Getting lost in wild and rugged nature is what a trip to Hokkaido is all about, whether you want to visit a national park within a couple of hours of Sapporo or go to the very northernmost tip of the Japan. Each of Hokkaido’s national parks offers something different, from steaming onsen, to volcanic mountains and caldera lakes, to native flora and fauna that can only be seen on the island. Outdoor enthusiasts are in for a treat—the only difficulty is choosing which of these amazing national parks to visit.
Found on the easternmost tip of Hokkaido, this UNESCO World Heritage Site provides ample rugged coastline to explore and mountains and hills to hike. Dolphin and whale watching is a staple activity here, and during the summer, you may be able to observe brown bears and their cubs. Make sure to visit Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes), which are nestled in an ancient forest at the base of Mount Rausu. Shiretoko has five visitor centers throughout the park, where you can pick up trail and area maps, gather information about the resident flora and fauna, and get more general tips. The best time to visit is between April and November, unless you want to see the drift ice phenomenon, in which case winter is more suitable. It takes around seven hours to get to the park from Sapporo; an ideal base for visiting the park is the town of Utoro.
Named after the park's two famous lakes, Toya and Shikotsu, the dramatic volcanic mountain landscape at this steaming national park in Hokkaido draws thousands of visitors every year. Hiking and relaxing in the hot springs are the main activities here, and throughout the park, you’ll find popular onsen towns like Noboribetsu and Jozankei, in addition to caldera lakes and waterfalls. As it can be reached in under two hours from both Sapporo and New Chitose Airport, this is often at the top of travelers' itineraries. The park has three visitor centers available, one within a few minutes’ walk of the bus station. Popular at any time of year, visiting during the winter rewards you with icy views from the onsen and snowy walks through the woods, while the summer promises luscious green mountain hikes.
Lake Mashu is one of the big draws to this national park as its waters are said to be some of the clearest in the world. Visitors can’t go down to Lake Mashu, but observation decks are available as well as a hiking trail that takes you around it. Two other lakes, Akan and Kussharo, are also key features of the park, and are ideal for people who enjoy water-based activities like canoeing. Similar to Shikotsu-Toya, the hot springs are a wonderful place to relax after a day of walking, with the most popular spots being Akankohan and Kawayu Onsen. The spring season is when the park is at its most picturesque, when the flowers are beginning to bloom and the melting ice is still present on the lakes. Due to the remote location, it’s best to drive here.
At over 28,000 hectares, this national park is the largest-spanning area of wetlands in Japan, and the wildlife and plant species available to observe here make it an incredibly special destination. In particular, the park is known for the ezo red fox and, as it's home to both the Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve and International Crane Center, the protected species of tanchō-zuru (red-crowned white crane). A symbol of Japan, the long-legged birds can most easily be spotted in the wintertime when they gather in the west for feeding. If you’re especially interested in the many species of flowers that burst into bloom, then the best time to visit is June or July. Make sure to catch amazing views of the park from the Hosooka Observatory. While a day is enough to explore the park, a rental car is advised to get there, though limited buses do exist from major cities.
Located on the northern-west tip of Hokkaido, the main features here are the two islands of Rishiri and Rebun, where you’ll find amazing hikes, coastal landscapes, and small fishing villages to visit. Mount Rishiri, a dormant volcano, is at the center of Rishiri Island and offers experienced hikers more challenging walks, whereas Rebun is flatter and most famous for its alpine flowers. The area is also an important waypoint for migratory birds in the spring, making this an ideal time to visit if you’d like to see multiple species. You can visit Sarobetsu Wetland Center or Horonobe Visitor Center for trail maps and detailed information about the park. For access to Rishiri island, you’ll need to depart from Oshidomari Port, and for Rebun Island you’ll need Kafuka Port.
One of the most popular national parks in the very heart of the island, Daisetsuzan is Hokkaido’s largest national park and a pristine paradise of fields, forests, ponds, and mountains that can be comfortably explored for days. It’s been nicknamed "the roof of Hokkaido" as it has an average elevation of 6,562 feet, with Mount Kurodake being the one most visitors want to tackle. It's popular in the spring months for the alpine flowers—best viewed from the Kurodake Ropeway—and in the fall for the fiery colors that transform the landscape. Asahidake Onsen is considered the best base for exploring the park, but there are numerous other hot spring resorts to choose from. Asahikawa Station is a 90-minute train ride from Sapporo Station; from there, it’s best to hire a car to explore the park, though limited buses are available.
While technically a quasi-national park, this is one of Hokkaido’s largest untouched areas, and an interesting and wild place to visit for avid hikers who want an adventure. Found in southeast Hokkaido, the park is particularly famous for the Hidaka Mountains (also known as the backbone of Hokkaido) and Mount Apoi, a peridotite mountain covered in flowers. Visitors can also hike the coastal cliff path extending from Hiroo Town to Cape Erimo. A rental car is essential for reaching and accessing the park.