By Tom Lanauze from CamperMate
Let the CamperMate team help you explore the highest mountains, wildest rivers and largest glaciers in Aotearoa, at Mount Cook National Park.
If you’re going to be a new visitor to the park or just want to know more about this amazing place, then this guide is for you.
If there is a special subject that you are interested to know more about, just jump to one of the sections found below.
An Introduction to the Aoraki/Mount Cook Region
Explore the Park
The International Dark Sky Reserve
Unique wildlife found inside the park
Finding Activities and Campsites within the National Park
Campsite Recommendations within Mt Cook National Park
The Best Mount Cook Walks
Be prepared for the New Zealand wilderness
An Introduction to the Aoraki/Mount Cook Region
As you travel along state highway 80, better known as “the Mount Cook Road”, you can see why it’s one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. You first meander around the picturesque and turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki, watching on as the mighty Southern Alps start to fill your windshield.
If you are wondering just how good the view is, National Geographic placed Aoraki/Mount Cook on the front page of its guide to 25 of the World’s Most Iconic Mountains.
Hint: You are entering the wilderness where limited services and resources are available. Make sure you stock up on supplies from the two nearest towns before entering the park. Coming from the north, the nearest town is Tekapo (103km away) and from the south it is Twizel (66km away).
Towering over its Southern Alps kingdom in Aotearoa, the mountain Aoraki/Mount Cook is over 12,200 feet (3,724 meters) tall and takes center stage in a national park that is nearly the same size as New York City, sprawling over 70,000 hectares. New York city’s population is 8.4 million while Mount Cook National Park has just 250 residents. You won’t find buildings here, but mother nature provided its own epic sky line in the form of 19 peaks all over 3,000 meters in height.
They have The Big Apple, but we have the big mountains!
The Highest Mountains, Longest Glaciers and Wildest Rivers
From rugged and dramatic alpine landscapes and unique wildlife, to its gorgeous glacier lakes and stunning skies, it is a world class destination that is calling to you!
And it certainly called to UNESCO. They named the Te Wahipounamu region, which Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is part of, a World Heritage Site. UNESCO states that it is contributing to “New Zealand’s international reputation for superlative landscapes: its highest mountains, longest glaciers, tallest forests, wildest rivers and gorges”.
We think it’s even better than that!
It’s an area rich in natural beauty thanks in part to the glacial landscape thousands of years in the making. Its glaciers take up 40% of the entire park, with the Tasman Glacier being the largest at 23km’s long. Within the park there are a total of 72 named glaciers including 8 of New Zealand’s largest, ready for you to explore.
For local Māori, the region takes on special significance, with the mountain Aoraki providing strong cultural links to the spirits of their ancestors. “Aoraki” appropriately translates to “cloud piercer” and it wasn’t until 1851 that its English name of “Mount Cook” was bestowed, honoring the legendary navigator, Captain James Cook.
See this massive National Park in style!
Heliworks Mt Cook is an established, NZ owned helicopter company with an excellent reputation for customer service and flying excellence. They have always focused on achieving the highest standards of safety to ensure all their clients’ needs and expectations are both met and exceeded while taking in some of the most extraordinary sites New Zealand has to offer.
A World Class Night Sky
Stars are the ancient navigator’s best friend and the night sky on view here is simply stunning. Located in the heart of the park is the 4,300 square kilometer Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Unique to this region, the reserve was awarded its status in 2012 making it the first in the Southern Hemisphere and the first in the world to win gold tier status.
What is an International Dark Sky Reserve? According to the International Dark-Sky Association, it is;
“An exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment and that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment”
Simply put, the views of the stars, planets, Magellans clouds, Milkyway and the iconic Southern Cross are second to none, making for awesome views and stunning night time photos. If you are very lucky, the aurora australis or “southern lights” might dance across the southern sky as mother nature puts on a show for you!
What is the best way to see the stars?
The ultimate in stellar relaxation, Tekapo Star Gazing is the only guided hot pools and star gazing experience in New Zealand. The tour operates from the renowned facilities of Tekapo Springs, combining the stunning Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve with our soul-warming hot pools.
Its epic alpine landscape and plethora of natural beauty is matched equally by the uniqueness of its wildlife. The national park is home to 38 species of birds including the black stilt, the rarest wading bird in the world. You will find many other amazing birds here including the kea, the world’s only alpine parrot.
Aside from the native flora and fauna, the region also hosts some of the world’s most iconic alpine mammals, with the monarch of the alps, the Himalayan tahr present, as is the chamois and red deer.
Keep your eyes open on the more remote trails early in the morning and you might just catch a glimpse of one of these amazing animals.
Find Hikes, Campsites, Activities and more with CamperMate
While there is a statue at Mount Cook Village honoring Sir Edmund Hillary – the kiwi legend who trained there before first conquering Mount Everest, you don’t need to be a mountaineering extraordinaire to explore many of the hikes and trails the park has to offer. Options range from short family strolls right to tracks best suited to more experienced trekkers.
The village is also home to both the Visitor Center and Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine Center. Here, you can find more information on the park and enjoy displays of art along with 2D and 3D cinematics that provide a great overview of the park.
These days, you don’t have to be Captain Cook to navigate your way around New Zealand or be Sir Ed to be able to explore it. Day or night, online or offline, CamperMate is the traveler’s best friend, which is why we are the most downloaded travel app in New Zealand.
It’s like having a guide book, GPS, and a knowledgeable local all stuffed in your pocket, it’s accessible offline and it’s FREE!
Where to Stay in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Why waste hours of valuable holiday time searching for campsites when they are all just one click away? CamperMate is the trusted source for information, with hundreds of paid and freedom camping sites listed. You can search by area or simply see what is nearby. To make things even easier, you can instant book campsites via the app and even get special deals straight to your mobile!
Here are our favorites for the Aoraki/Mount Cook area.
Glentanner Park is located 18km from Aoraki Mount Cook National Park amongst the beautiful New Zealand High Country. It is the only true 4 season base camp in the park itself, thanks to powered sites and its top line facilities. They offer not just a Holiday Park, but Flightseeing and an Activity Centre for the Aoraki Mount Cook region. They have 60 power sites, unlimited non power sites and a range of accommodation including cabins and studio units.
Lake Tekapo Holiday Park is set on the picturesque shores of beautiful Lake Tekapo, with magnificent views across the turquoise lake to the surrounding mountains and the stunning night sky of Mount Cook National Park. Tekapo is a great base camp to explore the park if you want to stay somewhere less off the beaten track.
A low-cost campsite at the trail heads of some of the more popular walks in the region. This is a basic campsite with few amenities.
Twizel Holiday Park has a country feel with green ways of trees, the Twizel River, town walkway and A20 cycle trail directly behind us, yet is still in the heart of Twizel only a few minutes’ walk to local shops and restaurants, swimming pools and playgrounds. Twizel is the home of both Mt Cook Sky Diving and place and helicopter tours making it an ideal way to explore the park for those short on time but high on adventure.
The Best Mount Cook Walks
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has loads of awesome walks and hikes to explore. There are options suitable for all ages and experience levels so there truly is something for everyone and CamperMate shows you where to find them, and others!
The Best Overall Walk in the Region
If you have time to do one walk or hike in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, then the famous Hooker Valley Track is the one for you. Rated as one of the best short walks anywhere in the world, it is an easy 10-kilometer, 3-hour return trip on a formed track. This track is suitable for people of all ages, but just keep in mind its length.
Your walk will take you over scenic swing bridges as you travel up the Hooker Valley alongside the river to the scenic terminal glacier lake. In Spring and Summer, the valley takes on an alpine meadow look with Mt Cook Lilies sprouting up, while in the Autumn and Winter, it is a winter wonderland of snow and even icebergs floating in the glacier lake at the head of the track.
Every season provides a different, spectacular landscape and around every corner is a new postcard view so be sure to have your phone or camera fully charged!
It is a highlight of any trip to not just the region, but New Zealand.
Best for small children
This short walk provides a great introduction for young and old to the alpine environment. At just 45 minutes – 1 hour long, this loop will take you through native bush where you can spot fantail, tui and even kea, our native alpine parrot.
You will then arrive at a scenic look out where you can gaze at the incredible southern alps before returning back to Mount Cook Village.
The track is suitable for families and children of all ages.
Best Short Walk
A visit here allows you to do two short walks from the same track, making it a popular option for those short on time. The first track takes you to the glacier terminal lake before taking you up the Tasman River valley where you will enjoy some stunning views of the area.
Returning back to the main track, you can continue on to the moraine wall viewpoint offering awesome views of the glacier. It then leads you to the blue lakes, where in Summer you can soak in a stunning swimming hole, while in Winter it totally freezes over! Allow around 1.5 – 2 hours to do both of these easy, short walks
Best for variety of landscape
One of the hidden gems of the national park is Kea Point Track. It offers more of a walk than the others but takes you on a stunning stroll through all types of landscape. You will pass wide grasslands and scrub patches as you venture all the way to the moraine wall and viewpoint of the mighty Mueller Glacier. It is slightly steeper than the others, but at 1-hour return and only 3 kilometers long, it is still a relatively easy option.
Best for views of Aoraki Mount Cook
This is true hike and better suited to people with hiking or trekking experience or those with a moderate level of fitness. To give you an idea, the locals have nicknamed this the “stairway to heaven” thanks to its 2,200 steps that lead you to an epic and well-earned rest stop. The views are spectacular, giving elevated views of the iconic Hooker Valley and Aoraki Mount Cook.
Allow 4-5 hours return for this moderate to difficult 5.8-kilometer hike.
Best full day hike
For those people that want to push themselves, have a good level of fitness and know what to expect on a true alpine hike, this is the one for you. Often done as an overnighter, the Mueller Hut Route has become a favorite day hike for those wanting the best views in the region, while short on time.
After crossing the mountain pass on the Sealy Range, you will climb your way to one of the most scenic alpine huts in New Zealand and at 1,800 meters, it is a phenomenal place to have lunch! The panoramic view on offer is one for the wall.
If taking it on as a day hike, start early and allow 8-10 hours return for the 11km trek through steep terrain. It is achievable as a day hike, but we would recommend starting early in the day to give you the most time to complete this awesome hike.
Let us prepare you for the wild of New Zealand
New Zealand is a beautiful place, but that beauty can come at the cost of dramatic weather changes, difficult road conditions and Unknown terrain, with Aoraki Mount Cook being a perfect example of that.
How does CamperMate help?
- Don’t want to be caught out by the weather? CamperMate supplies an extended weather forecast based on your location so you know what to expect and when (android devices).
- Unfamiliar with tracks and how to prepare for the bush and mountains? CamperMate works with the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council to send you walking track updates and helpful guides on what to pack on your next hike and adventure.
- Want to avoid road closures and delays? CamperMate works with the local authorities to keep road closures and incidents updated on our live traveler map for your road tripping convenience.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park provides something unique, not just within Aotearoa but the world. It offers amazing sightseeing opportunities on a shoestring budget or for those wanting to explore in comfort, further and easier. Young and old, hikers or walkers, there is something for everyone in the home of the tallest peaks.