New Zealand = nature at its best! We are amazed by the natural beauty we saw during our time in New Zealand. It is hard to pick some favorites here, but one place that definitely got us was the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. This is also where we met New Zealand’s highest mountain: Mount Cook at 3724 m. Surrounded by stunning snowcapped peaks, tussock lands, glaciers, incredibly blue lakes and a picture perfect landscape this scenery provides the perfect backdrop for some amazing hikes around this epic mountain. And no worries, if you do not see yourself mountaineering on Aoraki Mount Cook any time soon, sticking to some of the great hikes will provide you with an amazing experience already.
How to get there?
You can best reach the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park by car. It takes approx. 1 hour from Lake Tekapo and 2.5 hours from Queenstown.
Besides camping close to Mount Cook and witnessing some avalanches we can easily pick two highlights from our time in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park: 1) The Hooker Valley Track – we highly recommend to do this hike (more info see our recommendations) for sunset on a clear day. There are no words to describe seeing Mount Cook during sunset. At some point the whole mountain turned red and we simply could not get enough of the stunning scenery. Do not forget your torch to get back safe! 2) The Sealy Tarns Track – (again, see our recommendations for more info) although the whole climb can be quite exhausting, the views from the top are amazing. There also is a huge table, so make sure to bring some food for a picnic with a breathtaking panoramic view.
How long to stay?
We decided to stay for 2 nights at our campsite. This gave us enough time to enjoy most of the popular day hikes and treks. If you do not have much time on your hands, we would recommend to arrive early in the morning and (if possible) stay for sunset, if the weather is right. This way you can take in as much of the breathtaking scenery as possible and we think it makes an awesome day trip as well.
Where to stay?
There is good accommodation available in Aoraki Mount Cook Village, perfectly positioned to take advantage of the spectacular scenery and the activities available. As we were traveling with a camper, we had the luxury to camp at the DOC White Horse Hill Campsite right at the base of the mountains, close to some pretty nice walking treks. It was 13 NZD per person/per night and we had access to some good facilities (kitchen shelters and toilets). In the village you will find a hot shower (5 min, 2 NZD). The nearest towns are Twizel and Lake Tekapo. They both also offer a range of restaurants, cafes and accommodation options.
Walking/Hiking There are a couple of good walks which are easily reachable from Mount Cook Village, all of them can be completed in less than 4 hours:
Governors Bush Walk This walk starts at the public shelter near the petrol station. It is a 1 hour loop that meanders through silver beech forest all the way to a lookout point. It then loops back to its starting point.
Bowen Bush Walk This walk is an easy 10 min walk which starts opposite Alpine Guides, also near the petrol station. It is a simple loop that takes you through totara and celery pine forest with some informative signs about plants en route.
Glencoe Walk This short 30 min return walk lets you wind your way through totara trees and ferns to a pretty good lookout above the village. You will find the starting point behind the Hermitage hotel. The end is at the water tanks, where you also find the views of the village and the Hooker Valley.
Hooker Valley Track This has not only been our favorite walk at Mount Cook, but also is one of the most popular walks in whole Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is a scenic walk leading you into the foothills of the Southern Alps, offering excellent mountain, glacier and river views. It starts at the White Horse Hill Campground (5 min drive from village center). It finishes at the spectacular Hooker Glacier terminal lake. Make sure to plan about 3 hours return.
Kea Point Walk This walk can be started from either the DOC Visitor Center or the White Horse Hill campground. It finishes at the Kea Point viewing deck, with awesome views of the Southern Alps and the Mueller Glacier Lake. From the campground it is 1 hour return, from the village make sure to plan 2 hours return.
Sealy Tarns Track This walk is also known as the Red Tarns Track. And if you love stairs – we have found the perfect thing for you! The 2 hour (return) steep climb will sure test your endurance, but will also reward you with perfect views of Mount Cook, the valley below and the village.
Tasman Glacier Close to Aoraki/Mount Cook you will find the Tasman Valley and the Tasman Glacier. From the so-called Blue Lakes Shelter there are a couple of short walks that you can do to see the glacier and its valley. Unfortunately the glacier is melting at an average of 477 to 822 m a year and there is not much left of the once amazing views which you could get without great effort. But it is still nice to see the glacier in the distance and get a closer view of the massive lake and valley it created. Just in case you want to get a little closer – boat rides and glacier flights are available.
Hikes: In general there are two hikes to choose from – 1) Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View (40 min return, good views of the lower Tasman Glacier and the mountains at the head of the valley, Note: The Blue Lakes, originally named because of their intense blue color, could now be more accurately described as green ponds) and 2) Tasman Glacier Lake (1 hour, this track leads you to a viewpoint of the glacier terminal lake and the source of the Tasman River, icebergs can be seen floating in the lake in summer, and in winter the lake freezes).
Lake Pukaki Nesteled under the shadow of Aoraki/Mount Cook, this glacial lake, is the bluest we have ever seen in our whole life. Its milky blue color is incredible and the freezing water is perfect for a (very) short dip during a hot summer day or after a long and sweaty hike. Make sure to come here on a sunny day – then the color is truly mesmerizing. Lake Pukaki is also famously known as the surrounding setting for ‘Lake-Town’ in ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’, but has also been used to backdrop major location scenes in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit Trilogies’. Just in case you are looking for a good spot to take the perfect photo of Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook, there is a pond on the Lake Pukaki side of the Canal Road where you can get reflections of Mount Cook on windless days. If you are driving from Lake Tekapo, make sure to take the turnoff for Hyam Road from State Highway 8, and then drive to the pond on the Canal Road. And if you are up for a hike, there are a couple of tracks available as well: Lake Pukaki Area Tracks. Lake Tekapo During winter, Lake Tekapo is a superb ski resort. In summer it rather is an aquatic playground. From ice skating, to canoeing, jet boating, yachting and fishing, your possibilities are almost unlimited. As recreation always has been an important part of the town, good tramping, cycling, golf and other popular activities are available as well. There even are some three-tiered hot pools surrounded by native alpine plants at the Tekapo Springs. Additionally the scenery you get here is breathtaking – the turquoise lake, the snow-capped Southern Alps and the super fresh and clear air, which is reputed to be the clearest in the southern hemisphere. And at night you also get an unforgettable night sky, as Tekapo is one of the world’s best places to observe the evening sky. The Mt John University Observatory is the perfect place to take in this spectacular after-dark activity. Here you get awesome views of the Southern Alps and the Mackenzie Basin. There also are several tours on offer which include stargazing, astrophotography and nature walking elements. You even have daytime, twilight and dusk options. Fairlie This small town is known as the ‘Gateway to Mackenzie’ and is not just popular for skiing in the winter months – there also are plenty of nice treks to keep you occupied. The most opular ones are the Hill Crest Track (8 km path with a 400 m climb that leads to beautiful views), Pihi River Gorge Track, Jack Lovelock Memorial Track (good for walking and cycling), Pioneer Park (several good tracks available here) and the Fairlie River Walk (good for cycling with alternative return routes). And on top the whole place is famous for its delicios pies. So make sure to not miss this delicious treat!