Visitor's Guide to Mt Cook


By Kim Mackay-Wallace

6 minute read

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Aoraki/Mt Cook

Aoraki or Mt Cook is one of New Zealand’s most well-known National Parks, containing all but one of New Zealand’s 3000m peaks, including Aoraki/Mount Cook itself, the country’s tallest and most famed mountain. A stunning drive along the shores of the emerald blue Lake Pukaki (which gains it’s magical colour from glacial silt) brings visitors to Mt Cook Village, the gateway to the heart of the Southern Alps. MCV (as it is affectionately known to locals) is the starting point of multiple hikes that will take you deeper into the National Park, with something for everyone to enjoy. In addition to hikes, there are plenty of things to do in Mt Cook village, including glacier tours, stargazing experiences and several great places to get a tasty bite to eat while taking in the impressive mountain vistas.

Aoraki/Mt Cook Hikes

Hooker Valley Track: 3-4hrs return | 8km/5miles

The Hooker Valley Track is perhaps the best-loved of the trails, as it takes the walker up close and personal with Aoraki, ending at the Hooker Lake, above which the summit of Mt Cook rises. On a clear day the entire face of the mountain can be clearly seen, rising to the picturesque Low Peak at 3593m. The mountain feels much closer than it actually is due to its incredible size, and other impressive peaks can be seen to either side. The Hooker Valley Track is an easy 3-hour return walk on a well graded surface, with three large modern swing bridges crossing the Hooker River making for excellent photo opportunities.

Sealy Tarn Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

Sealy Tarns/Mueller Ridge: 3-4hrs, 4km/2.4miles return to Sealy Tarns | 6-7hrs, 10.4km/6.5miles return to Mueller Ridge

The Sealy Tarns/Mueller Ridge Track is an opportunity to gain some vertical metres and view Mt Cook Village from above, providing a more 3D perspective to the park. There is a total height gain of 1000m, making this track one for those that like to get the heart pumping. Needless to say, the incredible views along the Hooker Valley towards Mt Cook, which can be seen soon after starting to gain height, more than make up for the effort.

The first part of the track, known as the ‘stairway to heaven’ or less enchantingly the ‘stairmaster-2000’ takes the walker up through native bush, including beautiful alpine flowers to the freshwater lakes of the Sealy Tarns, a fine place for a smoko break or even a dip if you’re feeling brave!

The track then continues to zig-zag upwards, becoming rocky and with a gravel scree slope climb before reaching the final ridge. From here Mueller Hut is soon visible, an iconic spot that has provided shelter to many an alpine traveller over the years. Mueller Hut is the perfect lunch spot, with a comfortable deck from which to admire the incredible surroundings, with views not just toward Mt Cook but also over the Mueller Glacier and stunning mountain ranges beyond. 

If a hike up to Mueller Ridge, and other heart-pumping walks where you earn your views sounds like the type of trip you’re after, check out our Kiwi Classic Tour.

Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes Track: 1hr return | 2.6km/1.6miles

Not to be forgotten, the Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes track is another gem in the Mt Cook crown. This short walk takes you to a viewpoint situated above the glacial Tasman Lake, with the wall of the Tasman Glacier seen across the water. In summer, large pieces of ice can be seen ‘calving’ ie breaking away from this face and crashing into the lake below to become floating ice bergs – an impressive sight! Although the lower part of the Tasman Glacier is covered by rocky debris, the snowy upper stretch of this moving tongue of ice can be seen in the distance.

Other things to do in Mt Cook

Glacier Explorers

The Glacier Explorers Boat has you cruising across the Tasman Lake, where from the water you can gain full appreciation for the size of the icebergs floating past, their insides a deep emerald blue. This is the only way to get up close and personal to the glacial wall at the head of lake, an awe-inspiring perspective. Your knowledgeable glacier guide will teach you about the ever-changing glacial landscape, the history of the Tasman Glacier, and the effects of climate change on New Zealand’s glaciers. Glaciers Explorers is the only tour of its kind and is a unique and incredible experience. Our Grand Explorer and World Heritage Walking Tours include a Glacier Explorers trip, as well as a guided walk on the Hooker Valley track. 

Hermitage Glacier Explorer 3

Tasman Glacier Heli Hike

The ultimate way to fully immerse yourself in the dramatic Mt Cook landscape is by embarking on a heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier. After a short scenic flight on either a ski plane or helicopter, you will land high on New Zealand’s longest glacier, with the towering peaks of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman looming above you. Donning crampons, your guide will lead you across the gently undulating glacier past impressive ice formations and through ice tunnels. After spending a couple of hours on the glacier, another thrilling flight will deliver you back to the village.

The Tasman Glacier heli-hike is an optional add-on on any of our South Island tours. Talk to our friendly team or chat to your guides to add this once in a lifetime experience to your trip.

Star gazing

Mt Cook National Park is located within a dark sky reserve (one of only two in the Southern Hemisphere, the other being on Stewart Island) with measures in place that limit light pollution. This means that when the sun sets in Mt Cook the night sky is unlike any other, littered with stars stretching as far as the eye can see. A guided star-gazing experience includes a session in the state-of-the-art planetarium within the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre to learn a little more about the night sky, before venturing out to observe for yourself the constellations using high-powered telescopes. 

Places to eat in Mt Cook:

A classic in MCV, the Old Mountaineers Café, is a timeless place where adventurers meet for a beer and a good meal after their exploits in the hills. The walls are hung with old pieces of mountaineering equipment and photos of expeditions of old. Serving delicious meals and local beers, the Old Mountaineer is a laid-back spot to rest weary legs and make plans for the next adventure. 

hermitage breakfast mt cook lodge2

The Hermitage Restaurant is jointly famous for the incredible views that the dining room offers of the peak of Mt Cook and the ‘one buffet to end them all’. This incredible spread includes top-quality and freshly prepared cuisine from an incredible variety of cultures, including Japanese sushi, Indian curries, traditional roast meats and an incredible array of salads and veges too. The dessert selection even includes a ‘do it yourself’ sundae station.. need I say more?!

Places to stay in Mt Cook: 

Both located in the heart of Mt Cook Village, The Hermitage Hotel and Mt Cook Lodge provide accomodation for those wanting to enjoy the park a little longer and spend a night. As the village only houses staff working in the National Park, it is a privilege to be able to stay and sleep beneath the mountain giants. The first Hermitage Hotel was built in 1888 and due to damage by both fire and floods over it’s 130 year history, there have been multiple re-builds, with the current building in the heart of Mt Cook Village, looking out to the Hooker Valley. Mt Cook Lodge is a more recent addition to the village, providing a range of accomodation options, with private units and mountain views. 

Aoraki/Mt Cook is one of the most impressive and beloved spots in New Zealand, and no trip to the South Island would be complete without a trip into the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. If you've enjoyed this guide to Mt Cook and you're looking for more wild and wonderful places to explore in New Zealand check out our Ultimate guide to the Routeburn Track - we think you'll love it! 

And if you're looking for the best way to tick off all your New Zealand bucket list items then why not have a look at our New Zealand hiking tours. All of our South Island tours visit Mt Cook and include our favourite hikes, activities and eateries. Let us take care of all of the details for you, leaving you free to relax and enjoy the scenery while your experienced and knowledgeable guides take care of the rest. For more information, REQUEST A FREE COPY OF OUR BROCHURE HERE.


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