15 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’s 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!
Mount Cook National Park is one of the most popular destinations on the South Island of New Zealand, 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 is full of fun activities. 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. The park spans 722 square kilometers and is home to 8 of the 12 largest glaciers in New Zealand. These massive glaciers make up a whopping 40% of the national park!
Aoraki, or Mount Cook as it’s more commonly known, is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724 meters 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.
Mount Cook FAQs
Mount Cook National Park is located on the South Island, about a two-hour drive from Lake Tekapo. It is about halfway on the drive between Queenstown and Christchurch.
Absolutely! Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and as such, is seriously impressive. There are tons of beautiful walks and hikes to do in Mount Cook National Park that lead to stunning viewpoints of Mount Cook and nearby glaciers.
The best things to do in Mount Cook include hiking various trails, stargazing, going on a scenic flight, visiting the Sir Edmund Alpine Centre, camping, kayaking, visiting viewpoints, and taking amazing photos!
Yes, but it is a huge challenge and requires extensive mountaineering experience. Sir Edmund Hillary used Mount Cook to practice before summitting Mt Everest.
Mount Cook Village is the name of the small located within Mount Cook National Park. Here, you’ll find one small store as well as a couple of restaurants and hotels.
It’s recommended to spend 2-3 nights in Mount Cook National Park. This amount of time will allow you to see the best attractions as well as complete a hike or two.
Related read: Mount Cook is a must-visit destination on any road trip in New Zealand. For ideas on road trip routes, check out our blog that includes 10 different New Zealand road trip itineraries!
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 then you really need to book in advance to avoid missing out! Often in summer, the village can be fully booked up to 6 months in advance!
Here are your options in terms of where to stay in Mount Cook Village:
This is a DOC operated campground that costs $15 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 the best budget option in Mount Cook National Park. Dorm beds here are around $38 NZD per person per night. It’s a nice 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 national 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 Mount Cook check out our accommodation guide to Mount Cook National Park!
15 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 that anyone can enjoy. Depending on how much time you have, you should try to do them all!
These are the absolute 15 best things to do in Mount Cook National Park!
1. Hike the Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is probably the most popular hike in Mount Cook National Park! To say the least, it’s simply a stunning hike. The hike is also one of the easiest in the national park. At only 10 kilometers return (6.2 miles) the trail is flat and suitable for almost all fitness levels.
Some of the highlights on the Hooker Valley Track include views of 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 parking lot 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! One time when I hiked the Hooker Valley Track at sunrise I pretty much had the entire trail to myself. I didn’t see another person until I was almost back at the parking lot!
If you only do one hike in Mount Cook, be sure to make it the Hooker Valley Track. To me, it’s the best hike in Mount Cook National Park and one of the best hikes on the entire South Island!
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 helicopter ride included Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, 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!
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 once in a lifetime experience that’s worth every penny!
Scenic flight prices vary based on the length of your flight. The shortest flight available is 20 minutes and the longest is 50 minutes.
Let’s break it down: To make choosing easier and to get your budget sorted, here’s a guide to what you can expect to pay (in NZD approx) for each flight time:
These flight prices above all include one landing on a glacier (landings also affect the price). They are estimates but honestly are a great ballpark figure.
You can also go heli-skiing, heli-hiking, and glacier trekking with your scenic flight but this is generally booked separately (and costs more.)
For more info, check out our out blog about how to choose a helicopter ride in Mount Cook National Park.
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 1,800 meters 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 1,042 meters in elevation over 5.5 kilometers! Although this trail is more difficult than 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 in Mount Cook Village. Winter conditions can also be dangerous and you must check the current avalanche risk at the DOC office too. 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 Mueller Hut in advance (passes sell out in the summer.) It is still important to check current warnings at the DOC office especially early on in the summer season.
To spend a night in the Mueller Hut you will have to pay $45 per adult and $22.50 per child.
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 blog about hiking to the Mueller Hut!
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 Mueller Lake and glacier.
The trail is only 20 minutes one way and finishes at a viewpoint that overlooks 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 Stargazing in a Dark Sky Reserve
Mount Cook National Park is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. This 4,300 km2 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, you should head out a little ways from the village to White Horse Hill Campsite or to the Tasman Glacier parking lot. Out there, you will be able to properly adjust your eyes and see tons of stars on a clear night.
6. Visit Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre 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 films 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 specific 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 this iconic 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!
Related read: For the most Instagrammable places in Mount Cook National Park, check out our blog on where to take the best photos in Mount Cook!
8. Enjoy Dinner with a View
The Hermitage Hotel has one of the best views in Mount Cook Village and the food in their restaurant is delicious! 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 part of 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!
For a quick bite, 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 Track. The trail itself is actually the first half of the Mueller Hut Trail. This stunning hike climbs over 2,200 stairs (an actual staircase) and 650 meters in elevation to reach the Sealy Tarn (an alpine lake.)
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 carpark and campground. From the parking lot, you can follow the signs to the Mueller Hut or Sealy Tarn.
The entire trail to the top is well maintained and is almost completely made up of stairs. It is grueling, but the views are so worth it! In the summer months, I recommend hiking in the morning as there is limited shade along the trail.
For more information, read our complete guide to hiking the Sealy Tarns Track!
10. Visit Tasman Lake Viewpoint
The Tasman Lake Viewpoint rivals the Hooker Lake viewpoint when it comes to spectacular views in Mount Cook. 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’s 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 Mount 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.
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 this brochure by the DOC that shows all of the different hiking trails in Mount Cook National Park.
13. Drive the Road to Mount Cook and Visit Lake Pukaki
As you drive into Mount Cook National Park 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 many scenic roads in New Zealand make renting a campervan and doing an epic road trip so worth it!
14. Go Camping
Remember how I said accommodation can be hard to find in Mount Cook? Well, why not forget about staying in a hotel and camp under the stars instead?
While freedom camping is not allowed in Mount Cook National Park, you can at White Horse Hill Campground for cheap. This campground is operated by the DOC and has basic facilities including flush toilets and potable water. For $15 per person a night, you can set up a tent in one of the most scenic places in the world!
You must book a campsite at White Horse Hill Campground online in advance.
If you want a fancier stay, consider Glentanner Holiday Park just outside of Mount Cook National Park. Although more expensive, they have both powered and non-powered campsites with hot showers, a communal kitchen, a BBQ area, and more.
If you have a self-contained certified campervan or motorhome, you can only freedom camp in certain areas outside of Mount Cook National Park. Although a bit of a drive, Lake Alexandrina is a great freedom camping spot!
15. Swim at the Blue Lakes
The Blue Lakes is another beautiful attraction in Mount Cook National Park. From the same carpark as Tasman Lake, you can follow signs to walk up to the moraine wall which offers a stunning view of the lakes from above. It’s a 2.6-kilometer-long (return) trail that’s very easy.
Alternatively, you walk right to the Blue Lakes and go for a swim! Sure, it will be cold, but in the summer months, this is easily one of the best things to do in Mount Cook.
Although they are called “Blue” Lakes, don’t expect a super blue lake like Lake Pukaki. Back in the day, a glacier-fed these lakes directly and the water was blue. But now, the water is more of green color. It’s still beautiful, just not blue!
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 accommodation in Lake Tekapo. If you’re visiting in the 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 Zealand 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 the 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 mid-November to early February.
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 temperatures in Mount Cook National Park can be very cold in the winter!
Before you go…
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 a fun 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! Otherwise, check out all of our other blogs about exploring Mount Cook!
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January 13, 2021