During our time in New Zealand, in addition to biking and drinking wine, we hiked through two very different National Parks, Abel Tasman on the South Island and Tongariro on the North Island.
Abel Tasman park is most famous for its beaches, and the Coastal Trail is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a set of nine very scenic, popular and well-maintained hiking routes. This is the park you should visit if you want stunningly beautiful beach scenery and moderately difficult hiking, as long as you’re not afraid to travel to the other side of the world to get there.
I took some of my most incredible photographs of our trip at this park.
Abel Tasman National Park sits at the north end of the South Island and encompasses 32 miles (51 km) of coastline. Though it’s New Zealand’s smallest national park and the most visited, most areas of the park were not crowded, except for two small areas, around Torrent Bay and Anchorage.
If you can get to the South Island, this is a must-see place. In terms of animal life, there’s young kiwi birds who are are raised on a small, protected island and there’s a seal colony that frequents the islands. There are no large predators like bears or mountain lions, and there are very few bugs though we were warned the sandflies can be vicious.
Since New Zealand is so far south, the tides shift up to 15 feet, leaving giant salt flats that beg to be walked across.
On the positive side, there’s no entry fees to any NZ National Parks. However, there’s also not a good central area to get information. Fortunately there are a bunch of tour operators that will take you into the trail on a boat or rent you kayaks.
Water taxis run up and down the coast from both ends of the park. We started from more accessible Marahau in the south. The water taxis run from both sides and you can coordinate any length of time and distance of hiking. We used Aqua Taxis, and I was happy with their advice and service, though they are a little pricey. We paid $35 NZD each for a ride in to Bark Bay. We would’ve paid nearly double for a ride home if we hadn’t wanted to hike the ~13 miles out.
On the money saving bit, unlike ALL the US Parks we visited, there didn’t seem to be a huge markup on food and drink at restaurants right outside the park or in the nearby town. We ate delicious and reasonably NZ-priced burgers at Fat Tui and even found happy hour beers at Hooked, a brew-pub style restaurant.
If you want to sleep in the park, you need to book in advance and pay $32 a person for a hut or $14 a person for a campsite. We didn’t have the time or gear to camp on this trip, unfortunately, so we slept in an airbnb just outside the nearby town of Marahau. Like many other spots in New Zealand, there aren’t a ton of reasonably priced sleeping options.
The best and easiest way to see most of the park in one day is to take a water taxi into Bark Bay and then hike the 13 miles back out along the coastal trail to Marahau. Here’s a link to the best map I’ve found with coastal trail distances. On our water taxi ride out, the captain served as a tour guide, pointing out natural landmarks and local wildlife. This route was doubly recommended, both by our AirBNB host and also in a 2009 post on Backpacking Matt’s travel blog.
If you aren’t up for a 13 mile hike, you could shuttle to locations closer to Marahau, like Torrent Bay (~10 miles away) or Anchorage (~7.5 miles). The other option is to ride into Bark Bay and then get picked up at Anchorage later in the day, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the beaches.
Our hike, from Bark Bay to Marahau, took us about 6 hours total with a few small stops. It was beautiful in the sun and a little chilly in the shade, which made for very comfortable hiking all around. The trail has frequent mileage signs and is well marked and well trod. There are pit toilets along the way at all the beaches, and real flushing toilets and drinking water at the campsites. Between Anchorage and Torrent Bay, we took a shortcut that’s open during low tide. The long way is about 2.5 miles, and the short way is just over a half mile.
Once we made it back to Marahau, we stopped at Hooked for a happy hour beer. We had dinner at Fat Tui, a food truck parked right outside the park with huge, delicious, HUGE, gourmet burgers that are packed with veggie toppings. Adam really enjoyed their mussel burger. Bring a jacket if you eat here, it gets a little chilly in the shade. They don’t serve alcohol at this spot, so grab your post-hike beer at the cafe right outside the park or downtown before you eat.
If I ever get an opportunity to revisit Abel Tasman, I’d love to take a water taxi to the other end of the Coastal Trail and then tramp the whole 32 miles. Most sites recommend stretching this trip into 3-5 days to really enjoy the beaches and scenery, but it would likely be a two day adventure for us. I’d estimate we could do it in 11-12 hours of hiking on this gentle terrain. I’d love to do some kayaking here as well.
After visiting, I see why Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s most popular park. It’s possible to see a good chunk of the park in one day with a water taxi and a long hike, but I recommend you stay longer if you can. Don’t forget to charge your camera battery, you’re going to want to take a ton of pictures!