Home to great walks and short hikes, mighty rivers, native wildlife and soaring mountains, New Zealand’s national parks are treasured by locals and visitors alike. The 13 parks make up a large part of this small country - of the nation’s 268,000 square kilometres of land area, 11% is national parkland.
Five of the 13 even have World Heritage site status, including the North Island’s Tongariro National Park, renowned for an alpine crossing through scenery as diverse as meadows, hot springs, an emerald lake and geothermal craters. The other four - Westland, Aoraki/Mt Cook, Mt Aspiring and Fiordland - are in South West New Zealand’s Te Wahipounamu, highlighted by mature forest, ancient rocks, rare plants and animals, fiords and glaciers.
Each national park is administered by the government, preserved and maintained for the public to enjoy the beautiful scenery, unique ecosystems, scientifically important natural features and historic sites.
If spectacular and diverse landscapes are on your list for a New Zealand self-drive holiday, here’s some information on the national parks you can visit, from North to South.
Tongariro National Park
As well as the one-day alpine crossing and many other short walks, this park is known for its three volcanic peaks, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro. For the adventurous, there are two ski fields at Mt Ruapehu, and fishing and white water rafting are popular activities on the Tongariro River.
Egmont National Park
Mt Taranaki (Egmont) is the outstanding feature of this park, and the peak can be summited in summer by less experienced climbers and in winter by the more experienced. There are also several short and multi-day rainforest walks available.
Whanganui National Park
A journey along the 290 km Whanganui River is recommended at this park, whether a canoe safari or a jetboating experience. By journeying up the river, or by hiking, you can see the Bridge to Nowhere, constructed in the 1930s but only used for six years before it was abandoned and the forest grew back on either side. The riverside is also ideal for spotting native birds such as blue duck, robin and woodpigeon.
Kahurangi National Park
The second-largest national park, Kahurangi is home to the Heaphy Track, one of nine of New Zealand’s great walks. Geological formations feature along the walk, and Mt Owen in the Wangapeka Valley is a popular site for caving expeditions. Rare wildlife includes a cave spider, species of the native kiwi bird, the giant weta insect and giant land snails.
Nelson Lakes National Park
The glacial lakes that give this park its name are Rotoroa and Rotoiti, which are surrounded by beech forests where many walks await. There’s a ski field in the mountains above St Arnaud Village, where there is also accommodation, cafes and restaurant/bars.
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Arthur’s Pass sits amid the Southern Alps mountain range between the South Island’s West Coast and Christchurch, a city on the east coast. The area is perhaps most famous for the cheeky alpine parrot kea, which can be seen from the Otira lookout. The pass is also a stop on the TranzAlpine train trip, which runs between the West Coast’s Greymouth and Christchurch.
Abel Tasman National Park
This is the smallest of the 13 parks, but there is so much to do. Many visitors choose to explore the coast by kayak or boat, and further offshore there’s a marine reserve in the waters off Tonga Island. The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a chance to see the park’s golden beaches, and there are even a couple of trails open for mountain biking.
Paparoa National Park
The Paparoa National Park is famous for the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, named because the limestone formations are stacked and ridged. The rocks walk is one of many in the area, and other activities include glow worm caving and horse trekking.
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
This park has the most mountain peaks of any around the country but is accessible from Mt Cook Village, a base for the region’s alpine sports. There are 17 Department of Conservation Huts for mountain climbers and there are many mountain walks, too. The glacial lake of Pukaki is very scenic and there are many flights to see the nearby Tasman glacier from the air.
Westland/Tai Poutini National Park
The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are the attractions that draw most visitors here. They can be seen on a guided walk, but also from the air by small plane or helicopter. Lake Matheson is also a scenic highlight and well known as an opportunity to photograph stunning reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. The park also has a one day walk to relaxing hot pools at Welcome Flat.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Surrounding one of the tallest mountains in New Zealand, Mt Aspiring, this park is an ideal destination for hikers seeking long and short walks alike. A highlight is hiking at Haast Pass, where short rainforest walks talk you past stunning waterfalls. One of the most well-known walks is the three day Routeburn Track hike (which crosses into Fiordland National Park), while shorter walks from Wanaka take you to the glacier-fed Blue Pools or along the Rob Roy track. The Dart River region also offers jetboating and heliskiing.
Fiordland National Park
The largest of the 13 national parks, it’s an access point for three of New Zealand's great walks, including the Milford Track, Kepler Track, and Routeburn Track. Cruising the fiords of Milford Sound is an unforgettable experience, not just for views of Mitre Peak, rainforests and waterfalls, but also fur seals, penguins and dolphins. Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau are beautiful places to stay, and bases to visit the other local sound – Doubtful Sound – also home to fur seals and penguins. Read more here about Milford Sound.
Rakiura National Park
On Stewart Island off the coast of the South Island, Rakiura National Park houses nature reserves and state forests. This is another park known for opportunities to spot wildlife, including the native bird's weka, kaka and kiwi, along with yellow-eyed penguins and seals. It’s the newest national park, with status granted in 2002. Read more here about Stewart Island.