Guide to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
Mount Cook is one of New Zealand’s most iconic landmarks. There is something special about this land that instils strength and a sense of calmness in those who choose to venture there. It is no surprise that the land has special significance to the Māori people. It is their most sacred of peaks, believed to link the natural and supernatural worlds together. Mount Cook is a place where myths and legends come to life: from the vivid star-studded night sky of the Mackenzie country to the startling blue waters of Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, the glaciers and icebergs galore, and of course the looming face of the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook itself. This is your guide to the park covering everything from the Mt Cook weather to Mt Cook hikes.
Fun Facts about Mt Cook New Zealand
- The Ngāi Tahu tale goes that while out on a sea voyage, Aoraki and his three brothers hit a reef which overturned their canoe. To save themselves, the brothers climbed up on top of their canoe when the freezing south wind blew and turned them into stone. The canoe is believed to be the South Island and Aoraki and his brothers are the peaks of the Southern Alps. Aoraki, being the tallest of them all, is said to be Mount Cook. His name, Aoraki, means ‘cloud-piercer’.
- Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is one of the world’s finest mountaineering playgrounds. It is the training ground of the first Everest summiteer, the Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary.
- The first ever attempt to climb Mount Cook (the highest mountain in New Zealand) was way back in 1882 by the Irishman, Reverend W.S Green and two Swiss guides. But it wasn’t until 1894 that it was successfully summited for the first time. It was three Kiwis, Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham who managed the feat. The first woman to follow was the Australian mountaineer Freda du Faur in 1910, and she did so in a skirt!
Best Mt Cook Hikes
However, it’s not just a place for mountaineers. There’s a lot of be said for the walks in the lower valley for us mere mortals. Some of our favourite walks in New Zealand can be found in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, from flat winding tracks to rewarding climbs, there’s something to suit everyone.
Kea Point Track
For a beautiful and easy stroll, there is the 3km (1.8 mile) long Kea Point Track. The track takes you from Mount Cook Village to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. Tuck into some lunch at the viewing point or just sit and take in the incredible views of Mount Sefton, the Footstool, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake and Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Governors Bush Walk
It’s not just alpine walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, you can also opt to hike through the native New Zealand forest. For a short looped walk that leaves from the village, there is the Governors Bush walk. The one hour loop weaves through the Silver Beech forest emerging out onto epic mountain views at the top. You’ll get to see and hear native birds in action like kea and fantails.
Tasman Glacier View Track
The last of our short stroll recommendations in the national park is the Tasman Glacier View Track. Park up at Blue Lakes carpark and have a jaunt around this one hour return track. It’s the perfect way to see the giant icebergs floating on the milky green lake.
Hooker Valley Track
One of the most famous and popular hikes in the park is also one of the most gentle, the Hooker Valley Track. As you tread this track, you’ll feast your eyes on incredible views of the Mueller and Hooker Lakes, amazing icebergs and unique alpine flora. Beginning at the White Horse Hill car park, this 8km (5 mile) route should take no more than three hours.
Sealy Tarns Track
This route is one seriously rewarding leg workout. Known fondly as the ‘stair master’ or the ‘stairway to heaven’, you’ll pull yourself up exactly 1,882 steps to Sealy Tarns where the views out over the Mueller and Hooker Lakes are out of this world. You can begin this walk from the White Horse Hill car park or Mount Cook Village itself.
Mueller Hut Route
For the ultimate full day hike, you can head all the way up to Mueller Hut. Sealy Tarns is your half way point, so it’s a climb! You’ll gain 1,040 metres over a 5.2km (3.2 mile) distance. However, the experience of that climb and the reward of those views of Mount Cook, the lakes, Mueller Glacier, and the endless horizon stretching out before you while kea and New Zealand falcons circle overhead is something you’ll never forget. Your turn-around point is the famous Alpine Hut, where you’ll get to experience life in the backcountry while you catch your breath.
Best things to do in Mt Cook
If this is going to be your one and only time in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, then you should definitely consider venturing up to the Tasman Glacier by helicopter! When you land on this 29km (18 mile) stretch of ice (New Zealand’s longest glacier), you will head off on a hike to explore the magical ice formations.
Avert your eyes upwards! Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is part of New Zealand's only International Dark Sky Reserve and there you’ll find some of the best stargazing in the world.
The Department of Conservation has 17 huts in the park. If you are an experienced mountaineer or ski-tourer, you will find plenty of routes to explore and amenities in place to keep you safe out in the backcountry.
Explore the village
You’re completely immersed in nature with endless views, walks and towering mountains… embrace it. However, if the weather is too wild outside, then there are some highlights in the village itself worth checking out. We recommend a visit to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, the DOC (Department of Conservation) office and having a coffee, lunch or snack at the Old Mountaineer’s Café. And of course, if you're looking for the ultimate mountain escape then look no further than a stay at New Zealand's original alpine hotel, The Hermitage.
Mount Cook: How to get there
Mount Cook is located in the South Island on the border between Canterbury and the West Coast. There is only one way in and out of the National Park, and that is through the super scenic State Highway 80. The views of the looming mountains and the crystal blue waters of Lake Pukaki en route to the village are truly a wonder to behold.
Mt Cook weather and the best time to visit
Mt Cook weather, as with all alpine areas, can be unpredictable. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is open to visitors year-round and is a magnificent experience whatever season you choose to go. However, if you are not skilled in mountaineering, your hike options are narrowed considerably in winter. Therefore, we recommend travelling here anytime between spring through to autumn (October to April) to get the most out of your experience.
Best way to explore Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
You should come and experience Aoraki/Mount Cook with us, the locals! On all of our South Island, New Zealand hiking tours you’ll get to explore the area. You’ll have your choice of walks, from the Hooker Valley Track to Sealy Tarns (or Mueller Hut). You’ll also get the opportunity to add on a heli-hiking adventure on the Tasman Glacier or board a zodiac boat to go explore the icebergs of the Tasman Lake if you wish.
If you want to find out more about the incredible 5-14 day hiking tours we run in New Zealand, you can request a free copy of our brochure here.