For the best views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, you need to take a hike. Here are two amazing short walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to give you the wow-factor of enthralling alpine views, snow-capped heavenly mountains, and that inescapably stunning New Zealand landscape!
On our recent South Island New Zealand road trip I wanted to visit destinations I hadn’t been before, as this was my third time visiting this addictive country. Visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is an essential New Zealand must-do activity; whether you’re a keen hiker, landscape lover, or just like the peace and quiet – nowhere else quite matches the magical atmosphere of the tiny village in the middle of the mountains!
We made our way from the lakeside town of Wanaka and drove through farmland, chasing a storm cloud up ahead until we reached Lindis Pass in very poor visibility (shame as it’s usually so gorgeous!). Nervous that conditions might get even worse the closer we got to the formidable mountains, we trudged onwards. Thankfully the journey through Twizel was a little more pleasant, the weather seemed to be easing up! The luck didn’t last for long however, as we neared Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park we entered the brewing storm as the lower the clouds became and the heavier the rain fell.
We arrived in the midst of a storm when we arrived, which was a shame as we missed the blow-your-socks-off impact of the mountains as we entered the village, but such is the nature of unpredictable alpine weather!
How to get to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
Reaching the village to begin your short walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is very straightforward. Reaching the national park from the southern towns such as Wanaka, take State Highway 8 through the Lindis Pass to Omarama and continue on the same route through Twizel until you turn left onto route 80/Mount Cook Road at the southern edge of Lake Pukaki. Keep on this road for 55km until you reach Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, and follow signs to the village. If reaching the national park from the east (Timaru), take State Highway 8 from the other direction until you reach Mount Cook Road on your right. The journey time should take around 2.5 hours from Wanaka or Timaru.
Tips & things to know about Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
- Not much happens before 11am. We tried to enquire about what to do around town as we’d arrived early at our motel and were abruptly shot down, so make sure to arrive either on time to check-in or have a plan (and maybe a back up for horrible weather!) for what to do while you wait.
- Don’t be mad at the weather. Mother Nature can’t help it! It’s no one’s fault if you’re lumbered with bad weather in such a beautiful place. I know it can really suck, but if you persevere and stick around long enough or accept the fate of the sky then you’ll find it much easier to let go and have fun.
- There’s no supermarket in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. This means you should absolutely bring your own food for snacks and cooking, or eat out. Which means…
- The cafe and restaurants are expensive. And that’s by New Zealand standards! There are only a handful of choices so be prepared if you’re a picky eater, it might be best to pack your own meals!
- Likewise, there are limited accommodation options, so book as early as possible, know that it’ll be a little pricier than the usual destinations (but not unreasonable), and choose based on what suits you most. If you know comfort and the full experience is what you’re after, The Hermitage is the most popular hotel in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. If a stylish and functional motel is what you’re after, the Aoraki Court Motel is ideal. If budget is more you’re thing, the YHA it is!
Short Walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
We endeavoured to take at least one track in the national park as our key purpose for visiting. And boy were we not disappointed! We ended up squeezing in 2 short walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and it was one of the best decisions we made on the whole road trip, we were blessed with two incredibly different vantage points to marvel at Aoraki/Mount Cook; one from up high and another up close. Read on to see which tracks we took and how they compare!
Red Tarns Track
Quick facts – what to know about the Red Tarns Track:
- 300m elevation
- 3.5km length
- 2 hours
- Return track
- Gravelled path & steep steps
The morning after being rained in for a whole day, we were met with stunning blue skies, a crisp air, and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. We couldn’t have been happier or more eager to get started!
The first short walk in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park we tackled was the Red Tarns Track. Funnily enough, we actually began taking the wrong track initially thanks to a poorly placed sign and the proximity of so many walking tracks around the outskirts of the village… At least we had a brief bush walk to enjoy!
Once we were on the right track (ba dum tss), we made our way over the river to begin the ascent up a steep path winding around the mountain. Emerging through the forest we crossed a couple of small streams before we continued upwards through a layer of untouched snow, surrounded by frozen waterfalls, frosted trees, and sharp icicles. The steps were hard to see in the conditions as the snow blanket gave the path a soft, marshmallowy look. Going slowly and watching our steps helped us avoid any disasters!
We soon noticed that we were not alone on the track… A set of large footprints preceded every step, and we assumed a keen early bird had already made the journey to the lookout. This certainly helped us navigate a couple of the trickier corners where the steps were hidden! Overall, the path is generally easy enough for those of a reasonable fitness level, but the steep steps can be slightly more challenging if you struggle with any hip or knee pains.
Once at the lookout, the scene that awaits is truly captivating. Indescribable in so many ways, it’s a calming and triumphant moment looking out across the tallest mountain in the country! We lingered there for some time, amazed and awe-struck. We then bumped into our fellow hiker who gave a couple of pointers on where to see the tarns before he started his descent.
Following his advice, we wandered through the untouched snow along a boardwalk near the lookout to find the clear reddish waters of the tarns. With the morning sun at full height over the mountains, we were lucky to see a mirror reflection of the mountains in the still pools – was there no end to this astoundingly beautiful spot?! Being this high up, we started to think we’d made it to heaven!
Tearing ourselves away, we began to make the descent on the return track. At this point the ice was beginning to melt and the snow dripped all around us, creating tiny waterfalls along the path. While this made identifying the steps easier, it was certainly much more slippery! A swift return journey and we found ourselves back in the village feeling pretty darn chuffed with ourselves. Time for a celebratory snack!
Thanks to the track’s ease, length, and reward, this hike is probably the best short walk we’ve done in New Zealand. I’ll let the photos do the talking because a written description really doesn’t do it justice!
Top Tips for the Red Tarns Track
- Walk in single file. The path is often narrow and as it winds around the mountain it’s absolutely essential to take your time and walk behind one another. This not only prevents crowding the path, but also to spot each other for any dangerous areas.
- Although mostly steps, some points of the track can be slippery. A couple of corners did not have steps, so a little bit of clambering on all fours going slow and steady helped get past those areas.
- The ice melts quickly, which can certainly help navigating the steps but don’t underestimate how slippery they are when wet!
- Go as early as possible – the rewards for an early start mean you’ll have the track and viewpoint to yourself. What more could you ask for?!
- Be aware of wobbly knees. If you’re like me and often have weaker knees and hips at steep inclines, bring a pair of trekking poles to save yourself from further damage!
- Even in the winter you can build up a sweat. With the sun beginning to beat down upon us as we made our way skyward, we began to overheat with all our layers on! It’s great to be prepared, but don’t underestimate either the cold or warm… it can go either way!
- Bring your camera! Red Tarns is the idyllic New Zealand view we all hope to enjoy. Keep the treasured moment forever by bringing your camera to capture the experience.
Hooker Valley Track
Quick facts – what to know about the Hooker Valley Track:
- Flat gradient
- 10km length
- 3 hours
- Return track
- Gravelled path & boardwalks
After a brief break and snack, we were on to the next short walk in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The Hooker Valley Track is possibly the most popular short walk in the area. The level and well-paved track makes it ideal for those who struggle with any major gradients, families, and anyone looking to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
The track begins at the car park and winds gently through the bush around a few notable sights where hikers can veer off and check them out. Eventually you meet Mueller Lake, one of the (many!) glacier lakes in the national park, where a picnic bench is ideally placed to take in the view.
Throughout the Hooker Valley Track there are multiple iconic bridges to cross over the river. While these make for the perfect photo opportunity, don’t linger too long as the bridge can only hold so many people at once – you don’t want to hold others up!
Nearing the end of the track, there are more boardwalks than paths, taking hikers over thick grassy terrain and an expanse of snow-covered mountains stretching out ahead. With Aoraki/Mount Cook at the forefront of your vision for quite some time, you can’t possibly believe it’s just another twist and turn to reach it!
Finally, at last, we made it to Hooker Lake! The path descends down a gravelled path to another picnic bench lookout, before reaching the grey sand beach at the edge of this icy glacial lake. The view is undeniably incredible. The vivid blue waters, craggy icebergs, and the tremendous mountain peak; it’s a sight that is truly exhilarating to behold.
The wind was pretty brisk on our visit, making the waters choppy and the air biting. We wanted to stay as long as possible but daren’t linger more than necessary for fear of losing a finger! With plenty of other excitable visitors arriving to strike a pose and enjoy the view, we made our move to begin the walk back.
Following the same track on our return to the car park wasn’t nearly as exciting as walking towards the mountain. The views were still amazing, but having seen it all before it didn’t have the same impact as on the way there. The ice had begun to melt in some patches but with the footfall increasing a lot since we started some areas were a lot more slippery, especially the bridges! Nonetheless, we enjoying turning around to witness the view just one more time, several times. Ah I could never be bored of these mountains.
Before we knew it, we were back in the car park and ready to leave Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park! We took a last few snaps before beginning our drive out of the village, and back along the road towards our next destination.
Top Tips for the Hooker Valley Track
- Be patient, there are lots of older visitors, groups, or young families who take the track so slow down or carefully pass them on the track.
- Although it’s a flat gradient track, it can still be slippery! The sun takes a long time to reach the track in places due to the mountains blocking the light, so it takes a while to thaw out in some areas.
- Wrap up warm! The nearer to Hooker Lake, the chillier it gets. Unsurprising for a glacier lake really so layer up! Gloves, hats, and scarves would not go amiss on the Hooker Valley Track.
- Wear the right shoes. Although it’s not a tough hiking track by any means, it still doesn’t bode well if you’re wearing your best kicks. Get some comfy walking shoes, or even sturdy trainers, to tackle this 10km walk.
- Bring snacks and water. Like with any walking track, bring lots of water! As this track is around 3 hours, it’s also a good idea to pack some sustenance. With the gorgeous views at the lakeview picnic tables, you might as well make the most of it!
- Time your trip well, as the track can get quite busy thanks to its low difficulty level and rewarding views! If you prefer a quieter track, starting early in the morning or later in the day will mean fewer hikers and those all-important perfect photos.
Needless to say, there are plenty of other short walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. These two walking tracks were perfect to do in just half a day, and allowed us the elevation for incredible views over the village as well as the proximity to the mighty mountain itself. If you haven’t been able to tell already, I’m incredible passionate about this area of New Zealand, and could continue writing about it forever! For now, I hope this overview and just a few taster photos will inspire you to include these hikes on your visit to the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
Have you visited this part of New Zealand? Are there any short walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park we should include on our next visit? Share a story below!
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