World Heritage Walking Tours (www newzealandtrails.com) has guided guests around New Zealand national parks for over 10 years. They have created an itinerary that offers travelers 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 offers an incredible variety of landscapes and environments that will live long in your memory.
Arthur’s Pass National Park
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. 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.
Paparoa National Park
One of the newer and smaller parks was established in 1987 and is only 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.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park
The park was established in 1960 and had 11,000 acres added in 2010, making the total current area 325,000 acres. It has 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.
Mount Aspiring National Park
The third largest park at 877,000 acres was established in 1964 and takes it’s name from the highest mountain outside of the Mt. Cook region, Mount Aspiring (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. The Dart and Routeburn Valleys, situated at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, has scenery that is out of this world!
Fiordland National Park
The largest and most famous of the parks and the last real great wilderness in New Zealand - Fiordland National Park is 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. Martin’s Bay at the end of the Hollyford Track is like the edge of the world, and the seal colony at Long Reef has to be one of the most natural wildlife experiences anywhere in the world.
Mount Cook National Park
Completing the lineup is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, a true alpine national park and home to all but one of New Zealand’s peaks over 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, full national park status for this 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. 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.