Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is located in New Zealand’s South Island’s Southern Alps mountain range. Aoraki/Mount Cook (12,217 feet), New Zealand’s tallest mountain, is found in the park, along with 18 additional summits that rise above 9,800 feet.
However, this park isn’t just about mountaineering. Glaciers comprise over 40% of the area, and several walks will take you into this breathtaking scenery. Many of these are labeled “simple” since they are short or only take a few hours, making this a great place to visit with kids.
The majority of visitors to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park stay in or near Mount Cook Village or Twizel; many of the hikes listed below begin in or near the village or are only a short drive away. The eight best walks in this hilly national park are listed below.
1. Kea Point Track
Starting from the White Horse Hill Campground (the primary Department of Conservation-run campground in the area), or the Visitor Centre in Mount Cook Village, this simple walk takes one hour round trip. The walk winds across grasslands before arriving at a viewing deck on the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. Mount Sefton, the Footstool, the Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake, and Aoraki/Mount Cook itself can all be seen from there.
2. Red Tarns Track
This 1.5-mile out-and-back journey is named for the reddish-orange pondweed that hues the tarns (small mountain lakes) along the path. It’s a wonderful option for families, tourists short on time, or those who don’t want to walk too far. There is a hard upward portion that can be exhausting, but the views from the top are spectacular, with sweeping vistas of the glacier valley, Mount Cook Village, and the huge peak. The tarns are more beautiful than they appear, and the view from the summit of the ascent is spectacular. Just don’t stay too long; you’ll want to get back to your car before it gets dark.
3. Sealy Tarns Track
The 2,200 steps that lead up to the freshwater Sealy Tarns make the Sealy Tarns Track significantly more difficult than the Kea Point or Red Tarns Tracks, even though it is still classified as an easy hike. If you have the energy, though, this 3.2-mile out-and-back climb rewards you with spectacular views of the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook. You’ll travel through floral meadows on your way up in the summer. The stairwell is known as “the stairway to paradise” for a reason.
4. Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is sometimes referred to as New Zealand’s best short hike, which, while it does have some rivalry, is a clear indicator of how special this hike is. The easy track takes three hours to complete round trip, or four hours if you start from Mount Cook Village. The walk winds its way through Hooker Valley, past wildflower meadows and across a pair of swing bridges. It comes to a finish at the Hooker Glacier Lake, with views of Mount Cook and Aoraki. This trip has a low elevation rise, making it an ideal follow-up to the Sealy Tarns Track. Many people choose to go early in the morning (about sunrise) to take advantage of the gentle morning light and the sunrise over the mountains.
5. Mueller Hut Route
This is an advanced trail for experienced hikers that the DOC defines as challenging and demanding caution—and that’s in the summer. You’d need great snow and ice skills in the winter. The 5.8-mile out-and-back trail adds 3,280 feet in height and is steep and unmarked in sections. The climb to the top takes roughly three to five hours with the Sealy Tarns en way; hikers frequently stop overnight in the Mueller Hut, a 28-bed catered hut that must be booked in advance during peak season (November to April). Given the challenges in reaching the hut, the views from the top are breathtaking.
6. Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Track
The Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s longest glacier (16 miles), and the Blue Lakes are accessible via this 40-minute round-trip climb. Attractions of this walk include witnessing icebergs in the glacier lake and the option of swimming in the summer, in addition to the predictable superb views of the mountains at the end of the Tasman Valley (a slight detour). While the hike is easy, there are a few steps that climb up around 330 feet.
7. Tasman Lake Track
Hike the 2.2-mile out-and-back Tasman Lake Track to view frightening evidence of climate change in action. Although this lake was just formed in the mid-1970s, it is now substantial enough for kayaking and boating. In the summer, icebergs can be seen on the lake, but the lake freezes over in the winter. It’s easy to see how far the Tasman Glacier has receded in only a few decades from here. Past the Blue Lakes Shelter, the trail up to the lake splits from the Blue Lakes Track, leading to a vista across the Tasman Glacier terminal lake.
8. Ball Hut Route
The Ball Hut Route, located in the Tasman Valley, is another longer trekking option within the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. This 12.1-mile out-and-back hike, while not as strenuous as the Mueller Hut Route, begins easy and gradually becomes more difficult. Because some sections of the hike are on unstable ground and should be approached with caution, this hike is best suited for experienced mountain hikers. During the winter, there is also substantial risk of avalanches across the route (between June and November). Because the journey to Ball Hut takes three to four hours, some trekkers choose to spend the night there. It’s a little one, with only three bunks, and it can’t be reserved in advance. Bring a tent if you need to remain overnight in case you don’t obtain a bunk.