13 Best Things to do in Mount Cook National Park / Aoraki
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If it isn’t already, a visit to Mount Cook National Park / Aoraki should be on your itinerary while traveling in New Zealand – it is simply beautiful! This blog is all about the amazing things to do in Mount Cook that are sure to make your visit one for the books! We’ve also included some general Mount Cook travel guide info such as where to stay and other attractions nearby!
Mount Cook National Park is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand for tourists, and I can see why. After visiting Mount Cook for the first time, I just couldn’t wait to head back! Fast forward to now, and I’ve visited the national park countless times.
For the average visitor, there are actually tons of things to do in Mount Cook National Park. From scenic walks to helicopter rides to enjoying an amazing dinner with a view, Mount Cook National Park has something for everyone. It’s a place all tourists should visit for at least a couple of days!
Before we get into the things to do in Mount Cook, here is a little background information about visiting Mount Cook National Park and some other important things to know before you go (like getting accommodation!)
About Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is located on New Zealand’s South Island about 2 hours from the town of Lake Tekapo. This 722 square kilometers national park is home to 8 of the 12 largest glaciers in New Zealand and these glaciers make up 40% of the national park.
Aoraki, or Mount Cook as it’s more commonly known, is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724m above sea level. Aoraki is the traditional Maori name for Mount Cook.
Mount Cook Village is the only town within the national park. In Mount Cook Village, there are a select few accommodation options and restaurants. You can also find a visitor center as well as a DOC (Department of Conservation) office.
Accommodation in Mount Cook National Park
Booking hotels in advance isn’t always the best option, but if you want to stay in Mount Cook Village you really need to book in advance to avoid missing out! Often in summer, the village can be booked up 6 months in advance!
Here are your options in terms of where to stay in Mount Cook Village:
This is a DOC run campground that costs $13 NZD per person per night. However, they do have specials for kids and students. The campground is set up for tents, cars, and motorhomes.
The YHA is a great budget option. Dorm beds here are around $38 NZD per person per night. It’s a really good hostel that’s clean and social. It also has a large kitchen and dining area. Oh, and did I mention they also have a sauna!
Mount Cook Alpine Lodge is a mid-budget hotel that offers stunning views of the national park. Some rooms have their own kitchenette, while for those that don’t there is a communal cooking space (a necessity in Mount Cook Village as there are only a couple of restaurants!)
The Hermitage is the largest hotel in the park. It likely has some of the best views in the village and the restaurant is delicious. This is the perfect hotel for those looking for comfort and luxury in an ideal location!
Another great hotel that’s actually got the best customer reviews in Mount Cook Village. Rooms are studios or apartments with kitchenettes and plenty of space for hanging out with a glass of wine.
If you’re traveling in a large group then this is your best option in the park. This chalet sleeps up to 8 people and has 3 bedrooms and a bathroom with a full kitchen. There’s only one in the park so book asap!
One of the newest hotels in the park, however in this short time this hotel has already become very popular. Its location, views, and prices have made it one of the top options in the park!
If possible, I recommend staying overnight in Mount Cook Village in order to make the most of your trip. But if you can’t find something suitable, consider staying in Lake Tekapo (1.5 hours away) or the closer option, a town called Twizel. Twizel is closer than Tekapo but doesn’t offer the same amazing views or things to do.
For a more detailed guide on where to stay in or near Mt Cook check out our accommodation guide to Mount Cook National Park!
13 Things to do in Mount Cook National Park / Aoraki
There are a few incredible things to do in Mount Cook National Park. Our list touches on the best of the park including the best Mount Cook hikes and walks, but also some easy activities in Mount Cook anyone can enjoy. Depending on how much time you have, you should try to do them all!
These are the absolute 13 best things to do in Mount Cook NP!
1. The Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is probably the most popular of the things to do in Mount Cook National Park and one of the best short walks! To say the least, it’s simply a stunning hike. The hike is also one of the most accessible hikes in the national park. At only 10km return the trail is flat and suitable for almost all fitness levels.
Some of the highlights on the Hooker Valley Track include the Mueller Lake, Mueller Glacier, Hooker Lake, and Mount Cook. Some other highlights on the trail are crossing 3 suspension bridges over the Hooker River and walking on the famous Hooker Valley Boardwalk.
The Hooker Valley Track starts from the White Horse Hill Campground in the national park just outside of Mount Cook Village. From the carpark where the walk starts, allow about 2-4 hours return depending on your fitness level. If you want to visit when it is the least busy I recommend going for sunrise!
If you do one hike in Mount Cook be sure to make it the Hooker Valley Track. It’s the best hike in Mount Cook National Park overall for accessibility, and views.
For more information check out our blog post on the Hooker Valley Track!
2. Enjoy a Scenic Helicopter Ride
I recently went on a scenic flight in Mount Cook and it was incredible! The views from the air were out of this world and it’s an experience I’ll never forget!
Some of the highlights I saw on my 35-minute scenic flight included seeing Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, flying past Mount Cook, and landing on the Tasman Glacier. In my opinion, if you’re going to do a scenic flight in New Zealand then Mount Cook is the place to do it!
There are tons of options when it comes to choosing a scenic flight in Mount Cook, but the most standard ones are determined by length of time. The shortest flight available is 25 minutes and the longest single flight is 55 minutes. You can also go heli-skiing, heli-hiking, and glacier trecking with your scenic flight but this is generally booked separately.
The downside to a scenic helicopter ride is the price tag. For those on a tight budget, this experience may not be possible. But if you can afford it, a helicopter ride is one of the best things to do in Mount Cook and a one in a lifetime experience that’s worth every penny!
3. Hike to the Mueller Hut
The Mueller Hut is an alpine hut located in Mount Cook National Park that sits at an elevation of over 1,800m above sea level. It’s one of the most popular huts in New Zealand because of the stunning views and location near the Mueller Glacier.
The hike to the Mueller Hut starts from the White Horse Hill Campground and climbs 1,042m in elevation over 5.5km! Although this trail is more difficult than the other popular hikes in the park, it’s so worth it! If you’re coming to Mount Cook for an awesome adventure then you really should consider hiking to (and staying the night at) the Mueller Hut.
In winter you cannot book the hut in advance and must buy your hut ticket on the morning of your hike at the DOC office. Winter conditions can also be dangerous and you must check the current avalanche risk at the DOC office in Mount Cook Village. You will also require crampons and an ice ax. These can be rented in the park from Alpine Guides for $25 NZD.
In the summer hiking season (mid-November to the end of April) you must book the hut in advance. It is still important to check current warnings at the DOC office especially early on in the summer season. Hut passes cost $36 per person per night.
If hiking the trail on your own sounds too challenging then consider joining a guided tour especially if you’re planning to hike in the winter.
If you would like more information on one of the best hikes in Mount Cook check out our Mueller Hut blog!
4. Walk to the Mueller Lake Viewpoint
The Mueller Lake Viewpoint is another viewpoint accessed by a trail from the White Horse Hill Campground. The views from the end of the trail are amazing and it’s one way to see just how large the mountains are around you. From the viewpoint, it’s also common to see avalanches falling from the steep mountains that surround the Mueller Lake and glacier.
The trail is only 20 minutes one way and finishes at a viewpoint that overlooks the Mueller Lake and Mueller Glacier. This trail is very short and well maintained making it accessible for most people. For that reason, it’s really a must-do activity in Mount Cook.
5. Go Star Gazing in a Dark Sky Reserve
Mount Cook National Park is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. This 4,3oo square kilometer region is protected from artificial light pollution and is the only Dark Sky Reserve in the southern hemisphere. The purpose of the Dark Sky Reserve is to allow the Mount John Observatory to look into space without light pollution.
But for you, it means you can venture out of your hotel and witness the stars as you have never seen before. Within the national park, there is very little light pollution so you don’t have to venture far to see the stars.
In my opinion, though you should at least head out to the White Horse Hill campsite or to the Tasman Glacier carpark. Out there you will be able to properly adjust your eyes and see our sky in all of its beauty!
6. Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Center
The Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Center is a tribute to one of the world’s greatest explorers as well as the region of Aoraki/Mount Cook itself. Sir Edmund Hillary along with his partner and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, were the first people in the world to summit Mount Everest – the world’s highest mountain peak.
Within the center, you can explore the museum and read about how Sir Edmund Hillary used Mount Cook National Park to prepare and train for the Mt Everest summit climb. Also within the visitor center is a theater that showcases different shows about the region and Sir Edmund Hillary.
The entrance to the theater is $20 per person and includes unlimited viewings for 48 hours as well as entrance to the museum.
7. Take the Famous “Mount Cook Road Photo”
There aren’t many photos in Mount Cook as iconic as the “Mount Cook Road photo”. This stunning shot is taken on the road into Mount Cook about 15 minutes from the village. From this certain spot, it appears as if Mount Cook sits at the end of the road, and with the right camera technique, it appears huge!
Finding the exact spot can be hard so I actually wrote a blog specifically on where the photo is taken from and how to take it! You can check out my blog about How to Take the Famous Mount Cook Road Photo!
8. Enjoy Dinner with a View
The Hermitage Hotel has one of the best views in Mount Cook Village and their food is really good! For this reason, it’s only natural to want to spend an evening in the restaurant enjoying a nice meal with stunning views.
In the summer months, it doesn’t get dark in Mount Cook until around 9 pm so even if you have a late dinner you can still enjoy a magical sunset! If dinner is not in your itinerary, then consider going for a coffee on their outside deck during the day. It’s a great place to relax in between hikes!
A hot tip is to try one of their homemade meat pies – they are so delicious!
9. Hike the Sealy Tarns Track
One of the first hikes I did in Mount Cook National Park was the Sealy Tarns Trail. The track itself is actually the first half of the Mueller Hut Trail. This stunning hike climbs over 2,200 steps and 650m to the Sealy Tarn (an alpine lake) high above the Mount Cook Valley floor.
While the Sealy Tarns Track is challenging, it isn’t actually that long and can be done in a couple of hours. The track starts in the same place as the Hooker Valley Track at the White Horse Hill car-park and campground. From the carpark, you can follow the signs to the Mueller Hut or Sealy Tarn.
The entire trail to the top is well maintained and as mentioned above is almost completely made up of stairs. In the summer months, I recommend hiking in the morning as there is limited shade along the trail.
10. Tasman Lake Viewpoint
The Tasman Lake viewpoint rivals the Hooker Lake viewpoint when it comes to spectacular views. From the edge of the lake, you can look out at the Tasman Glacier and also spot icebergs floating in the Tasman Lake. I have spent many early mornings here watching the sunrise from behind the mountains and it’s one of my favorite things to do in Mount Cook.
The walk to the Tasman Lake viewpoint is short and only takes around 20 minutes or so from the Tasman Glacier carpark. To me, this makes it the best short walk in Mount Cook!
From Mount Cook Village, take Tasman Valley Road to the end where you reach the carpark. From there you can either walk to the Tasman Lake, Tasman River, the Blue Lakes, or the Tasman Glacier viewpoint. I recommend doing all of them! The trails are all very short and well signposted.
If you want to visit the lookout pictured above, follow the signs to the Tasman River. For more information, you can read our Tasman Lake Viewpoint blog article.
11. Glacier Kayaking in Tasman Lake or Mueller Lake
From the Tasman Lake viewpoint, you can see the Tasman Glacier but it is rather far away – and the same goes for the Mueller Lake viewpoint. If you want to get a closer look then a great option is a glacier kayaking tour on the lakes. It’s an awesome activity in Mount Cook and on these tours, you can paddle out to the glacier and get a much closer look with the added safety of a professional guide.
Kayaking tours in Mt Cook aren’t cheap though and start at $250 NZD per person, but the tours do run from between 4 to 6 hours. You must be 15 years and older to participate and there are a minimum number of people required to secure a tour. Regardless of the price, this is still one of the best and most adventurous things to do in Mount Cook.
If you’re feeling even more adventerous then consider walking on the Tasman Glacier. You can choose from a range of different tours!
12. Go Hiking Around Mount Cook Village
Behind the Mount Cook Village there are actually a few hiking trails almost no one knows about. These trails are very short but still worth checking out if you’re looking for an easy thing to do in Mount Cook around your hotel.
There are two main trails that start from two different carparks in town. One leads to the Red Tarns and the other to a viewpoint almost directly behind the Hermitage Hotel.
The easiest way to find the trails is to ask at the visitor center or download the app called Maps.me. This offline mapping app shows you where all the hiking trails are and other things tourist wants, like ATMs, hotels, and restaurants.
13. Stop along Mount Cook Road at Lake Pukaki
As you drive into Mount Cook on the main highway you will start to realize just how stunning the area is. Along this road, there are so many awesome places to stop. From the road, you can take amazing photos of Lake Pukaki and its blue water that is so famous.
Aside from checking out Lake Pukaki, there are also a few small tarns along the road that make for awesome reflection photos of Mount Cook. Although it sounds simple, this is literally one of the best things to do in Mount Cook!
The drive from Highway 8 to the Mount Cook Village takes around 45 minutes, but if you plan on stopping then allow over an hour. The roads in New Zealand make renting a campervan and doing an epic road trip so worth it!
Want even more amaizing things to do in Mount Cook? Then check out this huge range of tours throughout the national park!
Things to do in Lake Tekapo (near Mt Cook)
Lake Tekapo is around a 2-hour drive from Mount Cook Village. Almost everyone who visits Mount Cook also visits Lake Tekapo. In fact, if accommodation in Mount Cook is all booked up (it is all summer and sometimes in winter) then you could also stay in Lake Tekapo.
So, here are some things to do in Lake Tekapo:
You can browse all available accomodation in Lake Tekapo. If you’re visiting in summer be sure to book ASAP. This region is one of the most popular in New Zealand!
- Visit the Church of the Good Shepard – It’s considered the most famous church in New Zeland and likely the most photographed. It’s located right in Lake Tekapo near the edge of the lake.
- The Lake Tekapo Hot Springs – I honestly wasn’t a fan of these hot springs only because they were so busy! We really felt crammed into the springs like sardines. However, many people do love it and in winter it’s one way to get outside without freezing!
- Join a Star Gazing Tour – As mentioned above, the Mackenzie District is part of the Dark Sky Reserve and Lake Tekapo is at the center of it. From Lake Tekapo, you can take tours to the Mount John Observatory and see that stars from closer than ever before. Often these tours include a visit to the hot springs.
- See the Lupins in Full Bloom – Visiting the Lupins at Lake Tekapo is super popular and I actually did it this year. In all honesty, it’s really cool and although they are actually weeds, these flowers are very beautiful! The season runs from between mid-November to early February.
Here are some more awesome ways to enjoy Lake Tekapo!
Tips for Things to do in Mount Cook in Winter
All of the things I have listed are possible to do in the winter as well as the summer. However, there can be avalanche risks on tracks such as the Sealy Tarns or Mueller Hut during the winter. The best thing you can do is check with the DOC (Department of Conservation) about the current conditions and risks before you leave.
In the winter, also prepare with warm clothing, gloves, and a hat. The temperature in Mount Cook National Park can be very cold in the winter!
Mount Cook National Park is a truly special place in New Zealand. The things to do in Mount Cook are all amazing in their own way and regardless of the ones you choose to do, you’re sure to have an amazing time and will want to visit again sometime soon!
I hope you found this post helpful and if you have any questions feel free to leave them below!
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January 19, 2020