Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the South Island is home to the highest peak in New Zealand and is a playground for nature lovers. The towering snow-capped mountains and turquoise waters are iconic images of New Zealand and a perfect addition to a South Island road trip.
The heavenly scenery provides the perfect backdrop for reflection. Hiking beneath dominating peaks and beside powerful glaciers carving the future of the land, it’s a place where you become aware of both time and place.
The immense beauty of the region makes it a very popular place to visit. When considering your visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park/Aoraki, it’s important to schedule time to get off the beaten track and find peaceful moments.
GETTING TO AORAKI/MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
Getting around the South Island is easiest with a car, and Aoraki/Mount Cook is no different. Although there are some tourist buses and tours available, if you can afford it, hiring a car is best. Many of the walks around the National Park have different starting points which are most easily reached by car. It also gives you the most freedom to search the nearby area including Tekapo, stop off along the way, and take in the vistas. We hired a car through Jucy Rentals.
One of the arguably most beautiful parts of the National Park is actually the drive! There is one road into and out of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, and it just happens to be absolutely breath-taking. The gently curving Mt Cook Road hugs the shores of the electrically blue Lake Pukaki, and eventually opens up to see the famously perfect triangular peaks of the National Park. This drive along State Highway 80 is one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand and there are plenty of places to pull over and take in the majesty.
READ MORE: Milford Sound: Exploring Fiorland’s Majesty
WHERE TO BASE YOURSELF FOR EXPLORING
There are several options for exploring Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, either within the village itself or in a nearby town. Where you end up staying will depend on budget and availability. For us, by the time we went to book our accommodation in the village (three months in advance) it was already completely sold out.
MOUNT COOK VILLAGE
Mount Cook Village is a small cluster of accommodation a short distance from the starting point for many hikes. In the village itself, there is a nice hotel, a couple of motels, and some backpacker accommodation. The YHA here is a great option for budget travellers but it does book out very quickly! Be aware that the village itself has no facilities aside from a small hotel-run convenience store, so make sure you come prepared.
It is also possible to rent a campsite within the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park or secure a spot to park a camper.
Twizel is a sleepy town around 65km from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. We decided to stay in Twizel as it was the closest town outside of the National Park and had great facilities to serve as a base for our four days of hiking. The drive from Twizel to Mt Cook Village was around 45 minutes each way, but as mentioned before, the drive is so scenic you hardly notice the time!
Our accommodation was the High Country Lodge which we would not recommend. There aren’t a huge array of accommodation options in Twizel but there were several AirBNBs available and some lodges. The town itself has a couple of supermarkets, some good restaurants and bars, and nice cafés, which makes it a great place to base yourself. And being only a few minutes from Lake Pukaki, there are some beautiful places to explore locally and plenty of stargazing to enjoy!
Lake Tekapo is 105km from start of the walking tracks in the National Park, so the drive is around an hour and a quarter each way. Tekapo is a more beautiful town than Twizel, with lupin-covered shores surrounding Lake Tekapo providing an attraction in itself.
Lake Tekapo has the most number of accommodation options and styles, as well as facilities such as supermarkets and cafés, so it is also a good option. We decided against Lake Tekapo purely because of the difference in drive times as we were going to be doing it for four days in a row. If you are only visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park for a day then I would stay in Lake Tekapo because it is the most scenic option.
BEST HIKES IN AORAKI/MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
HOOKER VALLEY TRACK
Hooker Valley Track is perhaps the most well-known hike in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The relatively flat walk is well maintained and meanders beneath towering mountains and over the gushing, icy Hooker River. After crossing a few swingbridges, there is boarded track with beautiful views of Aoraki/Mount Cook on a clear day. After a gentle 40 minute walk, you will reach glacier lake. The iceberg containing lake provides a stunning foreground to the dramatic mountainous surrounds.
Although the walk is immensely popular, the views are so stunning that it would be crazy to visit the National Park without paying this area a visit!
Time | 1 – 1.5 hours return Difficulty | Easy
SEALY TARNS TRACK
Walking beneath the splendour of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park’s peaks is breathtaking in itself, but how about getting amongst them and gazing from a height? Sealy Tarns is a walk which leaves from the Hooker Valley carpark and forms the start of the Mueller Hut track. Although only a couple of hours long, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Comprising mostly of steep stairs for the entirety of the walk, with a good portion close to the edge, it may not be your cup of tea if you’re scared of heights.
The walk is ample in its rewards, however. Aside from being a fantastic workout for muscles you had forgotten existed, the views from Sealy Tarns are second to none. Looking down over Hooker Valley from such a vertiginous height gives a dramatic and awe-inspiring sense of perspective. The peaceful tarns surrounded by snow capped mountains are the ideal place to stop climbing, catch your breath, and marvel at the wonder of New Zealand’s immense beauty.
Time | 2.5 hours return Difficulty | Hard
Tasman Glacier is often overlooked on a day trip to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park in favour of the Hooker Valley Track, but this profoundly beautiful part of the park deserves your attention. There are two options you can take: the Tasman Glacier Lake Track or the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View. Both walks have incredible views of New Zealand’s longest glacier which only started forming in 1974. Seeing icebergs floating in the lake has to be a highlight, too!
Time | 1 hour return (Tasman Glacier Lake Track), 40 minutes return (Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View) Difficulty | Easy
If reaching Sealy Tarns isn’t a sufficient challenge, the trail continues upwards to Mueller Hut. This 5.2km trek up the Sealy Range rewards you with unparalleled panoramic views over the National Park. The trek from Sealy Tarns up to Mueller Hut is less maintained than up to the tarns, with the walk predominantly an alpine path through tussock and some gravelled parts. From the ridge, your eyes are treated to Mueller Glacier, sheer mountain faces, and breathtaking lakes. If you are wanting to stay overnight at Mueller Hut, the 28-bed hut needs to be pre-booked.
Time | 5 – 6 hours return Difficulty | Hard
OTHER ACTIVITIES (ASIDE FROM HIKING)
The National Park is many miles from significant light pollution and this enviable location makes it the perfect place to dabble in a spot of star gazing. If you can find yourself a night with little cloud cover, head out and marvel at their abundance.
If it takes your fancy, there are arranged stargazing tours around Lake Tekapo and Twizel. The tours take you to the best spots, explain your discoveries, and help you navigate in the dark.
HELICOPTER AND AEROPLANE TOURS
There are plenty of opportunities in New Zealand to see the world from a different perspective, none better than from the sky itself. In Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park there are a couple of companies which offer scenic helicopter/light plane flights as well as landings for remote hiking and alpine adventure. Naturally, this will cost a pretty penny, but if you’ve got money to burn or a special occasion, I imagine it would be an impressive adventure.