Ever since starting our road trip through the south island of New Zealand, we had been anxious to visit Mount Cook National Park. After spending some time at the coast in and around Dunedin we were excited to drive back towards the Southern Alps and finally see the New Zealand’s tallest mountain up close. Aoraki, or Mount Cook as it also has been named, is 3,724 meters /12,218 ft high and the deadliest mountain in the country. 238 people have died trying to climb the mountain, mostly due to poor weather conditions and avalanches. While it is not that high compared to most other peaks around the world, it is nevertheless very difficult to climb, and technical mountaineering skills are needed.
Our first stop on our way toward the mountain was at the incredibly blue Lake Pukaki, were we got our first up close glimpse of Mount Cook in the distance.
From the viewpoint at Lake Pukaki we drove for about 30 minutes to Mount Cook National Park. We had a quick stop in Mount Cook Village, which is a tiny resort town without much besides a hotel and a DOC visitor center. From there we drove a few minutes to the White Horse Campsite, where most of the walks in Mount Cook National park begin. We thought about staying the night at the campsite as it looked really nice, but at $13pp and not enough cash it wasn’t an option (there are no ATMs in Mount Cook Village).
Hooker Valley Track
From the White Horse Campsite we started out on the most popular trail in the area, the Hooker Valley Track. The trail takes about 3 hours round trip and leads through the Hooker Valley to the Hooker Glacier lagoon. There were tons of other people on the trail, but it didn’t feel too crowded. 15 minutes into the hike we had to cross the first of three basic suspension bridges which made the hike even more enjoyable. From the first suspension bridge we had really nice views over Mueller Glacier and its lagoon.
From there we continued on the trail through the valley and got to cross two more suspension bridges on our way to the Hooker glacial lagoon. The path was really easy going all the way, only unfortunately the weather got worse the further we went into the valley.
After almost an hour and a half we got to the end of the Hooker Valley Track and to the Hooker Glacier Lagoon. Over on the far shore of the lagoon the mountains were covered in clouds. We waited a little bit despite the freezing wind that was blowing and in the end the clouds lifted a little so we finally got a glimpse of Mount Cook from up close. We hoped the clouds would blow out all the way, but after waiting a while longer with no luck we decided to head back.
The glacial lagoon itself had a beautiful light blue color and huge junks of ice that broke away from the Hooker glacier were floating in the lagoon.
When we got back to our car we decided to check out another glacier in Mount Cook National Park: Tasman Glacier, which was on the other side of the mountains surrounding Mount Cook Village and Hooker Valley. It was only a 10 minute drive to the parking lot and from there different short walks lead to viewpoints and Tasman Lake, which is the name of the glacial lagoon. We headed up a bunch of stairs to the viewpoint over Tasman Glacier and lagoon first. The lagoon was bigger than we expected and a beautiful color. At first we couldn’t see the glacier, but after a minute we noticed it on the far side of the lagoon. The ice of the part of the glacier that we could see was completely covered in rock and black soil, so it didn’t look much like a glacier anymore. Like the other glaciers in the country, it had retreated a lot in the last decade and much of its ice had melted away.
From the viewpoint we headed down to the shore of Tasman lagoon and the mouth of Tasman river. There were a few boats and kayaks laying on shore and we spotted some more in the water, going up close to the large chunks of glacial ice floating in the lagoon. It seemed to be a fun activity, but we couldn’t see anyone around to ask for prices, so it would have probably needed to be booked in advance. We walked back to the fork in the path and headed toward the Tasman River, where the views of the lagoon were much nicer.
There are plenty other hiking options in Mount Cook National Park, so it would be best to spend some more time in the area if the weather is good. Camping in the park is all regulated and starts at $13 per adult per night, otherwise free camping is an hour or so drive away.
From Mount Cook National Park we headed to another big lake in the area, Lake Tekapo, which was an hour drive away. The little town of Tekapo is mostly known for the lake, a small historic church on its shores, and the clear night skies for star gazing. On a small mountain just beside Tekapo Town is a small observatory that offers nightly tours. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be doing any stargazing that night as it was cloudy and rainy all night long.
Before heading to our campground near the lake, we checked out the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was built in 1935 and attracts hundreds of tourists every day.
The next morning it was still cloudy, but we decided to go on a short hike up Mount John anyway and have breakfast in the Astro Cafe on top of the mountain. If you want to drive to the cafe you can, however there is a $5 charge collected at a booth before you can drive up. The walkway lead through a nice forest and climbed steadily up to the summit, which took around 45 minutes to reach. We decided to take the shortest and most direct path up, but there are longer options to hike up Mount John.
When we got to the summit we ordered some coffee and enjoyed the views of Lake Tekapo and the surroundings.
We didn’t quite want to leave the mountains behind us yet, so we decided our next stop before heading back to the coast would be Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill, where we could stay in the mountains and see some large boulders.