Lake reflection in Westland Tai Poutini National Park

New Zealand National Park Guide

10 Sep 2018

When you ask people around the world what they think of New Zealand, most will say something like “such a beautiful country”. The image the world has of New Zealand is one of stunning, unspoiled landscapes with very few people around and most of these amazing spots are within New Zealand’s National Parks. Places like Milford Sound, Aoraki Mt Cook and Tongariro are all within our national park system.

In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive introduction to New Zealand’s national parks, show you where they all are on a map, provide a brief history and some interesting facts and figures, plus the places to visit and activities to try.

New Zealand’s National Parks and other conservation areas are what makes a trip to New Zealand extra special. Our national parks are spread throughout both the North and South Islands, they’re really easy to get to and there’s plenty of visitor information and services to make everything as easy as possible for you.

New Zealand National Parks - An Overview

There are 13 national parks in the country, three in the North Island, nine in the South Island and one on Stewart Island. Here are a list of the parks, from north to south. To find out more about each park, scroll down for more detailed introduction, location and access info and some useful travel tips.

North Island National Parks


South Island National Parks

Abel Tasman

Nelson Lakes
Arthur’s Pass
Westland Tai Poutini
Aoraki Mt Cook
Mt Aspiring

Stewart Island National Parks


New Zealand National Park Map

New Zealand Map showing locations of National Parks

New Zealand National Park Quick Facts

Oldest National Park: Tongariro, established 1887.
Newest National Park: Rakiura, established 2002.
Largest National Park: Fiordland, 12,607 square kilometres. (4868 sq miles)
Smallest National Park: Abel Tasman, 237 square kilometres. (92 sq miles)

Introducing New Zealand’s National Parks (in alphabetical order)

Abel Tasman National Park

Location: North Western tip of the South Island. See Abel Tasman National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 237 sq km / 92 sq miles    Established: 1942
Places to visit: Abel Tasman Coast Track, Totaranui Beach.
Recommended activities: Walking, sea kayaking, swimming, cruise & walk combo.
Closest towns: Motueka, Kaiteriteri, Marahau.

Named after the Dutch navigator who first discovered New Zealand, the national park was opened 300 years after his 1642 arrival. Famous now for golden beaches, crystal clear water and coastal rainforest. Situated in the sunniest part of the country, enjoyed by Kiwis and overseas visitors alike for all round access to the great outdoors.

Easily accessible on a day trip from Nelson or Motueka, or walk the entire Abel Tasman Coastal Track in 3 - 5 days.

For more information including quick facts, location, how to get there, activities, access and weather see our Abel Tasman National Park Travel Guide here.

Split Apple Rock in Abel Tasman National Park

Arthur’s Pass National Park

Location: In the middle of the Southern Alps, between Christchurch and the West Coast. See Arthur’s Pass National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 1185 sq km / 457 sq miles.    Established: 1929
Places to visit: Arthur’s Pass village, Avalanche Peak, Arthur’s Pass walking track.
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hikes, mountaineering, visit on the TranzAlpine train, multisport training for the Coast to Coast.
Closest town/city: Arthur’s Pass village is right in the park itself, Greymouth on the West Coast is 95 km / 56 miles away, Christchurch on the East Coast is 150km / 93 miles away.

Probably New Zealand’s least developed national park, with day and overnight walking tracks which take you right into the heart of the Southern Alps with real ease. Popular day walks easily accessible from Arthur’s Pass village are Punchbowl Falls, the Bealey Valley and the new Arthur’s Pass walking track, which now all link together. For much a much more challenging peak try the 900m climb up Avalanche Peak or the 2 day Goat Pass. Arthur’s Pass is one of the most accessible places anywhere in New Zealand to see Mount Cook Buttercups in flower, the Temple Basin car park and new Arthur’s Pass walking track are ideal places.

The world famous TranzAlpine train passes through the park and each February it’s home to the Coast to Coast Adventure race.

See more about Arthur’s Pass National Park here, including itinerary tips, recommended activities, how to get there, weather and wildlife.

Walking track and snowy mountain in Arthur's Pass National Park

Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

Location: In the heart of the Southern Alps, at the end of SH 80. See Aoraki Mt Cook National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 722 sq km / 279 sq miles.    Established: 1953
Places to visit: The Hooker Valley, Tasman Glacier, National Park Visitor Centre.
Recommended activities: Walking, mountaineering, glacier hiking, kayaking or a boat trip on the Tasman Glacier, stargazing, scenic flights and glacier landings.
Closest town/city: Mt Cook village is right in the park itself, travelling north Christchurch is approximately 330 km away, travelling south Queenstown and Wanaka are about 4 hours drive.

New Zealand’s most “alpine” national park, with all our 3000 metre peaks except one and eight of the twelve largest glaciers. For such an alpine wonderland it is so accessible, with easy all year access by road right to Mt Cook village and walking tracks into the heart of the alpine environment make it easy for visitor for all abilities to get right into the heart of our Southern Alps.

There are many ways to enjoy the scenery, from short walks like Kea Point and the Hooker Valley, the short but steep Red Tarns walk and the more challenging Sealey Tarns and Mueller Hut routes. For mountaineers, the ultimate challenge of Aoraki “the cloud piercer” draws alpinists from all over the world. Walking and climbing aside, exploring the Tasman Glacier by scenic flight and glacier landing, glacier hiking and even kayaking or boating on the terminal lake make for an unforgettable experience. Once the sun goes down, the night sky of the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is worth staying up and going outside for.

See more information on Aoraki Mt Cook National Park here, including location map, details on activities, itinerary tips, how to get there and weather.

Walkers at the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

Egmont National Park

Location: On the western tip of the North Island. See Egmont National Parks on Google Maps.
Area: 342 sq km / 132 sq miles.    Established: 1900
Places to visit: Mt Taranaki and the surrounding forest.
Recommended activities: Walking, mountaineering, skiing.
Closest town / city: New Plymouth, 55 km to the North. Stratford is the main access town to the national park, just 20 km east.

One of our smaller national parks, this conservation area was established to protect the dormant volcano Mount Taranaki and surrounding native forest. If you like traditional style Kiwi “tramping” without the fancy trappings then you’ll love Egmont. There are over 300 kilometres (186 miles) of walking tracks and eight overnight huts in the park. Popular routes include 3 - 5 day “Around the Mountain” circuit but there are also lots of short walks easily accessible.

Situated on the West Coast of the North Island, you need to be especially careful of quickly changing weather in Egmont National Park. Check local weather conditions here and make sure you follow all these safety tips.

Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park - Rob Suisted

Fiordland National Park

Location: In the South Western corner of the South Island. See Fiordland National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 12,607 sq km / 4868 sq miles.    Established: 1952
Places to visit: Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, the Milford Track, Key Summit and the Routeburn Track.
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hiking, cruising, kayaking, scenic flights, mountaineering.
Closest town / city: Te Anau is the last town before entering the park, many people visit from Queenstown too.

New Zealand’s last true wilderness frontier, this vast area of glacial valleys, alpine peak, rivers, lakes and rainforest make up approximately 5% of the entire landmass of the entire country, Fiordland is our largest and most famous national park. There’s something here for everyone, from well known places like Milford Doubtful Sounds, short but challenging day walks like the Gertrude Saddle, overnight kayaking on Lake Manapouri to multi day discovery cruises into the lesser known fiords.

With over 500 km (300 miles) of walking tracks, Fiordland is known as the walking capital of the world and there is something for all levels and time frames. Popular day walks are available on the Milford Track (at both the Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound ends) and Routeburn Track (to Key Summit). Multi Day walks on Fiordland’s Great Walks (Milford, Routeburn and the Kepler Track) are on many people’s bucket list and there’s also the stunning and slightly flatter Hollyford Track. Real adventurers can get off the beaten track easily in Fiordland too with more challenging multi-day routes like the Hump Ridge and the Dusky Sound tracks.

Many visitors choose day trips to Milford Sound from either Te Anau or Queenstown and our recommended way to visit Milford is to combine your journey on the Milford Road and cruise on the Sound with a scenic flight back to Queenstown.

See our detailed guide to visiting Fiordland National Park here, including a location map, itinerary info, activity suggestions and weather.

Views of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park

Kahurangi National Park

Location: In the North West of the North Island. See Kahurangi National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 4529 sq km / 1749 sq miles.    Established: 1996
Places to visit: Heaphy Track, Oparara Arches,
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hiking, mountain biking, caving, kayaking and rafting.
Closest town / city: Karamea on the West, Motueka to the East and Murchison to the South.

Our second largest national park is home to the Heaphy Track Great Walk, which is currently the only Great Walk in the country open to mountain bikers during the winter season only, from 1 May to 30 November. So if you overnight mountain biking in remote wilderness is your thing then the Heaphy is for you.

The north western corner of the South Island has a predominance of karst, limestone based rock, which is softer than other rock types, which means Kahurangi, along with Paparoa and Abel Tasman National Parks, are dotted with cave systems both large and small. For day visitors wishing to experience the caves easily and without special equipment, the Oparara Arches, north of Karamea are highly recommended.

There is no shortage of walking tracks in Kahurangi, including the 3 - 4 day Heaphy Track. See a full list of Kahurangi National Park walking tracks, from single day to overnight walks, here on the DOC website.

Native forest and river in Kahurangi National Park - Julian Aspse

Mount Aspiring National Park

Location: In the Southern Alps, west of Lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu. See Mt Aspiring National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 3562 sq km / 1375 sq miles.    Established: 1964
Places to visit: The head of Lake Wakatipu, the Matuktuiki Valley, the Haast Pass.
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hiking, mountaineering, glacier landings, scenic flights, jet boating and rafting.
Closest town / city: Queenstown, Wanaka, Makarora, Haast.

Taking its name from the only 3000m peak in New Zealand outside of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, Mt Aspiring is popular with both mountaineers and walkers alike. With easy access from the popular visitor destinations of Queenstown and Wanaka, anyone from serious mountaineers to families looking for a short walk will find what they’re looking for in Mt Aspiring.

For visitors from Queenstown, a day trip to Glenorchy to discover the Dart and Routeburn Valleys, combined with either a day walk or a jet boat ride is a great way to get out in “Middle Earth” country really easily. From Wanaka it’s a day trip up the Matukituki Valley, where the real alpinists start their ascents, for a stunning day walk to the Rob Roy Glacier.  Further on past the head of Lake Wanaka, on the road through to Haast, are the Young and Wilkin Valleys, where canyoning, jet-boating and overnight excursions depart for the township of Makarora. Anyone travelling between the Southern Lakes and the West Coast will traverse the park and cross the Haast Pass on the World Heritage Highway, take plenty of time for this stunning journey and break it up along the way with short walks at spots like the Blue Pools and Thunder Creek.

See more information about Mt Aspiring National Park, including itinerary tips, activities, how to get there and weather.

Aerial views of Lake Wakatipu and Mt Aspiring National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park

Location: At the northern tip of the Southern Alps. See Nelson Lakes National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 1019 sq km / 394 sq miles.    Established: 1956
Places to visit: Lake Rotoiti, Lake Rotoroa, the Lake Angelus circuit.
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hikes, skiing, fly fishing.
Closest town / city: Picton, St Arnaud.

Past the northern extent of the Southern Alps glaciers, Nelson Lakes offers easy access into the mountains while only being just over an hour’s drive from the sunny coastline in Marlborough and Tasman.

The two main lakes of Rotoiti and Rotorua offer access through the valley floors into the higher country. A water taxi service on Lake Rotoiti from the town of St Arnaud offers a quick trip across the lakes to connect with walking tracks. Anglers from all over the world stay at Lake Rotoroa lodge with professional guides and all the equipment you need but most importantly, local knowledge of the more than 22 rivers in the area.

The Lake Angeles Circuit is a well known backcountry hiking route over 3 days, starting and finishing in St Arnaud, with the highlight being Lake Angelus high up on the ridgeline at 1650m (5400 feet). For those looking for shorter walks, right along the lakeside and through the surrounding beech forest from the St Arnaud visitor centre is the Bellbird Walk and Lakeside track.

Lake Rotoiti mountains and reflection, Nelson Lakes National Park

Paparoa National Park

Location: On the northern West Coast of the South Island. See Paparoa National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 430 sq km / 166 sq miles.    Established: 1987
Places to visit: Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, the Pororari River, the Nile River.
Recommended activities: Walking, caving, kayaking.
Closest town / city: Punakaiki is in park itself, Greymouth is 30 minutes to the South and Westport 30 minutes to the North.

What makes Paparoa unique to all the other national parks in the country is the proximity to the coast, limestone karst rock formations and subtropical vegetation. The stunning limestone cliffs and overhangs up easily accessible valleys like the Pororari and Nile Rivers can’t be seen anywhere else in the country.

With the predominant Karst rock in the area comes lots of caves, and there is one very special glowworm cave up the Nile River valley which everyone who visits rates as a highlight of their entire New Zealand journey. Access is by guided tour only, and you have the choice or walking or donning a wetsuit to float through a huge chamber of glowworms above you. You can also go much deeper into the cave on guided adventure caving trips in the area too, accessible from the town of Charleston.

Paparoa offers lots of short stunning walks on the coastal side of the park, like the Punakaiki & Pororari River valley loop or the short Truman Track. The country’s newest great walk, the 3 day Pike29 Memorial Track will cross the Paparoa Ranges and come out on the coastal side at Punakaiki, is due to open in 2019.

See our Paparoa National Park information guide here, including how to get there, itinerary tips, recommended activities and weather.

The blowholes at the Pancake Rocks, Paparoa National Park

Rakiura National Park

Location: Stewart Island. See Rakiura National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 1400 sq km / 540 sq miles.    Established: 2002
Places to visit: Ulva Island, Mason Bay, the Northwest Circuit
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hikes, bird watching, fishing.
Closest town / city: Oban on Stewart Island, accessible by ferry from Bluff or flight from Invercargill.

Our newest national park, Rakiura was gazetted in 2002 and covers approximately 85% of Stewart Island. Once you are arrive in the township of Oban the national park is all around you, tracks literally start right out your door and the water taxis from Golden Bay will ferry you around Patterson Inlet or across to Ulva Island in no time.

Ulva Island is a predator free reserve with well maintained flat tracks through the forest and on the coastline, making it one of the best places to see our native birdlife anywhere in the country. It’s a small island and a short trip on the water taxi so a half day here is plenty of time. Our national bird, the Kiwi, are abundant on Stewart Island and it’s not uncommon to hear of hikers having close up encounters, even in the day time. To see Kiwi on Stewart Island you have several options, the evening tour to Ocean Beach which departs from the township each day or flying out to the more remote Mason Bay on the West Coast of the island. This is where Kiwi are known to forage for food during the day. Wherever you are on Stewart Island birdlife is all around you, including in the township, so for bird watchers a visit to Rakiura is a must.

Other popular activities on Rakiura are overnight walks like the 3 day Rakiura Great Walk and fishing charters.

Bird watching on Ulva Island, Rakiura National Park - Miles Holden

Tongariro National Park

Location: Central North Island. See Tongariro National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 786 sq km / 303 sq miles.    Established: 1887
Places to visit: Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro, Whakapapa Village
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hiking, skiing.
Closest town / city: Ohakune in the South, National Park in the West, Turangi in the North.

Our oldest national park, gifted to the people of New Zealand by the local Te Heuheu people in 1887, Tongariro is one of only 38 World Heritage sites in the world with dual cultural and natural status. The natural status recognizes Tongariro’s unique volcanic environment and the cultural status acknowledges spiritual links between the local Maori people and the land. Tongariro was the first site in the world to be recognized with cultural World Heritage Status when this category was introduced by UNESCO in 1993.

Situated right in the middle of New Zealand’s more populous North Island, approximately halfway between the main cities of Auckland and Wellington, Tongariro is a popular place for outdoor pursuits for New Zealanders, many of us have memories of family for school visits to Tongariro.

The Tongariro Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular day walk, and the only one day walk given Great Walk status. It is a challenging day which requires an early start, but the 19 km (12 miles) traverse across the volcanic plateau is well worth it. Make sure you check the weather and someone knows when you are due back. For the full experience, there’s the 3-4 day Tongariro Northern Circuit but also many of shorter walks accessible at different areas of the park. Accommodation is available in Whakapapa Village which means the mountain views and short walks are right on your doorstep.

See more about visiting Tongariro National Park here, including a location map, how to get there, itinerary tips, recommended activities and weather.

The Silica Rapids in Tongariro National Park

Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Location: On the West Coast of the South Island. See Westland Tai Poutini National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 1320 sq km / 510 sq miles.    Established: 1960
Places to visit: Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, Okarito Lagoon, Lake Matheson.
Recommended activities: Day walks, glacier hiking and climbing, scenic flights, wildlife watching.
Closest town / city: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef townships on the West Coast.

To visit Westland Tai Poutini National Park you have to travel to the West Coast of the South Island, which is one recommended route to visitors travelling between Christchurch and the Southern Lakes.

Part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area, along with Aoraki Mt Cook, Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, the mountains, glaciers, lakes and rainforest in this area are classic New Zealand scenery.

The twin glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef are unique in that they make a rapid drop in altitude from the peaks of the Southern Alps to the valley floors the West Coast, making them among the most accessible glaciers anywhere in the world. Until 2014 it was possible to walk right up onto the glaciers but due to global warming and glacier melt this is no longer possible, but they are still very close and walkers of most abilities can get very close with minimum effort. There are also helicopter flights available for scenic and glacier hiking.

Other highly recommended spots to visit are Okarito Lagoon, a tidal lagoon on a classic windswept West Coast beach, home to the rare White Heron and Lake Matheson, for those famous Mt Cook reflection photos.

See more about visiting Westland Tai Poutini National Park here, including how to get there, itinerary tips, recommended activities and weather.

Walkers enjoying the views of Franz Josef Glacier in Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Whanganui National Park

Location: Central North Island. See Whanganui National Park on Google Maps.
Area: 742 sq km / 286 sq miles.    Established: 1986
Places to visit: The Whanganui River
Recommended activities: Walking, kayaking / canoeing, jet-boating, mountain biking.
Closest town / city: The central North Island towns of Whanganui and Taumarunui.

This national park is all about the Whanganui River, which made international headlines in 2017 when the government passed a law giving the river the same legal rights as a person. This is in acknowledgement of the river as an ancestor to the local Maori. Taking a guided tour on the river with a local Maori guide will bring this story to life even more.

The Whanganui River journey is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, although technically not just a walk, as many combine this journey with a canoe trip. Also now part of Te Araroa, the New Zealand Trail, and accessible by both walkers and mountain bikers. With options from single day to 14 days, a trip to the Whanganui River is both a scenic and cultural journey unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.

Canoing in the Whanganui National Park - Ocean Belcher

Te Urewera National Park (disestablished)

Location: Eastern North Island. See Te Urewera on Google Maps.
Area: 2127 sq km / 821 sq miles.    Established: 1954    Disestablished: 2014
Places to visit: Lake Waikaremoana
Recommended activities: Day walks, overnight hiking.
Closest town / city: The central North Island towns of Whanganui and Taumarunui.

From 1954 to 2014, Te Urewera was also gazetted as a national park but has since been disestablished. This changes nothing about the wonderful countryside and recreational possibilities there, but was to reflect the full recognition of the local iwi, Ngati Tuhoe, as co-owner of the area alongside the New Zealand Government. The area is still administered by the Department of Conservation and is open to the public.

The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk is within Te Urewera, a four day overnight tramp with both guided and unguided options. It’s also a great, but slow, drive on State Highway 38, a scenic option for travellers from the Rotorua Lakes area to Gisborne and the East Cape.

Lake Waikaremoana sunset, Te Urewera National Park - Chris McLennan

We hope you find this introduction to New Zealand's National Parks useful for your visit to New Zealand, we're MoaTrek and since the 1970s we've been showing overseas visitors all around New Zealand's National Parks and other wonderful places.

See more info here on our small group tours which visit all the places on your bucket list like Milford Sound, Queenstown, Abel Tasman, Tongariro and more.

Tanya - Office Team
10 Sep 2018
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