Ready for your next adventure? With jaw-dropping views and epic hiking trails, New Zealand’s many national parks are calling your name.
There are 13 national parks located all over the country. They cover more than 30,000 square kilometers (11,500 square miles) and feature some of the most diverse geological landscapes in the world.
Whether you enjoy challenging multi-day hiking trips through snow-capped mountains, a visit to some of the most scenic volcanoes in the world, or you want to let your kayak be carried by the river through lush green forests – there is something for everyone in New Zealand’s national parks.
You have the choice to explore these parks by foot, car, mountain bike, boat, and even by air. Each park is an amazing opportunity for the explorer inside you to discover some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and create lifelong memories.
These parks are also more than just a collection of stunning landscapes. When visiting, it’s important to stay mindful of the rich Maori history and culture behind these locations and preserve the environment by not leaving any traces.
Before you set off, we’ve compiled a helpful guide for each of the 13 famous national parks in New Zealand. If you are thinking of venturing into the country for your next holiday, this should help you decide which ones you’d like to explore first!
National Parks on the South Island
1. Mount Cook National Park
The first park on the list is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It’s located in the Mount Cook Range close to the northwestern coast of New Zealand.
No trip to the South Island of New Zealand is complete without a visit to Mount Cook National Park!
For those of you who love alpine scenery and rugged landscapes full of cliffs and glaciers, this is the perfect place to venture to while visiting the country. The park itself features 19 peaks over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), including the tallest mountain in the country – Mount Cook, or Aoraki, is its Maori name.
Some of the best things to do inside the park are going skydiving and taking a scenic flight through the mountains.
You also can’t miss trying one or more of the popular hikes in Mount Cook. Some of the best hikes here only take 1-3 hours, so you can easily do a couple in a day. If you can only pick one, make it the Hooker Valley Track. I’ve personally hiked this several times and I NEVER get sick of the views.
The Mueller Hut Route is easily one of the most popular hikes in Mount Cook, although, it is rated as difficult so keep that in mind. Make sure you’re okay with uphill, challenging hikes (it starts with 2,000 stairs!!) and have appropriate hiking boots, a rain jacket, and water. It also helps to ensure you have a reservation at the super popular Mueller Hut so you can spend the night to break up the hike.
There’s no need to rush out of this park either – plan to stay in Mount Cook for a few days. Spending a night or two here also means you can enjoy the stunning night sky views. There are no major cities around and no light pollution, meaning that you can get a crystal-clear view of the starry sky every night.
The Hermitage Hotel offers access to a planetarium as well as telescopes that allows you to see as far as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. Their premium rooms even include a telescope right in the room so you can stargaze before going to sleep.
Related read: Get ready to jazz up your Instagram feed with the best photo locations in Mount Cook National Park!
2. Mt Aspiring National Park
Next up on the list is Mount Aspiring National Park, named after the mountain with the same name which is another one of New Zealand’s highest peaks.
The park covers a huge portion of the Southern Alps and sits on the doorstep of Wanaka and Glenorchy.
This park is a collection of breathtaking landscapes of mountains, snowfields, and glaciers, as well as river valleys and lakes.
To get the full experience, we recommend taking one of the longer hikes. The popular day hikes on the Routeburn Track are among New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. The track is usually completed over 2 or 3 days. I’ve personally been lucky enough to hike the full trail over 3 days while camping along the way.
Another long hike if you’re up for an adventure is the Rees and Dart Track which can take up to 5 days to complete.
Of course, there are many short hikes you can take, like the Blue Pools Walk. This one is only 1.5 km (0.9 miles) and is easy enough for kids, making it the perfect family activity. You’ll get to stroll through an old beech forest, cross two swing bridges and see the unreal blue color of these pools. If you’re feeling brave, you can even swim in these chilly waters!
Each track here uncovers more of the magical areas in the park, especially habitats of unique wildlife. You might get to hike alongside kea, the mountain parrots that live in the area. Keep your backpacks and tents away from them though, as they can be quite mischievous. Seriously, they’ll break into your bag or even steal your keys!
The park is quite elevated so, for your safety, it’s best to venture on a hike during the warmer seasons between November and March. Be careful, however – the weather can be quite unpredictable, so make sure you come prepared for anything.
For those of you who are not so fond of hiking – we have great news! You can still enjoy all the alpine views by taking a jet boat ride down one of the park’s rivers. If you like a little bit of thrill, then this activity is definitely fit for you.
If you want to combine some of the best experiences the park has to offer, this combo tour includes jet boating, a self-guided hike, and a scenic flight! It’s a great way to see the park from all different perspectives, especially if you’re short on time. The entire experience is $475 NZD.
3. Fiordland National Park
If you want to see the stunning work of glaciers 100,000 years in the making, then Fiordland National Park is the place to be. The park is massive and full of tall mountain ranges, dense rainforests, alpine lakes, and of course, the fjords that gave this park its name and reputation.
It’s also home to the famed Milford Sound, which according to some, is the unofficial 8th Natural Wonder of the World. It’s truly that beautiful. More than half a million people visit here every year to explore the park and see Milford Sound – that makes it the most visited national park in New Zealand!
This park is also one of the wettest places in the country. It gets around 200 days of rain per year and annual rainfall is a shocking 7 meters (23 feet)! But don’t worry, I find this park is almost more beautiful in the rain. The rainfall here creates thousands of stunning waterfalls in the valleys along the steep cliffs – it’s magical!
This national park is most famous for its impressive hikes, which can take you all the way to the four fjords of the park: Piopiotahi (Milford Sound), Patea (Doubtful Sound), Tamatea (Dusky Sound) and Rakituma (Preservation Inlet). You can take three of the longest walks in New Zealand here, namely the Kepler, Milford, and Routeburn hikes, or you can take shorter day walks in the area.
Once you’re in Milford Sound, you can choose to simply jump on a cruise, go kayaking, walk one of the amazing hikes in Milford, or even enjoy a scenic flight. There’s certainly no shortage of amazing things to do in Milford Sound!
For wildlife spotting, from July-November, you’ll have the chance to see the adorable Fiordland Crested Penguins. You might also spot some bottlenose dolphins and fur seals around the fjords all year long.
4. Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Westland Tai Poutini National Park is another great place to venture to on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
The main draw here – spectacular glacier views. Visiting the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier are must-do experiences while you’re here. These two glaciers attract lots of tourists because of how easily accessible they are.
You can take on the free Franz Josef Glacier Walk. It’s a short, but beautiful walk to a good viewpoint of the glacier that’s the closest you can get without a tour. Or try this Franz Josef Glacier guided walk so you’ll have a guide who can tell you about the glacier and the Maori legends about it along the way.
Fox Glacier is located only 32 km (20 miles) from Franz Josef Glacier. It is a slightly more challenging hike but also well worth doing! On the Fox Glacier walk, you’ll walk through a valley before hiking up a small hill.
If you want to actually walk on the glacier, this Franz Josef heli-hike tour includes the flight there and a two-hour hike with a guide on top of the glacier. This tour also includes all the gear and equipment you will need such as a jacket, trousers, woolen hat, gloves, and leather boots with crampons.
Another beautiful way to explore the park is by kayak. You don’t need to bring your own, there are rentals in the park. Exploring the Ōkārito Lagoon Kayak Trail is a peaceful way to see some of the wildlife and birds that call this area home.
You can also go on one of the many mountain biking trails. Try out the Fox Glacier South Side Cycleway, Te Ara a Waiau Cycleway, or the Te Weheka Cycleway. The first two take only an hour, while the last one takes even less (approx. 40 minutes).
Related read: The road trip from Christchurch to Franz Josef is one of the most beautiful in NZ!
5. Abel Tasman National Park
It’s time to change the scenery a little, and replace the cold, snowy mountains with beach views and crystal-clear water. Abel Tasman National Park is perfect for that – it’s home to some of the best beaches in New Zealand!
It may be the smallest national park in New Zealand, but it is one of the most popular.
Make sure to walk the famous Abel Tasman Coast Track. This 53 km (32 mile) trail takes you through lush forests all the way to the golden beaches, surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise bays and vibrant sea life. There’s a stunning suspension bridge and a rock pool with a natural waterslide known as Cleopatra’s Pool. This walk can be done entirely on foot, at your own pace.
You can venture into the waters of Tasman Bay, using kayaks or waka (Maori canoe), or hop on a cruise ship or sailboat to admire the shores from afar.
If you’re hoping for an easy way to see the park in a day, there are plenty of tours to Abel Tasman from Nelson, Kaiteriteri, or Mārahau. Our top pick is this full-day tour where you’ll get a scenic cruise to the national park and the chance to snorkel or kayak. You’ll also get time to hike the coast track I mentioned above. You’ll leave from Kaiteriteri and pack all the highlights of the park in for $319 NZD.
To extend your time in the park, grab something to eat or stay a few nights here! I recommend stopping by Awaroa Lodge. They have a great cafe and restaurant or you can book a room to stay a while. You’ll be perfectly located to walk out the doors and start hiking … or just relax and soak up the views.
We’re telling you – this park truly feels like the perfect summer dream you won’t want to wake up from.
6. Arthur’s Pass National Park
Arthur’s Pass National Park is home to the highest pass over the Southern Alps.
Traveling over the pass and through this national park is one of the best road trips on the South Island. Highway 73, also known as the Great Alpine Highway/West Coast Road is a feat of engineering in itself! The highway is full of bridges and redirected waterfalls as it winds its way through the mountains from Christchurch all the way to the West Coast.
Arthur’s Pass National Park is considered one of the more challenging parks to explore in New Zealand. But there are still plenty of trails that are both kid and beginner-friendly.
One of the best is the 6.8-kilometer (4.2-mile) Arthur’s Pass Walking Track. It starts from Arthur’s Pass Village at the Devil’s Punchbowl Parking lot. The trail is not steep at all and has amazing views of waterfalls, streams, mountains, Arthur’s Pass Summit, and Bridal Veil Falls.
To see one of the most impressive waterfalls in New Zealand, head for the short and sweet walk along the Devil’s Punchbowl Walking Track. It’s about a 20-minute walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall and the 131-meter (430-foot) waterfall is super impressive – pictures don’t do it justice!
For experienced hikers, the famous Avalanche Peak Route is one of my favorite hikes, but it’s not an easy one! It takes 5-6 hours to walk the 6-kilometer (3.7 mile) trail because it is so steep. In fact, it’s more of a scramble than a hike and can be a dangerous trek if you’re not experienced or prepared. If you do tackle the hike though, you’ll be rewarded with incredible panoramic views of the Southern Alps!
No matter what trails you venture on, throughout the park you’ll get to admire gorgeous mountain vistas, stare down deep slopes and gorged rivers, and spot some of the fascinating wildlife around. The park is well-known for bird watching, as it is home to many native New Zealand birds such as the kea (mountain parrots), kiwi, and wrybills.
7. Paparoa National Park
If you want to explore a park that stretches from golden beaches and seascapes all the way to rugged, steep, icy mountains, then Paparoa National Park is it!
This park has everything you could ask for – lush rainforests, beautiful coastlines, and crystal-clear water bays, as well as cliffs, canyons, and impressive cave systems. It’s most famous for the unique limestone formations along the coast, reminiscent of pancake stacks.
This is one of the best stops if you’re attempting one of the top 10 road trips on the South Island! Definitely make sure to bring your camera along.
An activity unique to this park is the chance to venture into the many limestone caves around here. I recommend Punakaiki Cavern as it’s close to the main road and you don’t need a special permit – just a flashlight! You’ll make your way down a wooden staircase to explore all the passages in the cavern. This one is good for families – keep an eye out for stalactites and glow worms as you explore.
Pancake Rocks (pictured above) are one of the most popular attractions in this park. Walk along the boardwalk to different viewpoints of these layered rock cliffs. That’s right, these rocks look like stacks on pancakes, hence the name! It’s really neat and the trail is easy enough for the entire family.
There are many short walks in Paparoa National Park or you can attempt the two-day Inland Pack Track. It was built during the Gold Rush in 1867 and helps you access some of the best views in the park. There are no cabins or places to stay along the route, but there is a sheltered camping spot, so bring all your gear!
8. Rakiura National Park
Rakiura National Park is another great place to explore. It’s located on Stewart Island, a small island 30 km (18.5 miles) off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. You’ll need to take the ferry with Stewart Island Experience to get here.
This small predator-free island is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a wild kiwi! The number of kiwis on the island actually outnumbers humans here, so it’s your best chance to see one that isn’t behind a glass panel.
This park covers almost the entire island and is a collection of ecosystems and habitats that have been mostly left untouched. Walks through the park take you from the dense, lush rainforests all the way to tall granite mountains and sand dunes, allowing you to admire lots of unique views and impressive wildlife.
Another thing the park is famous for is the stunning night-sky views from here. You might even get a chance to witness the beautiful Southern Lights (also called Aurora Australis) and admire some of the most scenic sunsets in your life. Rakiura translates to “The Land of the Glowing Skies”, and earned that name for a reason!
If you’re looking for an easy tour to help you explore the park and surrounding area, this 2.5-hour Stewart Island Bay tour will visit Ulva Island, Paterson Inlet, and Prices Inlet aboard a modern catamaran. You’ll also get the chance to visit and walk around a native bird sanctuary as you learn about the area from a local. Tickets are only $99 NZD.
Another thing to do on Stewart Island that attracts a lot of visitors is the Rakiura Track. This 32-kilometer trail (20 miles) is usually completed over 2 to 3 days. As a Great Walk, you do need to book huts and campsites in advance so be sure to do so!
Related read: After (hopefully!) seeing tiny kiwis, take a trip to see the gentle giants – the humpback whales near Kaikoura.
9. Kahurangi National Park
Kahurangi National Park is yet another park that combines the peacefulness of golden sand beaches and palm trees with the ruggedness of mountains spread over the horizon. You might even recognize it from the big screen – it was a filming location for Lord of the Rings!
It is the second largest national park in New Zealand and a popular spot for hiking and mountain biking on one of the numerous trails available.
In this park, you can walk along the Heaphy Track, easily one of the best hikes in New Zealand. This track is roughly 78 km (48 miles) and takes you on a journey along the original path of the Maori pounamu tribe when they traveled from Golden Bay to the rivers of Westland. You’ll see lush forests, plateaus, river valleys, and the coastline. It’s very accessible so you don’t need to be an experienced hiker either.
The park is also amazing for anyone who has a passion for history and geology, as you can find many fossils around here and caves to explore. You can even pan for gold at two sites along the Aorere River here – with no permit needed. Let me know if you find anything!
In this park, you’ll be blown away by the stunning landscapes but also the diverse wildlife that is found here. For example, you could meet the Takahe flightless bird. This species was thought to be extinct, but a small group was rediscovered in the 1940s. They were reintroduced into the park in 2018, so if you’re really lucky, you might see one!
You can travel independently to the park, but you’ll need to book all accommodation yourself. Luckily, there are some tour providers in the area that can help you book a full trip with accommodation included.
10. Nelson Lakes National Park
The last park on the South Island (but definitely not the least impressive!) is Nelson Lakes National Park. It’s one of the top places to see near Nelson and totally worth a stop.
The name comes from the glacial lakes that are found in between large mountain peaks, offering unforgettable alpine landscapes straight out of a fairytale. The pictures you’ll get here on a clear, calm day are unreal.
The glacial lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti are definitely the stars of this park. On the lakes, you can rent kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. You could even venture into the waters for a swim during summer. I recommend basing yourself in the city of Rotorua for a few days to really make the most of your time here.
You can also take on one of the many trails available in the park. Most are very well maintained but are not super accessible to beginners as the alpine conditions can be harsh, and the trails are steep. If you want a more accessible route, you can try Mount Robert Circuit, which only takes roughly 5 hours to trek. The view of Lake Rotoiti from the top is breathtaking.
National Parks on the North Island
11. Tongariro National Park
Located on the North Island, Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park. Since 1887, people have been coming here to admire the rugged volcanic landscapes, waterfalls, and volcanic lake views that the park has to offer.
Lord of the Rings fans are also drawn to this area as some iconic scenes in the popular franchise were filmed right in the park.
The park offers something for everyone and is very popular with visitors of all ages. You can take short scenic walks to some stunning waterfalls like Taranaki Falls, Waitonga Falls, Silica Rapids, and Tawhai Falls. You can also stop in one of the three main villages in the park (Whakapapa, Raurimu, and Erua) if you need a place to stay or grab a bite.
For those who want to venture deep into the park and admire the volcanic scenery full of steam vents, lava flows, and even an active crater, hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a great option. This hike on the North Island is roughly 19 km (12 miles) and takes 6-9 hours to complete. It’s absolutely stunning and considered among the top 10 day hikes in the entire world!
For a guided tour option, the Premium Tongariro Alpine Crossing Trek, allows you to embark on this hike in a safe and enjoyable way. With a qualified guide, all mountain equipment (like crampons and ice picks in the winter), footwear, the option of lunch, and some transportation included, this tour is a steal at $292 NZD.
If you want to hike the trail on your own, booking a shuttle is a good idea. That way you aren’t separated from your car if you left it at the beginning of the trail! You can take a one-way shuttle from Ketetahi where you’ll park your car at the end of the trail and they will shuttle you to the start of the trail for $45 NZD. Or book a shuttle from Taupo where you’ll be dropped off at the start and picked up at the end of the trail for $120 NZD.
Related read: While on the North Island, Lord of the Rings fans need to pay a visit to Hobbiton. It transports you into the Shire, where you can see Hobbit Holes and the famous Green Dragon Inn!
12. Whanganui National Park
If you fancy a unique adventure in a land of lush greenery, Whanganui National Park is perfect for you. This park, near the city of Whanganui, is home to the Whanganui River, an important landmark for Maori culture but also a great scenic attraction.
While many parks in New Zealand offer amazing, multi-day hikes, Whanganui Park has something a little different. The Whanganui Journey is a trail done by canoe or kayak! The 3-5 day paddling journey takes you down the Whanganui River through the hills, valleys, and lush green lowland forests of the park.
This paddling trip also leads to one of the best backcountry huts in New Zealand. Make sure you book the John Coull Hut in advance so you can enjoy this isolated and peaceful spot.
If staying on land is more your style, you can also explore the park on foot or by bike. The Mangapurua/Kaiwhakauka Track is very popular for hiking and biking. The entire trail takes about 2-3 days to complete.
Along the way, you will admire steep hills, valleys, and ravines, and of course the iconic Bridge to Nowhere. This concrete bridge looks completely out of place in the middle of a forest. It was built as part of a farming community by returning soldiers from World War I. However, the bridge was only used for six years before the farmers left the area due to poor soil conditions and the forest reclaimed everything except for this bridge.
Related read: Whanganui National Park and the city of Whanganui are among the top day trips from Wellington. You can also catch the ferry to the South Island from Wellington to do a little island-hopping.
13. Egmont National Park
Egmont National Park is home to Mount Taranaki – a huge, free-standing volcano that is seriously impressive. This park has some of the top hikes on the North Island and is an easy spot to stay if you’re taking in some of the activities in New Plymouth.
This is considered a “dormant” volcano, with the last major eruption in 1854. Seeing Mount Taranaki is definitely one of those bucket list New Zealand activities!
In my opinion, the best view of Mount Taranaki is that reflection photo (see above!) where the volcano appears in the calm waters of an alpine lake. Where is this? Well, I’m glad you asked! You’ll need to complete the hike to Pouakai Hut and then just past the hut is Pouakai Tarns (a tarn is a small mountain lake). Come on a clear night around sunset for a photo worthy of a travel magazine or at least Instagram!
Thanks to all those amazing pictures on social media, this hike is getting more popular. Make sure you book the Pouakai Hut in advance. The hut is part of the 3-day Pouakai Circuit that loops around Mount Taranaki. However, if you’re short on time, you can hike for two hours to the hut from the parking lot on Mangorei Road.
Keen trekkers who want to climb Mount Taranaki can take the Mount Taranaki Summit Track. It’s best to attempt this challenging climb between January to April to avoid harsh winter conditions. The climb itself is about 1.6 km (1 mile) and it’s completely vertical of course!
During the winter months in New Zealand, you can also ski at the small Manganui Ski Area. The season here is typically early June to mid-October. Make sure you bring your own gear or rent in New Plymouth or Stratford. Day passes are around $50 NZD.
Related read: While on the North Island, take a road trip to the epic Waitomo Caves – it’s one of the best places to see glow worms in New Zealand!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
What a list! I hope this guide to New Zealand’s national parks has you itching to explore these stunning areas of the country. Each park is uniquely beautiful, so I totally recommend picking a couple to explore in-depth or visiting them all if you can!
If you need more ideas to fill out your New Zealand itinerary, make sure to browse around my other blogs. Or leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to help answer any questions you might have.
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