They call it hiking in the US, rambling in the UK, bush walking in Australia and tramping in New Zealand. No matter where you are from on this great big blue planet, or what you call it, there is something supremely satisfying about walking amid nature. Mount Cook in New Zealand’s stunning South Island is the perfect place to swap skyscrapers for soaring mountains, gridlocked traffic for gurgling rivers and pounding the pavement for perambulating on natural paths. There are a tonne of Mount Cook walks to choose from and you don’t need to hike 46,000 kilometres for 12 hours straight to get up close and personal with nature. I’m not the most active person in the world (working on that!), but I didn’t want to miss out and I thoroughly enjoyed our jaunts along the Hooker Valley Track and Tasman Glacier Walk. If you are like me, these short Mt Cook hikes will satisfy your inner Bear Grylls without requiring hospitalisation. Read on for all the details …
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Mount Cook Aoraki Overview
Mount Cook Aoraki National Park is huge. New Zealand’s premier alpine park covers 70,796 hectares, boasts the country’s largest glaciers and is home to New Zealand’s highest mountain; Aoraki/Mount Cook. The area was formally recognised as a national park in 1953 and has a diverse topography. Glaciers cover more than 40% of the park and there are 19 peaks over 3000 metres. Mount Cook Aoraki National Park forms part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage area known as Te Wāhipounamu. Make no mistake, this is glacier country. Five major valley systems helped shape the dramatic landscape; Tasman, Hooker, Mueller, Godley and Murchison, but there are over 150 smaller hanging glaciers. Almost all visitors choose to traverse at least one of the many Mt Cook hikes to experience the alpine environment up close and personal. Despite attracting visitors from far and wide, the heart of Mount Cook National Park, Mount Cook Village, is tiny. There are only a handful of places to eat (try a burger from Chamois Bar & Grill or a BLT from Old Mountaineers Cafe) and there is no supermarket or convenience store so bring anything you need in with you. Accommodation options are slim (and pricy!) and we chose to stay at Aoraki Court Motel which offered a level of luxury we desired without completely breaking the bank. The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is part of the 4300 square kilometre Mackenzie Region International Dark Sky Reserve. The skies in this stunning part of the world are so clear and the light pollution is so low that millions of stars are visible with the naked eye. We had intended to go star gazing with Big Sky, but the cloud cover and too bright moon played havoc with the visibility. Mackenzie is the only dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere and is one of only eight in the world. Plan your trip for a new moon and watch the weather closely.
What To Take On Mount Cook Walks
Mount Cook walks range from 10 minutes to 4 hours and you can even partake in an overnight Mount Cook hike. While there is a walk to suit all abilities and interests, there are some things you will need to consider before setting off. Good planning and preparation will make your experience much more enjoyable. Firstly know your limits and choose a Mount Cook hike suited to your ability. The weather in New Zealand’s South Island can change quickly so make sure you check the conditions and prepare for all eventualities. Dress in layers so that you add and remove them as needed. Sunscreen, a hat and water are essential in all seasons and insect repellent will come in handy in summer. I found out the hard way that my crappy, beat up, 5 year old sketchers with wafer thin soles were not the wisest choice of footwear. Do yourself a solid and invest in a pair of sturdy shoes designed for hiking, particularly if you are planning to visit in winter as snow and ice can be treacherous to walk on. Avalanches can occur at any time, but are more likely in winter and spring. Check and heed the avalanche warnings to ensure your safety. Visitors are asked to ‘leave no trace’ on all Mount Cook walks and it’s easy to comply. This simply means disposing of all your waste properly and respecting the local flora and fauna to protect it for generations to come. Lastly, make sure your camera has plenty of spare storage. The scenery is stunning and you are going to want to capture it all.
Tasman Glacier Walk – 40 Minutes Return
The Tasman Glacier Walk starts at the Tasman Glacier car park. It was an easy 15 minute drive from Mount Cook Village in the Mazda Demio we hired through Airport Car Rentals for the tiny price of AUD$194 for 7 days. Kiwi’s love a one way bridge and one of the longest we encountered crosses the Tasman River on this short drive. Park the car and head over to the stone shelter to the left and walk past the rustic toilet block to the start of the track. The track is well sign posted and you will veer left at the first fork. The first part of the Tasman Glacier Walk passes through a flat, rocky plain studded with vicious looking Speargrass. The heads are covered in long bright yellow spikes that I had no interest in messing with.
A few minutes in, the gravel path makes way to stairs as the 100 metre climb begins. As you ascend, take a moment to glance back for amazing views across the valley. Half way to the top, make a stop at the Blue Lakes viewpoint. I was quite disappointed to find the lake is not actually blue, but a rather unappealing slime green. The name The Blue Lakes was accurate in the 1800’s when they were named as they were fed by glacial melt water. At the time, The Blue Lakes were a popular spot to swim in summer and they were used as an ice skating rink in the winter. The Tasman Glacier melt no longer flows into The Blue Lakes after significant volume loss and they are now fed by rainwater. The warmer water supports the prolific growth of green algae which gives the lakes their green colour. It is possible to walk down to the lake shore, but we were content to view from afar.
The Tasman Glacier Walk culminates at the Tasman Glacier viewpoint. The Haupapa Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s largest and longest. The 100 square kilometre mass is 600 metres deep, 27 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. Look across the milky lake towards the Southern Alps and the glacier is right in front. It took me a moment to identify it, but if you look closely you can see the ice at the lake’s edge. As we were admiring nature’s masterpiece, a young woman joined us who looked every inch the experienced hiker. The Hubs got to talking to her and it was clear she was a local who knew a thing or two about the area. She told us that just 30 years ago the lake in front of us did not exist. It was hard to comprehend and even sadder to acknowledge that it is losing length every year. As we took a seat on the large rocks at the edge of the viewing area under the heat of the blazing sunshine it seemed incongruous to see large chunks of ice floating down below. Christchurch was the first stop on our road trip through New Zealand’s South Island and I visited Quake City while I was there. During my visit I learned that the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake caused almost 30 million tonnes of ice to fall off the Tasman Glacier which resulted in tsunami conditions on Tasman Lake. It’s almost unfathomable to imagine. Once you have finished drinking in the views, head back down the same was you came. Trust me, it’s a lot easier going down!
Tasman Lake Track – 1 Hour Return
We chose to do the Tasman Lake Track directly after the Tasman Glacier Walk as we were in the area. Walk almost all the way to the car park and take a left turn before the toilet block. This Mount Cook walk enjoys a flatter terrain and I was glad to have a break from the stairs. Towards the end of the well maintained gravel path the track forks and walkers need to decide between the jetty and the river. There was a family with young children just in front of us who headed toward the river so of course we chose the jetty. A few minutes later we found ourselves on the rocky shore of Lake Tasman. I couldn’t resist slipping off my shoes and socks for a paddle in the shallows. The water was freezing, which is hardly surprising given there were large chunks of ice floating all around. My feet had only been submerged for a few short seconds when a painful numbness kicked in. I begged The Hubs to hurry up and snap a pic so I could hightail it out of there. Well I didn’t really hightail it, but I moved as quick as I could with the jagged rocks digging into the soft soles of my bare feet. Graceful it wasn’t. We almost had the area to ourselves save for one brave young couple. I say brave because as we arrived they were toweling off after taking a dip. I was hyperventilating just wading in so I cannot imagine how they managed to fully submerge themselves. A small boat was docked at the jetty and there was a bunch of kayaks on the shore. The Hubs asked the guy manning the boat how we could organise a ride, but he advised that boat tours must be pre-booked as part of The Hermitage Hotel’s ‘Glacier Explorers Tour’. He was short on detail, but I later found out that the 2½ hour tour includes 60 minutes on the lake as well as a guided Mount Cook hike. It’s NZD$175pp if you book direct, but because I’m always looking for a bargain I found it a few dollars cheaper on Klook. Turns out you can’t just hire the kayaks on site either. The amount of people on Tasman Lake is strictly controlled in the name of conservation, so the kayaks can only be used as part of organised glacier sea kayak tours. Tours start at $250pp and can be booked at the Old Mountaineers Cafe in Mount Cook Village. With one last glance over our shoulder, we left the shore behind and headed back the way we came.
We were back at the jetty/river junction within minutes and headed towards the river. This section of the track was characterised by a harsh almost lunar aspect. Tufts of vegetation valiantly clung to life by planting roots in the tight crevices between the moss-covered rocks which surrounded the track. As we moved forward we spied a thin line of turquoise water splicing through the premonitory grey terrain. The contrast was dramatic. The rivers and lakes of The Mount Cook National Park are the most amazing shades of blue, green and turquoise that you can imagine. Every one of them will take your breath away and no photo can do them justice. The brilliant hues are the result of the suspended rock flour in the water which is created when the glaciers move against the rock. The track ends at a plateau with a bird’s eye view of where Tasman Lake turns into the Tasman River. This was the closest we got to the huge icebergs floating in the lake and they were a sight to behold. I always find the walk back is quicker and this was no exception. Mostly because all the photo stops were eliminated. Once back at the Tasman Glacier car park I noticed that the Ball Hut Route also heads off from here, but at 4 hours each way, it was out of my league. If you are made of sterner stuff and wish to tackle this challenging Mount Cook hike make sure you book your overnight stay at Ball Hut at the visitors centre first.
Hooker Valley Track – 1 – 3 Hours
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular Mount Cook walks and is often heralded as the best. The walk starts at the Whitehorse Hill Campground which is a 5 minute drive from Mount Cook Village. We arrived at about 3pm and the car park was packed. Days are long in a New Zealand summer and the sun doesn’t slip below the horizon until around 10.30pm so we had plenty of daylight left. The cloud cover and light breeze was a refreshing relief after the blazing sunshine we had on the Tasman Glacier Walk. The trail is well graded and covered in gravel with the odd rock here and there. If I had decent walking shoes it would have been a doddle, however my worn out sketchers provided zero cushioning. I felt every pebble keenly which grew more annoying with every step. I eyed walkers in sensible shoes with envy and I have to admit I did consider rolling a size 7 lady for her shoes. But I restrained myself. The Hooker Valley Track criss crosses the Hooker River and is divided into three distinct sections by three suspension bridges. About 200 metres into the track you will find Freda’s Rock. Freda Du Faur was the first woman to climb Mount Cook. On the return journey, a much reproduced photograph was taken of her posing in front of a large boulder. Years later this was dubbed Freda’s Rock and it still stands today. Shortly afterwards the Hooker Valley track passes through a delightful natural tree arch and The Alpine Memorial on the left is worth the short detour from the main track. The memorial serves as both a lookout and a poignant tribute to the many mountaineers who have lost their lives in Mount Cook National Park. The early part of the Hooker Valley Track is blessed with impossibly vivid lime green paddocks dotted with colourful wildflowers perfect for macro photography. Before you know it, the first suspension bridge is in sight. The wobbly crossing unnerved me slightly, but I pulled my big girl pants on and took it in my stride. I stated that the Hooker Valley Track walk was between one and three hours. If you are after the shortest route, this is where you turn around. The Hooker Valley Track is not a loop and even when you follow it through to it’s conclusion at Hooker Lake, you must return the same way you came. If you do turn around here, keep your eyes peeled on the way pack for a glimpse of a brilliant blue lake between the peaks just before the end.
If you decide to continue past the first suspension bridge, the second section of the Hooker Valley Track meanders along to Mueller Lake. Almost as soon as we started, the weather turned. Dark clouds rolled in over the alps and the sky began to rumble. Not wanting to miss out (FOMO is real my friends) we pushed on gallantly despite our lack of wet weather gear. For the best views of Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton climb the few steps to the Mueller Lake Lookout. The spacious viewing platform has a seat to rest weary legs and a group of tourists had set up an impromptu picnic while we were there. This is a perfect place for panorama photography. As you gaze across the cloudy water, take a moment to contemplate that just 100 years ago the Mueller Glacier completely filled the valley below and now it’s all but hidden from this vantage point. In the last 30 years New Zealand’s glaciers have experienced a 10% volume loss and 90% of that has come from the 12 largest glaciers including the Mueller Glacier. A heavy thunder clap interrupted our quiet contemplation and startled us into action. We continued along the well trodden Hooker Valley track at a slightly quicker pace and we reached the second suspension bridge roughly an hour after we started out.
The third section of the Hooker Valley Track is dominated by a long section of wooden boardwalk. The wind howled through the valley and I donned my jacket as the heavens released an unwelcome drizzle. We laughed in the face of adversity (on the outside anyway) and pushed on towards Hooker Lake following the Hooker River all the way. Glimpses of snow-capped peaks that beg to be photographed appear as you round each bend. I’m pretty sure I captured every, single one of them. The Tasman River appeared to change colour in this section and was almost clear in places with the river bed clearly visible. We smiled to ourselves as we passed a young girl jumping on partly submerged rocks as her Mum and Dad watched with a mix of amusement and trepidation. We reached the final suspension bridge at about 4.30pm, 1½ hours after we started. Mount Cook dominated the background. The peak was obscured by low hanging clouds on a dreary day, but this did little to detract from the grandeur of New Zealand’s highest mountain. As we began the final part of the track, the rain intensified. We continued for a little while, but I was wet, rather uncomfortable and just not having fun any more so we made the decision to turn back just minutes away from Hooker Lake. We put our heads down and powered through the rain to reach the car park at 5.30pm, 2½ hours after we began. We completed the return journey in just 45 minutes; half the time it had taken us to get there. So is it worth walking the whole Hooker Valley Track? Yes if you are an avid walker with reasonable fitness and three hours to spare. If you are short on time or are not really into hiking I would suggest turning back at Mueller Lake. Much of the scenery beyond that point is very similar and you will have most certainly seen the highlights.
5 More Easy Mt Cook Hikes To Try
Our two days in Mount Cook Aoraki didn’t allow us sufficient time to explore all the amazing Mount Cook walks on offer. If you are blessed enough to enjoy a longer stay, you may also walk to try these easy walks in the area. If you do, be sure and leave me a comment on your thoughts.
Bowen Bush Walk
The Bowen Bush Walk is mostly flat with a few steps and only takes 10 minutes. The shortest of all the Mount Cook walks starts from the petrol pumps in Mount Cook village and winds through the Toatoa Forrest.
Governors Bush Walk
The Governors Bush Walk is a one hour loop through the Tawhai Forest on a well graveled track with a 100m rise and some steps. Expect to see plenty of bird life on the gradual climb which leads to a lookout with commanding views of Aoraki/Mount Cook.
The Glencoe Walk starts behind the Hermitage Hotel and zig zags for 30 minutes before rewarding walkers with a view of Mount Cook Village and the Hooker Glacier. Go at sunset or sunrise for Insta worthy pics of Aoraki/Mount Cook. There is a 40m height gain on the track with a few steps.
Kea Point Track
This 1 hour walk starts at the same place as the Hooker Valley Track; the Whitehorse Hill Campground. The track winds through grasslands to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall and ends at a viewing deck with unsurpassed views of Mount Sefton, the Hooker Valley, the Mueller Glacier Lake and of course Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Red Tarns Track
The Red Tarns Track starts at the public shelter at the end of Bowen Drive in Mount Cook Village. The track heads downhill briefly, but after the bridge over Black Birch Stream the steep 300m uphill climb to the Red Tarns begins. A tarn is a small mountain lake and the red colour comes from the red pond weed that grows in them. A seat at the top allows you to catch your breath and take in the views over Mount Cook Village and Aoraki/Mount Cook before making your way back down. Allow two hours for the return trip.
Have you done any other Mount Cook walks? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Until Next Time …
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