The best hikes in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

I’m a tiny bit embarrassed to say that before we came to New Zealand, I hadn’t actually heard of Aoraki/Mount Cook! Truth be told I didn’t really know a lot about New Zealand at all. At a whopping 3,724m tall, Aoraki/Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in the country, and its image is plastered on guidebooks, postcards, Pinterest… how couldn’t I have known that?

Situated in the middle of the South Island, along the fault line that caused the huge rupture in the land more commonly known as the Southern Alps, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park covers an area of over 700 square kilometres. If you drive 65km up the long, winding road from the closest town, with the vibrant blue of Lake Pukaki beside you, you’ll reach a tiny village nestled amongst the mountains. It’s home to towering peaks, glacial lakes and endless snow. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is one of the most beautiful areas of New Zealand – and the entire world, for that matter.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is one of the most sacred areas in the country for the indigenous Māori people. They discovered the mountain some time around 1300AD when they first arrived in New Zealand, and named the peak ‘Aoraki’ which translates as ‘Cloud Piercer’ – that’s a bit menacing isn’t it! According to legend, there was once a young boy named Aoraki who was on a voyage around the world with his three brothers. Their canoe got stranded on a reef and tilted; they climbed onto the top side but were frozen in the southerly wind and turned to stone. Their canoe became the South Island and their prows became the Marlborough Sounds. Aoraki, the tallest of the brothers, became the highest peak, and his brothers created the Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (the Southern Alps).

In 1851, the peak was renamed ‘Mount Cook’ after Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to discover New Zealand in 1770. It was renamed its current name – both the Māori and English names – in 1998, following the settlement between Ngāi Tahu iwi (the local tribe) and the Crown.

Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com
Aoraki/ Mount Cook from the Hooker Valley Track

Before we moved to New Zealand, I didn’t really think much to hiking – and definitely didn’t think I’d be capable of climbing a mountain! And before you think otherwise, no, we haven’t climbed Aoraki/Mount Cook – I wish! Whilst New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary used the peak as his training ground before summiting Everest, this mountain is by no means an easy feat. It’s actually a very dangerous challenge; at least 80 people have died trying to reach the peak and you can only go with a guide. Surprising perhaps that the first ascent to the summit was way back in 1894 by a group of male New Zealanders, and the first female to climb – an Australian named Freda du Faur in 1910 – did it in a skirt… what a woman! We had no plans to climb the mountain as we are wayyy too inexperienced, but we adored the area for its diverse hikes!

Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com
The clouds begin to roll in…

If Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is on your itinerary for New Zealand (and it should be!), don’t be surprised if you don’t see the mountain at Lake Pukaki lookout or at the West Coast’s Lake Matheson; he likes to keep his coat of cloud on a lot of the time. This means, you need to be really careful about when you plan to visit Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.

The first time we visited, we didn’t really look at the weather forecast beforehand. And to reward us for not being organised, the weather was DISGUSTING: constant rain, a duvet of cloud above us… the same was predicted for the rest of the week. We decided to stay the night and hoped for better weather the following day. Nope; we woke to more rain and endless grey cloud. Adamant we were going to make the most of our visit, we embarked on the 3 hour-long Hooker Valley track, only to realise halfway along that the clouds really weren’t budging. There was absolutely no point doing this walk. We hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the mountain! So, we left. We drove away from the National Park and carried on our itinerary, deciding to revisit the area in January, when the sun was out the whole time we were there!

Try to be flexible with your itinerary if you can, planning your visit when there are a few consecutive days of good weather. I recommend at least two days and one night in Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park; that way, if the weather is dreadful on the first day, chances are it might get better on the second. No doubt you’ll get a few clouds, but hopefully you’ll be able to see the mountain at least!

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com

Hooker Valley Track

This hike HAD to be in the list. It’s included in every single list of best hikes in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park – and rightly so; the views at the end of the trail are nothing short of spectacular.

At the start of the walk, there are short side tracks to the Alpine Memorial and Freda’s Rock; both are worth a stop. The track is mostly flat with a gradual incline. It follows the Hooker River and there are three swing bridges along the way. Around the hallway point, there’s a small wooden shelter with two long-drop toilets outside. There are several lookouts on the track, which offer views of the beautiful scenery – but the one at the end is the one that’ll blow you away. Mighty Aoraki/Mount Cook stands tall, seemingly erupting out of the Hooker glacier below. The glacial lake often has huge icebergs in it, even in the middle of summer. The best time to be there is for sunrise, but views are stunning on any clear day.

  • Length: 3 hours (return)
  • Start from: White Horse Hill DOC campground and carpark.
  • Height gain: 80m over 5km
  • Note: You can also start the track from the village, but should add an additional hour to the length.

Governors Bush Walk

This short trail heads through the tawhai (silver beech) trees into the lush New Zealand forest. There’s a lookout point of Aoraki/Mount Cook and is a great opportunity to see some of the native plants and wildlife in the area; there are small notices to advise the names of the plants. Although it’s only a short walk, you do feel miles from civilisation. This is a great walk if it’s raining!

  • Length: 1 hour (loop track)
  • Height gain: 100m
  • Start from: The public shelter

Governors Bush Walk, Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com

Glencoe Walk

This short walk climbs through the totara trees to a lookout point, which is a great spot to watch the sunset as the light plays over the mountains. This is another track which offers a good opportunity to see native birds and will be a fantastic end to your day exploring Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.

  • Length: 30 min return
  • Height gain: 40m
  • Start from: Behind the Hermitage Hotel. Go all the way behind it and there’s a cut on your right.

Sunset in Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com

Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View Walk

This short walk ascends a number of steps, first to the lakes, and then to a viewpoint of the glacier. You may be a little confused to discover that the ‘Blue Lakes’ are in fact green; —. The reward at the top of the climb to the viewpoint blew us away. Glaciers cover around 40% of the park and they are all rapidly receding – but it’s incredible just how clearly you can see the 27km-long Tasman Glacier. No trees in the way, no mountains blocking the view – you can clearly see the huge wall of ice at the end of the lake. Personally, I think this walk was better than the routes to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, as you can see so much more.

  • Length: 40 min return 
  • Height Gain: 100m
  • Start from: Blue Lakes Car Park
Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com
See that wall of ice at the end of the lake? That’s the Tasman Glacier.

Mueller Hut

Still on our to-do list, this steep, ungraded track ascends the Sealy Range and rewards you with panoramic views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and the Southern Alps. Mueller Hut has been labelled the most beautifully located hut in the whole of New Zealand, and I think they got that right. The track ascends to the Sealy Tarns via lots of steps, and then, from what I understand, you pretty much have to scramble your way up the rocks through the tussocks until you reach the bright red hut nestled amongst the snow.

You can do this hike all in one day, but when there’s a hut waiting for you at the top, why not stay the night? You’ll need to book your stay with DOC in advance. Rambler Rosie has a really good post on this hike, as do Jordan & Jenna at Stoked for Saturday. I’m gutted we didn’t do this hike… Next time!

  • Length: 3-5 hours one way / 5.2km one way (10.4km return)
  • Height Gain: 1000m
  • Start from: Signposted from DOC Visitor Centre, cross over the road towards Hooker valley
Mueller Hut, Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park - spinthewindrose.com
Source: Stoked for Saturday

Where to stay

Despite the small size of Mount Cook Village, there is a range of accommodation to suit everyone from the budget backpacker to high-end travellers.

We stayed at the White Horse Hill DOC Campground. You can book online or pay when you arrive in the honesty box. It costs $13 per adult per night, and, whilst it’s not free, it’s worth every cent to wake up surrounded by the mountains, and also means you can leave your bed close by if you want to venture out at night to catch the milky way, or in the early hours to catch the sunrise.

If you don’t have a tent or campervan, try the traveller-friendly YHA Aoraki Mount Cook Backpackers hostel. For a little luxury, the Hermitage Hotel is what you need;

Or perhaps you would prefer to stay in Aoraki/Mount Cook Alpine Lodge, which is surrounded by native bush and bird life with stunning views of the mountains.

What to bring

You need to be prepared for your trip to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park; whilst it’s well-populated with tourists, you should be aware of potential dangers before embarking on any of the hikes in the park and need to bring the right clothes and equipment with you.

  • Click here to read my post about hiking in New Zealand.
  • Expect the unexpected when it comes to the weather: bring summer and winter wear – don’t forget sun cream! Layer up: start with a thermal base layer, add a top, a thick fleece and a waterproof jacket.
  • Check what equipment is recommended for certain hikes at the visitor centre. You may need walking poles, an ice axe and crampons.
  • Don’t forget a good pair of hiking boots!
  • If you’re camping at the DOC campsite, bring all your cooking and camping equipment; there’s a basic shelter with running water where you can cook and dispose of your trash, but it isn’t anything overly fancy!

Do you enjoy hiking? Would you like to visit Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park?

Thanks for reading and happy travels

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something from the linked site, I’ll earn a tiny (and I mean tiny!) commission at no extra cost to you, which contributes to running this blog.

Subscribe to the mailing list

Enter your email address to have every new post sent directly to your inbox.

No spam, ever. You can unsubscribe at any time.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

27 Comments

  1. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Aoraki/Mount Cook either (until this post)! I really don’t know much about New Zealand, except that I want to go! When I do make my way there, this national park will definitely be on my list. Your pictures are amazing

  2. This is a great post Abbi and all of these hikes are awesome. The Mueller Hut one is a favourite of mine. Mt Cook is a challenging mountain, climbers die on it most years (usually Australians who underestimate it). My husband attempted it a few years ago but they were turned back by bad weather.

  3. What stunning photographs, and a great roundup of some of the hikes and level of effort. Looks like a national park that’s well worth the trip. Jay @rovingjay

  4. Your photos are great! It does look like scenery from a movie. 😉 Love the mountain peak covered in snow, and the valley, and that Glencoe Walk sounds just like something I would do. It’s so great when the place you’re unfamiliar with surprises you like that, right? 🙂

  5. Oh my, the mountains look picturesque! I love how detailed this is, with all the information about distance, time taken and a little run down of each trail. I like knowing a bit about the place so thanks for the little history intro!
    I’d like to think I’m an avid hiker and NZ has been on the top of my list since I can remember. Definitely saving this as inspiration for future trips! I’m excited to get back to the mountains.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Caroline! NZ is definitely the place for you if you like hiking. There are so many trails! And some of the best scenery in the world. Hope you make the trip someday!

  6. The glacier is absolutely stunning! I am going to New Zealand in December, so I’m excited to see how beautiful it is. I hadn’t heard of Mount Cook either, but I think I prefer the Maori name. Either way, if I was to hike it, I would definitely want to do it in a skirt.

  7. I can’t get over the beauty of these photos! You’re making me a bit jealous, actually LOL. When I first visited NZ I only visited Auckland and I didn’t get to see the beauty that you captured here. The photos are to die for! My fave is the one with the sunsetting light over the mountain, just gorg!

    1. Thanks for your comment Jacklyn and sorry not sorry for making you jealous haha! You have to go back, NZ is so amazing. Glad you enjoyed the photos, thanks for the compliment!

  8. What absolutely stunning photos, my goodness. I had heard of Mt. Cook, but I didn’t know much about it to be honest. Thanks for informing me, haha. I’m not much of a hiker, but these look tempting.

    1. Some of these hikes are suitable even for people who aren’t into hiking, and to be honest, the scenery in NZ is so beautiful you can often just pull over, get out of the car and snap some gorgeous photos! 🙂

  9. Oh my god, THOSE PICTURES! New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries ever and you showed it in such a perfect way. I LOVE this post, I think I will pin it directly on my fridge to remember I have to go there 😉

  10. Your photos are beautiful and this post has definitely inspired me to start dreaming of a return trip to New Zealand. Believe it or not I visited NZ for just two weeks from the UK (that’s the maximum amount of time they’d allow me to have off work!) so it was such a whistlestop tour AND it was in the middle of winter so a lot of the activities we had planned (a hike up to Franz Josef Glacier) got cancelled due to bad weather. Would love to return in the summertime 🙂

  11. What a great post, really full guide for someone looking to do hikes in the area! I like that hikes you recommend are max 3 hours, as sometimes reading that it takes 6+ hours (and knowing how much we stops for pictures!) it’s impossible for us to do it in one day.
    I hope I get to do some of these hikes some day 🙂

Leave a Reply