The park was founded in 1942, largely through the efforts of ornithologist and author Pérrine Moncrieff to have land reserved for the purpose. Moncrieff served on the park board from 1943 to 1974.
The park was opened on the 18 December 1942 to mark the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman's visit. Those in attendance at the opening ceremony at Tarakohe included Charles van der Plas, as personal representative of the Netherlands' Queen, Wilhelmina. The Queen was made Patron of the park.
The idea for the park had been under consideration since June 1938. The Crown set aside 15,225 hectares (37,622 acres), comprising 8,900 hectares (21,900 acres) of proposed state forest, 5,809 hectares (14,354 acres) of Crown land and 554 hectares (1,368 acres) of other reserve land for the national park. The Golden Bay Cement Company donated the land where the memorial plaque was sited. The area's primary historic interest was the visit of Tasman in 1642, D'Urville in 1827, and the New Zealand Company barques Whitby and Will Watch, and brig Arrow in 1841. The site was also of significant botanical interest.