It’s no secret that my family and I love Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park with our frequent visits. Nestled in the Southern Alps in Canterbury, this South Island dreamscape is a destination hotspot for both local and overseas travellers. It’s alpine conditions at such low elevation heights make it easy for all to enjoy the spectacular mountain vistas from any spot in the park.
Whether you head there in summer, winter, autumn or spring, there’s no doubt that you’ll fall in love with New Zealand’s most recognisable national park. Its glacial lakes, winding boardwalks and iconic swing bridges brought over one million travellers in 2019.
As somewhat of a Mount Cook addict, I decided to put together a little guide for those planning to visit the park including hiking recommendations, accommodation and food options, and the best spots to take in the sights.
Trails to hike
Every time we visit Aoraki National Park, we pop on our hiking boots and hit the trails. The park offers a number of hikes accessible for all ages including one of my favourite in the country, Hooker Valley Track. This walk crosses three scenic swing bridges and includes glimpses of New Zealand’s tallest mountain leading to Hooker Lake where you can find icebergs afloat.
Our favourite sunrise spot and just a 25-minute walk from the car park is the Tasman Glacier Lake track, a super easy trail that leads you down to the lake’s edge. I highly recommend catching the first light of the day in this valley, you won’t be disappointed. It’s also an incredible spot to gaze at the stars if you stick around after dusk.
Now unfortunately, I have not made it to Sealy Tarns, but it has been on my radar for years. Its stairway to heaven climb will add over 2,000 steps to your day’s exercise and will take around three to four hours. However, the reward is worth it and on a clear day you can stand amongst the giants with a clear view of Mount Cook. In summer it’s full of wild flowers and in winter the trail is covered in snow and you can almost guarantee that you’ll meet a few of the world’s only alpine parrots, the cheeky and intelligent Keas who always make for an interesting encounter.
Red Tarns is a great option if Sealy Tarns seems too daunting. A short one-hour track up include many stairs, but on a much friendlier level. The access point is from Mt Cook Village just behind a public shelter. At the top you can expect a sweeping view of the mountain range, beautiful at any time of the year.
Where to sleep
Each time we visit Mount Cook National Park, we stay in different spots. For those wanting to be nestled up close to the mountains and the best trails, White Horse Hill Campground is your home. Set up your tent or park your campervan to enjoy one of the most scenic camping sites in New Zealand. Your other option is to backtrack to Glentanner where a large holiday park sits next to Lake Pukaki. It has both powered and non-powered sites, plus cooking facilities, a laundry room and the comfort of a wood-burning fire.
For a real treat, hike up to Mueller Hut, a gruelling four-hour climb, to wake up in a bright red hut sitting across from magnificent Mt. Cook. Pop a tent next to Mueller Hut or reserve a space inside, but to do so early as it’s a very popular hut.
Prefer a bunk or a bed? Stay in Mount Cook Village at one of the following places.
- Mt Cook Lodge and Motel is an affordable backpackers with both bunk rooms and motel rooms. Guests can access a shared kitchen for cooking meals.
- YHA Aoraki Backpackers is a cozy YHA hostel with a shared kitchen, lounge space and best of all, a sauna to relax in after a day of hiking.
- For a more luxurious stay, the Hermitage Hotel is the perfect place in the park offering incredible views of the surrounding mountains.
- Glentanner Holiday Park offers dorm rooms, self-contained units and standard units.
Access your Campermate App to book your stay in Mount Cook.
Grab a bite to eat
When you’re sick of camp meals, the tiny village of Mount Cook has a few options. Grab a beer, coffee or a meal at the Sir Edmund Hilary Cafe & Bar. Sit outside taking in the views and enjoying affordable packaged to-go breakfast and lunch options. If the weather isn’t on your side, this is a great place to relax with plenty of seating and cheap WiFi.
The Old Mountaineer’s Cafe is a quaint spot with outdoor picnic tables, homemade pizza and unique souvenirs. For a pub atmosphere, check out Chamois Bar & Grill attached to Mt. Cook Lodge.
This little village doesn’t have much on offer so if you are looking for more options or a supermarket, head to Twizel just 40 minutes from the park.
The views in this national park are incredible from any angle, but there are a few noteworthy locations you may want to visit to take in the country’s tallest mountain. Here are our family favourites:
- The magic blue colour of Lake Pukaki is must-see on its own, but add snowy mountains to the backdrop for one of the most beautiful landscape scenes you’ll ever witness. There are a few spots to pull over and snap photos as well as a freedom camping spot on the water’s edge. Take a dip in the icy waters or simply enjoy the view with a packed lunch. On a clear sunny day, it’s hard to leave this view.
- Peter’s Lookout is located on the main road leading to Aoraki National Park and another spot I recommend pulling over for. The parking lot is often full, however, the view of the windy road leading to Mount Cook is worth the crowds.
- Catch a scenic flight for a bird’s eye view of this ethereal glacier mountainscape. View braided rivers, get close to snow-capped peaks and even land on a glacier with Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters.
From one mountain obsessed person to another, you will not regret your trip to this iconic New Zealand national park.
If you are looking for more mountains on your travels, make sure to stop by Queenstown, the country’s capital city of outdoor adventure.