What to do in Mt. Cook National Park

Here clouds shroud the grey, glacier-topped peaks choosing to forego the golden valleys below. On a clear day, you’ll see New Zealand’s tallest mountain reach toward the sky as if it were stretching toward the heavens. From the Aoraki Mt. Cook Village the mountain’s majesty reigns inviting visitors to scramble up one of several hikes for a closer look; but those who truly know and love the mount know mother nature’s beautiful fury including Mt. Cook’s sheer cliffs, screaming and often bone-chilling winds and blizzard-like white outs. Dozens of men who loved Mt. Cook dearly have died trying to conquer its towering peaks or scale its blue glaciers.  An alpine memorial now stands in their honor near a simple path where unknowing tourists cross on their way for a better look at Mt. Cook.

Aside from the breathtaking mountain views, the Aoraki – Mt. Cook National Park offers nothing magical…but do you really need more? While the true mountaineers and adventurers could spend weeks making Aoraki- Mt. Cook their playground, for most a simple day or two in the park will suffice. In a full days time one can scramble up a handful of hiking trails offering spectacular views of Mt. Cook and the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

Mt. Cook Village or the nearby Whitehorse parking lot and campsite serve as the start for most of the general walks through the park. The village itself is quaint and only serves visitors with an information center, several hotels, motels and hostels (the largest being the towers of the Hermitage Hotel) and a couple cafes/restaurants. A street boasting private residences and a small school sit nearby.

Most Mt. Cook visitors chose to take the well-worn, although rough, Hooker Valley trail that stretches several kilometers across a slew of loose rocks and over three lengthy suspension bridges before ending near Hooker Lake with outstanding views of the Hooker Glacier and Mt. Cook. Along the way, you’ll trek past the alpine memorial, Mueller Lake and the Muller Glacier and a restroom alongside a small hut that provides much-needed shelter in inclement weather. The return hike from the visitors center runs about four hours, but you can drive to the Whitehorse parking lot to shave off an hours walk. The path itself isn’t steep, but it is difficult thanks to the loose rocks strewn the length of the trail. Solid hiking shoes or tennis shoes are a must here.  Unfortunately, the park lists it as a simple family-friendly trail leaving many to assume they can traverse the pathway in nothing more than flip flops or fancy Prada shoes and a matching purse.  Honestly folks, let’s leave it in the car.

Other tracks include the Sealy Tarns, Red Tarns and Kea Point tracks.  While the guides in the i-center will tell you you’re in for a steep climb up the Sealy Tarns track, they fail to warn you of the more than 1,800 stairs you’ll climb to the top.  You’ll be gasping for air and lamenting over the excruciatingly sharp pains in your calves, but the view makes the 3.5 hours return hike well worth the pain.  If that’s not your cup of tea, try the Red Tarns track – it’s much gentler but still offers great valley views.

Slightly farther down the main road from Mt. Cook village sits the turnout for the Tasman Glacier hike. This relatively short and simple hike is positioned at the base of an 8km dirt road ripe with ruts guaranteed to shake your camper van to pieces. The hike itself is about 25 minutes one-way and leads to great views of Tasman Glacier from its creamy brown lake filled with floating ice lost from the glacier’s face.

No freedom camping is “allowed” inside the park, but just a couple kilometers beyond you’ll find a well worn path (right side of the road is you’re leaving the park, left if you’re coming) leading to a series of tracks where you can park in the valley. The DOC site inside Mt. Cook National Park runs $10.00 nzd a person, but is equipped with pleasant bathrooms, a dump station with potable water (free for all to use) and a great facility filled with tables and several sinks to wash dishes.

At the entrance to Mt. Cook National park sits a small airfield where you can catch a scenic flight around the magical peaks. Or, if you’re looking to get closer than a hike or flight allows, you can choose from a guided climb, 4X4 tour, kayaking the glacial lakes to the face of the glaciers or sign up with Glacier Explores and hop a MAC boat and sit back and relax as a guide takes you near the glacier via it’s outflow lake. Glacier Explorers runs trips daily with seven departure times. The two and half hour tour including a short drive, a half hour hike and one hour on the boat, will cost you $145.00 nzd for adults and $70.00 nzd for children.

There are several multi-day crossings, which truly do require the help of an experienced guide even more so depending on the time of year. The Ball Pass Crossing is a 3-day trek through the Mt. Cook range. A guided tour can be found through Alpine Recreaion. The company says it will take beginner mountaineers who are experienced hikers. Their shorter 2-day trek of Mount Cook can be accomplished by fit backpackers, and finally their Tekapo trek, which runs two or three days, can be taken on by “fit walkers”.

In the winter, Mt. Cook turns into an adventurers parades. Guided ski tours allow you to tear through the Tasman glacier on downhill skis while also exploring the ice blue caverns and cliffs. This one will cost you though – expect to pay a minimum of $875.00 nzd per person. Some companies also offer multi-day snowshoe treks through the range.

A host of beginner mountaineering and avalanche safety courses are also offered in the Mt. Cook region, but be willing to pay thousands to enroll.

While the typical tourist may never conquer the snowy peaks of the region, and some do nothing more than marvel at the beauty through the glass windows of a tour bus, Mt. Cook still offers a magical experience and one not to be missed while traversing New Zealand’s ever-changing landscape.