New Zealand offers boundless opportunities to scramble up scree, spot wildlife in the wild, and lose yourself in some outdoors that truly deserves the epithet “great”.

Whether it's the rainforest-shaded shores of Lake Waikaremoana, the recently opened Paparoa Track, or the cloud-nudging uplands of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, hikers (and everyone else) will always find their happy place. Here's New Zealand's best national parks. 

Snow-capped mountains, as seen from the trail to Avalanche Peak in Arthur's Pass National Park
Arthur's Pass National Park became the South Island's first national park in 1929 © Kevin Wells Photography / Shutterstock

Arthur’s Pass National Park 

Straddling the Southern Alps, known to Māori as Ka Tiritiri o Te Moana (Steep Peak of Glistening White), this vast alpine wilderness became the South Island's first national park in 1929. Of its 448 sq mi (1144 sq km), two-thirds lies on the Canterbury side of the main divide; the rest is in Westland. It is a rugged, mountainous area, cut by deep valleys, and ranging in altitude from 804ft (245m) at the Taramakau River to 7900 (2408m) at Mt Murchison.

There are plenty of well-marked day hikes throughout the park, especially around Arthur's Pass village. Pick up a copy of DOC's Discover Arthur's Pass booklet to read about popular hikes, including the Arthur's Pass Walkway, a reasonably easy trail from the village to the Dobson Memorial at the summit of the pass (2½ hours return); the one-hour return walk to Devils Punchbowl falls; and the steep walk to beautiful views at Temple Basin (three hours return).

More challenging, full-day options include the Bealey Spur track and the classic summit hike to Avalanche Peak.

Tongariro National Park 

This park, located in Taupo & the Ruapehu Region on the Northern Island, presents an awe-inspiring landscape of alpine desert punctuated by three smoldering volcanoes – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. 

Often rated as one of the world's best single-day wilderness walks, the challenging Tongariro Alpine Crossing skirts the base of two of the mountains and provides views of craters, brightly colored lakes and the vast Central Plateau. 

As the crossing's popularity has skyrocketed, DOC has limited visitor numbers per day, so book early. There are numerous other options to explore this alien landscape.

Tongariro was gifted to the country by local Tūwharetoa Māori more than a century ago. Long before it was granted dual Unesco World Heritage status for its volcanic landscape and deep cultural importance in 1993, the Māori believed that the mountains were strong warriors who fought each other. 

In the process, this landscape that attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year was created. Visit once and you’ll understand why it was worth fighting for.

Bright blue water in a lagoon at Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand
Abel Tasman National Park leads to some of the country's finest golden-sand beaches © Daniel Harwardt / Shutterstock

Abel Tasman National Park

Coastal Abel Tasman National Park blankets the northern end of a range of marble and limestone hills that extends from Kahurangi National Park. There are various trails at this Nelson Region park, although the Coast Track is what everyone is here for – it's New Zealand's most popular Great Walk.

The main reason for the trail's popularity is that it traverses some of New Zealand's (and arguably the world's) finest golden-sand beaches. Only a few can be reached by road, but non–Great Walkers can access others by kayak, water taxi or one of the scheduled boat transfers.

Panoramic beautiful scenery of Whanganui river road
The Whanganui River was officially recognized as a human being in 2017 © PK289 / Shutterstock

Whanganui National Park

The Whanganui River may not pay taxes or vote, but it has the same legal rights as a human being! In 2017, it became the first river to be legally recognized as a person, following a 140-year debate on the issue. The new legislation recognizes the spiritual connection between Māori iwi and the river, considered an ancestor.

Curling 180mi (290km) from Mt Tongariro to the Tasman Sea, it’s the longest navigable river in New Zealand, and visitors traverse one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” by canoe, kayak, jetboat, and bike.

The native bush here is thick, broad-leaved podocarp forest interspersed with ferns. Occasionally you’ll see poplars and other introduced trees along the river, remnants of long-vanished settlements. 

There are also traces of Māori settlements, with old pā (fortified village) and kainga (village) sites, and Hauhau niu (war and peace) poles at the convergence of the Whanganui and Ohura Rivers at Maraekowhai.

Fox Glacier in New Zealand
Fox Glacier, along with Franz Josef Glacier are the top attractions at Westland Tai Poutini National Park ©Kevin Wells Nature Photography/Getty Images

Westland Tai Poutini National Park 

With colossal mountains, forests and glaciers, Westland Tai Poutini National Park clobbers visitors with its mind-bending proportions. Reaching from the West Coast to the razor peaks of the Southern Alps, the park's supreme attractions are twin glaciers Franz Josef and Fox, served by townships 14mi (23km) apart. Out of more than 60 glaciers in the park, only these two are easily accessible.

The glaciers are the most majestic handiwork of the West Coast's ample precipitation. Snowfall in the glaciers’ broad accumulation zones fuses into clear ice at 66ft (20m) depth, and then creeps down the steep valleys. Nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers descend so close to the ocean.

But the glaciers are as fragile as they are amazing to behold. Rising temperatures have beaten the glaciers into retreat, reducing opportunities to view them on foot and clanging a death knell for their long-term future if climate change continues unchecked.

Overview of Milford Mariner cruising Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most stunning attractions at Fiordland National Park © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Fiordland National Park 

Brace yourself for sublime scenery on a breathtaking scale. Fiordland National Park's mountains, forests and mirror-smooth waters hold visitors in thrall.

Part of the Te Wāhipounamu (Southwest New Zealand) World Heritage Area, this formidable tract spanning 10039 sq mi (26,000 sq km) has deeply recessed sounds (technically fjords) that spider inland from the Tasman Sea.

Framed by mile-high cliffs, Milford Sound was carved by epic battles between rock and ice over millennia. Leading here is the Milford Hwy, which reveals a magnificent alpine view at every bend. Shying away from attention is Doubtful Sound, the pristine Māori-named “place of silence” (which leaves many admiring visitors speechless, too).

Cruises enter the watery wilderness but walkers can delve deep into Fiordland either on the multi-day Milford, Kepler and Hollyford Tracks or shorter walks, easily reached from the highway.

Before embarking on a multiday hike, register your intentions with a friend – see AdventureSmart for details.

Hiker looks at Mt Cook from a crystal clear lake with an iceberg in New Zealand
You can't have a best New Zealand National Parks' list without Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Aoraki /Mt Cook National Park

The spectacular 270-sq-mi (700 sq-km) Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is part of the Southwest New Zealand (Te Wāhipounamu) World Heritage Area, which extends from Westland’s Cook River down to Fiordland. 

More than one-third of the park has a blanket of permanent snow and glacial ice; of the 23 NZ mountains over 9843ft (3000m), 19 are in this park. The highest is mighty Aoraki/Mt Cook – at 12218ft (3724m), the tallest peak in Australasia. 

Among the region’s other great peaks are Sefton, Tasman, Silberhorn, Malte Brun, La Perouse, Hicks, De la Beche, Douglas and the Minarets.

Aoraki/Mt Cook is a wonderful sight, assuming there’s no cloud in the way. Most visitors arrive on tour buses, stop at the Hermitage hotel for photos, and then zoom off back down SH80. 

Hang around to soak up this awesome peak and the surrounding landscape, and to try the excellent short walks in the area, including to the Tasman Glacier.

Snow-capped mountains in Kahurangi National Park
Kahurangi National Park is the second-largest national park in New Zealand © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Kahurangi National Park

Kahurangi – “blue skies” in one of several translations – is the second largest of New Zealand’s national parks, and also one of its most diverse.

Its most eye-catching features are geological, ranging from windswept beaches and sea cliffs to earthquake-shattered slopes and moraine-dammed lakes, and the smooth, strange karst forms of the interior tableland.

Around 85% of the 1997 sq mi (5173 sq km) park is forested, and more than 50% of NZ’s plant species can be found here, including more than 80% of its alpine plant species. Among the park's 60 bird species are great spotted kiwi, kea, kākā, takahē and whio (blue duck). 

There are creepy cave weta, weird beetles and a large, leggy spider, but there’s also a majestic and ancient snail known as Powelliphanta – something of a flag bearer for the park’s animal kingdom. If you like a field trip filled with the new and strange, Kahurangi National Park will certainly satisfy.

Green bush leads up to a snow-capped top of Mt. Taranaki in Egmont in New Zealand
Mt. Taranaki is one of three volcanoes (Kaitake and Pouakai) at Egmont National Park © Karen Teo / 500px

Egmont National Park 

A near-perfect 8261ft (2518m) volcanic cone dominating the landscape, Mt Taranaki is a magnet to all who catch his eye. Taranaki is the youngest of three large volcanoes – including Kaitake and Pouakai – that stand along the same fault line.

With the last eruption more than 350 years ago, experts say that the mountain is overdue for another. That said, it's an absolute beauty and the highlight of any visit to the region, with terrific hiking (and skiing in winter).

Due to its accessibility, Mt Taranaki ranks as the “most climbed” mountain in NZ. Nevertheless, hiking on this mountain is dangerous and should not be undertaken lightly. Source some solid advice before departing and leave your intentions with a Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor center, i-SITE or online.

Most walks are accessible from North Egmont, Dawson Falls or East Egmont. Check out DOC’s collection of detailed walk pamphlets (free to print off the web) or the free Taranaki: A Walker’s Guide booklet for more info.

According to Māori legend, Mt Taranaki belonged to a tribe of volcanoes in the middle of the North Island. But after a great battle with Mt Tongariro over Pihanga, the beautiful volcano near Lake Taupō, he was forced to leave. 

As he fled south (some say in disgrace; others say to keep the peace), Taranaki gouged out a wide scar in the earth – now the Whanganui River – and finally settled in the west in his current position. He remains here in majestic isolation, hiding his face behind a cloud of tears.

A walker admiring the view of Lake Rotoiti from the St. Arnaud Range in the Nelson Lakes National Park.
Rotoiti is the smaller of the two lakes at Nelson Lakes National Park © David Chadwick / Getty Images

Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park surrounds two lakes – Rotoiti (“small lake”) and Rotoroa (“long lake”) – fringed by sweet-smelling beech forest with a backdrop of greywacke mountains. Located at the northern end of the Southern Alps, and with a dramatic glacier-carved landscape, it’s an awe-inspiring place to get up on high.

Part of the park, east of Lake Rotoiti, is classed as a “mainland island” where a conservation scheme aims to eradicate introduced pests (rats, possums and stoats), and regenerate native flora and fauna.

It offers excellent hiking like St Arnaud Range and Lake Angelus Track, short walks, lake scenery and one or two sandflies… The park is flush with birdlife and famous for brown trout fishing. The human hub of the Nelson Lakes region is the small, low-key village of St Arnaud.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on New Zealand's South Island
Though they're a great attraction, there's more to Punakaiki National Park than the Pancake Rocks © Jon Davison / Lonely Planet

Punakaiki & Paparoa National Park

Located midway between Westport and Greymouth is Punakaiki, a small settlement on the edge of rugged 166 sq-mi (430 sq km) Paparoa National Park. Most visitors come for a quick look at the Pancake Rocks, layers of limestone that resemble stacked crepes. 

But these are just one feature of the impressive, boulder-sprinkled shoreline. Pebble beaches (keep an eye out for greenstone/jade) are kissed by spectacular sunsets, and there are some riveting walking and mountain-biking trails into the national park, most notably the Paparoa Track, which became an official Great Walk in December 2019.

Paparoa National Park is blessed with high cliffs and empty beaches, a dramatic mountain range, crazy limestone river valleys, diverse flora and a profusion of birdlife, including weka (native woodhens) and the Westland petrel, a rare sea bird that nests only here.

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