In 2021 New Zealand had 13 national parks. These parks have scenery, ecological systems or natural features which are so beautiful, distinctive or scientifically interesting that it is in the national interest to preserve them permanently. New Zealanders value their national parks highly, and access to them for recreation, relaxation, or reflection is widely seen as a birthright.
The parks are, from north to south:
The Romantic movement, which celebrated the beauty and healing power of nature, inspired the idea of national parks in the 19th century. The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was created in the United States in 1872. People in other New World countries saw that the awe-inspiring natural features of national parks could offer a substitute for the cathedrals and palaces of Europe.
In New Zealand, there were added reasons for creating national parks. Some settlers were concerned that clearing the forest for farms was destroying scenic landscapes. A few scientists were worried about the loss of native plants and wildlife, especially birds. Also, the government was becoming aware of the tourism potential of New Zealand’s natural wonders.
Māori placed a different value on land. It was an essential aspect of tribal identity, and natural features such as mountains and rivers were regarded as important ancestors. But by the late 19th century many tribes were struggling to retain ownership of their land. Much of it had been confiscated by the government after the wars of the 1860s, and settlers were constantly pressuring Māori to sell what remained.
Growing support for national parks among some Pākehā, and the desire of Māori to protect their land, provided the context for the creation of New Zealand’s first national park.
In the 1880s, there was a risk that ownership of the central North Island volcanoes would be disputed in the Māori Land Court. Tūwharetoa chief Horonuku Te Heuheu said, ‘If our mountains of Tongariro are included in the blocks passed through the Court in the ordinary way, what will become of them? They will be cut up and perhaps sold, a piece going to one pakeha and a piece to another. They will become of no account, for the tapu will be gone. Tongariro is my ancestor, my tupuna; it is my head; my mana centres around Tongariro.’ 1
In 1887, following suggestions from some prominent Pākehā, the paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, Horonuku Te Heuheu, made an agreement wirh the Crown that the central North Island volcanoes would become a national park. Different tribes were disputing ownership of the peaks of Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro, and there was a danger that they would be divided and sold.
Horonuku’s action ensured that Tūwharetoa’s ancestral mountains would remain untouched, even if they were no longer directly controlled by the tribe. The government bought more Māori land to supplement the mountaintops, and Tongariro National Park was established by an 1894 act.
The national park movement gained momentum, and Egmont National Park was set up by statute in 1900. More lands were reserved under the Lands Act 1885 and the Scenery Preservation Act 1903, including areas in or around:
These reserves became the foundation for national parks, often established many years later.
Until the 1940s, New Zealand’s national parks were managed as places for recreation and tourism.
In the early 20th century, axis and red deer were released in Tongariro National Park and wapiti in Fiordland to provide sport for hunters. Meanwhile, goats were allowed to roam the slopes of Taranaki (Mt Egmont). The damage these animals caused to native plants was a continuing problem. From about 1914 to 1920, heather and lupins were sown to ‘beautify’ Tongariro National Park. This horrified scientists such as Leonard Cockayne, who thought parks should be sanctuaries for native plants and animals.
Around 1914 the commissioner of police, John Cullen, began a personal campaign to plant heather in Tongariro National Park, claiming it would improve the scenery and provide a habitat for imported game birds. He began sowing heather seed, and several tonnes were planted with public funding and support. The plant spread, and in 1996 the heather beetle was released to help control it.
The idea that national parks should protect New Zealand species caught on, prompting conservationists to lobby for two more parks.
In 1926, railway day trips from Christchurch to the Ōtira Gorge began. Soon the visitors were stripping the mountain slopes of native flowers, and even cutting down trees to obtain rātā blooms. Conservationists and locals pushed for national park status for the area, and Arthur’s Pass National Park was set up in 1929. However, lack of funds meant the vegetation was not fully protected for many years.
In 1942 Abel Tasman National Park was set up west of Nelson after conservationist Pérrine Moncrieff lobbied the government. She was worried that the area would be devastated by logging, which was destroying much of the country’s native forest.
Boards were set up in the 1920s to manage Tongariro and Egmont national parks, but administrative and legislative arrangements for all national parks were not co-ordinated. In the 1940s groups such as the Forest and Bird Society and Federated Mountain Clubs argued for central control.
This movement led to the National Parks Act 1952. The new law set up the National Parks Authority to provide guidance and policy. Boards oversaw individual parks in conjunction with the Department of Lands and Survey, which provided day-to-day management through a park ranger service. The Act emphasised that native plants and animals would be preserved, and introduced species controlled or exterminated.
In the 1950s and 1960s, more national parks were created:
Post-war prosperity was one reason for this boom; the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation was another. Outdoor organisations were strongly represented on national park boards.
The era of growth in national parks was followed by a period of turmoil. Māori, whose opinions had been largely overlooked as parks were set up, became more vocal. People of the Tūhoe tribe (iwi), who had been pressured into cooperating with the establishment of Urewera National Park, were especially aggrieved. As plans for the park took shape, they were stopped from logging trees on their land within and near the proposed boundaries. Once the park was set up, they could no longer gather traditional food and resources there freely. Under the Ngāi Tūhoe Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 2014, Urewera National Park was disestablished and administration of the land – which was granted legal personhood – passed to the Te Urewera Board. Te Urewera remained open to the public and the Department of Conservation continued to manage tracks and facilities.
The ‘Urewera Mural’ was commissioned from Colin McCahon for Urewera National Park’s visitor centre in the mid-1970s. The powerful painting showed the region as Tūhoe land, steeped in Tūhoe history. In 1997 it was taken from the visitor centre in what was widely seen as a symbolic protest by tribal activists. Its return was negotiated 15 months later.
During the 1960s, the conservation lobby also began to gain strength. A key battle was the 1969 campaign to stop the level of Lake Manapōuri, in Fiordland National Park, from being raised as part of a hydroelectricity scheme. For the first time, there was public debate about what activities could or should be allowed in national parks. There were also protests against the ongoing logging of native forests.
As scientists gained a deeper understanding of ecology, their attitudes towards national parks changed. From the mid-1960s they put more stress on protecting diverse ecosystems, and less on preserving places of scenic beauty. Most national parks were in mountainous areas, but some scientists thought other areas with diverse plant species or important wildlife habitats were even more valuable ecologically.
The National Parks Act 1980 addressed some scientific and conservation concerns. It added ecological systems to the list of features meriting national park status, and allowed for ‘specially protected areas’ within parks to guard against harmful human activity. The act did not refer to the Treaty of Waitangi, but the 1987 act that set up the Department of Conservation did. After 1987, Treaty principles were applied to earlier laws covering parks and reserves, leading to more consultation with iwi.
In 1990 the National Parks Authority and park boards were abolished. A new act established the New Zealand Conservation Authority and local conservation boards.
The new bodies were made responsible for all conservation land, and strategies for managing national parks were similar to those for other reserves. The public’s right of access to national parks was to be balanced with the need to protect plants, animals and natural features. Restrictions were placed on facilities such as buildings, roads and signs, and on vehicle, boat and aircraft traffic.
More national parks were set up from the 1980s:
This choice of places reflected ecologists’ and conservationists’ concerns more sharply.
But there was further debate about the impact of national parks on local iwi. Some national park proposals faltered or failed because they conflicted with Māori land claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Many iwi have sought the return of national park land in Waitangi Tribunal claims. Māori began to have more say in how parks were run, and management partnerships were set up between some iwi, such as Ngāi Tahu, and the Department of Conservation.
Several New Zealand national parks have been named, or included in, world heritage sites under a 1972 UNESCO convention.
Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Fiordland national parks were listed as world heritage sites in 1986. In 1990, along with Mount Aspiring National Park, they were included in a single vast site called Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand.
Tongariro National Park was listed as a world heritage site for scientific reasons in 1990, and for its cultural significance in 1993.
One sign of the greater role of Māori in managing national parks was the change in some park names from the 1980s. Westland National Park became Westland Tai Poutini, incorporating the Māori name for the West Coast. Mount Cook became Aoraki/Mount Cook, incorporating the Ngāi Tahu iwi’s name for the mountain.
National parks are important for New Zealand’s tourism industry. In the late 1990s 55% of overseas tourists visited at least one national park, and their needs were a major focus for the Department of Conservation. In 2017, 1.7 million overseas tourists visited a national park. Tracks were maintained to a high standard – especially the eight that were designated ‘Great Walks’. In 2000 the New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Foundation was set up to seek corporate funding for conservation projects in national parks and reserves.
Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park. In 1887 Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, signed a deed with the Crown to safeguard the volcanic peaks of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. More land was added, and the park was established by statute in 1894. In 2019 its total area was 78,618 hectares.
It is New Zealand’s most visited national park, and one of the most visible – on a fine day its snow-covered peaks are an arresting sight for people travelling through the central North Island by road, rail or air. The park’s landscapes are diverse. As well as the volcanic mountains, barren lava flows, snowfields and hot springs exist side by side.
Tongariro National Park is at the south-western end of the Taupō Volcanic Zone. Its volcanoes are all active, and Mt Ruapehu erupted spectacularly in 1995–1996.
Ruapehu is the highest of the three mountains, and its 2,797-metre summit has five craters and six main peaks. Its active vent is the site of the Crater Lake, which changes colour according to the volcanic activity below. In March 2007 a lahar (avalanche of volcanic mud and water) flowed from the lake, but it was carefully monitored and caused little damage.
Mt Tongariro is the largest of the peaks (100 square kilometres), but the least imposing. Mt Ngāuruhoe, with its steep symmetrical cone, is perhaps the most picturesque.
Vegetation ranges from alpine herbs to tussock and flax, with beech forest in the mountains and low-growing shrubs in the Rangipō Desert. Wildlife includes long- and short-tailed bats, and many native birds and insects.
The park contains two large skifields, Tūroa and Whakapapa. Climbing and tramping are popular, and there are many walking tracks. The best known is the Tongariro Crossing, which leads through spectacular volcanic terrain and takes about eight hours to traverse. The Tongariro Northern Circuit, which passes over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngāuruhoe, is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
Egmont National Park is near New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island. It is dominated by the volcano Taranaki (Mt Egmont), the summit of which is sacred to local Māori. Nearby are the Kaitake and Pouākai ranges, remnants of older volcanoes. The park covers 34,170 hectares.
Taranaki (Mt Egmont) has long been a magnet for climbers, but the trek to the summit can be dangerous. The Ambury Monument on the Holly Hut Track commemorates a tragedy in 1918, when Arthur Ambury tried to save his companion, W. E. Gourlay, who had slipped on ice. Both men fell over a bluff to their deaths.
The lower slopes of the mountain are covered in lush rainforest with tall rimu and kāmahi, while the middle slopes have ‘goblin forest’, with gnarled trees and trailing moss. Higher up are subalpine shrubs and alpine herb fields. Ahukawakawa swamp is of special interest to botanists because its wide range of plants have adapted to acidic soils at very low temperatures.
There is a small club skifield on Mt Taranaki, and tramping and mountaineering are popular. A track around the mountain takes up to five days to complete. The climb to the summit can be very dangerous in poor weather, and is best tackled in summer.
Whanganui National Park covers 74,191 hectares. Occupying a rugged, densely forested landscape between Taumarunui and Whanganui, the park is bisected by the Whanganui River. The river has a rich Māori history and was once overlooked by a network of pā known as ‘the plaited rope of Hinengākau’. It was the main route to the central North Island for generations of local Māori, and for 19th-century European travellers. The river banks have eroded to create spectacular gorges and bluffs, and there are over 200 named rapids between Taumarunui (north of the park) and Pipiriki (in the park’s south).
Western tributaries of the river have been clouded by erosion from the mudstone banks. The clearer eastern waters are a habitat for the whio (blue duck). The river is also home to eels, lamprey, native trout, kōura (freshwater crayfish) and black flounder. Many native birds can be found in the park’s lush conifer–broadleaf forest.
The Whanganui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river, and the 145-kilometre canoe trip downstream from Taumarunui to Pipiriki is classified as a Great Journey. There are tramping tracks in the park, and fishing and hunting are allowed, with some conditions.
Abel Tasman National Park (23,703 hectares) is in the north-west Nelson region, on the northern part of the Pikikiruna Range, between Tasman Bay and Golden Bay. It was established in 1942, after Nelson conservationist Pérrine Moncrieff lobbied to have 15,000 hectares protected. It is named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He and his men were the first Europeans to visit New Zealand, in 1642.
Though small, the park has some remarkable contrasting landscapes. There are many bays with golden beaches, some with large sandspits. The granite rocks along the coastline have weathered into wave-cut platforms and distinctive landmarks.
The rugged interior rises to 1,000 metres above sea level, with beech forests and an area of red tussock called Moa Park. In the south-west corner, granite gives way to marble and a karst landscape. Streams disappear into sinkholes and resurge around Tākaka Hill, outside the park boundaries. Harwoods Hole is the largest sinkhole in the park.
Abel Tasman National Park is one of New Zealand’s most popular – around 160,000 people visit each year. To help maintain its pristine environment, traditional ‘long drop’ toilets have been replaced by systems with containment tanks. Sewage is pumped out annually and taken by barge to nearby Rabbit Island, where it is used to fertilise a pine forest.
The park is home to forest and sea birds. There are wading birds in the estuaries, and little penguins, which feed in the sea and return to burrows on the park’s islands at night. Native fish, seals, and marine plants and animals are found along the coastline, part of which is in Tonga Island Marine Reserve.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is an easy three- to five-day tramp. The Abel Tasman Inland Track leads through forest, and has spectacular coastal views. The park can also be explored by sea kayaking and sailing.
Kahurangi National Park, in the north-west South Island, is one of the most recently established parks and at 517,335 hectares, also one of the largest,. Ecologically rich, it was established in 1996 largely because of a new emphasis on preserving biodiversity and geodiversity.
Kahurangi has the highest number of endemic plants (those unique to New Zealand) of any national park. Nearly half of all New Zealand's native plant species (around 1,200 species) are represented in the park, including over a third of all native trees, shrubs and climbers, and 80% of alpine plants. The park has at least 38 species of nationally threatened plants. Beech forest dominates in the east, with conifer–broadleaf forest in the west and alpine plants in the highest areas.
Threatened wildlife in the park includes the great spotted kiwi, New Zealand’s largest cave spider and its smallest giant wētā. There are 29 species of carnivorous land snail.
Kahurangi National Park is a geologically complex area. A distinctive coarse-grained pink granite is found in the west. There are also limestone and marble features, including bluffs, natural arches, sinkholes and some of the world’s deepest caves.
The wild rivers attract kayakers, and the Karamea River is famous for its trout fishing. Caving is also popular. However, walking and tramping are the main attraction, with over 570 kilometres of tracks. The best known is the 82-kilometre Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
Located between Nelson and Marlborough, just south of St Arnaud village, Nelson Lakes National Park (101,880 hectares) is dominated by a 75-kilometre band of mountains, and is bounded to the south-east by the Spencer Mountains.
The park is named after the lakes that lie in glacier-gouged troughs in the mountains. Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa are the largest.
The forest is mainly beech, with red and silver beech at lower, warmer sites and mountain beech at higher altitudes. Above the bushline are a variety of alpine plants. Birdlife includes the South Island kākā, tomtits, robins and New Zealand’s smallest bird, the rifleman. The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project is creating a predator-free ‘mainland island’ in 825 hectares beside Lake Rotoiti.
The park is popular for walking, tramping, and mountaineering, and for boating and fishing on the lakes.
On the northern West Coast of the South Island, the 39,037-hectare Paparoa National Park covers the western side of the Paparoa Range. Limestone underlies most of the park and forms towering coastal cliffs, deep river canyons, caves and stacked coastal rocks. The Pancake Rocks at Dolomite Point, near Punakaiki, are the best known feature – a spectacular sight when the sea surges through three blowholes at high tide.
The mild climate and fertile soils allow a wide variety of plants to grow. Near the coast, there are broadleaf trees, rātā and nīkau palms. Inland, hard, red and silver beech grow alongside rimu and other podocarps. There are forest birds and the world’s only breeding colony of Westland petrels, south of the Punakaiki River.
Canoeing and caving are popular in the park. There are some easy coastal walks and challenging inland tracks.
Arthur’s Pass National Park (118,472 hectares) was set aside to protect the mountain landscapes around Arthur’s Pass, with their scree slopes, steep gorges and braided rivers. The pass cuts through the Southern Alps, connecting North Canterbury with the West Coast. A historic highway and railway run through it.
There are strikingly different habitats on each side of the main divide of the Alps. On the eastern side, mountain beech grows. Mixed podocarp rainforest and rātā are found in the west. Above the bushline are areas of snow tussock and alpine meadows. As well as common forest birds, the park contains the endangered great spotted kiwi and the kea (an alpine parrot). Wrybills and black-fronted terns nest near the open braided rivers.
Mountaineering, mountain biking and tramping are popular in the park.
In 1976 there were plans to log rimu and miro trees around the Ōkārito Lagoon, home to many wetland bird species. Conservationists protested, but without success. Then rowi, a rare subspecies of South Island brown kiwi, were discovered there. A 10-year ban on logging south of the Ōkārito River was imposed in 1979, and in 1981 the area became part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
Located halfway down the West Coast of the South Island, Westland Tai Poutini National Park covers 131,978 hectares. Its magnificent sights include snow-capped mountains and glaciers, and wild beaches.
The park’s mountains have permanent snowfields that feed many glaciers, including the famous Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The lowlands are covered by dense rainforest, mainly rimu. Near the coast are lakes, wide river mouths and wetlands.
Alpine moths, black alpine cicadas and the mountain ringlet butterfly live in the higher areas, and there are endangered rowi (Ōkārito brown kiwi) in the lowland forest. The coastal wetlands, notably the Ōkārito Lagoon, are home to wading birds including the kōtuku (white heron). Lake Māpōurika is a refuge for the threatened crested grebe (kāmana).
Walking tracks allow visitors to get close to the glaciers and see views of the mountains and sea. At Welcome Flat, on the way to Copland Pass, there are hot springs. Mountaineering and ski touring are drawcards, and there are also scenic flights.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s great alpine national park. Covering 72,164 hectares, it contains 19 peaks along the eastern side of the Southern Alps, including New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook (3,724 metres) and nearby Mt Tasman (3,498 metres). Like all the South Island’s national parks, the area is significant to the Ngāi Tahu tribe. Aoraki/Mt Cook in particular is revered as an ancestor.
The park includes the headwaters of two of the great glacial lakes of the Mackenzie basin, Pūkaki and Tekapo. Glaciers – including the mighty Tasman and Hooker – cover 40% of the park. There is virtually no forest, but alpine plants abound, among them the famous Mt Cook buttercup, Ranunculus lyallii.
Tracks and walks, skiing, mountain biking and scenic flights are all available to visitors. However, the park is best known for mountaineering. Climbers come from around the world to tackle its challenging peaks, which should be attempted only by experienced mountaineers.
Named for its most prominent peak, Mount Aspiring National Park straddles the southern end of the Southern Alps. Close to Wānaka, Queenstown, Glenorchy and Te Anau, the park covers 355,522 hectares. It is bounded by the Haast River in the north and the Humboldt Mountains in the south. The remnants of glaciers and glacier-carved valleys are notable features.
Beech forest grows below the snowline, while above are snow tussock grasslands and alpine herb fields. In the Red Hills ‘mineral belt’ in the south-west part of the park, the soil contains so much magnesium that only a few plants can survive. Birds include the threatened rock wren, and the playful mountain parrot, the kea. There are also introduced species – white-tailed and red deer, and brown and rainbow trout.
The park is crossed by tracks, including the Routeburn Track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks), which also passes through Fiordland National Park. Visitors enjoy tramping, mountaineering and jet boating.
New Zealand’s largest national park at 1,260,288 hectares, Fiordland National Park is in the south-west of the South Island. This vast wilderness contains some of the country’s great scenic icons, including Milford Sound, the Sutherland Falls and Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau.
The fiords that give the area its name are troughs carved by glaciers that have melted and been replaced by the sea. The Alpine Fault cuts through the snow-capped mountains, which are veined with glaciers and dotted with lakes.
The steep terrain, isolation and wet climate have created a variety of habitats in which many ancient plants and animals have thrived undisturbed. The takahē, a flightless rail, was believed extinct until it was rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948. Fiordland was also the last refuge of the flightless parrot, the kākāpō, now the focus of a recovery programme.
The Milford Track, sometimes called ‘the finest walk in the world’, traverses the park. It is classified as a Great Walk, as are the Kepler and Routeburn tracks. The Hollyford Track is also well known. Other attractions include mountaineering, hunting, fishing and scenic flights. Visitors need insect repellent to cope with the many sandflies.
Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island, means ‘the land of glowing skies’. This may refer to the spectacular sunsets, or to the night-time displays of the Southern Lights, aurora australis.
The most recent of New Zealand’s national parks, Rakiura National Park covers 139,960 hectares – about 85% of Stewart Island (known to Māori as Rakiura). Located off the southern tip of the South Island, the island is separated from the mainland by Foveaux Strait, and lies in the stormy Southern Ocean.
The northern part of the island has mountain ranges, covered by podocarp forest. The rest has shrubland, low forest, wetlands, grasslands and coastal dune lands. To the west are sea-swept cliffs and beaches, while the east coast has three sheltered bays: Paterson Inlet, Port Adventure and Port Pegasus.
The island was a refuge for the endangered flightless parrot, the kākāpō, but the birds have now been moved to nearby, predator-free Codfish Island, a nature reserve. The Stewart Island kiwi, or southern tokoeka, can be seen in the wild, along with South Island kākā and many other native birds.
With around 245 kilometres of walking tracks, Rakiura and nearby Ulva Island provide many opportunities for trampers and walkers. The Rakiura Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
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