aoraki mount cook national park

Visit six of the best New Zealand National Parks

October 2013 | By New Zealand Trails

5 minute read

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Would you love to experience New Zealand's famous national parks when you visit? Not sure which area of the country offers the best national parks? Choosing to travel to certain areas and miss out others in a new country is always a difficult choice, but as so many of us have limited time on our holidays it is something we are sometimes forced to do. Having guided guests around New Zealand national parks for over 10 years, I'd like to introduce the area of the country that offers you the chance to visit up to six parks in two weeks at a nice easy pace - the south and west of the South Island is an area with protected World Heritage status and have an incredible variety of landscapes and environments that will live long in your memory.

New Zealand National Parks – some background

Usually owned by the public, a national park is an area of natural land that has been designated a conservation area that has been given protection under law. National parks are different all over the world, but the common idea is the conservation of the natural environment for recreational use. Almost all countries have national parks, New Zealand has 14 - the largest being Fiordland and the smallest being the Abel Tasman. The oldest is Tongariro (1887) and the youngest is Rakiura (Stewart Island, 2002). New Zealand's national parks are spread across the country but there is no greater concentration and variety of national parks than in the South and West of the South Island. Here's a quick guide to these six wonderful New Zealand national parks and some of the highlights within.

1. Arthur's Pass National Park

Arthurs Pass National Park

Hiking in Arthur's Pass - one of the best national parks in New Zealand.

Right on the backbone of the Southern Alps and the closest to the South Island's largest city Christchurch, Arthur's Pass is named after Arthur Dudley Dobson, the explorer who discovered the pass linking Canterbury to the West Coast. Arthur's Pass National Park was established in 1929 and is the South Island's oldest national park. Unique features include New Zealand's only true alpine village. It's the only national park in the South Island accessible by train (the world famous TranzAlpine which we highly recommend) and every year in February the park plays host to the Coast to Coast adventure race. Our favourites are the TranzAlpine train, hiking the Bealey Valley and Oscar's Haus in the village.

2. Paparoa National Park

Paparoa is one of our newer and smaller national parks in New Zealand, established in 1987 and is only 30,600 hectares (75,600 acres) in size. Paparoa National Park stretches from the Tasman Sea to the lush green Paparoa Ranges. With tropical-looking forest and white sandy beaches it's very different from the alpine world of Arthur's Pass but is only a few hours away, you can visit both in the same day! The geology is the most unique aspect of Paparoa; it is made from predominantly limestone karst rock which has created a vast array of underground caves and caverns. Experienced cavers can explore on their own through the vast network of cave systems or for those who would like the security of a guided tour, the Nile River glowworm caves are very accessible and will be something you remember for ever! The best place to stay to explore Paparoa is the idyllic seaside village of Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks and blowholes.

Punakaiki Paparoa National Park

The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki are a highlight of the Paparoa National Park.

3. Westland Tai Poutini National Park

The Westland Tai Poutini National Park was established in 1960 and had 4,400 hectares (11,000 acres) added in 2010 to make a total current area of 130,00 hectares (325,000 acres) of incredibly varied landscapes stretching from New Zealand's highest peaks, through lush rainforest down to rugged and remote coastline. The western slopes of the Southern Alps are home to the most accessible of New Zealand's glaciers - Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier. This is the only place in New Zealand where you can actually walk out on a glacier even if you don't have any mountaineering experience - it's easy and safe with a guide. Other highlights in Westland National Park are Okarito Lagoon and Lake Matheson.

Lake Matheson, Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Beautiful reflections on Lake Matheson in the Westland National Park.

4. Mount Aspiring National Park

Our third largest park at 355,000 hectares (877,000 acres) was established in 1964 and takes its name from the highest mountain outside of the Mt Cook region, Mount Aspiring (3033m / 9950 ft), which is visible and accessible from the Lake Wanaka side of the park. A truly glacial environment, with over 100 glaciers inside the park, it borders on the real wilderness of Fiordland and is one of the least developed national parks in the country. Dotted with lakes both large and small, there are some stunning drives through the park and some even better walking tracks, including the Routeburn Track. The two main areas for accessing the park are Wanaka and Queenstown. Our favourite - the Dart and Routeburn Valleys, situated at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, have scenery that is out of this world (Middle Earth, actually!).

Hollyford Fiordland National Park

Mount Aspiring National Park is one of New Zealand's stunning national parks with some amazing walking tracks.

5. Fiordland National Park

The largest and most famous of our parks and the last real great wilderness in New Zealand - Fiordland National Park is 1.25 million hectares (3 million acres) of natural wonderland that has been protected since 1952. The name comes from the 14 fiords on the coast at the western extreme of the park, the most famous of which is Milford Sound. There is relatively easy access to Milford Sound, Lake Manapouri, Lake Te Anau and Doubtful Sound through existing transport links and services. For those who want to get off the beaten track there are places like the Hollyford Valley, Dusky Sound or the Waihauriri River to explore. Fiordland offers some great wildlife experiences and is home to iconic native species like the Kea, Kiwi and Takahe. With so many great places in Fiordland it's hard to pick a favourite but we'll say Martin's Bay at the end of the Hollyford Track - it's like the edge of the world here and the seal colony at Long Reef has to be one of the best natural wildlife experiences anywhere in the world.

Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park

Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park is truly breathtaking.

6. Mount Cook National Park

Completing the lineup is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, our true alpine national park and home to all bar one of New Zealand's peaks over 3000 metres (10,000 feet), including of course the highest of all, Aoraki Mt Cook. Part of the land that makes up the park has been protected from as early as 1887, although full national park status for this 71,000 hectare (175,000 acre) area was established in 1953. There is only one way into or out of the park and all roads lead to Mt Cook Village - with regal peaks and glaciers everywhere you look, even short day hikes here take on an intrepid feel. Both the National Park Visitor Centre and Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre offer excellent glimpses into the world of mountaineering and are highly recommended, as are day hikes on the many well maintained tracks leaving right from the village.

Mount Cook National Park

Statue of a young Sir Edmund Hilary gazing up at the mountains in the Mount Cook National Park.

There aren't many places in the world that offer such easy access to World Heritage Area wilderness and six different national parks. All of these fantastic parks can be visited and experienced up close at a relaxing pace in under two weeks - this is exactly what we do on our fully guided small group New Zealand walking tours. On a 13 day tour starting in Christchurch you'll visit all six of these parks to explore and discover the best of the New Zealand outdoors. Experiences include guided hiking, underground glowworm caves, sea kayaking, wildlife, a helicopter ride and back country jetboating. There is no camping or crowded huts on this tour, you'll enjoy all the comforts of home with laid-back luxury accommodation, the best local cuisine and expert Kiwi guides to show you the way.

For more information please contact us now or download a brochure here.

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