3 Ways to Explore Abel Tasman National Park on a Day Trip

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Abel Tasman National Park may be New Zealand’s smallest National Park, but it’s one of the most stunning. It’s a popular destination for hiking, kayaking, and sailing.

The golden sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise water feel almost tropical, and the native bush is rich with lush vegetation and birdsong. Fur seals are often seen, and if you get lucky like us, you might even see dolphins.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a 60km (37 mile) trail that hugs the coastline in the park and is one of New Zealand’s most popular and easiest Great Walks.

The whole track takes 3–5 days to hike (or kayak) between Marahau and Totaranui. If you don’t have the time or energy for the full trail, you can easily experience Abel Tasman on a day trip.

Water taxis run between the beaches, so it’s simple to hike a small section of the track. Just choose how far you’d like to go and the water taxi will drop you off and pick you up at the other end of your walk.

If you don’t want to hike, you can also kayak a section or just sail along the coastline and enjoy the scenery. There’s an option for all abilities and interests.

We visited Abel Tasman on three separate day trips while living in Nelson and couldn’t get enough of this beautiful place. I’ve included various options below including the best day walk for avoiding crowds and how to visit the park if you don’t want to walk.

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What to Expect on the Abel Tasman Coast Track

Abel Tasman Coast Track through forest with sea views

The Abel Tasman Coast Track goes through native bush between beaches with occasional sea views

The Abel Tasman Track is well-marked so it would be difficult to get lost and you don’t need to take a map. The walking is fairly easy with some uphill sections but nothing too strenuous.

You don’t even need hiking boots—hiking sandals, walking shoes, or trainers are fine. I’d avoid flip-flops, though.

We found the DOC time estimates for sections of the walks to be overestimated. A one hour walk usually took us 40 minutes. If you are reasonably fit, you’ll probably find the same. The estimates do allow time for taking breaks on the beaches, though.

There are different routes in some sections depending on whether it’s low or high tide. The relevant campsites post tide times and there are signs to lead you the right way.

At most beaches you’ll find campsites with long drop toilets available for day hikers. Some also have taps, but the water isn’t guaranteed to be safe to drink, so it’s best to bring enough water.

There’s nowhere to buy food (except for the restaurant at Awaroa Lodge), so stock up before you start your hike. Take all rubbish out of the park with you. 

The park is popular so don’t expect to have the beaches or trail to yourself in summer (mid-December to March). We visited in November and January and there was a huge difference in the number of people around. North of Totaranui is quieter than the southern section of the park.

Walking on the beach at Anapai Bay on an Abel Tasman day trip

We had Anapai Bay, north of Totaranui, to ourselves in November

Although it can be chilly (but usually sunny) in winter, our kayaking guide said it’s a great time to visit as it’s so quiet and baby seals may come and play alongside your kayak.

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The Best Base to Visit Abel Tasman National Park on a Day Trip

Abel Tasman National Park is located at the top of the South Island.

Marahau or Kaiteriteri

Marahau or Kaiteriteri are the nearest places to Abel Tasman National Park and are where the water taxis leave from. You can’t beat the convenience, but they are tiny villages with limited accommodation that books up quickly in summer.

A few options in the area are:

  • The Barn Backpackers – Private cabins or dorms in a beautiful location right at the start of the Abel Tasman walk in Marahau.
  • Ocean View Chalets – A more upmarket option with comfortable chalets only 500 metres from the National Park in Marahau.
  • Kaiteriteri Reserve Cabins – Tiny but cute cabins with shared facilities on the beach where the water taxis leave in Kaiteriteri.

It’s also worth looking for Airbnbs in Marahau and Kaiteriteri as there are lots of great holiday homes in the area. 

Motueka

The nearest town is Motueka, which is a 25-minute drive away and organised tours can pick you up from here. Search for accommodation in Motueka here. 

Nelson

Nelson is a popular base for visiting Abel Tasman and is an hour away. It’s a larger city (although still small) with plenty of accommodation, restaurants, and activities.

It’s probably the best base if you don’t have a car as you can easily get to Nelson by plane or bus and the town is walkable.

Organised tours to Abel Tasman will pick you up from Nelson. We did options 2 and 3 below from Nelson.

Nelson has lots of hostels, B&Bs, motels and Airbnbs to choose from.

We spent part of our stay at Wakefield Quay House, an intimate but luxurious B&B on Nelson’s seafront run by the charismatic Woodi. The sea views, happy hour drinks and nibbles, and breakfast are superb. 

Sea view from Wakefield Quay House B&B in Nelson

Our sea view from Wakefield Quay House B&B in Nelson

I also recommend this well-designed Airbnb studio apartment in Nelson run by our friend’s mum. It’s located in beautiful gardens in a quiet part of town near the Maitai River (great for walks, runs and swims).

The views out the large windows are gorgeous, especially at sunset. You feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s walkable to the town centre.

Sunset view from Airbnb studio in Nelson

Sunset view from Airbnb studio in Nelson

Takaka

A more unusual base to visit Abel Tasman is Takaka or anywhere in Golden Bay.

This isn’t the most convenient base if you want to explore the southern sections of the park as it’s over an hour drive from Takaka to Marahau on a winding road over a hill.

It can be a good option for exploring the quieter northern section of the park from Totaranui. From Takaka you can drive to Totaranui campsite in about 50 minutes and start your hike from there. It is a bumpy drive, though, as the last section is on a winding gravel road.

We stayed a 10-minute drive outside Takaka in a luxury beachfront cottage at Adrift in Golden Bay. The location on an empty beach was wonderful, and the cottages are comfortable and well-equipped with a breakfast basket provided in your room. This was our base for option 1 below. 

Terrace of our beachfront cottage at Adrift in Golden Bay

Terrace of our beachfront cottage at Adrift in Golden Bay

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1) Hike the Quiet Northern Section of Abel Tasman from Totaranui

Anapai Bay, a quiet beach on the Abel Tasman Coast Track

You’ll find beautiful and peaceful Anapai Bay a 40-minute walk north of Totaranui

If you want to escape the crowds on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, especially if you are visiting during the school summer holidays (Christmas to early February), I highly recommend heading to the northern part of the park.

Almost all multi-day trampers finish their walk at Totaranui, the last beach served by water taxis. So if you hike north from Totaranui you can avoid most hikers and have the gorgeous beaches to yourselves.

We visited this section of the park while staying at Adrift in Golden Bay near Takaka. The drive to Totaranui campsite took us one hour and the last 20 minutes was quite tiring as the road turns to gravel and is narrow and winding.

If you don’t want to drive there, you can take the water taxi from Marahau or Kaiteriteri to Totaranui. This is the best way to visit if you’re coming from the south (Nelson or Motueka). It’s easier than driving and the boat ride is scenic.

It’s a fairly long journey, though. The water taxi from Kaiteriteri to Totaranui takes two hours, so you’ll need to get the 9am (with Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles) or 9.20am (with Wilsons) departure to allow time for hiking.

The last boat back from Totaranui is at 2.40pm with Wilsons or 4pm with Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles. Timetables are reduced in low season. Water taxis cost about NZ $50 each way and must be booked in advance.

At Totaranui there’s a large campsite, toilets, and maps showing the hikes in the area but no shop, so come prepared.

Totaranui itself is a lovely 1km long golden beach, but you’ll find even more beautiful beaches if you walk north towards Separation Point.

At the very least, I recommend following the coast track north to Anapai Bay. The DOC estimate for this walk is one hour each way, but it only took us 40 minutes.

The trail takes you through lush forest over a hill and down to the lovely curve of golden sand at Anapai Bay. In November we had the beach to ourselves as we ate our packed lunch.

Anapai Bay in Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Anapai Bay

From here the trail continues up and over the headland, through native bush with occasional sea views, to Mutton Cove. The estimate from Anapai Bay to Mutton Cove is one hour but again it took us 40 minutes.

View of Anapai Bay from Abel Tasman Coast Track, New Zealand

View of Anapai Bay from the coast track

Mutton Cove is even more beautiful than Anapai Bay and is my favourite beach in Abel Tasman.

The wide stretch of golden sand leads to emerald water with rocky headlands at each end. At the far end of the beach you can scramble over some rocks to reach the second section of the beach (and continue on the trail).

This would be a lovely place to camp (20 tents allowed and bookings required).

Mutton Cove is a great day walk on the Abel Tasman coast track

Mutton Cove

Mutton Cove, one of the quietest beaches in Abel Tasman National Park

Mutton Cove

After relaxing on the beach for a while we decided not to continue on to Separation Point but returned to Totaranui back the way we came.

Our Abel Tasman day walk from Totaranui to the far end of Mutton Cove and back was 14km (8.7 miles) and took us four hours including plenty of breaks (3 hours 15 minutes of walking). The total elevation gain was 433 metres (1420 ft), but this was made up of smaller hills with nothing too challenging.

If you want a longer walk you could continue on to Whariwharangi Bay and return to Totaranui via the inland route over Gibbs Hill (a much steeper and more exposed route).

Another interesting but long (23km/14 mile) option if you are starting in Golden Bay that would avoid the drive to Totaranui is to start at Wainui Bay car park (a 30-minute drive from Takaka). From here you can hike to Whariwharangi Bay and continue to Mutton Cove, Anapai and Totaranui. Return on the coast track or over Gibbs Hill

Map of the north section of Abel Tasman National Park around Totaranui

Map of the north section of Abel Tasman National Park around Totaranui

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2) Hike and Kayak Day Trip from Tonga Quarry to Anchorage

For our second trip to the park, we did an Abel Tasman Cruise, Self-Guided Walk and Kayak Experience with Kaiteriteri Kayaks (NZ $215). 

This is an excellent option if you only have one day in Abel Tasman National Park as you can combine a boat trip, hiking, and kayaking.

If you’d rather skip the hike, you could do this full day Abel Tasman kayak trip which includes a water taxi to Anchorage and kayaking back. 

We were collected in Nelson at 7am (the shuttle bus is free) and drove to Kaiteriteri. We met our kayaking guide for a briefing (we’d meet up with him again later) and got the 9am Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles water taxi.

The boat was quite large with a toilet and small kiosk onboard. The journey was scenic as we headed north along the coast into the park. Along the way we heard commentary about the area and took detours to Split Apple Rock and Adele Island, where we saw a few fur seals lazing on the rocks.

We disembarked at Tonga Quarry for the self-guided hiking section of the trip. We had two hours to get to Bark Bay, so we first took a detour north to beautiful Onetahuti Beach, a 15-minute walk away.

Onetahuti Beach from the Abel Tasman Track on a day trip

Onetahuti Beach from the trail

From Onetahuti to Bark Bay is 4km (2.5 miles) and the estimated time is 1 hour 45 minutes, but it took us 1 hour 15 minutes.

It was a lovely walk through native bush past a few little waterfalls, over a suspension bridge, and ending with good views of Bark Bay lagoon from above. There are some fairly big hills but nothing too intense.

Bark Bay is a beautiful long beach with a tidal estuary on the other side of the sand. There’s a large campsite here and it was the busiest beach we’d visited so far.

Bark Bay beach and estuary in Abel Tasman National Park from above

Bark Bay from above on the walk from Onetahuti

On the beach we met up with our kayak guide, Pandi from India, and two other Brits on our tour for the provided picnic lunch (sandwich, cake, fruit, cookies, a hot drink, and juice).

Then it was time for the kayaking portion of the day. Pandi gave us some kayaking tips and got us set up with spray skirts which kept us surprisingly dry. The double kayaks have rudders and are fairly easy to control (the person in the back steers with foot pedals).

Kayaks at Bark Bay in Abel Tasman National Park

We set off down the coast towards Anchorage. We enjoyed getting a different perspective of the park, seeing the golden beaches and lush green hills from a distance and gliding over the clear emerald water.

Along the way we saw cormorants and seals and passed some beautiful bays. Sandfly Bay looked peaceful and we made a note to return one day (despite the name, it has no more sandflies than anywhere else). Torrent Bay is home to many off-the-grid holiday homes with no road access, which I would love to return to stay in.

Kayaking past Sandfly Bay in Abel Tasman National Park

Kayaking past Sandfly Bay

Kayaking to Torrent Bay in Abel Tasman National Park

Kayaking in Torrent Bay

We even got our kayaks together, raised a canvas sheet and had a go at kayak sailing.

Our kayak trip ended at Anchorage, a large beach that’s popular with walkers and yachties. It was the busiest beach we visited in Abel Tasman but with plenty of space for everyone.

After relaxing on the beach for a while, we took the 3.45pm water taxi back to Kaiteriteri. On the way we were lucky to see a large pod of dolphins who swam alongside our boat. They are a rare sight in Abel Tasman and it was the perfect way to end the day.

Dolphins in Abel Tasman National Park

We saw dolphins on our water taxi ride back to Kaiteriteri!

You can book this combined Abel Tasman cruise, walk and kayak experience here. 

If you’d rather do a shorter walk, Kaiteriteri Kayaks offers another trip, the Abel Tasman Full-Day Kayak, Seals and Cruise Experience which involves kayaking in the morning and then a water taxi trip to Anchorage where you have free time to relax on the beach or do a short walk to quieter Te Pukatea Bay.

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3) Sail Abel Tasman National Park

Split Apple Rock near Abel Tasman National Park

Most Abel Tasman boat trips pass the unique Split Apple Rock

If you’re not feeling energetic, you can still enjoy Abel Tasman National Park by taking a boat trip.

On our third Abel Tasman day trip, we rented a sailing catamaran with a group of friends from Abel Tasman Sailing Adventures.

We relaxed, drank and ate on the boat as we enjoyed the views of the coastline. We anchored off Te Pukatea, a perfect crescent of sand near Anchorage, where we stand up paddle boarded and swam to shore.

This is a fun option if you have a group and are more interested in relaxing than hiking.

If you aren’t with a group, they run scheduled Abel Tasman sailing day tours that individuals and couples can join. 

You can also explore the park by taking a water taxi to one of the beaches. There you can relax or do a short walk before being picked up by the water taxi later in the day.

There are so many options. From Kaiteriteri or Marahau one of the closest options is to get the water taxi to Anchorage where there’s a large beach. You can also walk from here to lovely Te Pukatea Bay in about 20 minutes.

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Abel Tasman National Park Map

You can also download a detailed Abel Tasman walking map from the DOC website. 

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Summary

Abel Tasman is perfect for enjoying on a day trip. There are so many options for all fitness levels and interests. I hope I’ve given you some ideas above but you can also take a water taxi to any of the beaches, walk a section of the track, and then get picked up by the water taxi at the end.

Although it’s possible to visit on a half-day trip, I highly recommend giving Abel Tasman at least one full day as it’s such a beautiful place and you’ll want time to linger on those beaches. Even after three trips to the park, we still can’t wait to return.

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More New Zealand Tips

Another gorgeous coastal track on the top of the South Island is the Queen Charlotte Track through the Marlborough Sounds.

The beaches are pebbly rather than sandy, but the water is just as clear and the hills lush and green. The views are even more stunning, it’s not as busy, and there are more lodges along the way.

The whole trail takes 3–5 days, but you can do day hikes from Picton. See my Queen Charlotte Track guide for all the details.

Not far from Marlborough Sounds is the Marlborough wine region which is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. We spent a relaxing few days here staying in a charming B&B, cycling to the wineries, and eating delicious food. Our Marlborough wineries travel guide has plenty of tips on the best way to explore.

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