What are national parks?
National parks are large areas that protect iconic landscapes. Many hundreds have been created worldwide since the first national park, Yellowstone in Wyoming, USA, was set up in 1872.
New Zealand national parks management was first consolidated under the National Parks Act 1952. Its successor, the National Parks Act 1980, states that national parks contain ‘scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest’.
The Dutch connection
In 1642 the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman and his men became the first Europeans to discover New Zealand, but four of the crew were killed in a bloody encounter with the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri people in Golden Bay. When Abel Tasman National Park opened 300 years later, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands agreed to become its patron – a tradition continued by later monarchs. In 1992 Queen Beatrix visited the park and was welcomed by Māori in an emotional ceremony.
New Zealand’s national parks
In May 2019 New Zealand had 13 national parks, covering 2,947,318 hectares – about 11% of the country’s total land area. Three were in the North Island, nine in the South Island, and one, Rakiura, covered most of Stewart Island. Many of the parks were the result of decades of campaigning by conservationists and recreational groups.
The first park was Tongariro (1894); the most recent is Rakiura (2002). The largest is Fiordland, which at 1,260,288 hectares is one of the world’s great wilderness landscapes; the smallest is Abel Tasman (23,703 hectares), between Tasman Bay and Golden Bay. Most are in mountainous and forested areas.
Scenery and recreation
National parks protect many of New Zealand’s most famous natural landscapes and tourist attractions, including:
- Milford Sound and the other spectacular sounds of Fiordland
- Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman
- the Tasman, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers
- the volcanoes of the central North Island
- the coves and headlands of the Abel Tasman National Park coastline
- the near-perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont)
- the forests along the Whanganui River.
They also provide outstanding opportunities for tramping, mountaineering, hunting and other outdoor recreation. They contain most of the tracks designated Great Walks – the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, Rakiura, Heaphy, Abel Tasman and Tongariro Northern Circuit walks – as well as the canoe trip down the Whanganui River, a Great Journey.