New Zealand sums up what it means to be in paradise. From charming towns to breathtaking wonders of nature, this small but proud Oceanian country offers no shortage of picturesque destinations. However, none come close to the vastly stunning Mount Cook National Park. The park spans a whopping 278.6 square miles — an area dotted by glaciers, mountain peaks, and pristine lakes. All this and more make it a true adventurer’s paradise.
If you find yourself in the vicinity, here are the best things you must do in Mount Cook National Park:
Where Exactly Is Mount Cook?
Arguably one of the best mountain destinations in New Zealand, Mount Cook National Park is a treasure trove of memorable experiences. The park itself sits on the South Island of the country. Otherwise known as Aoraki, this park houses both a village and the tallest mountain in New Zealand after which the park is named. Mount Cook lies in the New Zealand mountain range in the Southern Alps.
But, how tall is Mount Cook anyway? The mountain stands proudly at 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), making it the highest peak in New Zealand. Interestingly, before December 1991, Mount Cook stood at a towering 3,764 meters (12,349 feet). However, erosion and a rockslide cut that height down by 40 meters.
Church Of The Good Shepherd
On the shores of Lake Tekapo is a church that has stood the test of time. Church of the Good Shepherd is a modest, stone church that serves as a place of worship for locals and tourists alike. The lupines that surround the church only accentuate its distinct beauty. Visitors are asked to refrain from taking photos while inside the church out of respect. However, you are free to snap as many photos as you like outside. The place is even more magical at night when the stars come out from hiding.
Dark Sky Reserve
Speaking of stars, you haven’t lived until you experience Mount Cook National Park at night. The park is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, a region untouched by artificial light pollution. The reserve is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. While you can opt to gaze at the stars at the Mount John Observatory, the twinkling lights are visible from virtually anywhere in the park.
It has been said, however, that the best places to view the stars are from the White Horse Hill campsite and the Tasman Glacier Carpark. If you’re tired of the consistently starless skies in the city, a trip to Mount Cook National Park would certainly be worth it.
Enjoy Your Dinner At The Hermitage Hotel
If you’re looking to sweep someone off their feet, try scheduling a dinner date at The Hermitage Hotel. On top of being one of the best hotels in the area, The Hermitage Hotel also offers an excellent array of bars and dining options. The Alpine Restaurant at The Hermitage Hotel, for one, expertly combines great food and even an even greater view.
Not in the mood for a big meal? Have a nightcap at the rooftop bar or an afternoon coffee out on the deck. The views here are spectacular and worth witnessing at least once in your life. During the summer, the sun can stay out as late as 9 p.m., giving you more time to get back from a hike to watch the sunset.
Go Experience The Unique Glacier Kayaking
Tucked in between the New Zealand mountains found in the park, Tasman Glacier and Mueller Glacier are some of the most magnificent attractions the park has to offer. However, their distance can make it pretty hard to get up close and personal. If you want to get a closer look, there’s no better way than to go glacier kayaking.
While glacier kayaking is an exciting way to tour the lake, you can’t do it on your own. You have to sign up for a 4- to 6-hour tour, which can start at $250 per person. Plus, there’s a minimum number of participants required to secure an appointment. However, if you meet all the requirements, you’re in for the time of your life.
Unfortunately, canoeing in the lakes here isn’t an option. So, better keep that Ascend Canoe of yours in storage for now.
Go Mountain Biking
Kayaking is one way of seeing the Tasman Glacier from a good vantage point. However, if you’re more of a land adventurer, the same result can be achieved by going mountain biking.
There’s an available track for you to traverse, though it’s not the easiest mountain biking experience you’ll have. In fact, the 6-km (4-mile) stretch has more ups and downs than you can imagine. The journey will be tiring and challenging, no doubt. However, if you manage to soldier through it, the view you’ll be rewarded with is truly incomparable.
Explore The Picturesque Lake Pukaki
The drive to Mount Cook is one filled with scenic stops and picture-perfect views. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to make the trip without pausing to marvel at the many attractions along the way. Lake Pukaki is just one of them. Boasting a mesmerizingly blue hue, Lake Pukaki draws flocks of tourists for the beauty in its simplicity.
Expect to see a lot of cars parked by the road as visitors snap countless photos of the famous lake. Brave souls can even take a dip in the cold waters. Be warned, though. While the lake doesn’t freeze over, even during the winter months, the air temperature here can drop as low as -20 degrees Celsius.
Find Peace In Lake Tekapo
Apart from the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo is also known for its turquoise waters and surrounding lupine flowers. The sparkling lake entertains hordes of visitors each year — and for good reason. The lake itself is bewitching, but there are also a few other activities that draw tourists in.
The lupines, while technically weeds, make for Instagram-worthy photos. The Lake Tekapo hot springs, on the other hand, provide solace for those who can’t handle the chilly weather Cook has to offer. The hot springs aren’t for everyone, but they serve as a good alternative for visitors who want to take a dip without freezing. At night, the sky transforms into a glittering ceiling of wonder.
Isolate Yourself With Nature At Mueller Hut
Ever wanted to stay right in the middle of nowhere? At Mount Cook National Park, you can! Mueller Hut is the ideal place for winter adventurers. The hut itself is located 1,800 meters above sea level, which is an experience all on its own.
Getting there is no small effort, though. The hiking trail begins at the White Horse Hill Campground and is meant for advanced hikers. The trek can take as long as 4 hours per way. However, once you get to the hut, you’ll realize all your hard work has paid off. The 360-degree panoramic view of the park is the main reason visitors bear the trek. Although the journey to Mueller Hut can be arduous, the destination is certainly worth it.
It’s important to note, though, that advanced bookings are required from November to April. From May to mid-November, Mueller hut can be booked on a first-come, first-served basis at the Mount Cook National Park Visitor Center.
Hike The Mueller Trail For The Stunning Mueller Lake Viewpoint
Amateur hikers will have no problem getting to the Mueller Lake Viewpoint. Similar to Mueller Hut, the Mueller Lake Viewpoint is accessible through a trail that begins at the White Horse Hill Campground. However, the trail isn’t as demanding. The journey only takes about 20 minutes but doesn’t sacrifice reward.
The end of the trail gives you views of the Mueller Lake and Mueller Glacier juxtaposed against majestic mountains. You may even witness avalanches, which occur frequently in the area. If you’re new to the hiking scene, try this first before graduating to the main Mount Cook hike.
Ride A Helicopter Over The Snow-Capped Mountains
Viewing Mount Cook’s grandeur from the ground is one thing; flying over the tallest mountain in New Zealand is another. If you ever find yourself in the park, a helicopter ride is a can’t-miss. Sure, you can go hiking all you want, but nothing beats the adrenaline rush born out of gliding through the sky. Enjoy Mount Cook in all its glory from a bird’s eye view. You may even catch sight of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
There are a variety of packages you can choose from, largely depending on the duration of the flight. You can also schedule separate activities like heli-skiing or heli-trekking. Granted, helicopter rides are more on the expensive side. However, if you can afford the price tag, it will definitely be one of your most unforgettable experiences.
Challenge Yourself With The Sealy Tarns Track
Known to locals as the “stairway to heaven,” the Sealy Tarns track is no easy trek. Starting from either Terrace Road or the White Horse Hill Campground, this 2,200-step track takes you straight to the freshwater Sealy Tarns. Branching off the Kea Point Track in Mount Cook Village, the journey provides willing adventurers fantastic views of the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook itself.
Fair warning: the track can be steep in some areas. Come winter, avalanches become more common and the trail turns icy, so be sure to pack those winter boots with you!
Soak Up The Historical Info In Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center
Located at The Hermitage Hotel, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center stands as a tribute to the eponymous explorer. Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to climb Mount Everest. The New Zealander used the Mount Cook National Park as his training ground before accomplishing one of the greatest feats in history. The Hillary Gallery grants visitors a look into Hillary’s life. The center also houses a theater that has shows about the region’s historical significance, its people, and Hillary himself.
Get Close To The Glaciers In Tasman Lake Viewpoint
On the surface, there aren’t many things about Tasman Lake that make it stand out. However, its understated beauty easily makes it one of the best spots to visit in Mount Cook National Park. Watching the sun as it rises out from behind snow-capped mountains as icebergs gracefully float on the water is an experience unlike any other.
The best part is, you don’t even have to walk too far to get here. From Mount Cook Village New Zealand, simply take Tasman Valley Road to get to the carpark. Once there, it’s a short walk to Tasman Lake Viewpoint.
Hop-on To The Grand Traverse Scenic Flight
So, you’ve read about helicopter rides. Experience OZ takes it one step further. With the company’s Grand Traverse Scenic Flight tour ($250 per person), you get to have the ultimate Mount Cook experience. The hour-long flight departs from Lake Tekapo and promises unobstructed views to everyone onboard. The plane can carry roughly 7 to 15 passengers, so you definitely won’t be flying alone.
This 200-km tour takes you over Mount Cook itself, as well as to another park, the Westland. In case you’re unaware, the Westland is a World Heritage National Park that houses over 140 glaciers. With multi-language in-flight commentary available, the Experience OZ Grand Traverse Scenic Flight is hard to beat.
End Your Trip With The Hooker Valley Track
No trip to Mount Cook National Park would be complete without visiting the Hooker Valley Track. The track itself is almost synonymous with the park, being one of its most popular — if not the most — attractions. Hooker Valley is built for hikers of all skill levels. With only a 10-km return, the walk takes roughly 3 hours total. The trail isn’t hard to traverse, consisting of walkways and no less than three swing bridges.
On the way, you can enjoy scenic views of Mount Cook, Mueller Glacier, Hooker Lake, and the Sealy Range. You’ll also encounter the sacred Tōpuni area, which the Ngāi Tahu iwi tribe holds in special significance.
Where To Stay In Mount Cook
When it comes to sleeping arrangements, the options are rather limited. Mount Cook Village really only has a handful of accommodations, including one campground. Because restaurants are in short supply, kitchens or kitchenettes are common amenities.
Among the Mount Cook Village hotels, The Hermitage Hotel is the largest and the clear frontrunner for those who want a more luxurious stay. The Aoraki Alpine Lodge is a mid-range hotel with private kitchenettes in some rooms and a shared cooking space for the others. Aoraki Alpine Chalet can accommodate 8 people and has a full kitchen. The chalet is one of a kind, though, so act fast.
As for motels, there are two: the highly-rated Aoraki Court Motel and the newer Mt Cook Lodge and Motels. For travelers on a tight budget, the YHA Hostel offers dorm beds for $38 per person per night. It also has a communal kitchen and dining area. Finally, the White Horse Hill Campground offers a space for those who wish to truly embrace the outdoors.
You can bring cars, camping tents, and motorhomes. The campground, which is run by the Department of Conservation, charges a mere $13 per person per night.
Visit Mount Cook National Park!
All in all, it’s easy to see why Mount Cook National Park remains one of New Zealand’s most popular attractions. The activities are endless, and the views are out of this world. The park is even more alluring at night when all the stars come out in full view. From exciting hikes and daring flights to peaceful walks and an opportunity to learn, Mount Cook National Park has something for everyone.