Travers-Sabine circuit | Nelson Lakes National Park

Can’t beat this circuit for a summary of what tramping in the South Island is all about:

two big lakes;

a mountain pass with mega views;

the exquisite Blue Lake, the world’s clearest freshwater;

Lake Constance for a variation on the small lake theme;

a couple of long river valleys with enormous trout levitating in the cliched transparent water;

big beech tree forest;

ie, a huge list of sights.

The huts are well maintained, they are all serviced, ie, the more costly variety with supplied firewood, the streams have bridges, the track well marked and you will usually have company each night, at least during the warmer months, although it’s not often completely over run like those Great Walks.

Maybe the only reason this isn’t classified in the Great Walk file is the number of variations of possible routes, there’s the standard circuit, with or without Blue Lake, or, for the more energetic heading along Robert Ridge to Lake Angelus, or Mt Cedric, or over Moss Pass, or just all the way to the Lewis Pass.

If you don’t flop exhausted but buzzing onto your mattress each night you’d better check your pulse.

where | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Maybe a flick of a coin as to which direction to take but most trampers seem to choose a clockwise circuit from St Arnaud, Lake Rotoiti, over Travers Saddle, a side trip to Blue Lake, Lake Rotoroa, Speargrass and back to St Arnaud. That direction has the easier part at the start, the long tromp up the Travers Valley, to get you acclimatised, before Travers Saddle.

click to view larger, more interactive topographic map from, err,

distance | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

around 86 km, including the Blue Lake diversion

time | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

4 days minimum for the basic route, ie, omitting Blue Lake, and enthusiasm for long days marching, to 6 or 7 days for those who prefer to more fully engage with what they see.

when | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

best from late spring, summer and autumn, ie, much of the year, the major issue is possible treacherous icy conditions and/or avalanches on Travers Saddle in winter and early spring when you need to pack your crampons and ice axe. Check with DOC in St Arnaud about the snow conditions.

maps and GPS | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

The $1 map from DoC is probably sufficient for minimalists, the track is well marked and there are topographical maps on the walls of each of the huts to give a more detailed information. You can always take a photo of the next day’s walk to avoid buying them.

Newtopo,, produces the most useful map of the Travers-Sabine circuit at a scale of 1:45,000 which is available for $11 from major DoC offices and some outdoor stores, Macpac keep them, or consult this list of retail outlets at

The Land Information New Zealand, LINZ, Topo50 maps, both digital and paper: are more extensive, most of this route is on BS24 Mount Robert but a short section of the the start and finish are on BR24 Kawatiri.

Download free digital versions from LINZ Mapchooser, or buy the real thing, ie, on old fashioned paper, at DOC offices, outdoor shops and bookshops where maps sold. There’s a nationwide list at LINZ Map Retailers.

Need a custom map for your GPS device, download a more compact .klm format file from for free, although if you download a few maps consider a small donation, there’s considerable work gone into getting that info onto the internet and we should support these useful resources.

route description | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

The clockwise direction starts with the easier stretches and builds to Travers Saddle once the tide level on the food supplies has dropped, and you’ve become used to trudging uphill.

travers-sabine circuit topography

huts | Travers Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Here’s the huts you will encounter on the circuit, all are of the serviced variety.

Blue Lake Hut

John Tait Hut

Lakehead Hut

Sabine Hut

Speargrass Hut

Upper Travers Hut

West Sabine Hut

Tramping times | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Here’s the DoC stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DoC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to slash times for more popular sections. With more remote sections the stated time is close to the actual time required.

Unfortunately this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, go down to the river and spot a huge trout, watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to occupy the full 10 hours a day racing through the landscape.

St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut or Coldwater Hut
Time: 3 hours

Lakehead or Coldwater Huts to John Tait Hut
Time: 5 hours

John Tait Hut to Upper Travers Hut
Time: 3 hours

Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine Hut
Time: 6–9 hours, depending on conditions

West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut
Time: 5 hours

Sabine Hut to St Arnaud via Speargrass Hut
Time: 8 hours

getting there | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes Shuttles do the Nelson to St Arnaud run for $45 per person. $55 to Mt Robert carpark. There is a regular scheduled service for the summer season (December to April inclusive), on Tuesday and Friday leaving St Arnaud at 11 am and Nelson iSite at 1 pm although they will pick you up along the way, ie, the airport or your accommodation, if previously arranged. They have other trips shown on their website page, They have very much fewer scheduled trips during the off peak season also shown on the budget fares webpage. Or, if you have a few people, or are rich enough, you can charter your own trip to suit your timetable. Phone 03 547 6896, mobile 0275 476 896. They are a helpful lot so just ask if they will accommodate your special requirements.

There is also an occasional scheduled trip Nelson to the Lewis Pass if you want to do the straight run by Nelson Lakes Shuttles for $110 per person (min $550 charge). It makes sense to start that variation from the harder to access end, ie, get dropped off at Lewis Pass and make it to the Cannibal Gorge hut, or Ada Pass Hut for the night and finish in St Arnaud where you can clean up before you reacquaint yourself with civilisation.

The competition Trek Express has recently taken over Nelson Lakes Shuttles so it remains to be seen how these services are rationalised. Currently Trek Express is advertising Nelson to St Arnaud at $50 per person, or up to the Mt Robert carpark for $60. They can also drop you off at Lake Rotoroa for $60. Free phone within New Zealand: 0800 128 735.

Getting around by hitching is also possible but, of course, entirely unreliable. Probably easier to hitch back to Nelson or Blenheim from St Arnaud.

People seem comfortable leaving their cars in the Mt Robert carpark for a weekend but maybe it would be better to leave a car somewhere more secure for a longer trip, ie, down in St Arnaud.

supplies | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes NP

Nelson, Blenheim and Richmond have the usual major supermarkets, Countdown, New World, Pak’nsave for getting the main supplies. Shellite or Fuelite for your stove can be obtained at outdoor and hardware stores in Nelson or Blenheim, if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it.

The small store at St Arnaud has a reasonable, if expensive, supply of food and basic camping needs, matches, candles, Fuelite, etc, and operates normal business hours, seven days a week.

warnings | Travers Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Travers Saddle is around 1800 m high and can get snow at any time of the year. The eastern approach is verging on “steep” and would require crampons when icy which might in fact be much of the year. Nearer to the Upper Travis Hut the track is potentially equally treacherous in icy conditions.

In spring, or after heavy snowfalls, there is a real avalanche danger on the western side of Travers Saddle and the upper West Sabine Valley heading up to Blue Lake. These area are marked by signage on the trail.

The route from Lake Rotoiti to Blue Lake is now part of Te Araroa and so is busy in the summer months. Blue Lake Hut in particular can be full in the Christmas to Easter period.

other websites | Travers-Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

There’s a few websites about the Travers-Sabine circuit.

The DOC site has fairly extensive information.

a big image slideshow | Travers Sabine circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

Here’s a 51 image slideshow from the Travers Sabine circuit giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.

Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.

Travers Sabine circuit

← Leatham/Molesworth route | Marlborough Nelson Lakes big circuit | Nelson Lakes National Park →