The Best Thing to Do in Every New Zealand National Park

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    New Zealand's National Parks

    One Climber Belays Another To The Corniced Summit Of Aoraki
    ••• Jake Norton / Aurora Photos

    New Zealand is famed for its commitment to nature and for working hard to maintain its natural beauty. The country has a total of 13 national parks, each with its own unique natural attractions to explore and enjoy, from some of the planet's most impressive glaciers, to rare bird and marine life. Narrowing down each to a single reason to visit is difficult as they each have so much to offer, but here's a look at some of the most popular attractions in each of New Zealand's national parks — a highlight of any visit to the country itself.

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    Tongariro National Park

    Landscape with volcano at night, New Zealand
    ••• Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

    Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park and is recognized as one of 27 World Heritage Sites. The park includes several sacred Maori sites and three active volcanoes. It is home to the world famous Ruapehu ski fields and a popular destination for locals and international visitors alike.

    Heralded as the best one-day trek available in New Zealand, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is possibly the most well-known attraction in this national park. It has been listed among the top ten single-day treks in the world and would be reason enough to head to Tongariro. The 12-mile journey isn’t for the faint-hearted and it features steep climbs and unpredictable weather, however it is worth it for the scenery and experience in this beautiful part of the world. 

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    Egmont National Park

    Mount Taranaki a dormant volcano in New Zealand
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    Located on the west coast of the North Island, Egmont National Park was named by Captain Cook after John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont. The central feature of Egmont National Park is Mount Egmont. Its official Maori name is Taranaki, which means that the mountain has two names and are often used interchangeably.

    Mount Taranaki is one of New Zealand’s many dormant volcanoes and the track to the summit is a popular hike for visitors. The summit climb is considered moderately difficult and a good test for hikers. It involves sections that require some climbing on all fours and a decent level of fitness, however once at the top, the views extend for many miles in every direction — out to the Tasman Sea to the west and Ruapehu to the east. 

     

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    Whanganui National Park

    The Bridge to Nowhere
    ••• Andrew Bain/Getty Images

    Bordering the Whanganui River, Whanganui National Park is the protected habitat of many endangered native birds including several thousand North Island brown kiwi and blue ducks. There are many other bird species in the park, such as the grey warbler, New Zealand pigeon, silvereye, tomtit, tui and whitehead.

    The park is also home to Operiki Pa — a set of ancient Maori ruins. This archaeological site is of huge historical significance for Maori and all New Zealanders, and have been a key piece of the puzzle when tracing the history of pre-colonial populations. It is a fascinating site for people interested in history, has well-preserved examples of earthwork defenses and is positioned on the brow of a cliff with picturesque scenery all around. 

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    Abel Tasman National Park

    Bark Bay.
    ••• David Wall Photo/Getty Images

    Despite being the smallest national park, Abel Tasman is a popular tourist destination with tidal inlets and golden sand beaches along the Tasman Bay shores. Activities include tramping along its world-famous coastal track, which features granite cliffs and gorgeous scenery. Located at the top of the South Island, its small size belies the wealth of experiences available to intrepid travelers.

    Tonga Island Marine reserve is one of the key attractions of the region, with over seven square miles dedicated to the preservation of unique and rare marine life. The reserve includes sandy beaches, boulder headlands, rocky reefs and small estuaries, as well as pods of dolphins, rafts of penguins and herds of seals. Kayaking tours are available for exploring the bays of Tonga Island and snorkeling is the ideal way to see all the life amongst the rock reefs.

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    Kahurangi National Park

    Oparara limestone arch
    ••• Grant Dixon/Getty Images

    Situated in the north-west of the South Island, right next to the Abel Tasman National Park, Kahurangi contains spectacular remote and wild countryside. New Zealand’s second largest national park, it features ancient landforms and unique flora and fauna, making it a key destination for visitors who want to see New Zealand’s raw beauty at its best.

    The Heaphy Track is a 50-mile, four-day tramp that attracts visitors from all over the world every year. There are huts along the length of the track and many people choose to walk sections of it rather than its entire length. The walk is long but not difficult for moderately fit hikers, with the pristine mountain scenery and the roaring Tasman Sea providing remarkable vistas at every turn. 

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    Nelson Lakes National Park

    Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand
    ••• Marco Simoni/Getty Images

    Nelson Lakes National Park, located at the top of the South Island, is home to two large lakes — Rotoiti and Rotoroa. These are surrounded by the rugged mountain landscape of the Nelson region, making it a unique contrast of forested shores, glaciers and snowy peaks high above.

    Rainbow Ski Area is situated above the town of St. Arnaud on the northern shore of Lake Rotoiti and offers every type of terrain for skiers and snowboarders. It's suitable for skiers of every level, from children to the experienced, and offers fresh powdery snow and beautiful alpine scenery in every direction.

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    Paparoa National Park

    Sunset at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand.
    ••• Rolf Hicker/Getty Images

    On the West Coast of the South Island between Westport and Greymouth, Paparoa National Park is 120 square miles of lush native forests, delicate cave formations and limestone canyons. It is one of the country’s most ecologically diverse parks, with a range of local flora and fauna including kiwis and other native birds, as well as pods of Hector’s dolphins off the west coast.

    The park includes the celebrated Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki — a very popular tourist destination. The Pancake Rocks area consists of heavily eroded limestone, with the sea bursting through the blowholes during high tides. The 'pancake'-layering of the limestone was created by immense pressure on the alternating layers of marine creatures and plant sediments. This is one of the South Island’s must-see attractions and a fascinating sight for geology enthusiasts. 

     

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    Arthur's Pass National Park

    Devil's Punchbowl falls in distance behind lower rocky section of river between forest trees.
    ••• Givenworks/Getty Images

    Arthur’s Pass National Park is a rugged and mountainous area that straddles the main divide of the Southern Alps. Named after the route through the alps, which in turn was named after Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson — one of the first English settlers in New Zealand and the chief surveyor responsible for finding a way through the Southern Alps.

    Located in the heart of Arthur's Pass National Park, Devils Punchbowl Falls are some the most impressive in New Zealand and on the list of must-see waterfalls. Spectacular at a distance, it’s better still at their base where you can experience the sheer power. There is a 150 climb to and from the base of the falls, with viewing platforms and photo opportunities at several points along the way.

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    Westland Tai Poutini National Park

    Lake Matheson and Alps
    ••• Don Smith/Getty Images

    Another of the great alpine parks of the South Island, Westland Tai Poutini National Park extends from the highest peaks of the Southern Alps to the wild remote west coast. It features scenic lakes and dense rainforest, as well as remains of 1860’s gold mining towns.

    Two of the biggest attractions in the park are the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Each features dramatic scenery including ice caves, crevices and formations, with heli-hike tours the most popular way to explore and experience these world-famous natural phenomena. Guided tours will allow you to see inside the caves and get as close as possible safely and are available throughout the year.

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    Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

    New Zealand, South Island, Exterior
    ••• Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

    A national park with an alpine flavor, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park contains New Zealand's highest mountain of the same name, as well as the country's longest glacier — Tasman Glacier (18 miles). It is a hotspot for mountaineering, ski tourism and scenic flights, and the park is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a must-see for anyone who loves exploration.

    A tribute to one of the world’s greatest explorers, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre showcases the Aoraki Mount Cook region. It features interactive exhibits about the people in the region and its place in the universe. It includes a 3D theatre and planetarium, making it a great place to explore New Zealand’s mountaineering past, present and future.

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    Mount Aspiring National Park

    High angle view of the Blue Pools
    ••• Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images

    Mount Aspiring National Park is packed with glaciated mountain vistas centred on Mount Aspiring/Tititea, which, at 3,033ft, it is New Zealand's second highest peak. UNESCO World Heritage-listed, Mt Aspiring National Park contains unique vegetation and wildlife, combining forest and foliage with alpine grandeur at every turn.

    The park is also home to Dart River, the centerpiece of the Dart River Wilderness Safari. The highlights of this once in a lifetime six-hour tour include a jet boat ride, a guided nature walk and a back-country off-road tour. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, you’ll make your way down the glacier-fed river and end your adventure with a walk through an ancient forest, learning about the history of the original Maori inhabitants and the surrounding wildlife.

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    Fiordland National Park

    Scenic View Of Lake Marian And Mountains Against Sky
    ••• Sebastian Warneke / EyeEm/Getty Images

    New Zealand’s largest national park and one of the biggest in the world, Fiordland National Park covers the entire southwest corner of the South Island. It is renowned for the grandeur of its scenery, with deep fiords, glacial lakes, mountains and waterfalls. It is a popular tourist destination for both New Zealanders and international visitors alike.

    The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Milford Sound. Known for towering Mitre Peak, rainforests and waterfalls, the sound is home to a myriad of fauna including fur seal colonies, penguins and dolphins. There are many ways to explore Milford Sound, with the most popular being by boat or by helicopter. The area is criss-crossed with many walking and hiking tracks of differing difficulty and considered one of the highlights of any visit to New Zealand.

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    Rakiura National Park

    Little Mount Anglem on North West Circuit track.
    ••• Feargus Cooney/Getty Images

    New Zealand is often erroneously considered to be two islands — the North and the South — when in fact it includes a third. Stewart Island is situated below the South Island and separated by the Foveaux Strait. Rakiura National Park covers approximately 85% of the island and is the newest of New Zealand’s parks.

    Rakiura National Park’s isolation makes it a predator-free haven for many of New Zealand’s native birds and one of the best places to observe kiwis in the wild. Guided trips to Mason Bay provide visitors with the chance to watch kiwis eating sandhoppers at the beach and experience something that very few people ever will.