Many travellers to New Zealand want to explore the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. This beautiful alpine park can be found in the heart of the South Island. But unfortunately, due to time restraints, holiday makers tend to cut this area a bit too short. Believe me, it really is worth spending a few days here. Read on to find out why.
The whole idea behind this blog is to point out those ‘hidden secrets’. I’ll be covering a list of stunning activities, local hikes and other mind-blowing attractions. One of the memorable highlights on my list will be a very special luxury accommodation – Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat. But first, let’s start with a little introduction to the Mount Cook National Park.
Introduction Mt Cook National Park
The Mount Cook National Park is one of New Zealand’s 14 main land conservation areas. It’s highest mountains (23 peaks over 3000 metres) and you’ll find most of its 3000 glaciers are located here. New Zealand climbing legend, Sir Edmund Hillary, used the Aoraki Mount Cook region to get in training for his Mt. Everest climb in 1953. But, historically, the region has seen many European climbers from the end of the 1800’s.
How to get to Mount Cook National Park
There is only one small village in the park – Mount Cook Village. To get to this village, you can only take one access route via State Highway 80. This road ends at the village. Note, there is no road access to the West Coast of the South Island. Getting from Christchurch to Mt. Cook Village will take you about 5 hours drive. From Queenstown, you can make it in 4 hours. Most travellers will arrive by rental car. However, you can use alternative options such as coach, minivan or private transfers.
Scenery at Aoraki National Park
The eastern side of the Southern Alps is typically made up of craggy rocks and stark beauty – a beautiful contrast to the rainforest on the western side. The Mt. Cook Village has an elevation of 760 metres (2500 feet) above sea level. New Zealand’s highest mountain – Aoraki Mt. Cook – stands at 3724 metres (12,218 feet). So, as you can imagine, even during the summer season it can get a bit chilly. In the winter season (June, July, August) you will see plenty of snow covering this area. In the colder season, the snow enhances the beauty of these towering alpine peaks.
Weather and seasons for Mount Cook NP
The weather for the Mount Cook National Park can be changeable. However, the best time of the year is when the weather is at its most stable – which is between January and May. So understandably, this is also New Zealand’s most busiest hiking season.
What to do in Aoraki Mount Cook New Zealand
Obviously, Mt Cook’s key attractions are based on the outdoors. These will include hiking and scenic flights. But over the past few years, stargazing has also become extremely popular. Ok, let’s break down the many activity options into main categories:
Mount Cook Walks and Hikes
Have a look at these walking options in the Mount Cook basin area. First of all, before you set off on one of these walks, do be aware of your fitness level. Also take into account your past hiking experience. And most importantly, do remember to check with the local DoC (Department of Conservation) office before heading out for longer walks!
Mount Cook Village Walks
The walks I have listed below are quite short and perfect for families with small children or senior travellers.
Bowen Bush Walk – Walking Time: 10 min return loop. Fitness needed: As this walk is mainly flat with some steps, it is a relatively easy forest walk. In fact, I would suggest you combine the Bowen Bush Walk with Governors Bush Walk as a nature trail. You will get a lot of enjoyment by wandering through tōtara trees and celery pine/mountain toatoa forest. As a matter of interest, this trail also has an alternative exit/entry towards the Mount Cook Lodge
Glencoe Walk – Walking Time: 30 min return. Fitness needed: reasonably straightforward with steps and some zigzags. After criss-crossing through tōtara trees, you will come to a lookout near the water tanks above The Hermitage. Great views.
Governors Bush Walk – Walking Time: 1 hr loop. Fitness needed: First of all, be aware that there will be some steps. Plus you will be walking on a gravel track, so you will need to be sure-footed. However, if a delightful bush walk is what you’re after, you’ll certainly get it. The Governors Bush Walk track merges with the Bowen Track Walk. From there, you can explore one of the few stands of silver beech forest in the park.
Mt Cook Walking Trails for fit travellers
These walks take much longer, so in order to enjoy them, you will need to have a good level of fitness.
Kea Point Track – Walking Time: 2 hrs return from the village. Start at the DOC Visitor Centre. Height gain 180 m over 3 km.
This walk gently winds through subalpine grasslands which takes you to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. Walk to the viewing deck at the end. From there, you will have the most stunning views of Mount Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker valley, Mueller Glacier lake and Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Hooker Valley Track – Walking Time: 3 hrs return from car park or 4 hrs from the village. Walking track: Easy. Start place: White Horse Hill car park. Height gain 80 m over 5 km.
The best time to walk this spectacular track is at dawn. As this is the perfect time to see the first rays of sun creep over the Southern Alps and Mount Cook. Also, remember at dawn, there are not many walkers around. The track leads up the Hooker valley towards Aoraki/ Mount Cook. You will pass close to the Alpine Memorial (a great viewpoint) and Freda’s Rock. After that point, you’ll come to the viewing point of the Mueller Glacier and the first swing bridge. From that part, you will have a river crossing at Hooker River before carrying on to the second swing bridge. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the many alpine wildflowers along the way.
Tasman Lake Track & View Trail– Walking Time: 1 hr return from the village. Walking track: Easy. Start place: Blue Lakes car park. Height gain 100m.
The Tasman Lake Track branches to the right off the Blue Lakes Track just past the Blue Lakes Shelter. It leads to a viewpoint where you can see the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. A further track branches to the right off this track. An amazing sight is the icebergs – these can be seen floating in the lake in both the summer and winter months. The track leads through the old terminal moraines of the glacier, from where you’ll see lovely alpine plants. The Tasman View Trail passes the Blue Lakes shelter and meanders up past the Blue Lakes to a viewpoint on the moraine wall. At the head of the valley, you’ll get great views of the lower Tasman Glacier and icebergs. If you have time, take a side trip to the Blue Lakes – great for a swim in the summer. At around 27 km long, the Haupapa/Tasman Glacier is the longest glacier in New Zealand. In fact, the glacier lake has been growing rapidly over the past few years and is now around 7 km long.
Mt Cook Day Walks
For days walks in the Mount Cook region I would recommend a solid fitness level. The heli-hiking trip can be done for medium fit travellers with good walking abilities.
Mueller Hut Route – Walking Time: 3–5 hr one way. Walking track: Tramping track: Steep and untracked. Starts: Sealy Tarns Track. Height gain 1000m.
Spectacular views, a large hut and an amazing landscape, attracts people to this strenuous walk. During the summer months (December – February) this route offers a mountain experience for anyone with moderate tramping experience – if you take good care. During the winter months (June – August) the route requires a good level of mountaineering experience. That means, walking on ice and snow with an ice axe and crampons. Plus you will need to be good at finding the route and using an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel. Check with the DOC staff at the Aoraki/Mount Cook Visitor Centre for current mountain conditions.
Tasman Glacier Heli-Hiking – Walking Time: 2 hr (plus helicopter rides). Starts: Mount Cook Airport. View more details here.
Combine the excitement of walking on New Zealand’s biggest glacier with the thrill of breathtaking scenic helicopter fly-bys of New Zealand’s largest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook. Fly in to your drop off point on a remote part of the glacier. For ease of mobility on the snow, you will be provided with boots, called crampons. You will also get sturdy rain jackets. But remember to bring your own sun glasses, a warm hat and a camera!
Mount Cook Walking tracks map
The best source of information on local hiking and walking PDF maps is with the Department of Conservation. Their information centre is located right in the centre of the village. And that makes it very easy just to pop-in and check out details before going on your walk.
Activities at Mount Cook & Mackenzie Country
Besides the many hiking trails (called ‘tracks’ in New Zealand) there are plenty of other activities in the Mt. Cook area.
Cycling the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
The ‘Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail’ is a mind-blowing way to explore the region. And, guess what, it’s all downhill! You begin from the Hooker Valley area and follow the eastern route of Lake Pukaki. This is the first section of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, which leads all the way to Oamaru. You can rent a cycle and get local transfers in the village. Make sure you stop every now and then to take a look behind you – the views towards the Southern Alps are fabulous!
Scenic Flights Mount Cook
You will have a number of Scenic flight options. These can either be in a fixed wing plane or a helicopter. Their key start locations can be found at the Mt. Cook Airport (about 15 min out of Mt. Cook Village from Glentanner Holiday Park). Alternatively, you can start from Lake Pukaki Airport or Lake Tekapo Airport.
Glacier Explorer – Lake and Iceberg tour
This tour provides an amazing encounter with Tasman Glacier and its lake. The tour departs by bus from The Hermitage Hotel. From the hotel, you will be taken to the Tasman Valley. Upon reaching the Tasman Valley, you will have a 30 minute alpine walk through the National Park. Once you get on-board the custom built MAC boat, just kick back and enjoy the ever changing scenery. Travellers hardly ever get the opportunity to actually reach out and touch a real iceberg – here you can.
Gliding Scenic flights from Omarama
If peace and serenity is your thing, maybe you would welcome this flight adventure – the perfect introduction to the joy of flying gliders. As you soar silently over lakes and mountains, you’ll get wonderful views of Mount Cook! Flights from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours are available. However, Pre-booking is essential. Also be aware that all these flights will be subject to weather conditions on the day.
Red Cat Biplane Scenic Flights
I’d probably rate this flight as being for the more daring traveller. Again, you will be perfectly safe, but this time, you’ll get to fly in a two passenger seat with an open cockpit biplane. Just like the red baron, you will wear a leather flying jacket, leather helmet and flying goggles! There are headphones fitted into each helmet – these allow you to hear a commentary from the pilot. You will get no greater vantage point from which to view the Mackenzie Basin and Mt Cook National Park. The Red Cat is located 10 minutes away at Pukaki Airport.
Lord of the Rings – the Heart of Middle Earth
As you can imagine, a 2 hour classic Lord of the rings tour is very popular with fans. But you don’t have to be a LOTR fan to enjoy this one. Not only will you learn about how to make a movie, but you’ll get to see the great locations that were used in this part of New Zealand. Believe me, the visual effects will amaze you. This tour includes all of the major scenes that were filmed in and around Twizel area.
Stargazing Mt. Cook & Lake Tekapo region
As mentioned before stargazing has become very popular. There are a number of options for you:
Big Sky Stargazing – Starts from Mt. Cook Village at the Hermitage Hotel. The tour takes about 1.5 hours.
Experienced guides will introduce you to beautiful southern night sky in New Zealand. For a full hour you will get the choice of using the naked eye or astro-binoculars plus the 14″ and 11″ astronomy telescopes. Here is your chance to unleash your imagination as you discover our neighbourhood in the universe. Renowned for its ‘diamond wonderland, the night sky here is glorious. So if you want to see the southern cross, planets and distant galaxies, do include this tour in your itinerary.
Dark Sky Stargazing – Start from Lake Tekapo Village, which is one hour drive away.
After sunset, you’ll be taken up to Mt. John Observatory. Of course in the colder season, with shorter days, you will be returning back to base after midnight. For that reason you might want to stay in Lake Tekapo, rather than in Mt. Cook Village. Travellers love immersing themselves in the stunning surrounds and pristine night skies. To top it all off, you will have access to some very sophisticated viewing technologies. And you will get to meet astrophotographers who will share the science and stories of our Southern Skies.
Pukaki Wine Cellar Observatory – this private tour is only available for guests at Mt. Cook Retreat.
Starting in the wine cellar, start with nibbles and a glass of wine, while being introduced to the Dark Sky Reserve features. As you move through to the Observatory, you will see an impressive 6″ refractor telescope. By looking through this telescope, you’ll get a closer look at far away objects such as Saturn, Jupiter and its moons, clusters, nebula and planets.
Where to stay in the Mount Cook region
There are a number of accommodation options in the Mackenzie, Lake Tekapo, Twizel and Mt. Cook Village region. But I’m going focus on the very best – Mt. Cook Lakeside Retreat. Why? Because The location is simply stunning – right on Lake Pukaki with views to Mt. Cook peak. Also, a huge factor with this type of premium accommodation, is privacy and additional experiences that available to you from the retreat.
Accommodation at Mt. Cook Lakeside Retreat
Ashley Mackenzie Villa and Private Fantail Spa – Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat has 3 beautiful villas, one of which, is the Ashley MacKenzie Villa. There are not many standalone villas that have their very own private spa and sauna. But this one does. When we first walked into the Ashley MacKenzie Village, we were amazed by its beautiful interior. The wall-to-wall kitchen bench was impressive, but the living area was so spacious with its own beautiful open fireplace. Being built on a clifftop, we had spectacular views over Lake Pukaki towards Aoraki Mount Cook. Because of its unique location, this 2-bedroom villa is incredibly private and suitable for a couple or 2 couples travelling together.
Both double bedrooms are located on either side of the massive living area, well away from each other. Owners, Luke and Kay, have specifically designed this large villa in the style of a European farmhouse. The internal walls are 600mm thick! You’ll definitely enjoy the endless sense of space from the high-stud ceiling. And I guarantee the heated Italian sandstone flooring and double glazing will keep away the winter chills.
Soft furnishings of Tuscan white and, coupled with neutral linens give the interiors a sumptuous feel. The bedrooms are elegant with double glazed french doors opening out to views over Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook (Aoraki).
When you stay at Ashley Mackenzie Villa, you will have private and exclusive use of the Fantail Spa. Inviting, warm and welcoming, the spa includes a sauna, hot tub (outside bath), workout room and massage room. In absolute privacy and surrounded by sheer beauty, you can chill out Please note that massages are by appointment and subject to availability.
Moraine Villas, Matariki and Tautoru – Although these villas are a little smaller than the Ashley MacKenzie, each has its own mountain views towards the magnificent Ben Ohau ranges and the Mackenzie. The bedding configuration and villa layout is very similar to the Ashley Mackenzie Villa. Note, there is no Private Spa facility at the Matariki and Tautoru Villas.
Dining at Mt. Cook Lakeside Retreat
I guarantee you will fall in love with ‘Tom’ the resident chef. He will cook for you every night of your stay – and use organic ingredients from the retreat’s garden. Important is the authenticity and pureness of the food which the retreat serves. For items than cannot be produced on the retreat’s property, owner’s Luke and Kay, only use local suppliers. These culinary treats include such items as free range eggs, manuka honey, juices, apricots or cherries. Chef Tom’s world-class cuisine is legendary. He will deliver the nighttime meal to your villa at the time you wish. Just state your preference for the food you would like to eat and he will make it happen. Surely, there is nothing nicer than having your table set and food laid out – a treat for those of us with busy lives.
Amenities at Mt. Cook Lakeside Retreat
Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat has one other incredibly special experience up their sleeve – stargazing! Luke has a private observatory and a wine cellar! You’ll love both these unique features of the retreat. You will also have access to private guides and visiting a large local farm station. It is at these places you will truly get a glimpse of the people that live in a remote high country environment. Believe me, these are authentic travel moments you will keep in your memory forever.
Summary on Mount Cook National Park Activities
As you can see there is so much to see and do in the Mt. Cook National Park region. My key recommendation is to a) plan ahead and b) stay for 2-3 nights – experience as much as you can. There are so many options at your disposal. Yes, it’s always hard to decide on where you should spend your time in New Zealand. But if you are into nature and the outdoors, the Mt. Cook region is surely one outstanding option worth your time and effort. So why not include this one in your New Zealand itinerary.
More helpful travel planning blogs for New Zealand:
- Best way to plan a holiday to New Zealand
- Hidden Treasure South Island itineraries
- Clothing for travelling New Zealand
- Other travel hints for New Zealand
- Scenic route from Christchurch to Mt. Cook
- Travelling in New Zealand’s Autumn
- Travel Mid Canterbury with Mt. Sunday
Happy travelling into the Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park!