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 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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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