Aoraki/Mount Cook is known to most as New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but to me, it’s my ultimate happy place.
Growing up only a one and a half hour drive away from the Mt Cook alpine village meant my family and I were always taking day trips to bathe in the mountain energy and release some endorphins walking one of the trails.
I don’t know how it all started to be honest, but it became the place we always went when something major was going down.
Just been diagnosed with a life-changing chronic illness? Go to Mt Cook.
Having a birthday? Go to Mt Cook.
It’s Christmas? Go to Mt Cook.
Borders are closed and you’re stuck in New Zealand?
...Go to Mt Cook!
Every time I’m here I show off the walking tracks over on my instagram (@jessssbrien) and my inbox always gets flooded with questions about the various hikes. The beauty of this area is that there are walks for all levels of fitness and expertise (perfect if you have MS like me but love adventures!) and I can’t wait to show you my favourites in this post.
Here is the ultimate guide to the mountain walks at Aoraki/Mt Cook.
But first of all: access to the road, the national park and all of the walks are free.
Second of all: whatever walk you choose to do, be prepared! The weather at Aoraki/Mt Cook can change super fast. It is an alpine environment and it’s common to experience strong winds, a lot of rain, heavy snowfalls, and the temperature changing at any moment during any time of the year. Make sure you have appropriate clothing and footwear, bring water, snacks, and your mobile phone (there is cell phone reception for the majority of all the tracks.)
And third of all: whether you visit in summer or winter Mt Sefton and Aoraki/Mt Cook are sure to have snow on their peaks!
Click here for DOC information
Distance: 3kms return (from the White Horse Hill Campground and car park)
Hike time: 1 hr return (it is possible to start this walk in the village, that will add an extra hour to hour and a half on to your return journey)
Return on the same track back
Terrain: mostly flat with a bit of a climb towards the end & a gravel path the whole way
Elevation change: 95m over 1.5kms
Stairs: no stairs
Toilets: in White Horse Hill campground car park at the beginning of track/DOC information centre in the Mt Cook Village
Rest stops: viewing platform at the end of the track
Getting there the walk starts to the left of the White Horse Hill Campground and car park at the end of Hooker Valley Road. When driving along SH80 turn onto Hooker Valley Road before you reach the village. There are plenty of parks here.
Starting with a bang. This has got to be my favourite short walk here. Fascinatingly, the Kea Point track was formed in 1913 when a stream cut through from the glacier to the original Hermitage site and subsequently damaged the building.
If you’re strapped for time and still want an incredible view of the mountains, this walk is an absolute must. It’s generally a super easy track, hardly any incline and within 30 minutes of average paced walking you are right there. It takes you around the left side of the campground and through the subalpine grasslands past the White Horse Hill (I think that is the name, like, I’m assuming that’s the name of the hill right there because that’s what the campground is called??) and right to the Mueller Glacier lake. From here there’s a viewing platform and incredible views of Mount Sefton, the Mueller Glacier lake and wall, into Hooker valley, The Footstool, and of course Aoraki/Mt Cook.
FYI: I haven’t seen any keas here though!
Distance: 10kms return
Hike time: 3 hours return from the White Horse Hill Campground car park
Actual time: I did this walk recently for the 2nd time after being diagnosed, and it took me a total of 4.5 hours. That’s including various stops along the way to rest my legs and an hour for lunch and photos at the glacial lake endpoint
Return on the same track back
Terrain: mostly flat, gravel path for the majority with some boarded pathways & 3 suspension bridges
Elevation change: 124m over 5kms
Stairs: a few stairs towards the beginning of the track with no handrails
Toilets: in the car park at the beginning of track & along the way about halfway
Rest stops: multiple benches and nice looking sitting rocks along the path to have a rest as well as a large picnic table at the end of the track
If walking in winter watch for ice as part of the track doesn’t see the sun. The track has been designed to avoid the risk of avalanche so you MUST keep to the tracks.
Getting there: as with the Kea Point Track this walk starts at the White Horse Hill Campground and car park. Follow SH80 towards the village and turn onto Hooker Valley Road. Follow this road to the car park.
In 2006, when I was 14 years old, we had our Year 8 school camp and walked the Hooker Valley track. Back then there was only one swing bridge and now there’s 3 of them! Then, after another dangerous incident where a number of walkers were trapped behind a rockfall, in 2010 the Department of Conservation (DOC) was given a green light for a $1.6million upgrade of this track. This resulted in two new swing bridges and the path being re-routed to the east side of the lake. Where the track did end back in the day had a high risk of avalanches and if a piece of ice were to break off the glacier then it had a huge risk of flooding.
“These upgrades shouldn’t mean losing that sense of adventure that walkers get on this track,” said Mr McNamara, the DOC Area Manager at the time and actually a good family friend of ours, “our hope is that we will manage the risks of an extreme alpine environment as much as possible, without ‘cotton-wooling’ the experience and it should be a better experience for it.”
During 2019 the track was closed for 5 months when flooding damaged the second swing bridge but the track is back, good to go and ready for your post-lockdown hiking boots!
Just note that everyone else will be doing this walk with you. Back when New Zealand’s borders weren’t closed - oh those were the good ol days - tour buses would arrive at the car park around 11 AM. We’re talking multiple tour buses full to the brim of people about to do the Hooker Valley walk. It wasn’t as busy nowadays with only domestic tourism, but it is still a very popular track. I would suggest going early to avoid the crowds and the DOC website even says, “the best time to walk this stunning track is at dawn when the first rays of sun creep over the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana including Aoraki/Mount Cook. Early risers will be rewarded with the serenity of sharing the track with only a handful of other walkers.”
Even if you only do a part of the walk you are still in for an absolute treat. The best thing about this walk is that you don’t have to wait until the end to be greeted with a picture perfect moment - the views are stunning the entire way. You cross the Hooker River, see the Mueller Glacier, Mt Sefton, and - I don’t know a lot about this one - many different wildflowers including celmisia and the Mount Cook buttercup/kōpukupuku which is the world’s biggest buttercup! (It’s so interesting reading about this native flower so if you’re interested have a look here.)
But if you do make it all the way you are greeted with a stunning view of the iceberg filled Hooker Lake and the beauty that is Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Same same, but different.
Writing this post gave me inspiration to find my old film photos of that school trip to Aoraki/Mt Cook. Interesting to see 14 year old me and 14 years later old me taking snaps in the exact same spots!
Here's a short video of our hike during June 2020
TASMAN GLACIER VIEW/BLUE LAKES
Distance: 1.2kms return to the Tasman Glacier viewpoint
Hike time: 40 minutes return from the Blue Lakes car park
Terrain: it’s a climb! Gravel path with a lot of steps
Return on the same track back
Elevation change: 100m over 700m
Stairs: So. Many. Stairs! No handrails
Toilets: in the Blue Lakes car park at the beginning of the track next to a day use shelter
Rest stops: a side track will take you down to the Blue Lakes which is a nice spot to rest and there is a viewing platform at the end of the track
If walking in winter be careful of ice. The wooden edges of the steps can be slippery.
Getting there: turn onto Tasman Valley Road off SH80 (just before the Village and Hooker Valley Road) and follow the road in. You will go over a one lane bridge and all the way into the Blue Lakes car park. This is roughly 7kms.
Do not be fooled by the sign saying “Tasman Glacier View 15 mins” here. Maybe 15 minutes if you were an incredibly talented mountain runner or something equally hectic. This walk is all uphill. With steps. Lots of steps. It’s short, but it’s a toughie! The views are magical the whole way up the 100m ascent, so lucky for me (and you!) stopping for a breather every now and then is completely acceptable. Along the way, you will stumble upon the Blue Lakes to your left. There is a track that leads you down to lake number one (continue walking to find even more lakes that are a popular spot for swimming in the summer months.) The Blue Lakes tend to look a bit green though. Glacial water looks bright blue, but the combo of rainwater mixed in makes the Blue Lakes appear green.
Whether you decided to give the Blue Lakes a miss or you’re on your way back up from the lakes, take a deep breath and continue up the path. All struggles aside - the views at the end are absolutely worth it. At the platform, you are looking down at New Zealand’s longest glacier coming in at a whopping 27kms! Aoraki can be found peeking over the right of the lake and if you’ve just done the Kea Point track, you will notice you are viewing Aoraki/Mt Cook from another side now. It is simply magical. Again, like the Hooker Valley track, a lot of people are also here (probably because the 15 minute exaggeration is so alluring!) so the viewing platform can get super crowded. If you decide to adventure around for that perfect instagram shot please be careful on the rocks!
I mentioned earlier in the Hooker Valley section that I came to Mt Cook during my Year 8 school camp. I found these photos in a box of crap in my parents’ cupboard and it appears as though we did the Tasman Glacier walk then, too! But look at the difference…
Top photos: Winter 2006
Bottom photos: Summer 2019
If you weren’t sure whether global warming and climate change was real or not this certainly shows some serious melting is happening!
SEALY TARNS/MUELLER HUT
While walking the Kea Point track you will notice a turnoff for the Sealy Tarns track. I’ve never done this track or carried on the Mueller Hut but I have vicariously lived through a few instagram stories of this track! What an absolute dream. One day I hope to be strong enough to do this! For now, I’m going to point you in the direction of a great blog post by Charles from Trip Tins
PS: I'll keep you updated if I ever do it!
There's no denying we are living in some pretty strange times with COVID shutting down most of the world. Here in New Zealand we are so lucky to be able to get out and explore, and I hope this post encourages you to make a trip to our highest mountain, my happy place, and soak up some of that mountain stillness.
There really is nothing quite like it.
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