Aoraki Mount Cook National Park: The Complete Guide

snow capped mountain, Mt. Cook, with grassland in front and a boardwalk snaking into the distance

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Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

Canterbury 7999, New Zealand
Phone +64 3 435 1186

At 12,217 feet, Aoraki Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Located in the central South Island, in the middle of the Southern Alps mountain chain in western Canterbury, the peak itself sits within a national park of the same name. While many people visit to catch a glimpse of the mountain, the park contains 18 other peaks over 9,842 feet (3,000 meters), making it a popular hiking and mountain climbing destination. It also has some of the clearest skies in the world, so it is an excellent place to enjoy stargazing as well. Here are some important things to know about visiting Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, whether on a day trip or an extended visit.

Things to Do

Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park is all about the mountains: hiking among them, climbing them, or just enjoying beautiful views of them. This park contains some of the finest longer distance hiking trails in New Zealand, but even if you're short on time (or not exceptionally fit), you can still enjoy one of the shorter trails.

If you're an experienced mountaineer and have climbed alpine peaks elsewhere in the world, this national park offers climbing options, too. The first person to co-summit Mt. Everest in Nepal/Tibet, Sir Edmund Hillary, was from New Zealand, and climbed Aoraki Mt. Cook as practice. Joining a guided expedition to climb Aoraki Mt. Cook is the safest option as it is a very challenging mountain, and you must meet certain climbing prerequisites.

If you can't or don't want to put yourself through these physical challenges, road tripping to the edge of the national park is easy, and you'll see some incredible views of the mountains. Roads into the boundaries of the park itself are limited, but you can get close at Mt. Cook Village.

Alternatively, helicopter and ski-planes into the park allow you to land on glaciers and to get fantastic views of the interior of the park (which you otherwise couldn't without hiking or climbing there). Some tour operators also offer heli-skiing to the glaciers.

New Zealand's South Island has some of the darkest skies in the world because it is sparsely inhabited; as such, stargazing is also a popular activity in this area. The 2,671-square-mile Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the largest of the 15 international dark sky reserves. Though not located within the national park, most people head to the nearby villages of Mt. Cook, Twizel, or Tekapo to enjoy the stars.

Best Hikes & Trails

Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park has both short and long trails for hikers of all skill levels. Here are some of the highlights; you can find out more on the Department of Conservation's website.

  • Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Walks: This easy, one-hour hike to New Zealand's longest glacier, the Tasman Glacier, is often considered one of the country's finest short walks.
  • Hooker Valley Track: The easy, three-hour (return) track winds up the Hooker Valley beside glacial streams and glaciers.
  • Mueller Hut Route: Mueller Hut Route is an expert-level track offering panoramic views of the alpine landscape; it takes about four hours one way.
  • Ball Hut Route: Another advanced track, Ball Hut Route offers fantastic views of the Tasman Glacier, and takes about three to four hours one way.
  • Ball Pass Crossing: This very challenging track (expert level) takes two to three days and crosses between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys, over the Mt. Cook range.

Where to Stay

There's one campsite, the White Horse Hill Campground, within the park. It can be reached by road, so it is suitable for travelers in RVs and caravans. With 60 sites, it's large, but bookings are essential. If you're embarking on a multi-day hike, there are a number of basic, standard, and serviced tramping huts within the park; bookings aren't required to stay in these. Find out more about accommodation within the park on the DOC website.

A wider range of accommodation providers are allowed to operate outside the park's boundaries, so if you're looking for more comfortable or luxurious accommodation, check out Mt. Cook Village. The Hermitage Hotel is large and offers rooms as well as chalets. Although further away from the park, Twizel and Tekapo are convenient places to stay, too. Twizel is less than an hour's drive from Mt. Cook Village.

How to Get There

Most travelers approach Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park from Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island. Although the national park looks close to the South Island's West Coast on the map, there aren't many roads that pass over the Southern Alps; only roundabout routes (via the Haast Pass and Wanaka) connect the West Coast with the park.

By car, Mt. Cook Village is about four hours from Christchurch and three hours and 15 minutes from Queenstown in the south. From either direction, you'll pass through Twizel first. If you don't have a car or RV, some long-distance bus services do stop in the Aoraki Mt. Cook area, but what you will be able to see and do will be limited.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Like all national parks in New Zealand, there are no trash disposal facilities in the Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park; if you camp or stay in a tramping hut within the park, all trash must be carried out with you.
  • Mt. Cook Village is at 2,460 feet altitude, so it will usually be much cooler than other places on the South Island. Be prepared for colder weather, and always check forecasts before hiking. Weather conditions can change rapidly in the mountains.
  • There are no fees to enter national parks in New Zealand, but you will need to pay to stay at campsites and tramping huts.
  • Due to the altitude and climate, the warmer months (October to April) are the best times to visit Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. Wildflowers bloom between December and March, brightening up the landscape.
  • Aside from heli-skiing tours, the Aoraki Mt. Cook area is not the most convenient ski destination in New Zealand. Head to Queenstown, Wanaka, or Mt. Hutt for more accessible options.
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Aoraki Mount Cook National Park: The Complete Guide