Much of New Zealand is naturally beautiful, but for true wilderness and landscapes that have been untouched (or barely touched) by humanity, head to a national park.
There are 13 national parks in New Zealand, three in the North Island and 10 in the South. Some are easily accessible from population centers, while others take a bit more effort to get to. All offer rewarding sights and experiences that reflect the diversity of New Zealand—beaches, mountains, volcanoes, lakes, glaciers, forests, fiords, birdlife … and the icing on the cake? There are no entry fees to New Zealand’s national parks.
Tongariro National Park
In central North Island, the Tongariro National Park is easily accessible from both Auckland and Wellington, being roughly equidistant between the two cities. Established in 1887, it’s New Zealand’s oldest national park, and the fourth-oldest in the world. It’s also a dual UNESCO World Heritage area, listed for both its cultural and natural importance. It contains three active volcanic peaks—Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu—and Ruapehu’s eight glaciers are the only glaciers in the North Island.
The Tongariro National Park offers skiing in the winter, and hiking in the summer. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often said to be one of the best day hikes in the world, as it includes a rich variety of terrains, from barren moonscapes to dazzling sulfur lakes to dense native forest.
Egmont National Park
Egmont is what distinctive Mount Taranaki used to be called, and the national park retains that old name. As well as the beautiful volcano (which has played the role of Japan’s Mount Fuji in some movies), the Egmont National Park contains waterfalls, forests, swamps, and rock pools. There are many hiking trails through the park, including the three-day Pouakai Circuit. A major drawcard, though, is summiting Mount Taranaki. It’s New Zealand’s most accessible mountain to climb, and although it’s a good idea to be fit and well-prepared, climbers don’t need any technical skills. And don’t worry about the volcano erupting—it’s considered dormant, as the last time it erupted was in 1775.
Egmont National Park is located in the west of the North Island, closest to the towns of New Plymouth (to the north) and Hawera (to the south).
New Zealand’s smallest national park, the Abel Tasman area is historically significant as it was just west of the park—in Golden Bay—that Europeans first landed in New Zealand, back in 1642. It’s one of New Zealand’s most easily accessible parks as it’s less than two hours’ drive from the small city of Nelson, at the top of the South Island. That means it’s also one of the most popular, with around 300,000 annual visitors. With pristine white-sand beaches, awesome sea kayaking opportunities, and the five-day Coast Track hike, it’s easy to see why.
Abel Tasman is also conveniently near two other beautiful national parks, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes, which can also be visited when staying in Nelson.
Fiordland National Park
The Fiordland National Park contains some of New Zealand’s most iconic views, most notably Milford Sound, a perennial hotspot for scenic cruises. It also encompasses some expanses of wilderness that few tourists venture to. Fiordland is New Zealand’s largest national park, and is comprised of 14 fjords (valleys carved by glaciers). This is a very wet park of the country, so expect to see some spectacular waterfalls. It’s also a haven for all kinds of wildlife and bird life, including fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and penguins.
The Fiordland National Park is in the remote south-west of the South Island, most easily accessible from Queenstown in Central Otago, and Invercargill in Southland.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand (12,220 feet), and the national park it sits within is an adventure playground for mountaineers, especially as it contains 23 peaks above 9,800 feet! But, another impressive feature is that the park contains New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve. There is practically no light pollution here, making it one of the best places in the world to stargaze.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is in the far west of Canterbury province, in the central South Island. It’s reasonably accessible, though a longish drive, from both Christchurch and Timaru, on the east coast. The park also borders the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, to its west.
Rakiura National Park
Few international visitors make it to the Rakiura National Park, in the far south of the country, but if you like solitude that’s all the more reason to go. Subantarctic Stewart Island lies 18 miles off the South Island, and around 85 percent of the island is national park. The beaches are as good as any further north (though the sea is a lot colder) and there’s an abundance of birdlife, including penguins and the elusive kiwi, making this an ideal destination for keen bird watchers.
The Rakiura National Park is accessible from Bluff, the southernmost point on the South Island. A passenger ferry connects to Oban, but you can’t take a car.