When locals list their reasons why they love to live in Auckland, the great parks are always close to the top. Less than an hour from the CBD, sometimes mere minutes from a suburb north, south, east or west, these huge swathes of bush, pasture and beaches are our "green lungs", our playground and our way of protecting the fragile Earth, its plants and animals.
With 23 regional parks - five of them new - Auckland's parks do not stand still. Over six million people visit a year, more than 65,000 volunteer hours a year support planting days, farming, clean-ups and more.
In the past few years, Auckland Council's focus has been on linking people to the land - creating wildlife corridors, adding recreation trails and connecting regional parks to other public open spaces and trails.
There are more places to stay overnight, opportunities to go horse-riding, mountain biking or orienteering. About to open is the new multi-day sea-kayak/waka trail in the southern Hauraki Gulf and a whole new park at Waitawa (we'll have more details about each when they open through the summer).
Everyone has their favourites. But get yourself out of a rut and check out these new facilities and activities in old favourites, refreshed parks and great overnighters:
1. It's play time
Omana Regional Park's very cool children's playground opened in June and reflects the delightful trend of including storytelling, climbable art and challenges into playgrounds. There are still traditional bits - albeit with a twist - but this park's four carved pou (posts) reflect the Ngai Tai tribe's connections to this area, representing four birds that visit the park and were important to early Maori life. The play equipment includes interpretation and storytelling, and a painted and carved whare.
You can spot the O-Manawatere pa, a small rectangular area on the cliff edge with a defensive "ring" ditch around the three inland sides. From 1837 it was one of the region's first farms, was dug for kauri gum and prospected for gold and silver before it was bought for a regional park in 1970
Omana also offers seashore education programmes, farm animals. There's mountain biking, fishing and kayaking (this is the start point of the coming eastern kayak trail. Safe swimming at high tide, plenty of shady pohutukawa.
Phone: (09) 536 7012 for bookings and inquiries.
Get there: Exit State Highway 1 at Highbrook Drive, through Botany Town Centre on to Whitford Maraetai road (10km).
2. Hey big birds
Muriwai's much-loved gannet viewing platform is a huge hit with summer visitors who come to see the 1200 pairs of adult gannets nesting here (they can be seen between August and March). From the car park at Maukatia/Maori Bay, take the Takapu Refuge walk which skirts around headland then descends to the end of Muriwai Beach Access Rd. Two short branch tracks lead to lookouts over the gannet colony. You'll find new interpretation signage, a much-needed upgrade to the walkway and a viewing platform from the walk.
Also see: apart from the swimming, fishing and surfing (take care, this is dangerous surf), you can go horse riding and dogs are permitted on leash. There is no council campground, but there is a privately run one.
Getting there: Muriwai Road runs off State Highway 16 to Waimauku.
3. Shiny and new
Atiu Creek Regional Park was gifted to the city by Jackie and Pierre Chatelanat in 2006. The couple, who had farmed the block since 1951, wanted to ensure people could enjoy access to the Kaipara Harbour, and protect the cultural and heritage values of the area.
This summer, Auckland Council has opened a new campground on the northern side of the park, near Solomon's Bay. You can drive into the park from the main car park (about 3km) but the charming addition is a holding paddock for horses next to the campground. This means horse riders - and their ponies - can stay overnight up to seven days (limits and conditions apply).
The camp is inclusive too, with flat access and a wheelchair accessible toilet block (no shower).
Tangata whenua of this land are the people associated with nearby Oruawharo Marae, whose stories you can see in the carvings of the pou kaitiaki that watch over sacred sites.
Look for the archaeological sites - several large pa (fortifications), occupation terraces, gardening areas, food storage pits and midden (food refuse) sites.
Also see: stay and explore Atiu Creek Regional Park by horse, mountain bike, or on foot on the tracks. There are two baches to rent, too.
Getting there: Head off State Highway 1 to Wellsford, at Port Albert Road. Follow the signs to the park. The property lies on the Kaipara Harbour, on the Okahukura (Tapora) Peninsula.
4. Get orientated
New orienteering trails have opened this year at Mahurangi Regional Park, Duder Regional Park and Atiu Creek Regional Park (see 3.).
They have been developed in collaboration with orienteering groups so use international orienteering symbols. Pick up a proper orienteering map, complete with contours, at the car park.
For beginners, there are good explanations of how to read maps and find your way on the trail (you can also check the Orienteering link on the Auckland Council website) but it's a great chance for families to take a self-discovery walk, whether you are into the sport or not. Follow the numbered markers across pasture, farm park, coastal paths - all with beautiful views.
Duder Park is on the pohutukawa-fringed Whakakaiwhara Peninsula, which juts out into the Tamaki Strait. The 360-degree views extend to the Brookby/Maraetai hills, the Hunua Ranges and Hauraki Gulf islands. Camping is available at the Te Wharau (Malua Bay) campground. There are farm animals, and fishing, horseriding, mountain biking and paragliding are popular here.
Mahurangi Park at the mouth of the Mahurangi Harbour spans the Puhoi River, north of Wenderholm, and along Te Muri Beach to Sullivans Bay and Mita Bay. Mahurangi has four cottages to rent and camping at Lagoon Bay, Mita Bay, Sullivans and Te Muri Beach.
Duder: Turn off the southern motorway at Te Irirangi Drive, through to Whitford and the Maraetai Coast Road to Umupuia.
Mahurangi West: Turn off to Mahurangi West Road is about 6km north of Wenderholm on State Highway 1. You can get to Scott point by following the signs to Snells Beach from Warkworth.
5. In great footsteps
The Hillary Trail was Auckland's first multi-day tramp when it opened in 2010.
The self-guided four-day tramp in the Waitakere Ranges goes through 77km of native forest and along the wild coast of the Waitakere Ranges, connecting various park tracks from Titirangi's Arataki Visitor Centre to Muriwai or Swanson.
There are basic backcountry campgrounds at Barn Paddock, Whatipu Caves, Tunnel Point, McCreadies Paddock and Craw, and pretty cottages (a kilometre or so off the trail proper).
The trail captures Sir Edmund Hillary's sense of adventure and introduces fit beginners to the joys of overnight camping.
After a year of major upgrades on the ground - maintenance, re-routing of some tracks to protect kauri, improved metal on some of the damper spots - the council is now refreshing the information for walkers.
In the next week or two there'll be an improved website, then a brochure suggesting ways to cut the trail into smaller segments, improved maps and accommodation information.
It is still tramping - there's hilly terrain, exposed coastline and some challenging bits, but you might like to tackle it in stages to build up your fitness.
You do have to arrange your own food, equipment and transport, as there are no guided tours, and mobile coverage is limited.
Staff at the Arataki Visitor Centre are only too keen to give you advice on tailoring the trail to suit you.
Pick up a comprehensive Hillary Trail brochure at the Visitor Centre or download from the Auckland Council website.
Getting there: The Arataki Visitor Centre is on Scenic Drive, 6km from Titirangi. You can also enter the trail from Huia, Whatipu, Karekare, Piha, Lake Wainamu, the end of the Te Henga Walkway on Constable Rd, the Cascade Kauri Park at the end of Falls Road, or where the Swanson Pipeline Track meets Tram Valley Rd.
Mountain biking at Hamlins Hill Mutukaroa - right in the heart of industrial Mt Wellington.
Kayaking Te Ara Moana "the seagoing pathway": Still getting its finishing touches, this is a self-guided five-day sea kayak tour along 50km of the south eastern coastline connecting five of Regional Parks - Omana, Duder, the new Waitawa Bay Campground (open only to paddlers, so do not venture beyond the campground as this park is not yet open to the public), Tawhitokino, Tapapakanga and Waharau (which extends into the eastern foothills of the Hunuas - you can stay at Tainui or Blackberry Flats Campground.
Waitawa Regional Park will open to the public in early 2014, however there is limited access to the short walk to the Pawhetau headland for spectacular vistas towards Pakihi and Ponui Islands.