easier. The track fords the stream often, sometimes passing through delightful flats. As the peaks begin to reveal themselves, one last climb through beech forest leads to the valley head.

This is grand country, with rocky peaks, large scree slides and dense tussock grasslands. As yet the tarn remains out of sight, and to avoid bluffs it’s best to approach via a series of terraces on the true right. Once there, you’re in paradise. During summer, warmed by the long days, the tarn takes on the temperature of a refreshingly tepid bath, and the swimming is divine. There are ample places to pitch the tent, peaks to scramble up, and tussocks to laze among.

A longer round trip can be made by climbing over a pass into the Misery (where there are more sizable tarns) and beyond into the Branch and Lees valleys. A smattering of good huts and tracks makes this an excellent tramp – often ignored compared to those of nearby Nelson Lakes National Park. – Shaun Barnett

Access Rainbow Road, Marlborough. Rainbow Station charges an access fee of $20 per vehicle

Grade Moderate

Time 2-3 days return, 5 days for a round trip through neighbouring valleys.

5. Lakeside hut: Lake Waikareiti, Te Urewera

Lake Waikareiti. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Lake Waikareiti. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Lake Waikareiti is a more intimate body of water than its larger neighbour, Waikaremoana. The smaller lake makes a fine destination either as a half-day trip to its southern shore, or as an overnight tramp to Sandy Bay Hut. The intricate shoreline, surrounded by forest, has many bays. The lake also boasts several small islands, the largest of which, Rahui, sports its own tiny lake.

From near the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre, a well-graded path climbs steadily to reach the shelter overlooking the southern lakeshore. Beyond, the track sidles through forest to the west, swinging north-east to finally reach Sandy Bay. The 18-bunk Sandy Bay Hut must be booked in advance.

For a worthwhile alternative return route, take the Ruapani Track, which traverses through some magnificent forest, and past several sizable wetlands and small lakes. – Shaun Barnett

Access Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre

Grade Easy

Time 4hr to Sandy Bay Hut; 6-8hr return via Ruapani Track.

6. World’s purest lake: Blue Lake, Nelson Lakes National Park

Evening at Blue Lake. Photo: Mark Watson

Evening at Blue Lake. Photo: Mark Watson

A sacred and special site, Blue Lake is known to Ngati Apa iwi as Rotomairewhenua (the land of peaceful waters). Small of stature but big in importance, this lake is internationally recognised as having the clearest water of any measured lake in the world. For those who have made the world-class tramping trip from St Arnaud, arrival at this will come as a reward after at least two days of walking. It’s worth building an extra day into your trip for relaxing or exploring here.

The comfortable Blue Lake Hut is conveniently sited just a short distance from the lake, but there is also excellent camping among the tussock near the lake’s edge. A further walk up-valley of 45-60min leads to Lake Constance – Blue Lake’s source. This much larger lake was formed when a massive landslide dammed the Sabine River and it’s through this landslide material that Blue Lake’s water is filtered, creating a sparkling gem surrounded by steep craggy peaks and patches of mountain beech. – Mark Watson

Access from Lakes Rotoroa or Rotoiti via the Travers Sabine Circuit

Grade Moderate

Time 4-6 days

7. High rewards for tough trip: Adelaide Tarn, Kahurangi National Park

Adelaide Tarn with Mt Douglas and the Dragons Teeth beyond. Photo: Mark Watson

Adelaide Tarn with Mt Douglas and the Dragons Teeth beyond. Photo: Mark Watson

Kahurangi translates to ‘blue skies’, and you will certainly need a fair weather window if you have any hope of attaining this spectacular setting. The Douglas Range borders the vast Tasman Wilderness Area which was first penetrated by James Mackay in 1856, on his first survey up the Aorere River. Adelaide Tarn is suspended in lofty seclusion and immortalised in tramping journals as a type of holy grail.

The easiest way there – avoiding the Dragons Teeth, the exposed Yuletide and the demanding ‘low route’ – is along the eroded spine of the Douglas Range from Boulder Lake, taking most parties two days, and even this requires a determined effort.

Adelaide Tarn, cradled into an alpine amphitheatre, is surrounded by a series of gnarly peaks with names like Trident and Needle. Stumble down a tussock spur; trot along the lakeshore; squeeze into the hut –  not much more than a utilitarian garden shed with four anorexic bunks and a small cooking bench. The sole window looks north to Mt Clark, reflected in the lake. There are few flat camping spots around this boggy expanse, and in summer the tiny hut could get crowded.

Speargrass and celmisia complement a gorgeous spread of alpine flowers around the tarn – one of the most memorable spots in New Zealand’s mountains. – Ray Salisbury

Access James Road Right Branch, near Bainham, provides access to the track to Boulder Lake

Grade Difficult

Time Two full days to the lake.

8. Room With a View: Maungahuka Tarn, Tararua Forest Park, Wellington

Maungahuka Hut and tarn. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Maungahuka Hut and tarn. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Maungahuka is arguably the North Island’s most outstanding location for a mountain tarn. It’s situated in a shallow basin near the peak of Maungahuka, with the 10-bunk Maungahuka Hut right beside it. It’s a place of sublime beauty, with views as far as Mt Taranaki, and surrounded by the great sprawling complexity of the Tararua Ranges.

Several routes lead to the tarn, none of them particularly easy, and all exposed. Most trampers approach from the south, after first climbing to Bridge Peak on the Southern Crossing Track, then heading north across the main range route. This way does require negotiating the steep terrain around the Tararua Peaks, and the infamous ladder, which can be hair-raising in bad weather. Another approach from Otaki Forks uses the track linking Waitewaewae and Anderson Memorial huts, which continues over Aokaparangi and Simpson to reach Maungahuka from the north. Trampers often combine these two routes to make a rewarding 4-5 day round trip.

A third alternative approaches from the east, beginning with a tramp into Totara Flats, Cone Ridge and Neil Forks Hut, followed by a climb up Meat Safe Spur over Concertina Knob to Maungahuka. This route has excellent views of the Tararua Peaks, Tuiti and Tunui, in profile. – Shaun Barnett

No matter which way you reach Maungahuka, you’ll have earned the reward of overlooking that magnificent tarn

Access: Otaki Gorge Road, Otaki Forks

Grade: Medium-hard, exposed tops

Time: Allow 3-4 days for a return trip


9. Lonely Lake: Lake Colenso, Ruahine Forest Park, Rangitikei

Lake Colenso is nestled in a hollow above Mangatera River. Photo: Jonathan Astin

The tops of the Ruahine Ranges boast plenty of small tarns, but this lake is the only sizable body of water in the park. Set beneath limestone bluffs, it’s surrounded by a podocarp forest. Known by Maori as Kokopunui, the lake was once a productive site for hunting eels, fish and birds.

The most direct of several routes to the lake begins from the west, via a poled track across the edge of Mokai Station to Iron Bark Hut. Once across the Maropea River, take the track that climbs over a bush ridge above the Mangatera River. Lake Colenso is nestled in a curious hollow on the nearby plateau. Colenso Hut (10-bunks) lies about 10 minutes beyond the lake. – Shaun Barnett

Access Mokai Road, Rangitikei

Grade Moderate

Time 3-4 days return

10. Scramble and ramble: Paratitahi Tarns, Nelson Lakes National Park

Dropping off St Arnaud Range to Paratitahi Tarns. Photo: Pat Barrett

Dropping off St Arnaud Range to Paratitahi Tarns. Photo: Pat Barrett

These large attractive tarns lie in a glacial basin at the head of the Arnst River at an altitude of 1650m. They are both remote and beautiful and require some planning, with good weather to reach, and therefore a reasonable challenge for a weekend camp-out.

The best approach is along the St Arnaud Range, as this adds a measure of additional challenge and the opportunity to explore some new country en-route. The terrain is moderate, though it may require the use of ice axe and crampons when snow lies on the ground. At other times of the year it is an easy scramble with any obstacles being readily passed by dropping into the many basins and benches on the eastern flanks.

South of Mt McCrae, 1878m, a small pass leads to a steep, narrow scree slope dropping into the head of the tarn basin which is very large and has numerous tarns and campsites, which can be chosen depending on your preference and the weather.

The largest tarn has an excellent campsite at its northern edge and is ideal for a quick and chilly swim.

There are other basins to visit to the south, below Peanter Peak, 1880m, and to the east and south along the St Arnaud Range, for those with good scrambling skills. Or just lay back and take in this special location with a brew and a good book.

The best route out is to climb to the ridge west of the tarns at Pt1849m, and descend carefully into the large scree chute which drops to the Travers Valley. – Pat Barrett

Access From Lake Rotoiti, take St Arnaud Range Track to the tops, then head south

Grade Moderate

Time Two days.

11. Alpine magic: Lake Nerine, Mt Aspiring National Park

Lake Nerine. Photo: Nick Groves

Lake Nerine. Photo: Nick Groves

Situated at the northern end of the Humboldt Mountains, between the Rockburn and Hidden Falls Creek, Lake Nerine is high in the alpine zone.

At almost 1500m, it is surrounded by steep and rugged bare rock mountains and permanent snow fields. The shores around the lake itself are relatively verdant during the summer months, with quite an array of alpine flowers to temper the craggy desolation.

This is a magical place to spend a day or two, scrambling over the surrounding rocky peaks, climbing Nereus Peak or photographing the mountain buttercups that decorate the shoreline. – Nick Groves

Access From Routeburn Shelter car park either head up the Routeburn to the North Branch or go via Sugarloaf Pass

Grade Moderate-difficult

Time Two days to lake

12. Mountain views: Lake Dive, Egmont National Park, Taranaki

Mt Taranaki and Fanthams Peak from Lake Dive. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Mt Taranaki and Fanthams Peak from Lake Dive. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Lake Dive occupies a depression behind two unusual volcanic mounds known as The Beehives. The nearby 16-bunk hut offers excellent views across the lake towards Mt Taranaki’s southern slopes. Two tracks – upper and lower – lead to Lake Dive, providing an opportunity for a weekend round-trip. The upper track climbs towards Fanthams Peak, before diverting across moderate tussock slopes and down a forest track to Lake Dive. The lower track sidles through goblin forest to reach the hut. – Shaun Barnett

Access Dawson Falls Visitor Centre

Grade Easy-moderate. Upper track can be exposed and snow-covered

Time Upper track, 5-6hr; Lower track, 3-4hr.

13. The tiny, the large and the pesky: Lake Lockett, Kahurangi National Park

Lake Lockett is in an alpine cirque. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Lake Lockett is in an alpine cirque. Photo: Ray Salisbury

In late 1858, James Mackay set out from Takaka, then bush-bashed along the Lockett Range, which he named after his companion, Captain Lockett. The pair camped by this remote alpine lake for several nights in their epic search for a road link south. The 28-year-old surveyor named most of the seven Diamond Lakes, and made two ascents of Iron Hill.

Trampers with reasonable navigational capabilities can reach Mackay’s idyllic campsite beside Lake Lockett within five hours. There’s a perfect site for a couple of small tents just a stone’s throw from the lake outlet. A decent fireplace, tomahawk, billy and toilet spade have been left behind by regular patrons. The lake itself is deep enough for swimming and provides pure drinking water.

This wild location is locked into an alpine cirque, so the only view is facing south, where Iron Hill towers over the valley. Climb this 1695m monolith as an alternative route back to Lake Sylvester, or scramble up scree onto Mt Lockett, 1621m. Watch out for tiny rock wren who flit and frolic among alpine herb-fields, which include mountain daisy and vegetable sheep. You might also spot goats and hear the cry of a kea. You will definitely be harassed by pesky weka.

To reach this secret spot, climb the old hydro road from Cobb Dam to Sylvester Hut and traverse the hill to the north of Lake Sylvester. Look for a steep descent route down an open face into the outlet stream from Iron Lake and follow a marked bush track onto the north-east flanks of Iron Hill. Sidling the grassy slopes beneath Lake Lillie, follow cairns westward along the bush edge. Locate the rough trail through forest directly down to Diamond Lake. A well-marked track begins beyond the outlet stream of Diamond Lake and leads to Lake Lockett. – Ray Salisbury

Access Park at Cobb Dam on Cobb Dam Road

Grade Moderate

Time 4-5hr

14. Buttercups and tussock: McNulty’s Tarns, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

Tremendous view – McNulty’s Tarns and Aoraki/Mt Cook. Photo: Nick Groves

Tremendous view – McNulty’s Tarns and Aoraki/Mt Cook. Photo: Nick Groves

A hike to the Red Tarns above Mt Cook village is a popular excursion for many visitors to the park.

The majority turn around after taking a few photos from this fine viewpoint, but not too far above lies a more extensive cluster of tarns, nestled in tussock basins on a broad shelf directly below Mt Sebastopol. A trail weaves up through subalpine scrub to an obvious rock pinnacle, which provides a fine resting perch while gazing across to the tumbling ice falls of Mt Sefton on the Main Divide.

Skirt around the ridge and angle gently down to reach the tarns, which in springtime have quite an array of mountain buttercups growing among the lush tussock. Although unmarked on maps, they are locally known as McNulty’s Tarns, after mountain guide Dave McNulty, now sadly long gone, who used to fly his paraglider from up here.

Relax by one of these tarns, soak up the view of the surrounding snowy peaks rising above the Hooker Valley, culminating in the classic mountain pyramid of the South Face of Aoraki itself, and even take a dip, as they do warm up on summer days.

For the energetic, and suitably experienced, Mt Sebastopol can be climbed from here in a further hour or so, following a stony ground trail that zigzags through the tussock and rock to the 1580m high summit. – Nick Groves

Access Red Tarns Track, Mt Cook Village

Grade Easy

Time 3-4hr return.

15. Wide open spaces: Lake Minchin, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Once a popular campsite, Lake Minchin has become a more remote destination due to the recent demise of Casey Hut, which was discovered in smouldering ruins last October. The Hallelujah Bivouac is also gone, and flood damage on the lower Poulter River has made this must-do classic a bit more difficult to access. Nevertheless, the three-day return trip to Lake Minchin is perfect for those who love solitude and big open spaces.

Beginning from Andrews Shelter, a high sidle accesses the easy tussock flats of Andrews Stream, and over the relatively low Casey Saddle (777m). Following the true right of Casey Stream to the former hut site puts you on the Poulter River – a wide, gravelly expanse where paradise ducks rule supreme.

It’s straightforward travel along a retired vehicle track to the old NZFS 8-bunk Trust/Poulter Hut. Around a big bend in the river is Poulter Hut, occupying prime real estate. Built in 2003, this comfortable abode sports 10 bunks and is a great rainy weather hideaway. From here, it’s just a hop-skip-and-jump to Lake Minchin.

For the adventurous, a tough, grunty ground trail leads to the upper valley headwaters. Here, Minchin Biv, a tiny dogbox bivouac, provides dubious shelter for the intrepid souls who cross over into the Taramakau watershed. – Ray Salisbury

Access From Andrews Shelter on Mt White Road

Grade Easy

Time 10-11hr