Whanganui National Park: The Complete Guide

bridge over a narrow canyon surrounded by forest and palm trees

Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

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Whanganui National Park

Whanganui 4696, New Zealand
Phone +64 800 926 426

One of just three national parks in New Zealand's North Island, Whanganui National Park sits between Tongariro National Park in the central North Island and Egmont National Park near the west coast of the North Island. The Whanganui River runs through the park on its way to the Tasman Sea, after it starts at Mount Tongariro. The Whanganui is New Zealand's third-longest river, and it's the longest navigable one. While the river itself isn't classified as part of the park, since 2017 it has had its own legal identity, similar to that of a person. This is because of the river's significance to the local Maori people, the Ngāti Hau iwi.

Whanganui National Park was established in 1986. Covering almost the entire park, the forest here is among the largest remaining tracts of lowland forest in the North Island. Highlights of visiting this park include hiking in the forested hills and valleys, and the river trip down the Whanganui River, which is one of the Department of Conservation's ten Great Walks despite not being a walk at all! Here's everything you need to know about visiting Whanganui National Park.

Things to Do

The Whanganui National Park is a thickly forested part of the country, and while there are hills and valleys, there aren't the same dramatic mountains that you find in many of New Zealand's national parks. Instead, the landscape revolves around the river and the surrounding forested landscape. There are short and long hikes to enjoy within the park, as well as journeys on the Whanganui River, and some mountain biking trails. Visitors should look out for a variety of birds, including the nocturnal kiwi bird if camping within the park. The area is home to several thousand North Island brown kiwi, the largest concentration on the island.

Best Hikes and Trails

  • Bridge to Nowhere Walk: After the Whanganui River, the Bridge to Nowhere is the most famous landmark in this national park. The concrete bridge was built in the 1930s when there were plans to develop the land in the area for veterans of World War I. The government decided to abandon roadbuilding plans in the 1940s, and the bridge was no longer required for regular use. The return walking track from the Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui River takes around 90 minutes. Unless you're undertaking the two-to-three day Mangapurua Track, you'll need to get a boat to the landing.
  • Te Maire Loop Track: This easy, two-hour return loop track is great for kids and travelers who can't walk a very long way. There's a stream crossing near the beginning of the track, which then passes through a podocarp forest of the type that once covered much of the North Island. Look out for native birds on this loop track, including tūī, kārearea, and korimako.
  • Atene Skyline Track: The six-to-eight-hour Atene Skyline Track can either be done as a longish day hike or as an overnight trip, as there's a simple campsite at roughly the mid-way point. The highest point of this track is the Taumata Trig, sitting at 1,876 feet. There are some steep uphills and downhills, and this is classified as an advanced tramping track.
  • Mangapurua/Kaiwhakauka Track: The Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka Tracks are two stages of the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail. It takes two to three days to hike or one day to cycle on a mountain bike. It's an advanced tramping track, and an advanced (grade 4) mountain biking track. Accommodation is at campsites. As well as the natural beauty, this track is historically interesting and you'll see the Bridge to Nowhere toward the end.
  • Matemateāonga Track: The thee-to-five-day Matemateāonga Track is the longest multi-day hike you can do in this national park. Only experienced hikers should tackle this one, as it passes through densely forested hill country. Accommodation is in tramping huts, so you don't need to carry your own tents. Entrance to the track is from near Strathmore, in Taranaki, but you must arrange a jet boat pickup at the end.
steep sided forested valley with green river in foreground

Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

Whanganui River Trips

The Whanganui Journey is classified as one of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks, even though it's a kayak or canoe river journey. That's because the Department of Conservation (DOC) administers it in the same way as the other Great Walks and the accommodation and infrastructure are on a par with the other on-foot walks.

Paddlers can take a longer or shorter version of the Whanganui Journey. The full journey takes five days to paddle 90 miles, and the partial journey three days to paddle 54 miles. Accommodation is in huts and campsites, which should be booked in advance. This river trip is an exceptional way to see landscapes that you wouldn't have access to any other way. You should be an experienced paddler in either a canoe or a kayak.

If you're not up for a multi-day paddle, take a jet boat ride on the river instead! These can be arranged from the surrounding access towns, especially Whanganui and Taumarunui.

Where to Camp

There's a combination of DOC-run campsites and tramping huts within Whanganui National Park. Because of the Whanganui Journey's status as a Great Walk, the campsites and huts are of good quality here, and most are serviced and should be booked in advance in the high season (with very few exceptions). All campsites are accessible by boat only, except for the Ohinepane Campsite at one of the road access points for the river journey. You must only stay at designated campsites or huts within the park.

Where to Stay Nearby

The Whanganui National Park is not in a very densely populated part of the country, so most of the access towns around its edge are quite small. The nearest cities to the park are Whanganui to the south and New Plymouth to the west. The smaller town of Taumarunui, in the King Country to the northeast, is also a handy base for some hiking trails.

How to Get There

Access roads lead into the park—either to trailheads or river put-in points—from all directions. As with most places in New Zealand, it's most convenient to have your own rental car to get to remote places. However, if you're planning on doing a hike in the park of the river trip, you'll still need to make alternative drop-off/pick-up arrangements. Various buses and shuttles can be arranged from Whanganui city (sometimes spelled Wanganui) or Taumarunui. To get to or from some trailheads in the park, you'll need to take a jet boat along the river. The villages of Pipiriki, Ohinepane, and Whakahoro are the main access points for the river journey.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Although this park isn't as mountainous as some other of New Zealand's national parks, it's important to be well equipped for all kinds of weather if you're hiking or paddling here. You'll need to carry in all of your food and cooking equipment, although running water is available in some overnight rest places.
  • While traveling along the river on the Whanganui Journey, there's no cell phone reception and only emergency communication at limited points along the way. Further, there are limited points to connect to a road. Either be very well prepared and experienced before setting off, or join a guided group tour (and, perhaps, both!)
  • Alcohol is prohibited on the Whanganui Journey, out of respect for the local Maori people's protocols. One less thing to try to fit into your canoe!
  • If you're not able to hike or paddle within the park, some high-end helicopter tour operators run charter tours.
  • Whether hiking or paddling in the park, be aware of rising river levels, especially when there has been a lot of rain. If in doubt, stay where you are for an extra night rather than risk dangerous water levels.
  • Wasps are a particular danger between January and May.
  • Everything you take into the park should be taken out again (yes, even toilet paper).
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Whanganui National Park: The Complete Guide