It’s no secret that this part of Aotearoa is my favourite. From the first time, I clapped my eyes on this epic mountain and explored its home, I was hooked. I return to Mount Cook National Park multiple times a year for good reason, with a plethora of hikes, activities, and experiences I know that each visit will be filled with brand new adventures and memories. Some of my finest times have been right here in the shadows of New Zealand’s tallest mountain. The National Park is a breathtaking environment of glaciers, terminal lakes, rivers, and mountains, oh so many mountains.
The mighty Aoraki soars 3724 metres above sea level and greets you the moment you arrive on state highway 80. According to Maori legend, Aoraki, the eldest son of Raki (Sky) was travelling with his brothers in a waka (or canoe), when it ended up running aground on a reef and fell to one side. Aoraki and his brothers climbed to the high side of the waka and sat on the wreckage. The freezing south wind then turned them into stone, creating the Southern Alps. Aoraki was sitting higher than all the others, thus giving the name Aoraki which translates to Cloud Piercer.
This rugged landscape of ice, rock, and rivers deserves your time, and here are ten reasons why you need to visit Mount Cook National Park.
To immerse yourself in the beauty of the National Park
It is no secret, this place is truly magical. Mount Cook National Park spans about 60 kilometers and is home to the main spine of the Southern Alps. Glaciers cover nearly 40% of the park, notably the Tasman Glacier, Hooker Glacier, and the Mueller glacier, all terminating in lakes. Eight of the largest glaciers in New Zealand all lie within the national park and with so many beautiful peaks, glaciers, and lakes to explore you do need to spend some time here. From beautiful day walks, overnight hikes, multiday mountaineering expeditions, and more, Mount Cook National park deserves more than a fleeting one day visit.
To hike amongst one of the most pristine mountain ranges in the world
Seriously, prepare to have your socks well and truly blown off. Some of the best hikes in the country and arguably the world are right here in the national park. The most famous being the Hooker Valley Track. A day hike with the finest views and suitable for all. However don’t stop there, Red Tarns, Sealy Tarns, Ball Pass, Governers Bushwalk, Kea Point Track, are all within walking or short driving distance from the village. Hiking in Mount Cook National Park is truly one of the most magical experiences in Summer and Winter! That’s right, this is an all year round destination people!
To sleep in one of New Zealand’s most famous hotels
Have you heard of the Hermitage hotel? Well, let me tell you a little something, something about one of the finest hotels with possibly the best view in the country. The Hermitage stands tall just under the foothills of the Sealy range. The current building is the third hermitage building here in the park, the first two being devastated by floods and fire way back in the 1900s. Most views in the hotel face the mighty Aoraki Mount Cook, as do the two restaurants through large glass windows. There is nothing finer than sipping on a cold beverage (or hot, season dependant) and kicking your feet up after a full day of exploring deep in the national park.
To explore the Tasman glacier in many ways – Hike, 4WD, and by Boat
The Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest glacier and it’s a sight to see. Spanning 23.5 kilometres in length and disappearing out of sight from the Tasman viewpoint this epic scene can be explored in one of three ways. In the early 1970s, there were several small meltwater ponds on the Tasman Glacier. By 1990, these ponds had merged into Tasman Lake which is what you see today. You can jump on board the Glacial Explorer boats, operated by the hermitage hotel, and get up close and personal with the terminal face, within the safe 500m exclusion zone that is. See icebergs, drink the water and learn about the history from the safety of your tender boat. The Tasman 4WD tour encompasses all things adventure. An off-road trip through the valley, avalanche zones, and rocky terrain followed by a short walk to an elevated viewpoint looking down on the glacier below is as close as you can get without physically walking on the glacier. A heli-hike is one of the most popular ways to see the glacier and we can see why. Strap on your crampons and join your knowledgeable and experienced guide as they traverse the ice with you in tow. All experiences not to be missed while in the national park.
Watch the sunset over New Zealand’s tallest mountain
There is nothing finer than watching the sun go down after a busy day adventuring in the national park. From the comfort of your hiking spot, your tent, or the comfort of the alpine bar in the hermitage hotel you can watch as the sun sets for the day illuminating the main face of New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Fiery reds, oranges, and yellows paint the sky as the day ends, and be sure to stick around for the night sky. Did you know that Mount Cook National Park is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve? With light pollution strictly controlled in the area, millions of stars seem to appear right before your eyes. For all astro lovers, this is the perfect location to watch the stars.
To educate yourself about the history of this place
Aoraki, Mount Cook has a rich, cultural, and industrial heritage. To Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki represents the most sacred of ancestors. The Maori name for New Zealand’s tallest peak is Aorangi or Aoraki, meaning cloud piercer and contrary to popular belief, Captain James Cook didn’t name the mountain after himself. Captain JL Stokes when sailing down the West Coast, gave the mountain its European name, in honour of Cook. For more than 130 years the national park has been the cornerstone of New Zealand tourism since the first Hermitage Hotel was built at the base of the mountain in 1884. Today the park is recognised as one of the finest mountaineering areas in the world, for both experienced and novice climbers and even aided one particular famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary during his training for the 1953 Everest mission.
Take a flight over the Southern Alps
Nothing compares to a scenic flight in New Zealand and one over Mount Cook National Park is truly one of life’s greatest adventures. One can truly appreciate the true grandeur and scale of this place from the air. Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest peak and when onboard a scenic plane or helicopter can one truly gets a sense of scale, throw a human into the picture and you see how huge the Southern Alps are. From heli hikes, glacier landings, and mountain fly by’s any time in the air here is a super special one and I highly, highly recommend it.
Be at one with nature on the finest day hike
The finest day hike in the country? It’s a strong shout but one I am willing to put out there to the world. If you can start early, do. There is something special about being one of the only people walking on a trail as the morning sun kisses the mountains for the first time that day. The track will take you around 3-4 hours to return and you will cover 11km in total. Flat, easy terrain with the most picturesque mountain, rivers, and glaciers surrounding you. Famed for its three swing bridges and perfectly places boardwalk, this day walk is not one to be missed.
Check-in with the local wildlife
Did you know the South Island of New Zealand is the only place you will find the Kea bird? Innately curious, kea are attracted to people wherever they enter its mountain domain and are a feature at South Island ski-fields and mountain environments. Easily recognised by their unique squark but also their markings. The kea is a large parrot with mainly olive-green feathers, deepening to a teal blue on the wingtips. On the underside of the wings and the base of the tail, the features are a reddish-orange. If you see (or hear one) think yourself lucky. The native species are in rapid decline so be mindful and respectful when you see these birds in their natural habitat.
To tick off a famous New Zealand bucket list moment
Mount Cook is full to the brim of bucket list worth activities, sights, sounds, and things to do. Whether it be a walk on one of the famed tracks in the area, spotting a kea, or watching an avalanche crash down from the mountains above. Mount Cook National park should sit high on your New Zealand road trip itinerary in all four seasons. With plenty to see, do and somewhere to lay your head, be sure to plan more than a day in this adventure wonderland, I promise you won’t regret it.
Stay in a backcountry hut
Facing the tallest mountain in the land you will find the famous Mueller hut, named after the nearby Mueller glacier. Originally built in 1914 the hut was used as a shelter to explore the glacier now the hut is home to many who hike the route from the village to this outstanding sight. Famed for its location, red appearance, and standing At 1800 meteres on the Sealy Range, Mueller Hut provides a 360- degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces, and a front-row seat to one of the finest sunset and sunset shows on earth. Staring Aoraki Mount Cook directly in the face with the Hooker Valley below this hike is not for the faint-hearted. With a healthy 4000 step climb just to the halfway point you need to strap on your hiking boots and prepare for a full-blown hiking adventure, the views… well the views are most definitely worth it, we promise.