Mount Cook National Park or Aoraki National Park is one of the most sought after wilderness in the southern hemisphere and world. It is home to the highest mountain in New Zealand and a playground for well-renowned mountaineers such as Sir Edmund Hillary. If you ask me, it is the most beautiful national parks I have seen.
How to reach Mount Cook
Christchurch was the starting point to 40 day journey in New Zealand. After spending couple of days there and after exploring nearby Tekapo, I started to Mount Cook village. I hitch-hiked with my room-mate from Tekapo. There is only one way in and out of the park – State highway 80 and it also happens to be one of the most scenic roads on the South Island. The indicator for turn off from highway 8 onto 80 is very well posted and hard to miss. After a short-ish drive (105 kms from Tekapo) and some spectacular scenery later, I was in Mount Cook Village, the base of the National Park.
Where to hike in Mount Cook National Park
My main objective in the park was to do as many of the non-mountaineering hikes as possible, which due to the geography of the place, are not that many. The mountains rise so drastically from the valley that even the non-mountaineering routes consist of severe switchbacks, rocky scrambles or snowy traverses. Also, since it is so south of the equator, with no land-mass on the same latitude, the area is prone to sudden and severe weather changes, making it a pretty dangerous playground for alpinists and amateurs alike. Luckily for me, the weather forecast over the next 5 days was looking pretty good.
Here are a series of pictures and information about most recommended hikes that I went and a poorly drawn journal drawing of my hikes 🙂
1. Hooker Valley Hike
The Hooker Valley Hike, in my opinion the best “return over investment” hike in the park (and even in the South Island). This relatively flat hike takes you along the Hooker River between mighty peaks, over 3 picturesque suspension bridges. The end-point is the Hooker Glacial Lake where you can view the Mount Cook mountain in all its glory. The hike is well-maintained and easy to follow.
Distance: 10km return
Elevation Change: 100m
2. Mueller Hut
Next, I did an overnight hike to Mueller Hut, again a very memorable hike. Watching the sun set over the glaciers, hearing huge avalanches pour down the mountain opposite the hut and then sipping coffee while watching the sun rise over a sea of clouds was phenomenal.
Originally built in 1914, the Mueller hut is a mountain hut and was used as a shelter to explore nearby Mueller glacier. After series of reconstructions, the current hut was opened in 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary. The route begins at the White Horse Hill Campsite which is a few kilometres past Mount Cook Village. The trail is well signposted and after around 10 minutes in, it breaks away to the left. From there, the route passes through steep Sealy Tarns and finally reaching Mueller pass. The last stretch from the pass to the hut is gradual – welcome relief after exhausting steepness of the trail.
Distance: 5.2 km one way
Elevation Change: 1100m
3. Ball Pass Hut
Immediately after Mueller Hut hike, I did an overnight hike to Ball Pass Hut, which went over Ball Pass, and to the Tasman Valley. The Tasman valley is parallel to the Hooker valley and lies just on the other side of the Mt Cook range. A pretty tough hike, physically, especially after the trip to Mueller hut. But with amazing views, you can’t really complain of the physical exertion.
Distance – 8-10 kms with overnight stay
4. Mount Sebastapol Day Hike
This was followed by some rain, after which I scrambled up a peak called Mount Sebastapol.
Mount Sebastopol (1,468 m) is the closest peak to Mt Cook Village. This is a fun first ascent, mixing hiking with scrambling and utterly spectacular views. I didn’t meet a single person on the trail or during the scramble, which was a very cool experience in a park that has so many visitors.
Distance – 4-5 kms return
Elevation Gain – 750 m
The summit gives uninterrupted views down the length of the Tasman Valley to Lake Pukaki, and across to the glaciated peaks at the head of the Tasman Glacier. Kea are common visitors up here.Also had my first run-in with the infamous Kea (the world’s only alpine parrot) and got amazing views of the park all to myself.
If you’re looking for a shorter hike the track up to Kea Point is for you. It overlooks the Mueller Glacial Lake with Mount Cook standing prominently in the background. The track to Kea Point begins at the Whitehorse Hill campground, the same spot where Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns and the the trail to Mueller hut begin.
Length: 2.8 km return
Elevation Gain: 200m
After exhausting all the trails I could safely do without mountaineering equipment (and one not-so-safely), I decided to head to my next destination. I met some friendly French girls who offered to give me a ride to Wanaka. We would be getting there on New Years Eve, just in time for the grand Wanaka celebrations. Or so we hoped….
Read here about my next leg of NZ journey in Wanaka…