An introduction to each of the New Zealand National Parks

If you’re looking for a new and different adventure, why not visit one of the stunning New Zealand national parks?

There are 13 of them in total, ranging from rainforest-covered valleys to glacier-filled mountains. Each one offers its own stunning scenery and plenty of activities to keep you busy. Whether you enjoy tramping, biking, rafting or just taking in the sights, these parks are well worth a visit.

In fact, many of our national parks are also home to some of our most incredible natural attractions, including our Great Walks, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.

What’s more, it’s free to visit national parks in New Zealand!

So what are you waiting for?

Start planning your trip today!

Glassy river surrounded by mountainous cliffs of Fiordland National Park.
Fiordland National Park.

New Zealand National Parks

A woman facing small hot springs and mountain ranges of Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Tongariro National Park, as seen from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo credit: Graeme Murray.

North Island National Parks

1. Tongariro National Park

There are only three national parks on the North Island and Tongariro is one of the most popular! This national park is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes in the country and is centred around three volcanoes: Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu.

Tongariro was actually the first national park in New Zealand as it was created in 1887. Since then, it’s been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status for its cultural significance and breathtaking natural features.

It covers an impressive area of 80,000 hectares (796 km²), so as you can imagine, there’s plenty to see here. From glistening turquoise lakes to steaming craters, you won’t run out of things to do when visiting this part of the central North Island.

One of the must-do activities is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but you’ll also find a great walk here, along with a number of small day walks, waterfalls, skiing and snowboarding and mountain biking.

Where to Stay Near Tongariro

Nearby towns, including Ohakune, Turangi, Whakapapa Village and National Park, all work well for accommodation, or you’ll find Taupō not much further away.

Did you know? Tongariro National Park is often referred to simply as ‘National Park’.

The small Tawhai Waterfalls of Tongariro National park.
Tawhai Falls. Photo credit: Anel Mattheus – NZTT member.

2. Whanganui National Park

There are plenty of New Zealand National Parks to visit, but you don’t want to miss out on Whanganui National Park! This park is home to the country’s longest navigable waterway, the iconic Whanganui River which is 290km long.

This river actually flows into Tongariro National Park and has an important history, as it was a transport route for Māori and European settlers.

Unsurprisingly, one of the best ways to explore this national park is by taking a canoe or kayak trip down the Whanganui River. This way, you can admire the breathtaking views and look out for wildlife.

The park itself covers 742 km², so there’s plenty more to see and do here, particularly if you enjoy tramping (which is what we call hiking in New Zealand).

Where to Stay Near Whanganui National Park

Nearby towns include Ohakune (near where you will start your river journey) and Whanganui (at the end).

Kayaking journey through Whanganui River.
Photo credit: Department of Conservation.

3. Egmont National Park

Egmont National Park also known as ‘Te Papakura o Taranaki’, was the last national park to be founded on New Zealand’s North Island. It is also the smallest there, covering 341.7 km².

This national park is home to the iconic Taranaki Maunga which is one of the country’s most famous volcanoes. At around 120,000 years old, this volcano has quite a history, with its last eruption in 1775. Now the volcano is considered to be dormant rather than extinct, so it could erupt again one day.

Though it’s challenging, you can hike up Taranaki Maunga (and many do), but there are plenty of other awesome trails in Egmont National Park too. These include the Pouākai Circuit, the Kamahi Loop Walk and the trails around Dawson Falls.

Where to Stay Near Egmont National Park

When visiting Egmont National Park, you will likely base yourself out of New Plymouth (if you’re looking for a larger town) or Stratford or Inglewood (if size isn’t quite as important).

A calm lake reflecting Mt. Taranaki on a beautiful day.

South Island National Parks

4. Abel Tasman National Park

Located at the top of the South Island, Abel Tasman has to be one of the most beautiful New Zealand National Parks. It shouldn’t be missed off your itinerary! Boasting pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters and fantastic hiking trails, this small national park has so much to offer.

Abel Tasman is actually New Zealand’s smallest national park (covering an area of 237.1 km²) but it is still one of the most popular spots to visit. Whether you’re looking for relaxation or adventure, this national park has something for everyone.

There are plenty of awesome activities on offer here including kayaking, catamaran tours, helicopter flights, skydiving and sailing experiences. You’ll also find lots of tour operators offering scenic cruises in this area, so it’s up to you how you choose to explore!

Plus, you’ve got the option to walk the Abel Tasman Coast Track which takes 4 nights/5 days. Or you can use a boat to get part-way into the park, allowing you to walk just part of the track.

Whatever you choose, just make sure you spend some time enjoying this coastal paradise.

Where to Stay Near Abel Tasman National Park

When visiting Abel Tasman, you’ll have a few different options near the national park. We recommend:

  • Nelson if you want to be in a small, friendly city. This is furthest from Abel Tasman but has the most shops and attractions.
  • Motueka if you’re keen to be a bit closer to the national park. Accommodation here is affordable, and there are still some take away options in town.
  • Kaiteriteri or Marahau if you want to be close to the national park. Kaiteriteri is particularly beautiful.
Tourists kayaking on the clear waters near the white sands of the shores.
Explore the Abel Tasman Park, just out of Nelson.

5. Kahurangi National Park

Although Kahurangi may not be the most popular of New Zealand’s national parks, it’s certainly one of the most unique areas in the country. It is also New Zealand’s second-largest national park (covering 4,529 km²) so as you can imagine, there’s plenty to see!

The Heaphy Track is one of the main attractions there. This Great Walks is approximately 78km long. It attracts thousands of walkers annually and is one of the best things to do in Kahurangi.

Not only that but the country’s oldest fossil was found here too, dating back around 540 million years. For this reason, Kahurangi National Park is a great spot for fossil hunters, cavers and geology lovers.

During your time here, you might also get to spot some of the country’s rarest birds if you’re lucky, so keep your eyes peeled.

Where to Stay Near Kahurangi National Park

Karamea is a quirky little town on the West Coast. This will be the start or end of your walk on the Heaphy Track (if you choose to do it). This is also where you’ll stay to access the Oparara Arch.

The little towns along the Golden Bay are likely to be your base on the other side of the Heaphy Track.

A path surrounded by mossy trees in Kahurangi National Park.
Kahurangi National Park.

6. Nelson Lakes National Park

As the name suggests, Nelson Lakes National Park is most famous for its stunning glacial lakes – namely Lake Rotorua and Rotoiti. These lakes are situated in the centre of the 1,019 km² park and are surrounded by striking mountain peaks, lush beech forests and awesome hiking trails.

The landscapes here are dramatic and breathtaking. They were formed by huge glaciers during the last two ice ages.

If you’re planning to visit Nelson Lakes National Park during your New Zealand trip, then you’ll definitely want to bring a camera along!

During your time here, there are plenty of things to do but it all depends on the time of year you’re visiting. Popular activities include trout fishing skiing, swimming, and of course, hiking.

Where to Stay Near Nelson Lakes National Park

St Arnaud, on the shore of Lake Rotoiti is where most people stay when visiting this national park.

A pontoon stretching over the calm waters of Lake Rotoiti.
Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park. Photo credit: Harald Selke.

7. Paparoa National Park

As there are so many New Zealand national parks to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which ones to visit. Paparoa is easily one of the most beautiful parks in the country as it runs from the ocean to the Paparoa Mountain Range, so we think it’s a great choice.

Boasting unique coastal formations, impressive river canyons and striking mountain ridges, this place has every type of landscape you could think of!

Not only does Paparoa have tons of natural beauty, but you’ll find plenty of activities here too. They include caving, black water rafting, wilderness paddling, visiting the Punakaiki blowholes and hiking.

One of the most popular walking trails is the Inland Pack Track as it will take you to some of the most magical spots in the 429.7 km² park.

Old Ghost Road is another popular tramping/mountain biking track – it is actually one of our newest trails, spanning 85km.

Where to Stay Near Paparoa National Park

Punakaiki and Charleston are the closest towns (though they are very small). If you’d like more in the way of shops and facilities, we suggest heading to Westport or Greymouth.

A cliff with raging waters underneath located at the Paparoa National Park.
Photo credit: Jocelyn Kinghorn.

8. Arthur’s Pass National Park

If it’s beautiful landscapes that you’re after then you need to visit Arthur’s Pass National Park!

Arthurs Pass is the highest pass in the Southern Alps, so the most popular way to explore is by car. However, you can catch the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch if you’d prefer not to drive – it is equally stunning.

Arthur’s Pass National Park is home to endless mountain peaks, many of which are over 2,000m. The highest mountain in the park is Mount Murchison which is an impressive 2,400m.

With so many mountain peaks to choose from, it’s no surprise that this national park is popular with climbers. However, you’ll also find plenty of awesome hiking trails here too including Avalanche Peak, Cons Track, Devil’s Punchbowl and Mount Bealey.

With 1,185 km² of national park land, there is plenty waiting to be discovered.

Where to Stay Near Arthur’s Pass National Park

When visiting Arthur’s Pass, you’ll want to base yourself in Arthur’s Pass Village.

The Devil's Punchbowl Waterfall crossing a rocky path in Arthur's Pass National Park.
Devil’s Punchbowl at Arthur’s Pass National Park. Photo credit: Michal Klajban.

9. Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Next up on this guide is Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Known as ‘glacier country’ this national park is home to the two iconic glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef. This is the main reason that people visit this national park, and it’s not hard to see why.

There are several ways to experience these glaciers, but the most popular options include a glacier heli hike (from Fox or Franz Josef) or a scenic helicopter flight. Either way, getting up close to these glaciers isn’t an experience you want to miss.

You’ll also find plenty of backcountry walks in Westland Tai Poutini National Park and bird watching is very popular here too. If you’re lucky you might get to spot the Okarito brown kiwi, the southern crested grebe and the white heron.

Fox is also home to Lake Matheson (which is known for its beautiful mirror reflections) and some beautiful walks, while Franz offers a number of popular tourist activities.

This is the fifth largest national park in Aotearoa, spanning 1,320 km² in total and it’s one of our favourites.

Where to Stay Near Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Fox and Franz Josef are the two largest towns in this region.

10. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook is one of the most iconic locations in New Zealand, so it’s only fitting that you should explore the national park that it’s located in.

Aoraki Mount Cook is the highest mountain in the country at 3,724m. This giant was actually used by Sir Edmund Hillary in preparation for conquering Everest.

Though Aoraki is the highlight of this park, you’ll find over 23 peaks that surpass 3,000m so as you can imagine, the scenery is pretty spectacular.

Boasting endless mountain peaks, impressive glaciers, permanent snow fields and stunning starry skies (it is, after all, dark sky reserve), you can’t miss out on visiting this national park. It is 721.6 km² of scenic perfection!

Whether you’re looking to summit some of the mountains, view glaciers, or attempt some mountain walks (like our favourites, Hooker Valley Track and Sealy Tarns), Aoraki has something for all nature lovers.

Where to Stay Near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook Village is a popular accommodation option for those wanting to be close to this national park. Glentanner is another option a little further out of the national park, as are Twizel and Lake Tekapo.

The snow-capped Mount Cook.
Mount Cook. Photo credit: Jake Osborne.

11. Mount Aspiring National Park

Mount Aspiring National Park is another stunning park. It is home to one of the country’s highest peaks (including Mount Aspiring) and covers an impressive 3,562 km². With endless mountain peaks, glacier valleys, alpine lakes, and rivers, the beauty here is unparalleled.

This national park is a hiker’s paradise; there are a variety of fantastic trails to choose from! If you’re looking for multi-day hikes then we suggest you pick from the following walks:

However, if you’re looking for shorter options then you’ve got a number of options including:

  • Aspiring Hut Walk
  • Rob Roy Track.

You’ll also find jet boating adventures in Mount Aspiring National Park and heli-skiing tours.

Where to Stay Near Mount Aspiring National Park

Haast, Wānaka, and Glenorchy all provide access to Mount Aspiring National Park. They are a fair distance from each other though, so be sure to plan out what you want to do before settling on your accommodation.

Tourists reading a board while watching the snow-covered tops of Mount Aspiring National Park.

12. Fiordland National Park

If you’re planning to visit the most iconic New Zealand national parks then you need to visit Fiordland National Park. Home to the famous Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound, this park has plenty to offer in terms of breathtaking beauty, wildlife and activities.

It’s up to you which fjord you visit, although you’ll definitely want to include at least one of them on your itinerary. Doubtful Sound is the deepest and quietest of the two, but Milford Sound is the most iconic and provides incredible views (and stops) on the drive in.

With dramatic steep-sided valleys, cliff-side waterfalls and snow-capped peaks, the beauty here is something else. You’ve also got a great chance of spotting dolphins, fur seals, and penguins on the cruises that run through these fjords.

If you’re a fan of tramping, you’ll have plenty of options in the area too. We suggest you pick from:

  • Milford Track
  • Kelper Track
  • Routeburn Track (this one connects Mount Aspiring National Park with Firodland National Park)
  • Lake Marian Track.

At 12,607 km², this is by far the largest national park in New Zealand, and for many, it is our most memorable.

Where to Stay Near Fiordland National Park

Te Anau is the most popular place to stay in this region. There is also limited accommodation at Manapouri (where tours to Doubtful Sound start) and in Milford Sound.

Two women on half embrace pointing at the peak of the mountain while a man leans on the railing of the boat they are riding.
Soak up Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. Photo credit: Adam Bryce.

13. Rakiura National Park

Last but certainly not least on this list is Rakiura National Park. Incredibly, 85% of Stewart Island is located within the park’s 1,400 km² boundary.

Rakiura National Park is our newest national park. It is famous for its unique ecosystems, variety of habitats and raw, natural beauty.

Something even more special about this national park lies in its name… Rakiura translates to ‘the Land of Glowing Skies’. It was given this te reo Māori name in reference to the spectacular sunsets that can be witnessed here and the Aurora Australis (the southern lights).

As you would expect, it is also home to some incredible walks, including the southernmost Great Walk (Rakiura Track).

Where to Stay Near Rakiura National Park

As Rakiura takes up almost all of Stewart Island, you really can stay almost anywhere while still being within easy reach of the national park.

A person crossing a wooden bridge of Rakiura Track built on top of a beach and clear waters of Stewart island.
Rakiura Track on Stewart Island. Photo credit: Great South.

So there you have it, all 13 of the beautiful national parks in New Zealand, just waiting to be explored.

Whether you’re looking for majestic mountains, pristine glaciers, or picturesque coastlines, there’s a slice of paradise here for everyone.

Which national park appeals most to you? Tell us in the comments below.

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