Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

El Abel Tasman National Park is located at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand and covers an area of 237.1 km² (91.5 square miles). It is the smallest national park in the country. Despite its size, it is one of the most visited, mainly due to the popularity of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a trail that runs 60 km (37 miles) along the coastal areas east and north of the park.

The area has been inhabited by humans for approximately 700 years. There is evidence of the first Māori iwi, such as Waitaha and Rapuwai, in the early periods of Māori occupation in New Zealand. With the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, the area underwent significant transformation due to deforestation, agriculture, and quarrying. As a result, it is one of the most altered national parks in the country, and its management is largely focused on the regeneration and restoration of the original ecosystem.

The park was established in 1942 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s visit to New Zealand in 1642, when he became the first European to sight the islands. Since then, it has been progressively expanded, with the most recent addition of 7 hectares (17 acres) at Awaroa Inlet, achieved through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

History of Abel Tasman National Park

The coastal area of what is now Abel Tasman National Park was inhabited for hundreds of years by Māori before the arrival of Europeans. The Māori occupied sites throughout the area seasonally and permanently, collecting food from the forests, estuaries, and local waters, as well as cultivating kūmara.

Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Historical records indicate that Pohea, who traveled from the Whanganui area around 1450, established a pā at Auckland Point. From the mid-16th century, the Muaūpoko tribe (formerly known as Ngāi Tara) occupied the area until the early 17th century when they were overthrown by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. This latter tribe was present when Abel Tasman arrived at Golden Bay/Mohua in 1642.

Establishment of the Park

The park was founded in 1942, largely thanks to the efforts of ornithologist and author Pérrine Moncrieff, who fought to reserve lands for the creation of the park. Moncrieff served on the park board from 1943 to 1974.

The park was inaugurated on December 18, 1942, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s visit. Among those attending the opening ceremony in Tarakohe was Charles van der Plas, personal representative of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who was named Patron of the park.

The idea of the park had been considered since June 1938. The Crown reserved 15,225 hectares (37,622 acres), including 8,900 hectares (21,900 acres) of proposed state forest, 5,809 hectares (14,354 acres) of Crown lands, and 554 hectares (1,368 acres) of other reserve lands for the national park. The Golden Bay Cement Company donated the land where the Abel Tasman Monument and a commemorative plaque are located. The main historical interest of the area includes the visits of Tasman in 1642, D’Urville in 1827, and the New Zealand Company barques Whitby and Will Watch, and the brig Arrow in 1841. The site also had significant botanical interest.

Expansion

By 1946, the park had reached an area of 15,534 hectares (38,386 acres) with additional land purchases. Another 844 hectares (2,085 acres) in Tōtaranui, formerly owned by William Gibbs, were acquired from JS Campbell in 1949 and added to the park. Since then, about 6,100 hectares (15,000 acres) have been added. In 2008, an additional 7.9 km² (790 ha; 3.1 square miles), including the previously private land known as Hadfields Clearing, were added to the park.

In 2016, New Zealanders bought another 7 hectares (17 acres) at Awaroa Inlet through a crowdfunding campaign. Despite its smaller size, it is the smallest protected area in the country and is of great importance along with Tongariro National Park.

History of Māori in New Zealand

History of the Māori in New Zealand

For at least 500 years, the Māori inhabited the coast of Abel Tasman, obtaining food from the sea, estuaries, and forests, and cultivating kumara in suitable areas. Most of the occupation was seasonal, but some sites in the Awaroa estuary were permanent.

The Ngati Tumatakokiri people resided in the area when, on December 18, 1642, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman anchored his two ships near Wainui in Mohua (Golden Bay), thus becoming the first European to visit Aotearoa – New Zealand. In a confrontation with the local population, he lost four crew members and soon continued his journey.

Permanent European settlement began around 1855. Settlers felled forests, built ships, quarried granite, and burned hillsides to create pastures. There was a period of prosperity, but soon the easily accessible timber was exhausted, and the land was overrun by weeds. Little now remains of their efforts.

Concern over the prospect of more deforestation along the coast led to a campaign to establish 15,000 hectares of Crown lands as a national park. A petition presented to the Government proposed the name Abel Tasman for the park, which was officially inaugurated in 1942, on the 300th anniversary of his visit.

Janszoon Project

In 2012, the Janszoon Project, a privately funded trust, was established with the purpose of restoring the park’s ecosystems. Its name is inspired by Abel Tasman’s middle name, Janszoon. The trust aims to complete the restoration to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Tasman’s visit and the park’s centennial in 2042.

In collaboration with the Department of Conservation, the Janszoon Project developed a free virtual visitor center available for download on smartphones and tablets. The app provides detailed information about the park’s history, flora, fauna, points of interest, and weather conditions, as well as hiking trails and tide schedules.

Recommended Excursions and Activities

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What to See and Do in Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Discover exciting outdoor activities: thrilling kayaking trips, coastal hikes, the region’s aquatic wildlife, and the most exotic beaches.

Abel Tasman Coast Track

One of the most outstanding and popular walks in New Zealand is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which spans about 60 km and starts in the charming coastal village of Marahau. This trail takes you through lush native forests and along golden sandy beaches, offering a unique sensory experience. The birdsong, a result of ongoing restoration efforts by the local community and iwi, envelops you in an enchanting atmosphere.

Abel Tasman Coast Track

This hike is truly extraordinary year-round, but is best enjoyed on a multi-day adventure. You can stay overnight in lodges, campsites, or beachfront DOC huts, immersing yourself in the tranquility of nature before continuing your scenic journey the next day. For those with less time, there are options for hikes combined with kayaking or half-day and full-day cruises available.

If you have the chance, I recommend taking a short detour to Cleopatra’s Pools. There, you can slide down a moss-covered natural water slide into crystal-clear rock pools, an experience that truly connects you with the pure beauty of this natural environment.

Tonga Island Marine Reserve

Tonga Island Marine Reserve is a sanctuary for nature enthusiasts, offering unique experiences to observe marine biodiversity.

Tonga Island Marine Reserve

At Tonga, you can enjoy activities such as guided kayaking, snorkeling, eco-tours, and scenic cruises. One of the best places for snorkeling is between Tonga Quarry and Foul Point, where the clear waters allow you to observe underwater life among the rocks. Diving in the reef systems around the island offers close encounters with red rock crabs, crayfish, snapper, and hermit crabs that inhabit underwater caves and crevices.

The reserve’s fauna includes small blue penguins, cormorants, gannets, and dolphins. Additionally, at Tonga and Pinnacle Islands, wildlife sanctuaries are home to playful seal pups, visible from the water in boats or kayaks. It is crucial to respect the wildlife by maintaining a proper distance and observing without directly interacting with the animals or disrupting their natural environment, remembering that the flora and fauna are fully protected by laws that prohibit touching, disturbing, or extracting any natural elements from the reserve.

Split Apple Rock

Split Apple Rock is located between Kaiteriteri and Marahau, serving as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.

Split Apple Rock, New Zealand

It is a truly beautiful landmark, rivaling the natural wonders of the world. The exact formation of Toka Ngawhā (Split Apple Rock) is a must-visit. Scientists believe the rock split due to a natural phenomenon called ice wedging, where water seeped into the rock’s cracks and then froze, expanding and splitting it. However, according to Māori legend, the rock split when the God of the Ocean and the God of the Earth fought over its possession, as it was both in the ocean and on land at the same time.

Tonga Arches

Elephant Rock in Anchorage, New Zealand

The Tonga Arches are another iconic site in Abel Tasman, along with the rock stacks in Anapai Bay and Elephant Rock in Anchorage. These sites can be explored during a hike on the coastal trail, a scenic cruise, or an exciting kayak trip.

Canyoning in Tasman Canyons

Descending the canyon in the national park is another charming yet challenging activity. Within the park, you can experience an adventure rappelling down granite canyons, canyoning in the Tasman Canyons while traversing pristine rainforest slopes filled with rich ledges and drops into pools and natural water holes.

This activity must be completed with a guide.

Kayaking and Canoeing in Crystal Clear Tasman Bay

Tasman Bay

Year-round, the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay are dotted with kayaks, with people exploring the hidden coves and arches along the extensive coastline. Much of this idyllic landscape is not visible from land, leaving countless discoveries to be made. You can enjoy the journey at your own pace with a Freedom rental, stopping for a picnic on a golden sandy beach, or join one of the guided tours to learn more about the unique history of this extraordinary coastal paradise.

Scenic Flight

Take a different perspective by flying over Abel Tasman National Park. There are exciting excursions that fly over the protected area, allowing you to observe the landscape, beaches, and lush vegetation from the air, providing a wonderful contrast as you fly over them. You will have a perfect view of the region, situating the golden sandy beaches, native shrubs, numerous coves, and lagoons.

Boat Trips

Boat trips in Abel Tasman National Park allow access to remote and less accessible places with golden beaches and native wildlife, such as seals diving in the Tonga Island Marine Reserve. There are available sailboat and catamaran outings, as well as half-day boat excursions combined with hikes to reach distant places and explore the surrounding terrain.

Exploring the Coast in a Māori Canoe (Waka)

Navigating the coast of Abel Tasman in New Zealand in a waka (Māori canoe) offers a deeply enriching experience that combines adventure and culture. "Waka Abel Tasman" provides single or double-hulled canoes to explore the region’s stunning geography, including passages between islands and renowned points of interest like Toka Ngawhā (Split Apple Rock). This experience stands out not only for the beauty of the environment but also for the manaakitanga, a Māori concept that translates to hospitality or generosity, which permeates the guides’ attitude. As participants paddle through the crystal-clear waters, the guides share fascinating stories about Abel Tasman’s history, enriching the experience with their knowledge and respect for Māori culture and traditions. This activity is not just a scenic ride but an immersion in Māori history and values, offering a unique and valuable perspective on New Zealand’s heritage.

Park Entrances

Kaiteriteri, Marahau, and Motueka serve as gateways to the protected area of Abel Tasman, each site having its own particular charm.

You can start the adventure of exploring the national park in Motueka by visiting the weekend artisan markets, engaging in activities like skydiving, or enjoying a meal at the famous Toad Hall.

If you want to try something different, Marahau offers horseback riding on the beach and, afterward, dining at the outdoor tavern by the sea at Hooked.

If you fancy swimming, kayaking, or water activities, you can go to the crystal-clear lagoon of Kaiteriteri, which also allows for short walks to the picturesque observation platforms located in the forest.

Local Cuisine

The region of Abel Tasman National Park is known for its fresh and tasty food, with an emphasis on local produce and freshly caught seafood. Typical dishes include delights such as fresh white fish accompanied by seafood, fresh salads with local garden produce, and the traditional "hangi," a Māori cooking method that involves cooking food underground, producing smoky and flavorful dishes.

And of course, don’t forget to try kiwis! This New Zealand fruit is an integral part of the culinary experience in the region.

Fauna of Abel Tasman

Fauna of Abel Tasman National Park

More than 70 bird species have been documented within the park. Regularly seen birds include petrels, cormorants, penguins, gulls, terns, and herons. In addition to birds, possums, wild pigs, deer, and goats can also be spotted.

The birdlife is notable, thanks to D’Urville, who found kokako in the South Island in the forests around Torrent Bay. This adds to the tourist attractions of Abel Tasman National Park. Several native bird species have disappeared, but the bellbird, fantail, pigeon, and tui remain as the main forest birds. Around the beaches, estuaries, and wetlands, pukeko are common.

A variety of wading birds stalk the estuaries in search of fish and shellfish, while offshore you can see albatrosses, cormorants, and terns diving for food. Little penguins feed at sea during the day and return to their burrows on the park’s islands at night.

In 2007, the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust was formed, with the vision of restoring the forests and beaches of Abel Tasman to their original state filled with birdsong. You might see the Trust’s stoat and possum traps on or near the track at Torrent Bay. Volunteers regularly check the traps, so please don’t touch them, and if you see a dead animal, report it to the next DOC ranger you meet.

Flora of Abel Tasman

Flora and vegetation of Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Although a large part of the park is covered by grasslands or shrubs, valley areas feature forests of rātā, mataī, miro, and hinau.

The bedrock of Abel Tasman National Park is primarily Separation Point Granite. The physical and chemical properties of this granite determine the nature of the forest cover and details such as the color of the beaches and stream beds.

Soils derived from granite are relatively nutrient-poor, but the humid ravines just above sea level sustain rich forests. Although many trees were felled during the milling era, there is still a lush undergrowth of trees and shrubs, tree ferns, kiekie, and supplejack, with the ravines leading the regeneration process.

Black beech is the dominant species on the dry ridges and promontories near the sea, while hard beech predominates further inland, where more moisture is available. Kanuka appears in areas where there are sudden changes in the landscape or a history of fires. On the other hand, manuka is found in places where repeated fires have degraded the soil.

Geography of the National Park

With an area of 237 km² (92 square miles; 59,000 acres), Abel Tasman National Park is the smallest of New Zealand’s national parks. It consists of a wooded and mountainous area north of the Tākaka and Riwaka river valleys, and is bordered to the north by the waters of Golden Bay/Mohua and Tasman Bay. Within the park are several coastal islands, such as the Tata Islands in Golden Bay/Mohua, and Tonga, Motuareronui/Adele, and Fisherman Islands in Tasman Bay.

The park does not extend beyond the mean high tide line on the adjacent coast. Between the high and low tide marks, the beaches are designated as Scenic Reserve, covering a total of 7.74 km² (2.99 square miles). The Tonga Island Marine Reserve borders part of the park.

The Abel Tasman Monument, although not located within the park, commemorates the first contact between Europeans and Māori and is situated near the park’s northern end.

Rivers and Estuaries

The rivers and estuaries within the designated area of Abel Tasman Park are notable for the purity of their native fish communities. This is largely due to the relatively untouched nature of the park’s watersheds and their proximity to the sea, providing access to whitebait and other native fish larvae that migrate.

Fourteen native fish species have been identified, including threatened species like shortjaw and giant kokopu, kōaro, and inanga. Banded kokopu, which are not endangered, can often be seen in small pools if you stay calm.

The undisturbed estuaries are a key feature of Abel Tasman’s coast and are constantly changing with the tides. The regular influx of nutrients from the sea supports a diversity of fish, snails, worms, and crabs, which in turn are food for shorebirds. Because they are sandy rather than muddy, the park’s estuaries are easy to explore at low tide.

In areas flooded only by the highest tides, salt marsh vegetation such as rushes, glasswort, and sea primrose grows. These plants trap moving sand, often starting a long process that can lead to the estuarine community being replaced by a terrestrial one.

Ecology of the National Park

Abel Tasman National Park is distinguished from other national parks in New Zealand due to significant environmental alterations throughout its history. Early European settlers burned or cleared much of the forest, only to discover that the soil was unsuitable for agriculture. This practice not only devastated much of the vegetation but also introduced invasive plants now found throughout the park. However, over time, the original ecosystems and forests are gradually returning.

The park hosts a variety of habitats, including coastal forests, subalpine swamps, and sand dunes. This diversity supports many different species. The islands within the park, especially Tonga, Motuareronui/Adele, and Fisherman Islands, which are the largest, have suffered less alteration and have not been invaded by mammalian predators. Therefore, these islands host species not found in other parts of the park, and there are more restrictions on visitor access.

Climate and Best Time to Visit Abel Tasman, New Zealand

The Nelson-Tasman region enjoys a mild maritime climate and one of the highest amounts of sunshine per year in the country. So, when is the ideal time to visit Abel Tasman? The choice is up to you.

Spring

Months: September, October, November
Climate: Although early spring can bring rain, daytime temperatures are mild, ranging from 16 to 19°C (61 to 66°F). Labor Weekend in October marks the unofficial start of the high season, with growing energy and palpable anticipation for summer.

Summer

Months: December, January, February
Climate: Summer in Abel Tasman offers daytime temperatures between 20 and 25°C (68 and 77°F), turning the region into a subtropical paradise. The high season runs from Christmas to the second week of January, so it’s crucial to book activities and accommodation in advance.

Autumn

Months: March, April, May
Climate: With daytime temperatures between 17 and 21°C (62 and 70°F), autumn is mild and still suitable for swimming. Fewer visitors and stable weather make March the most popular month for longer hikes.

Winter

Months: June, July, August
Climate: Daytime temperatures range from 12 to 16°C (53 to 61°F), and although cool, winter offers sunny and stable days, ideal for enjoying the park without crowds. Winter nights are perfect for relaxing by a fireplace in the scattered cabins throughout the park.

Accommodation Within the National Park: Where to Stay?

Believe us when we say you won’t truly experience nature until you’ve spent a night in Abel Tasman National Park, in the Nelson-Tasman region. You’ll feel tranquility, peace, and harmony in an indescribable setting. The murmur of the waves at night makes sleep pleasant, very peaceful, and extremely enjoyable, listening to the birdsong at dawn. It is a unique experience if you have the opportunity to stay within the park.

To overnight within the protected area, there are designated camping zones, so you can set up your tent and fully enjoy this paradise bordering the Tasman Sea. Additionally, you can swim in clear waters and feel the sun’s rays on your skin.

There are also beachfront lodges for those who prefer more comfort and VIP services right by the beach.

How to Get to Abel Tasman National Park

Covering 22,530 hectares, Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park. It is located at the top of the South Island, with the nearest towns being Motueka, Takaka, and Kaiteriteri.

Roads connect Marahau and Totaranui at both ends of the coastal track, located 1.5 and 2.5 hours from Nelson, providing access to the inland trail system.

To access the park, regular and on-demand bus services are offered from local towns and from Nelson, as well as boat and water taxi services.