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Mount Cook National Park goes without saying as one of the best places to visit on the South Island. It’s home to many of the best things to do in New Zealand including epic viewpoints, adventure activities, and some of the best hikes on the South Island. You’re likely planning to visit Mount Cook for the stunning scenery, so, why not stretch your legs, breathe in some fresh alpine air and see the majestic mountain views from one of the best hikes in Mount Cook National Park.
Whether you have a couple of days or just a couple of hours to spend hiking in Mount Cook, I highly recommend taking on one of these beautiful walks. The photography opportunities are endless on all of the below hikes. Plus, with most of the hikes in Mount Cook considered short and easy, there is no excuse not to explore the area on a walk.
In this blog, I list 10 of the best hikes in Mount Cook. There’s a hike for every ability in Mount Cook. In fact, a huge 8 of the 10 hikes listed here are considered easy and thus, suitable for all fitness levels and even families!
About Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is one of the most breathtaking and popular national parks in New Zealand. It’s home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain Mount Cook which stands at a whopping 3,724 meters above sea level. Mount Cook actually played an important role in the first-ever successful attempt to summit the tallest mountain in the world Mt Everest. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, used the peak to practice the climb.
Of the 273 square miles (707 square km) of the national park more than a third is entirely covered in permanent snow and glaciers. Its also home to unique forests that include beach trees, ribbonwood, tussock, and celery pine. This unique mix of landscapes makes it unlike any other national park in New Zealand and without a doubt a bucket list place to visit.
Within Mount Cook National Park there is a small town called Mount Cook Village. This small village is home to a few accommodation options, restaurants, and small shops including a gas station. The village is located in the heart of the national park and from it, you can access a huge range of activities including all the best hikes in Mount Cook mentioned below.
Driving to Mount Cook can be done all year round and it’s considered one of the best road trips on the South Island no matter where you leave from. Both the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook and Wanaka to Mount Cook are especially breathtaking! Because of its close proximity to the town of Lake Tekapo, many people also visit Mount Cook on a day trip from Lake Tekapo. There are some awesome places to check out on the road between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook too.
Although there are lots of things to do in Mount Cook, hiking is definitely the main attraction. Just be aware that in the winter, some hikes become more dangerous and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. With that said, there are only two hikes on this list that fall in that category and most of the hikes in Mount Cook are perfectly fine to tackle all year round.
Hiking in Mount Cook FAQs
Hikes in Mount Cook National Park
1. Mueller Hut Route
Distance: 10.4 km (6.46 miles) return
Time needed: 7 to 8 hours
The Mueller Hut Route is easily one of the most popular hikes in Mount Cook, although, it is rated as difficult so reasonable levels of fitness are a must. Appropriate hiking boots, a rain jacket, and water is also required for this hike.
The trail starts from the White Horse Hill campsite. From here, follow the steep uphill track up to Sealy Tarns – from the top you will have a fantastic view of the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook.
The second half of the track, another 2 hours in length, will take you to Mueller Hut. You will need to keep an eye out for the orange markers when transferring from the Sealy Tarns Track to the Mueller Hut Route. Worth noting is this part of the track is not maintained so it’s quite rocky in parts. There’s also a loose gravel uphill climb of about 50 meters up to the skyline ridge, which is very challenging. In the winter, this ridge is likely to be covered in snow so some alpine hiking experience is recommended.
Follow the track along the ridge and once again keep your eyes peeled for the bright orange markers. This part of the track will take you about 20 minutes, finishing at Mueller Hut. Your return track will take you back the same way. Be careful on the loose gravel part – much more difficult going down it than coming up it.
Other hikers will tell you this hike sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Firstly, you need to be a fan of (or at least okay with) uphill hikes as the majority of this hike is uphill. Secondly, if you haven’t managed to reserve a bed at the very popular Mueller Hut, you have to turn around and hike the same route back down which will be very tiring and only recommended to experienced hikers.
Related read: If you aren’t an experienced hiker, be sure to read my blog about essential hiking tips for beginners! It includes a few important tips to know before you start any hike in Mount Cook.
2. Hooker Valley Track
Distance: 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) return
Time needed: 3 to 3.5 hours
The most popular hike in Mount Cook National Park is easily the Hooker Valley Track. The trail starts from the same place as the Mueller Hut at the White Horse Hill campground. This is a very flat, very easy track making it ideal for the whole family. The track is a well-maintained gravel track for most of the hike with a boardwalk over the marshy parts of the track.
There are three swing bridges on the track, each with stunning views of Mueller Lake, Mount Sefton, and the Mueller Glacier in the far distance. At the first swing bridge be sure to stop, it’s one of the best spots to get a photo of Mount Cook. At the end of the track and worth the 1.5-hour walk in is Hooker Lake. During the winter months, you are likely to spot numerous icebergs floating in the lake. After enjoying the view, return via the same track.
As mentioned it’s a very flat hike, with only 80 meters of uphill hiking. The scenery sure is stunning on this hike but as the locals will tell you it’s more of a walk than a hike. Despite this, it’s one of the best hikes in Mount Cook and one of the top hikes in all of New Zealand, in my opinion.
My top tip – wake up early and start this track at dawn to watch the sunrise over the Southern Alps. This is a very popular track so starting at dawn means you’re unlikely to come across many other walkers.
3. Sealy Tarns Track
Distance: 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) return
Time needed: 3 to 4 hours
Together with the Mueller Hut Track, the Sealy Tarns Track is considered one of the must-do hikes on the South Island. As with the Mueller Hut, you start the trail on the Kea Point Track at the White Horse Hill campground. Simply follow this trail until you reach a sign for the Sealy Tarns Track. It’s easy to know you’re on the right rail because you’ll begin to climb upwards.
This track is nicknamed the ‘stairway to heaven’ locally because you need to take on a mammoth 2,200 steps to reach the Sealy Tarns lake at the top. If you’re not keen on uphill tracks or steps this is not the track for you. Despite the many steps and the 600-meter elevation gain, this is considered an easy-to-moderate track. On this walk watch out for the epic views of the Hooker Valley as well as majestic Mount Cook.
Did you know – a tarn is a mountain lake, pond, or pool that was formed in a cirque excavated by a glacier. There are two tarns in Mount Cook National Park – Sealy Tarn and Red Tarn (mentioned below.)
The Sealy Tarns Track can be hiked all year round, however, in winter expect some snow on the trail. You also won’t be able to see the tarn as it freezes and becomes covered in snow. Still, the views are epic.
4. Blue Lakes Loop Track
Distance: 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) return
Time needed: 40 minutes
The Blue Lakes Loop Track is considered one of the best short walks in Mount Cook. Just before Mount Cook Village, turn off onto Tasman Valley Road. Follow this road for 7 kilometers and park in the parking lot at the end of the road. This is where the trails to the Blue Pools and Tasman Lake start from.
From the parking lot, pass by the Blue Lakes Shelter and follow the track past the Blue Lakes to the viewpoint. From up here, you will have a great vantage point over the Tasman Glacier and the Tasman Lake. I highly recommend taking the quick detour from the track and walking to the shores of the Blue Lakes – the reflections are out of this world!
Did you know – The Tasman Glacier is the longest in New Zealand and is approximately 27 km in length! The glacier used to extend much further and once upon a time flowed into the Blue Lakes.
This track also offers the opportunity to spot the Rifleman bird – considered New Zealand’s smallest bird. You’ll definitely need to keep your eyes peeled for it, it’s very small!
5. Tasman River Viewpoint
Distance: 2.6 kilometers (1.62 miles) return from parking lot
Time needed: 1 hour
For those looking for a short trail to one pretty spectacular viewpoint, the trail to the Tasman River is perfect. This track starts from the parking lot but also branches off the Blue Lakes Track described above. After the viewpoint on the Blue Lakes Track make sure to follow the Tasman River signposts, this will take you to the source of the Tasman River.
To reach the edge of the lake you will need to climb over a few rocks, so, please be careful. You might spot icebergs here in the summer while in the winter the lake sometimes freezes over. This is my favorite place to come for sunrise. You often won’t be alone as photographers often come here to capture amazing photos of the lake and the sunrise reflections in the icebergs.
Because the trail is so short its a hike every visitor to Mount Cook should do and one of the best activities in the national park.
Did you know – The Tasman river actually flows all the way from here to the very photogenic Lake Pukaki, which you will have spotted on your drive into Mount Cook Village.
6. Bowen Bush Walk
Distance: 200 meters (0.1 miles) return
Time needed: 10 minutes
As the shortest walk in Mount Cook, this 10-minute hike is suitable for everyone. The Bowen Bush Walk is a super short and easy track through native totara trees. The track is mostly gravel-covered and flat except for a small number of steps. Listen out for beautiful birdsong along the track, the forest here is typically alive with the sound of the many birds who call it home.
This track starts opposite the petrol pumps in Mount Cook Village. The starting point is well signposted and easy to access from all hotels in Mount Cook Village.
7. Glencoe Walk
Distance: 400 meters (0.2 miles) return
Time needed: 30 minutes
Start this track from the back of the popular Hermitage Hotel.
The walk zigzags through native trees in the beginning, after a little while you will come across a lookout point close to the large water tanks above The Hermitage Hotel. A short 40 meters uphill section brings you to another lovely viewpoint over Mount Cook Village as well as the Hooker Glacier and of course gigantic Mount Cook.
I recommend walking this track about an hour before sunrise or sunset so you can watch the sun rise or fall over the village and Mount Cook.
8. Governors Bush Walk
Distance: 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) return
Time needed: 1 hour
Begin at the public shelter in Mount Cook Village. It’s a short and easy bush walk that connects with the Bowen Bush Walk described above. The trail leads you through a forest of silver beech/tawai trees, one of the few within the national park. Try to spot fantail and kea birds, there are lots of them on this part of the track.
There’s a gradual climb of approximately 100 meters which leads to a lovely viewpoint. From this viewpoint, you will see Wakefield Ridge and Mount Cook. As it runs through the forest it is mostly sheltered so it’s a great walking option if the weather is bad – which can happen often in this part of New Zealand.
Important too to note is there are toilets, hot water showers and a picnic area at the public shelter (your start and end point in this track).
9. Kea Point Track
Distance: 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) return
Time needed: 2 hours return from Mount Cook Village or 1-hour return from White Horse Hill Campground
The Kea Point Track is another hugely popular hike in Mount Cook National Park. The trail starts from the White Horse Hill campground at the end of Hooker Valley Road. As mentioned above, the start of this trail is actually the start of the Sealy Tarns Track and Mueller Hut Route also.
It’s a slightly windy route up to the viewpoint at the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. There’s a gentle uphill climb on this track of 180 meters over 1.6 kilometers (one way). At the end of the track, you’ll reach a viewing deck. Here, you’ll have views of the Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake, Mount Sefton, The Footstool, and of course, Mount Cook! During the warmer months you will spot colorful mountain flowers, so, have your camera ready.
On your return follow the same track back to your starting point. Overall it’s a magnificent hike suitable for the entire family!
10. Red Tarns Hike
Distance: 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) return
Time needed: 2 hours
Start this track from the Bowen Drive public shelter in the village. This track is quite the workout considering all the steps you need to climb so definitely wear appropriate footwear. It can also get quite wet and muddy in parts after rainfall.
The start of the track leads you downhill to a small bridge, taking you over Black Birch Stream. Then, you will climb steeply up a lot of steps gaining about 300 meters in height to the Red Tarns.
At the Red Tarns, breathe in the gorgeous views of Mount Cook and the village below. On a clear day, you will be lucky enough to see Mount Cook reflecting in the still waters of the lake. This track is named the Red Tarns because of the red pond weed that grows in the tarns. For me though, the hike is made worth the walk for the epic views over the valley which as you can see from the photo above are pretty spectacular.
Where to Stay in Mount Cook
There aren’t a ton of places to stay in Mount Cook if I’m being honest. All of the accommodation is in Mount Cook Village, and in the summer months, the best places to stay are fully booked.
The most popular (and luxurious) place to stay is the Hermitage Hotel. For something a little more budget-friendly consider Aoraki Court Motel, or for the budget backpacker, YHA Mt Cook is a must with dorm rooms and a communal space to cook (and they have a sauna!)
If you want to camp, you can stay at White Horse Hill Campground in Mount Cook Village. Bookings in advance are now required for this DOC-operated campground and it costs $15 NZD per adult per night or $7.50 per child.
Related read: Heading to Christchurch after Mount Cook? Check out our Queenstown to Christchurch road trip guide or our Wanaka to Christchurch road trip guide, both include the best stops between Mount Cook and Christchurch.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
Mount Cook is home to an amazing array of hikes, after visiting I think you’ll agree that some of the best views can be found on the easier walks in Mount Cook. But, the longer, more difficult hikes such as Mueller Hut and Sealy Tarns are considered bucket-list-worthy in the New Zealand hiking community. Whichever of the hikes in Mount Cook you choose you’re certain to be rewarded with astounding views.
I hope you’ll explore some if not all of these awesome hikes on your next trip to Mount Cook and that this guide has helped you plan your upcoming visit. If you did love this guide then be sure to browse around My Queenstown Diary some more! I have lots more content including guides on road trips, Queenstown, Wanaka, and lots more!