A Family Guide to New Zealand’s Top — and Free — National Parks

Feb 6, 2019

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New Zealand is famous for its outstanding nature: snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, bubbling mud pools, white-sand beaches and deep, dense forest. While there are natural attractions almost everywhere throughout the country, there are only 13 designated national parks, 10 of which are in the sparsely populated South Island.

From hiking (quaintly called “tramping” in New Zealand) to camping to kayaking, there are many family-friendly activities that can be done in New Zealand’s national parks. But, some are more suitable and accessible for some kinds of families than others. Here’s our pick of the top seven most suitable for family travelers. And the best part is that, unlike in the US, all New Zealand national parks are free to enter.

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park in the central North Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both its natural features and its importance to local Maori people. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a popular day hike that is often touted as the best day hike in New Zealand and among the best in the world. The hike passes through a high volcanic landscape with bright turquoise sulfurous lakes, perfectly conical volcanic peaks and dense native forest. While the hike shouldn’t be underestimated — the changeability of the weather in the mountains can cause conditions to deteriorate rapidly — it is suitable for older kids with hiking experience. Come prepared with plenty of food, water and clothing. Shuttle bus services to and from the trailheads are available from towns near the park.

Tongariro National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Abel Tasman National Park

Travelers looking for a way to experience several national parks during their trip would do well to base themselves in the small city of Nelson, at the top of the South Island, which is close to three exceptional parks.

Abel Tasman National Park is an hour’s drive from Nelson. It’s New Zealand’s most visited park for good reason. The golden sand bays are fringed by native bush, and parts of the sea are classified as marine reserve. There are long, multi-day hiking trails through the park, but family travelers may prefer to head there just for a day or two and enjoy the beaches. Huts within the park need to be booked ahead of time, but you can take your own tent. Kayaking can also be arranged from the villages of Kaiteriteri or Marahau.

Abel Tasman National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Nelson Lakes National Park

The entrance to Nelson Lakes National Park, at St. Arnaud, is about 75 minutes’ drive from Nelson. The two lakes, Rotoiti and Rotoroa, are pristine and ideal places for gentle walks (as well as longer hikes with older kids), swimming, fishing, bird-watching and camping. It’s less busy than Abel Tasman, and in the winter, visitors can go skiing at Rainbow Ski Field.

Lake Rotoroa, Nelson Lakes National Park. Photo by russellstreet / Flickr
Lake Rotoroa, Nelson Lakes National Park (Photo by russellstreet / Flickr)

Kahurangi National Park

The third park within reach of Nelson is Kahurangi National Park, about a two hours’ drive away. Kahurangi is important ecologically, as it’s home to a huge variety of native bird species, around 50% of all of New Zealand’s plant species and has the largest cave system in the Southern Hemisphere. The four- to six-day Heaphy Track trek is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” but there are shorter and easier walks that can be done in a day or less, and better suited to families.

Hiking the snowy mountains of Kahurangi National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Hiking the snowy mountains of Kahurangi National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Fiordland National Park

The Fiordland National Park is a huge area in the southwest of the South Island that’s best known for its deep ice-carved fiords that rival anything found in Norway. It’s part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, along with Westland, Mount Aspiring and Mount Cook national parks. While there are many rugged wilderness experiences to be had throughout Fiordland National Park, it’s also an ideal destination for travelers with younger kids who perhaps don’t want to go hiking or camping. Head to popular Milford Sound and jump on a sightseeing cruise through the steep-sided fiords. There are spectacular views, no matter the weather (do be prepared for rain, as it rains a lot here). The region is sparsely populated, but the towns of Queenstown, Wanaka or Te Anau are ideal bases. Queenstown is connected by air to other places in New Zealand.

Take a boat ride through Fiordland National Park to sightsee. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Take a boat ride through Fiordland National Park to sightsee. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Westland Tai Poutini National Park

The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers within Westland Tai Poutini National Park are very fast moving — about 10 times faster than glaciers in the Swiss Alps. While this won’t be visible to the naked eye, of course, kids who are interested in science and nature will enjoy a trip here. Like the Fiordland National Park, this one is a good option for families who aren’t seeking challenging hikes. Base yourself in either the villages of Franz Josef or Fox Glacier — while you could visit both glaciers, it’s not really necessary. Take a guided walk on the ice, or a helicopter tour if you’re on a more generous budget.

Franz Josef Glacier, Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Getty Images
Franz Josef Glacier, Westland Tai Poutini National Park (Photo by Getty Images)

Rakiura National Park

Rakiura National Park comprises around 85% of Stewart Island (whose Maori name is Rakiura), 15 miles off the southern coast of the South Island and separated by the Foveaux Strait. Foreign visitors don’t usually make it this far south, meaning it’s a great place to head for a chilled-out natural experience. The sea is cold down here, but there are lovely near-deserted beaches and an abundance of bird life, including penguins and kiwis, as well as seals. There’s a passenger ferry (no cars) between Bluff/Invercargill and Oban, which takes about an hour. The town of Oban is small and friendly, and a good base for visitors.

Rakiura National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Rakiura National Park. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Bottom Line

Try to see as many of New Zealand’s national parks as you can. The sights are varied and you can’t beat free admission for your entire family. If you don’t plan to rent a car during your trip, learn how to travel New Zealand by rail with your kids.

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