Aoraki Mt Cook National Park – Guide for Backpackers
The mountains are waiting…
With the highest mountain, longest glacier and the darkest skies, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is a must-visit both day and night! The national park is in the centre of South Island, where backpackers visit for the some of the most impressive mountain walks in New Zealand. There’s everything you could want from glacier lakes scattered with icebergs to long vertical heli skiing runs.
Read our guide below to see why Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is the perfect mountain escape in New Zealand.
Things you can’t miss the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
- Take a short walk for a warm up…
- … then a day walk to see the spectacular scenery of the Hooker Valley and Aoraki Mt Cook.
- Explore the Tasman Valley on foot.
- Kayak on glacier lakes to fondle icebergs.
- Ski in the untouched snow of the majestic mountains.
- Hike inside New Zealand’s longest glacier.
- Stargaze in one of the clearest skies in the world.
Aoraki Mt Cook
The Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is named after the highest mountain, which is recorded at 3,724 metres tall. The European name, Mt Cook, was given to the name to honour Captain James Cook who first surveyed New Zealand, despite Captain Cook never seeing the mountain. In 1998, the mountain was officially named Aoraki Mt Cook to incorporate the historic Maori name for the mountain. Since then, the mountain is famous for being generally large and is one of the mountains Sir Edmund Hillary perfected his mountaineering skills to be the first to climb to the summit of Mt Everest, the highest mountain in the world. There is a museum to commemorate his achievements in the national park, The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. You can also see his face of the NZ$5 note.
Short walking tracks
Want a quick stroll from Aoraki Mt Cook village? These walks range from 10 minutes to 1 hour.
Bowen Bush Walk
Conveniently, the Bowen Bush Walk is situated right next to the Mount Cook Backpacker Lodge. An alternative entry/exit is near the fuel pumps. This is a loop walk through forest to the sound of birds (admittedly, some sounds are artificial).
This 30min return takes you though forest and up to a lookout. Get an amazing view at sunrise and sunset of the Hooker Glacier and Aoraki Mt Cook. Start behind the Hermitage Hotel.
Governors Bush Walk
The highlight of this 1 hour return walk is the stunning lookout point of Wakefield Ridge and Aoraki Mt Cook, making this a popular walk. It is a sheltered forest walk so can be done in drizzly weather.
Although the above walks are good, you’ll get a better experience if you make a day of it. Again, you can access these from the Aoraki Mt Cook village.
Kea Point Track
Go to the Department of Conservation (DoC) visitor centre then start the 2 hour walk across the road towards the Hooker Valley. The walk goes through grasslands to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall – a wall deposited by the glacier. You then take a walk through land formed by a river only in 1913. The grand finale is a wide view encompassing Mt Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier lake and Aoraki Mt Cook!
Sealy Tarns Track
An alternative and challenging track, Sealy Tarns Track branches off the Kea Point Track. Just follow the signs. It is best to do this 3-4 hour return tramp in the summer to see alpine flowers in bloom. The view will also give you a different perspective of the Hooker Valley.
Hooker Valley Track
Starting from the same point as the Kea Point Track, this is an extremely popular walk in the national park. As the name suggests, you walk up the Hooker Valley towards Aoraki Mt Cook. Keep hiking to multiple swingbridges and viewpoints. The vegetation changes throughout the walk until you are faced with Hooker Glacier, glacier lake and Aoraki Mt Cook. The Hooker Valley Track is a 4 hour return if starting from the village.
Red Tarns Track
Start from the public shelter and walk across the bridge to the Black Birch Stream. Prepare yourself for the steep climb ahead. Like any steep climb in New Zealand, you are rewarded with captivating views. First, you’ll see the red pond weed, which gives the name Red Tarns. Then take in the views of Aoraki Mt Cook and village below. This walk is a 2 hour return.
Tasman Valley Walking tracks
Now you need to drive to a new area in the national park, Tasman Valley. As you can imagine, the drive is splendidly scenic. Start these walks from the Blue Lake car park.
Ball Hut Route
Get awesome views of the Tasman Glacier by taking the 3-4 hour one way hike to Ball Hut. Follow the Ball Hut Road along the Tasman Glacier. You can stay in the hut overnight at the cost of NZ$5. Be sure to pay at the visitor centre before you take the track.
Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View
Just a 40min return, this track takes you to the top of a moraine wall. Not only do you get views of glaciers, but you can take a dip in the Blue Lakes by taking a detour off the main track towards them. Of course, it’s best to swim in the lakes in the height of summer.
Tasman Glacier Lake
It takes 1 hour to reach the lake. Branch off the Tasman Glacier View Track just after the Blue Lake Shelter. You’ll reach the lookout over the glacier lake, which is the source of the Tasman River. The lake changes over seasons, being dotted with icebergs in summer and completely frozen in winter.
Flights around Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
Get a mind-blowing perspective of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park from the skies. There are plenty of providers offering trips over the Southern Alps via helicopter, plane and even ski-plane. None come at a more competitive price than the Mt Cook 360 flights by Inflight. Take to the skies for 30 minutes and soak up the views of New Zealand’s highest mountains, longest glacier, the glacial lakes and every alpine valley in between. If you missed seeing the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glacier on the West Coast, then don’t worry, because once you cross the mountains known as “The Divide” you will see where these glaciers actually start!
Dodge icebergs like a boss in the Aoraki Mt Cook kayaking trips. The kayaking season is between early October and 30-April in the national park. You have the option to kayak in the impressive Tasman Glacier lake, where you are more likely to see icebergs. It is better to do this trip with a bit of kayaking experience behind you.
Feel like you are truly in serenity as you paddle in the Mueller Glacier Lake surrounded by mountains. The glacier face looms over you as you explore this ever-changing lake.
Start your kayaking adventure next door to the DoC visitor centre.
Ski down the Tasman Glacier
Yes, you can ski down New Zealand’s longest glacier, the Tasman Glacier! There are several heli skiing sites in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, including New Zealand’s first heli skiing site, Ben Ohau. Unlike the skiing experience you get in the ski fields of New Zealand, heli skiing allows you to do super long vertical skiing and snowboarding in untouched snow! Heli skiing tends to be beyond the budget of backpackers, but dedicated snow sports enthusiasts have to try this at some point in their life!
There are activity providers for heli skiing in Queenstown, Wanaka, and Mt Cook village.
Hike inside the Tasman Glacier
See what it’s like to walk in a world of ice. There are heli hiking tours taking you to the Tasman Glacier so you can walk on and in the glacier. This is much like the activities found in the renowned Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. You’ll be getting the experience of exploring the longest glacier in New Zealand, however, it is more expensive than what is found in the Glacier Country on the West Coast.
As Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is part of the largest International Dark Sky Reserve, there is no better place to see the night sky with clarity. Out here in the mountainous wilderness it is almost completely free of light pollution.
For those who want to learn more about what they can see in the sky at night, astronomy guides can put the stars of the southern sky in perspective for you using telescopes and astronomy binoculars. This all takes place from The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre on the Hillary Deck. The guides will then take you on a drive to a perfect stargazing site.
If you have more time in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.
- Explore the Tasman Glacier lake onboard a MAC boat to touch the icebergs!
- If you cannot be bothered walking or don’t have fully functional legs, you can still see the serene national park from different viewpoints by taking a 4 wheel drive (4WD) tour.
- Learn about Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and its great explorers at The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the form of a museum and a 2D, 3D and Digital Dome Planetarium.
- Start the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail starting beneath the peaks of Mt Sealy and Aoraki Mt Cook.
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