Our Tour of New Zealand’s National Parks

For its land mass, New Zealand has quite a few national parks: 13, all protected by their Department of Conservation (DOC). Whether camping, hiking, or just driving through, we tried to experience as many parks as we could during our month there. Here are some highlights of the parks we made it to, which were Tongariro, Abel Tasman, Arthur’s Pass, Paparoa, Mount Aspiring, Fiordland. I’ll walk you through the parks we explored from North to South.

Tongariro

Despite being on the warmer North Island, Tongariro gets pretty cold because of its altitude. Make sure to wear layers.

Accommodation

The campsites were all pretty expensive in Tongariro except the Mangahuia campsite. If you plan to stay there, you’ll need to pay in cash and there are no ATMs for 30km in any direction, so come prepared. Since we came in really hot & didn’t have any cash on us, we stayed at Skotel Alpine Resort, which was very cozy, warm, cheap and conveniently located.

Hikes

We did a quick hike to Taranaki Falls, which was approximately 2 hours return and very easy. It wasn’t our favorite hike (NZ sets the bar pretty high), but it was still pretty nice. You could extend this hike to a full day (5 hour) hike if you go to Tama Lakes. 

The most famous hike in the park, and probably in the whole country, is Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which takes 6-7 hours and sees some pretty large crowds.

Abel Tasman

abel tasman

The smallest National Park in New Zealand offers gorgeous coastline views. We thought this was one of the most picturesque of the parks.

Accommodation

We camped at Totaranui Campground: an amazing campsite, but you have to drive on a horrible road to get there. There’s tons of space for tents and vans there. The only bad thing about the site was the dreaded sand flies – try not to camp near the water.

Hikes

We did a fantastic 6 hour loop hike starting at the campsite going to Gibbs hill, then looping around.

Paparoa

paparoa pancake rocks

We drove through this national park and stopped for the touristy attraction – the pancake stack coastal formations. It’s an easy 20 minute walk to the pancake rocks and blowholes, right off the highway. We recommend this as a quick and rewarding stop.

Arthur’s Pass

arthurs pass national park

This park is in the middle of the South Island, so it’s a little out of the way, but definitely worth it if you have the time. Just driving through the park provides breathtaking scenery.

There are no stores here except in the expensive Arthur’s village, so we got fresh water from the river (as recommended by the friendly man in the Visitor’s Center).

Accommodation

Lake Pearson (Moana Rua) Campsite was free and gorgeous with few sand flies. It’s definitely worth the extra drive to stay here.

Hikes

Bealey Spur track: 2.5 hour return. Gives incredible panoramic views of the park. Not too difficult and very rewarding.

Devils Punchbowl hike – the park’s most famous short walk. Says 30 mins each way, but we did it in 30 minutes total. Cool waterfall, but not a great hike. 

Westland Tai Poutini

We stayed in Franz Josef, doing hikes there and in the nearby Fox Glacier area on our way south.

Accommodation

Chateau Franz was a great little hostel that offers breakfast and soups for dinner. You can also tent camp on many of the hostels’ properties in Franz Josef (but for a little extra, we recommend just booking a bed).

Hikes

Near Franz Josef:

Douglas Walk & Peter’s Pool – 1 hour

Lake Wombat – 1.5 hours return

Terrace Walk – you only need 10 minutes to see glow worms (after dark)

Franz Joseph Glacier Valley Walk – 1 hour return (very touristy, well-maintained path)

Near Fox Glacier:

Lake Matheson Circuit – 1.5 hour loop, very easy but beautiful path

Mount Aspiring (and Wanaka area)

This park is right next to Wanaka, one of our favorite places in New Zealand.

Accommodation

Pleasant Flat Campsite – tons of sandflies, but okay for one night

Albert Town Campground

Hikes

Lots of walks/hikes to choose from.

Lake Wanaka Outlet Track

Tobins Track – 1 hour return; we weren’t fans of this hike

Mount Iron – 1 hour loop

Roy’s Peak – 6 hours; very steep & rewarding hike; one of our favorite hikes!

Fiordland

Largest national park in NZ

Bring layers and bug repellent – sand flies are nasty here, and it gets pretty cold

Set aside time for stopping along the way from Te Anau to Milford – there are plenty of short hikes and photo opportunities

Accommodation

Plenty of DOC campsites along the drive from Te Anau to Milford; all cost about $13/person

We stayed at Cascade Creek, the closest DOC campsite to Milford

Hotels and Holiday Parks in Te Anau, on the way to Milford

Hikes

Milford Sound – best way to see this attraction is by boat, but we did some walks in the area instead, as we were running short on time and money (and the weather wasn’t great):

  • the Piopiotahi Milford Lookout Walk (which is literally just a staircase to a lookout point) – 5-10 minutes return
  • the Piopiotahi Milford Foreshore Walk (a pretty underwhelming hike) – 30 minutes return

Lake Marian – 3 hour return. Totally rewarding, out-and-back hike. Gets super muddy after a rain

Another good option: Key Summit (3 hour return); go on a clear day to see the famous views

Have you been to New Zealand? Which National Parks did you like the most?

6 Comment

  1. Janice THOMPSON says: Reply

    I am happy to say that I have!! Thanks to great recommendations from travelbeet 🙂 I also LOVED Wanaka, and Milford Sound. If not for family, I might never have left NZ. It is truly impressive and you captured the beauty wonderfully. I KNOW I will return…and plan to check out that favorite hike of yours…

    1. Brittany says: Reply

      Yes, we absolutely loved Wanaka too! You should check it out – it’s a challenging hike for sure, but absolutely rewarding.

  2. Astrid says: Reply

    Hey Brittany,

    I’m a first timer here and I have to say, your photos of NZ are so breathtaking, I can’t pick my favorite.

    Unfortunately I haven’t been to NZ yet, but it’s on my bucket list, which is already as long as my arm. But I’ll get there! Might have to go and watch an SA v NZ rugby game there!

    And glow worms! Wow I haven’t seen those since I was a kid!

    Thanks for sharing this great experience.

    Astrid
    Astrid recently posted…Best Canned Food for SurvivalMy Profile

    1. Brittany says: Reply

      Hey Astrid! So happy you found us 😀 I’m glad you liked our photos! I must admit – it’s almost impossible to take an ugly picture of New Zealand.
      You absolutely should go – it’s definitely one of our favorite countries we’ve ever been to (and it’s pretty hard not to love).
      Thanks for stopping by!
      Brittany

      1. Astrid says: Reply

        “…it’s almost impossible to take an ugly picture of New Zealand.” That’s really saying something about the beauty of the country! It does look exquisite!

        I just noticed you folks are in CT South Africa! I live near Joburg but heading down there for a few weeks in April!

        Hope you’re having a great time in our beautiful country! Well come to think of it, you can’t not have a great time in Cape Town!

        Astrid
        Astrid recently posted…Best Canned Food for SurvivalMy Profile

        1. Brittany says: Reply

          Yes! We will be living in Cape Town for almost all of March. Have so much fun in Cape Town! We are already falling in love with South Africa, that’s for sure!

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