First Timer’s Guide to Visiting And Hiking In Mount Cook National Park In New Zealand

If you were to ask me what my favorite place in New Zealand is, I wouldn’t have to think too long.

I have great sentiments 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. 

My Personal tips for visiting Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand

Are you keen on visiting Mount Cook National Park? I’ve got great news for you. It is featured on all of my self-drive New Zealand itineraries. Pick one which suits best your interests. 

1. How to get to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Things to do, places to stay and top day hikes in Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand
State Highway 80 leading to Mount Cook National Park

Self-driving

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 IslandThe turn-off from Highway 8 onto 80 is very well signposted 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. 

Visiting Mount Cook on a day trip from Queenstown

If you don’t plan on renting a car during your visit to New Zealand you can book an organized day trip to Mount Cook from Queenstown.

About Mount Cook Village

There is a little village with a few hotels, and a visitor center directly in the park as well as one very scenic, but busy, campground (Whitehorse Hill Campground) operating on a first come first serve basis.

If you forget to bring food with you, there is also a small convenience store in the Mount Cook village, but as you can probably guess, it’s very overpriced. 

2. Where to hike in Mount Cook National Park

Mueller Hut Hike 5

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 Mount Cook National 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.

Below you can find 5 hiking recommendations for your first visit. I’ve done all these hikes myself, some of them multiple times.

1. Hooker Valley

  • Distance: 10 km return
  • Duration: 2 – 3 hour return.
  • Elevation Gain: 100 m

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: 1 km
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 100 m

The Tasman Valley is parallel to the Hooker Valley and lies just on the other side of the Mt Cook range. My favorite hike there is a short 30-minute uphill burst on several staircases leading to a rocky outcrop 100 meters 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 the previously mentioned Hooker Lake. To get to the shoreline of the Tasman Lake you can take the alternative route from the parking lot 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 signposted. 

3. Sealy Tarns

  • Distance: 4.5 km return
  • Duration: 2 – 3 hour return
  • Elevation Gain: 520 m
Mueller Hut Hike 1

The Sealy Tarns are a major waypoint 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: 8.5 km return
  • Duration: 6 – 8 hour return
  • Elevation Gain: 1050 m

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 shows not only Mount Cook to the north but also 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: 2.8 km return
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 200 m

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.

He decided to go for a walk whilst I was reading and when sunset came around he was photographing out at 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 trail to Mueller hut begin. 

Accommodation in Mount Cook National Park

Lake Pukaki Mount Cook National Park 4

Mount Cook Village is a tiny place for the number 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 kilometers 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 basisThere 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

Winter Mount Cook National Park 7

Helicopter Flight and hike

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 are planning on taking a helicopter flight in New Zealand, Mount Cook is one of the best places for it! 

Ski Plane Tour + Tasman Glacier hike

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 maneuverable and exciting. However, landing in a ski plane and then hiking on the Tasman Glacier won’t be something you will quickly forget about.

Have you got any questions or want to share your experience from visiting Mount Cook National Park? Leave them in the comment section below! 

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Marta
Marta

Hi! I am the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.

22 Comments

  1. Hi Martha,

    I’m looking at hiking to Mueller Hut and staying overnight. My partner and I will be going in January. What would you suggest we pack? Especially the type of sleeping bag we should bring.

    • Hi Nick. When I stayed at Mueller hut it was March. I had my super thick down sleeping bag. There were only 8 other people in the bunk room (the weather was atrocious that night and a lot didn’t show up). I was still very very warm. My sleeping bag was definitely an overkill. Chances are in January the bunk will be completely full. With the amount of people there the sleeping room gets very warm. Thin summer sleeping bags are more than enough in those circumstances.

      As for the rest, you need to bring your own food, changes for clothes etc. Cooking utensils are provided, so is the gas to cook on. Go as light as possible.

  2. Hi Marta,
    Thanks for the great suggestions – just wondering, if you have to choose between Hooker Valley vs Tasman Glacier, which one would you pick? Or it’s possible to do both on the same day?
    Thanks!

    • Hi Nicole. I would go with the Hooker Valley. But yes you can easily do both in one day. Hooker valley takes around 3-4 hours rounds trip and Tasman glacier lookout is 45-60 minutes to the top and and 30-45 minutes down.

  3. Hi Marta,

    From a cinematographer’s perspective, would it be better to visit south island in March Or End of June ?

    I am particulary interested in the Mount cook and Milford sound and the roads to capture the views. ?

  4. Hey Marta,

    I have a question regarding hiking on the south island of New Zealand. I am wondering if there are any places on Mt Cook, where me and my wife can hike and go “inside” a glacier and see the really old ice? I don’t know if that question makes sense.. :p. I can only seem to find trips like that, that includes a helicopter ride, however, it is a bit to expensive for us to pay around 700-800 dollars for one ticket.

    Best Regards
    Sebastian

    • Hi Sebastian. Thanks for stopping by. I understand the budget problem. Those trips aren’t cheap Unfortunately no, there is no easy access to any glacier caves in New Zealand. To explore glaciers that way you will need mountaineering experience and of course equipment. Glaciers in New Zealand don’t reach valley floors, they are in the high alpine areas.
      You will have a lot more luck with getting close to the glaciers on your own in either Iceland or Norway (still though visiting glacier caves should be done with experienced guide). I hope that helps!

  5. Hi Marta, I really enjoying reading your posts on South island. I’m from Singapore and still struggling to finalise my 13D itinerary for Dec 23. How many nights do you think we should stay in Mt Cook? Coming down from Lake Tekapo, I wish to do Hooker valley trek (4hr) and Tasman Glacier Heli Hike in Mt Cook. However I saw your earlier reply to Bridget that you propose heli-glacier be done at Franz josef. What we have heard from comments in tripadvisors is that Franz glacier is melting quite a bit. Would like to seek your further advice on this. Thank you!

    • Hi Cynthia. Thanks for visiting my site. The glacier hikes in Franz Josef are more exciting as you get to explore glacier crevasses etc. With that said whichever you choose you won’t be disappointed. All glaciers in NZ are melting quickly, but at upper elevations they are still amazingly impressive.

      As for how many nights to stay in Mt Cook. If you are coming from Tekapo which is quite close, one night will be enough. If you leave Tekapo early you can still do the Hooker valley walk on the same day, then book the heli hike for the next morning and after the heli-hike head to your next destination. I hope that helps!

  6. Hi, I’m from Singapore and would like to visit Mount Cook in early September next year with my husband. We would like to know whether the weather is good for walking and easy hiking in Hooker Valley in September? Thank you.

    • Hi Bridget. The Hooker Valley Walk is generally accessible year round. I did it in winter too, but you do need to be properly equipped. The trail can be very icy so some kind of crampons for your hiking boots will come in handy. Ultimately I can’t tell you whether the weather will be good or not, but if you come prepared and the weather aligns (no snow storms in forecast etc) then you should be ok. September is already a spring time in New Zealand, but due to Mt Cook’s higher elevation the snow remains longer in here. I hope that helps!

  7. Marta,
    This is very useful and great article. We are going in November to NZ (family of 4 – with 2 adult children) and was curious if we should do helicopter ride to Mt. Cook or Franz Joseph. We will be vising both and was looking to do the 2 hour hooker valley hike at Mt. Cook and do the helicopter ride at Franz Jospeh. What do you recommend?

    Thank You in advance.
    ..Ron

    • Hi Ron. Thanks for the great feedback. My answer to your question would be. If you want to do glacier hiking then combine the flight and hike in Franz Josef, however if scenic flight is what you are after then definitely go for Mount Cook (or Milford Sound or Mount Aspiring). Those three locations are my favorites for scenic flights. I hope that helps!

  8. Hi Marta, thanks for your post:) I am planning a trip to the lake tekapo and mount cook with camping, is it cold there at night in January? What should I have to take to spend night there?

    • Hey Ivan. Thanks for visiting. January is the middle of the summer season so camping is definitely ok. With that said nights in the mountains can still get cool. Make sure you have a proper sleeping bag and an insulating sleeping pad. Check the average night temperature for January in Mount Cook village to give yourself an idea of what kind of sleeping bag rating you will need. Other than that just standard camping equipment will be fine.

  9. Hi Marta, thank you so much for your sharing! I didn’t how to plan my trip, but your sharing gave me inspiration. Thank you!

    • Hi Marta!

      Thank you for this informative blog!

      I’m planning for a trip to New Zealand in February. Will there be a lot of flies? (just like Australia for summer season) and was wondering if there’s any glacier in February?

      Thank you in advance!

      • Hi Eqaah. Thanks for visiting. Thankfully flies aren’t as big of a problem in New Zealand as they are in Australia. It’s a very different climate. I did live in Australia too for 6 months and do remember what kind of nuisance the flies were.
        The only thing that you have to take under consideration are sandflies. They are not everywhere (for example they are not a problem in Mt Cook). But if you were to camp in Fiordland NP then you do need a bug repellent. Sandfly bites are nasty. Luckily they are very slow and any type of wind or rain chases them away. I hope that helps!

  10. Hi Marta {and Jasper}, thank you so much , this was really helpful. I’m a kiwi looking to take my british kids to Mt cook and was clueless about the hikes there, but this post has really helped me plan our trip.
    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Ange! Thanks so much for stopping by and you feedback. You made my day and I am always happy to help! Have an amazing time in Mt Cook. It’s beautiful down there!

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