If you were to ask me what my favourite place in New Zealand is, I wouldn’t have to think too long.
I have great sentiment for Queenstown, where I lived and worked, and Wanaka, where I spent a significant amount of time adventuring on the local trails, but none of them are as exciting from a photographer’s perspective as Mount Cook National Park.
Home to the highest mountain in New Zealand and a playground for such names as Sir Edmund Hillary and Rob Hall, Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park is amongst some of the most sought after wilderness in the southern hemisphere.
Don’t worry! You don’t need to be a world class mountaineer with years of experience to visit this park. All you need is a bit of fitness, proper outdoor wear and a keen sense of adventure. There are lots of beginner trails you can cover here.
Mount Cook NP features on all of my self drive itineraries. Head over to my New Zealand Travel Guide to pick one which suits best your interests.
How to get to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
There is only one way in and out of the park – State highway 80 and it also happens to be one of the most scenic roads on the South Island! The turn off from highway 8 onto 80 is very well sign posted and impossible to miss.
The two nearest towns are Tekapo (105km away) and Twizel (65km), where you can stock up on food, fuel and other necessities.
There is a little village with a few hotels, and a visitor centre directly in the park as well as one very scenic, but busy, campground operating on a first come first serve basis.
If you forgot to bring food with you, there is also a small convenience store in the village, but as you can probably guess, it’s very overpriced.
Where to hike in Mount Cook National Park
Whether you are a beginner or an expert looking for a challenge, below you can find 5 hiking recommendations for your first visit. I’ve done all these hikes myself, some of them multiple times, because you know, I just can’t get enough!
1. Hooker Valley
- Distance: 10km return
- Duration: 2 – 3 hour return.
- Elevation Change: 100m
This relatively flat hike takes you along the Hooker River between mighty peaks, over 3 picturesque suspension bridges until climaxing at the Hooker Glacial Lake showcasing the sheer rawness of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook.
This is one of my favorite photo locations on the South Island! The hike is really easy to follow and very well maintained.
The Hooker Valley can get busy during the day. My advice is to go either really early in the morning or at sunset to beat the crowds. Just make sure you come prepared and don’t go alone.
2. Tasman Glacier Lookout
- Distance: 1km
- Duration: 1 hour
- Elevation Change: 100m
The Tasman valley is parallel to the Hooker valley and lies just on the other side of the Mt Cook range. My favourite hike there is a short 30 minute up-hill burst on several staircases leading to a rocky outcrop a 100m above. It’s called the Tasman Valley Lookout.
On the path there’s also a short extension to see the Blue Lakes, filled with glacial melt water, reflecting the Mount Cook Range.
Icebergs are commonly seen in both the Tasman Lake and previously mentioned Hooker Lake. To get to the shoreline of the Tasman Lake you can take the alternative route from the carpark which branches off to the right from the Tasman Glacier lookout trail. It’s only a 30 minute flat hike so you can easily tick off both in one day!
The trailhead is located only a few minutes drive from the Mount Cook village and it’s very well sign posted.
3. Sealy Tarns
- Distance: 4.5km return
- Duration: 2 – 3 hour return
- Elevation Change: 520m
The Sealy Tarns are a major way point on the way to Mueller Hut but are often done as a hike on their own. The superbly located picnic benches right near the Tarns offer a great chance to take it all in.
The route involves a lot of steps and it can be demanding on your knees. Hiking poles are advised.
The last time I was there, the weather changed quickly for the worse, everyone got out their rain jackets apart from one girl with a selfie stick in a floral dress and flip flops. Oh boy did she look foolish. Let that be a lesson to you.
4. Mueller Hut
- Distance: 8.5km return
- Duration: 6 – 8 hour return
- Elevation Change: 1050m
Further past the Sealy Tarns, the route continues steeply uphill until you reach a large boulder field. Once this is crossed and you’ve gone through the pass, you’ll be treated with your first views of the Ngakanohi Glacier and the Mueller Glacier curving off into the distance toward Mount Burns.
From there it’s 30 minutes to Mueller Hut – one of the best backcountry huts in New Zealand.
A little 30 minute extension past Mueller Hut is the route up to Mount Olivier. A 360 vantage point which shows not only Mount Cook to the north but Mount Kitchener and Mount Sealy to the south.
For more information about hiking to Mueller hut and how to make bookings visit my separate guide.
5. Kea Point
- Length: 2.8km return
- Duration: 1 hour
- Elevation Gain: 200m
If you’re looking for a shorter hike the track up to Kea Point is for you. It overlooks the Mueller Glacial Lake with Mount Cook standing prominently in the background.
I remember the first time I wanted to go here. It was my boyfriend’s birthday in 2014 and we were camping at White Horse Hill Campground at Mount Cook.
He decided to go for a walk whilst I was reading and when sunset came around he was photographing out at the Hooker Lake. Good for him but he also had the car keys in his pocket and my camera was locked in the trunk.
Needless to say, it was the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen with bright red long lenticular clouds covering the sky. He was lucky it was his birthday.
The track to Kea Point begins at the Whitehorse Hill campground, the same spot where Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns and the the trail to Mueller hut begin.
Accommodation in Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook village is a tiny place for the amount of visitors it gets each summer. I won’t be surprised if in future they limit access to the road.
If you are camping you can stay at the Whitehorse Hill campground operated by the Department of Conservation. It is a few kilometres away from the village and it’s a great starting point for many trails I have mentioned in this post. The campsite operates on a first come first serve basis. There is a self registration station and you will need cash.
Being in a national park certainly has its drawbacks with regards to planning permission but thankfully, it means there aren’t loads of hotels ruining the views. With limited options though booking competition is tough.
If you want to overnight directly in the village and camping isn’t your thing make sure you book your accommodation well in advance. At least a few months!
Best activities in Mount Cook NP
Scenic helicopter flight is a prime choice for those wanting to see the mountains from above. They range in price depending on duration and amount of landings but will give you better views than you can get on any hike. If you were planning on taking a helicopter flight in New Zealand, Mount Cook is one of the best places for it!
Ski Plane Tour
Ski Plane Tours are arguably even better than helicopter tours, as the ride tends to last longer.The downside is that planes are much less manoeuvrable and exciting. Landing on a glacier with a ski plane won’t be something you will quickly forget about.
Have you got any question or want to share your experience from visiting Mount Cook National Park? Leave them in the comment section below!