Energising outdoor adventures in and around Nelson
The Nelson Tasman region overflows with stunning natural landscapes and outdoorsy fun things to do. Pack your best walking shoes, favourite biking pants and most-effective sunscreen - the weather is famously sunny and inviting, even in winter. If you're staying a week or longer (and we think you should!) you'll have time for a bit of everything, from camping, biking around the vineyards and rural restaurants to sea kayaking around a fur seal colony.
Have a Nelson adventure on a bike
If you relish following bike trails that connect vineyards, breweries, restaurants and artisan food producers, then Tasman's Great Taste Trail should be the star of your Nelson itinerary. Forming a loop around the Nelson Tasman region, the trail takes several days to complete in its entirety. Along the way you can stay at holiday parks, countryside B&Bs, lodges and historic hotels.
When you only have a day available for biking, simply select a portion of the trail. An excellent one-day ride is the section from Richmond to Mapua and back. You'll get to ride around uninhabited Rabbit Island and catch a ferry to Mapua Wharf, which is packed with places to eat and drink. Another one-day option is the section from Motueka to Kaiteriteri, loved for its coastal scenery, fruit stalls, quirky cafes, art galleries and micro-breweries. Finishing point (or turning point) for this section is gorgeous Kaiteriteri Beach. Detours from the trail in Stoke could include visits to the Nelson Classic Cars Museum, Pic’s Peanut Butter World and McCashins Brewery. Local bike hire operators are always happy to supply comfortable cycles and shuttle services.
For an adrenalin-fuelled biking adventure, hire a mountain bike and tackle the 43km Coppermine Trail. It's designed for experienced riders, but the first section is fine for beginners. This challenge, the most exciting of Nelson's mountain bike trails, begins at Codgers Mountain Bike Park, one of several MTB parks in the Nelson Tasman region. For a biking challenge of the wildest kind, the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park is open for mountain bikers from May to November. It's only for advanced riders, but the experience is legendary.
From late spring to late autumn the beaches of Abel Tasman National Park are perfect for swimming - it's unlikely you've ever seen water this clear before.
Walking tracks and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
If you love forests, birdlife, beaches and water activities, the coastal track along the edge of Abel Tasman National Park is your kind of expedition. Doing the entire 52km track takes up to five days, with overnight stays at lodges or campsites. Or you can easily create a day walk using the services of a local water transport company; they drop you into the park, then you walk out. You can also explore Abel Tasman by sea kayak, to get up close to the spectacular coastline. The fur seal colony on Tonga Island is a highlight for kayakers - you can't land, but you can look.
Whether you walk or paddle to discover Abel Tasman, you'll encounter a series of crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand interspersed with rocky headlands. From late spring to late autumn the beaches are perfect for swimming - it's unlikely you've ever seen water this clear before. At low tide you have the option of mud between your toes as you wade across estuary flats. Abel Tasman National Park is glorious all year round.
Nelson hikes from the city
For massive views of the city and coast, point yourself at the Centre of New Zealand Walk, accessible from the eastern end of Hardy Street in Nelson's Botanic Reserve. This is definitely a cardio workout, but thoroughly worth it for the panorama and opportunities to commune with nature. Once you reach the summit, you can choose a track for the descent or extend your adventure down the eastern side to the Black Hole, a local swimming spot. The Centre of New Zealand Walk isn't actually in the centre of NZ; its name stems from a central survey point used in the 1800s. Interestingly, New Zealand's first rugby game was played at Nelson's Botanical Reserve. There's a sign on the field to commemorate the game.
Another of the best walks around Nelson city is the Maitai River Walkway. Beginning at the mouth of the Maitai River, it extends eight kilometres into the Maitai Valley. There are multiple swimming holes and picnic spots along the way. Bikes are allowed on this walkway too. For an all-day adventure, combine this track with either the Botanical Hill or Tantragee Saddle to create a long circuit.
Just out of the city centre you can explore Brook Sanctuary. The numerous walking trails in this popular wildlife sanctuary come with glorious birdsong, lush green forest and beautiful waterfalls.
Nelson Lakes National Park
Just over an hour south from Nelson city, Nelson Lakes National Park is a high country sanctuary that encompasses rugged mountain peaks and honeydew beech forest. There are 16 lakes in the national park, including Lake Rotomairewhenua, the clearest lake in the world. The most accessible lakes are Rotoiti and Rotoroa, two cold, clear mountain lakes that form the headwaters of the Buller River.
The forest is full of birdlife, especially smaller species such as riflemen, South Island robins, tomtits, fantails and grey warblers. The DOC visitor centre at St Arnaud can help you to choose between forest, mountain and lakes walks in the area, which range from the 15-minute Bellbird Walk to advanced, multi-day tramping tracks into the mountains.
The tranquil Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti form the heart of this national park. The lakes are surrounded by rugged mountains, offering excellent trout fishing.
Over the winter months, from late June to early October - the Rainbow Ski Area, located in the north of the Southern Alps, is a beautiful spot for uncrowded skiing and overlooks the stunning Nelson Lakes National Park.
Kahurangi National Park
Kahurangi National Park is the second largest national park in New Zealand. Even to a non-scientist, the park's geography is fascinating. Much of the rock is sedimentary, laid down in ancient times, then uplifted by earthquakes and re-shaped by glaciers. Parts of the park are limestone, so there are cave systems, natural arches, sinkholes and water-worn outcrops.
The ultimate way to enjoy Kahurangi National Park is by walking the Heaphy Track. It delivers luxuriant rainforest, sub-alpine tussock grasslands, tall mountains, lowland forest and palm-fringed surf beaches. The entire journey is 80km, but the frequent scenery changes makes the hours pass quickly.
The path followed by the Heaphy Track was first used by Māori pounamu hunters journeying to the pounamu (jade) rivers of Westland. Pounamu was highly valued (and still is!) as a carving material to create jewellery and tools.
Kahurangi National Park is the home of the Great Spotted Kiwi which, like all kiwi, hunts for its food at night. You're unlikely to see one, but there's a good chance you'll hear one of these flightless oddities while you're tucked up in your hut for the night. There's a good chance you'll also encounter native weka (woodhens) that like to hang out around huts and campsites in the park. During the nest-building season, they've been known to run off with hikers' socks and shiny objects. At Gouland Downs you might even see New Zealand’s rare takahe birds in the wild. In 2018, 18 birds were flown from Fiordland to this area by Air New Zealand in conjunction with the Department of Conservation.
Another popular walk in the Kahurangi National Park is the track to Lake Sylvester. This easy day walk (or overnight hike staying at Sylvester Hut) is suitable for families with children.