New Zealand Part 3: Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park Hiking

From Wanaka, we drove to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Staying in the national park village gave us good access to the park’s trails and meant we could see the mountains in various light.

This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Our full itinerary included:

  1. Christchurch and Akaroa
  2. Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park 
  3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park (this post!)
  4. Lake Tekapo, Ohau, Blue Pools, and back to Queenstown 
  5. Glow worms, Te Anau, and the Routeburn Track (Packing List)
  6. Milford Track (Packing List)

Note: when possible, booking through links in this post will earn us a commission. If you find this information helpful, please consider using them to make your reservations. 

Wanaka to Aoraki / Mount Cook Monday, 25 February

From Wanaka, we drove north toward Aoraki / Mount Cook. This was a lovely drive — particularly through the Lindis Pass area — though we kept stops to a minimum in hopes of arriving before sunset. Once we turned off State Highway 8 to follow the shores of Lake Pukaki, we started to stop more often to enjoy views of the lake and peaks. At each stop, we faced the choice of lingering to enjoy the late afternoon light or continuing to see what views waited ahead.

After about two and a half hours of driving, we arrived at Aoraki / Mount Cook village. This is a large collection of hotels, motels, and restaurants in the National Park. We found our hotel, the Mount Cook Lodge (Booking.com), and checked in. Based on reviews, we had low expectations for the hotel, but we had booked it for the combination of location and price. On seeing the room, our fears seemed to be confirmed. Most textiles were stained, the shower had seen better days (decades earlier), and the furniture was an odd and dated mishmash.

On further inspection, things looked better. The room had all we needed to assemble the breakfast foods we had brought, and a good supply of coffee and tea. Opening the curtain revealed views of the valley and nearby peaks, including the tip of Aoraki. We also had a good-sized covered deck where we could sit and where we could air out clothes and boots. By the end of our stay, our impression of the hotel was overall positive: staff clearly working hard to create a good experience, despite limited investment in facilities.

Mueller Hut & Sealy Tarns Tuesday, 26 February

In the morning, we woke up early for a sunset walk. We drove up to the Hermitage Hotel parking lot, where we followed the trail for the Glencoe Walk. This short trail climbs up to a viewpoint near the hotel’s water tanks. We heard — but didn’t see — several birds, and the views toward Aoraki and Hooker Glacier. I also enjoyed the plant life along the trail.

Back at our hotel room, we enjoyed breakfast on our deck with views of the mountains.

Mueller Hut & Sealy Tarns

We left soon after breakfast for our hike to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut (10.4km r/t, plus side trips). While planning, we had been tempted to book an overnight here. Ultimately, we decided not to, so that we could preserve the most flexibility in case of variable whether. The hut is a popular destination with stunning views, so we wanted to get an early start to beat most of the crowds.

While we could have walked from our hotel the trailhead near White Horse Hill Campsite, we chose to drive over. This gave us an earlier start and also gave us flexibility to head elsewhere if we got down early. The parking lot was already abuzz with activity, but the trail was not too crowded yet.

After a short, flat start, the trail began climbing steeply up the valley sides. About halfway up–547m and 2200 steps–it leveled out briefly at Sealy Tarns. This vantage point offered views of the Hooker Valley, Aoraki, and other nearby mountains. The viewing area was filled with morning crowds, so we paused only briefly before continuing up.

From here, the trail became rougher (the DOC says, “this is not a maintained track but an alpine route”), crossing a boulder field. This climb brought us up to the ridge, from where the trail undulated along to the hut. Views were splendid the entire way. We ate a relaxing lunch on the hut’s porch; the blue skies and stunning vista making us wish we had booked a night in the hut. Then we checked the hut’s forecast for the next day: wet, windy, and much, much colder. We no longer regretted not staying the night.

From there, we climbed further, following the ridge toward Mount Ollivier. This offered even more expansive views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. We found a sunny spot out of the wind and settled in for a snack. From here, we enjoyed 360º views of the valley, of Aoraki, and of Mount Sefton and its many glaciers. As we sat, parts of glaciers broke away. Clouds began to spill over the ridges from the east.

Eventually, it was time to head back down. The descent went much faster than the ascent. We paused for another snack when we returned to Sealy Tarns, enjoying the late afternoon light. Our knees and feet felt every stair on the latter part of the descent, but the continued views kept us happy. Lenticular clouds had started forming over Aoraki’s summit, hinting at the coming rain.

Back at the hotel, we cleaned up. After tea on the porch, we went to the lodge’s restaurant — the Chamois Bar and Grill (TripAdvisor). We enjoyed our beers and filling, delicious burgers (lamb for Kyle, beef for Sean) while watching the light fade over Aoraki.

Rainy Day and Blue Lakes / Tasman Glacier Wednesday, 27 February

The next day, we woke up to fierce winds and rain, as forecast. The weather discouraged us from going outside, so instead we had a lazy morning of reading and some email catchup. When the rain failed to let up around lunchtime, we ventured out to the Hermitage Hotel, where we bought postcards and wrote them over coffee at one of their cafés.

We’d hoped the weather would clear by the time we were done with postcards. It didn’t, so we then went to the Old Mountaineers Café (TripAdvisor). This was a more independent business from the other lodges, so we expected variety in the menus. We found some, but also crowds, slow service, and mediocre food. This surprised us, since they’d had better reviews than other restaurants — including the Chamois, which we had liked — in the village.

Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walks

As we finished our late lunch, the rain let up and patches of blue sky started to appear. With these encouraging signs, we made the short drive to the start of the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walks.

The start of this 2.6km walk took us first to small lakes nestled in the glacier’s former terminal moraines. On a different day, these would have appeared blue. Under the still mostly overcast skies, though, the lakes were nearly black.  From there, the trail led up a moraine to views of Haupapa / Tasman Glacier and Tasman Lake.

From there, the trail led us down to Tasman Lake, where the wind had pushed several small icebergs. Up close, the ice was impressively clear. We poked our way along the shoreline for a while, turning back toward the parking lot when it started to pour again.

Back at the hotel, we warmed up. Toward sunset, the clouds broke up a bit again. To take advantage of that, we headed up the road a bit, where we had even better views of Aoraki, with a bit of alpenglow on the peak through the clouds.

Hooker Valley & Kea Point Thursday, 28 February

In the morning, we woke up to perfectly clear skies. Morning glowed pink on Mount Sefton’s glacier.

Hooker Valley

After breakfast and sunrise on our deck, we drove to the trailhead for the Hooker Valley walk. It seemed many people were eager to get out after the previous day’s rain. With many others, we followed the trail across three suspension bridges and along the valley to Hooker Lake. While crowded, the route was stunning in the morning light.

We spent a while along the lake, exploring along the shore to its outlet. I particularly enjoyed an iceberg that looked like a rubber duck.

Not ready to turn back, we decided to explore further. Our map showed a route leading toward Ball Pass, and we had passed a corresponding turnoff shortly before Hooker Lake. We backtracked to that turnoff and followed a path, which quickly became faint. The trail meandered among muddy stream-beds and the brush.

Eventually, the trail became more distinct again — just beyond and above the moraine where we had stopped to look down on Hooker Lake. From here, the trail climbed up older side moraines, offering more expansive views of Hooker Lake, Aoraki, and other peaks. At this point, the trail offered a mostly flat and easy walk, descending only occasionally to cross small gullies or boulder fields.

Eventually, we reached a vantage point where the trail appeared to disappear into a giant gully. Below us, we had great views of Hooker Glacier and the lake. To our right, we could see a faint trail that climbed to bypass the washout.

The route looked like it would require some effort, so we decided to contemplate it over lunch and views. While we ate, clouds rolled in, again threatening rain. Another couple also came the other way. We heard constant rockfall as they crossed the gully, and at one point they asked us to not leave until we saw they had made it safely across. The combination of the weather and the rockfall discouraged us from continuing, and so we turned back the way we came.

Kea Point

After cleaning up, we went to happy hour at the Chamois for an early dinner. We split a pumpkin pizza and a lamb burger along with beers — all in all, a filling and tasty meal.

Even better, the skies cleared while we ate, and the mountains started to get that late afternoon golden glow. We decided to head back out for a sunset hike to Kea Point.

Leaving from the same parking area as the Mueller Hut and Hooker Valley tracks, the 3km (round trip) hike to Kea Point ends on a moraine overlooking Mueller Glacial Lake. This viewpoint offered great views of the lake, Mount Sefton, and Aoraki / Mount Cook. We stayed until sunset, as Aoraki developed a beautiful pink alpenglow and a lenticular cloud.

Red Tarns Friday, 1 March

In the morning, we woke up for our last breakfast in the national park. We were reluctant to leave, and so we decided to do one last hike before we left.

Red Tarns Hike

This hike left on the south side of the National Park Village. After an initial flat walk, the trail crossed Black Birch Stream on a bridge and then climbed steeply. The climb, which gained about a thousand feet, again featured many stairs.

About halfway up, we started hearing strange bird sounds. Pausing to look around, we saw that several kea were gathering on a rocky ravine adjacent to the trail. We watched them for five or ten minutes before they flew off, and then we climbed on.

On arriving at the Red Tarns, we were happy to see that the kea had the same destination in mind. We probably spent more time watching and listening to them than we did actually looking at the tarns. These large alpine parrots are both intelligent and curious. Their curiosity was on full display as they hopped and flew around us.

Once the kea flew away, we completed our circuit of the tarns. We were tempted to follow an obvious path that led onward up Mount Sebastopol. As we had not planned on going further — nor were we aware of the route’s existence, despite our research — we decided to head down.

This was somewhat representative of our experience with the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and the DOC: it was incredibly easy to find great documentation on the main paths, but it was hard to find any mention of other routes, such as this one or the Ball Pass route we had followed the day before. I expect this is an effort to keep tourists, and particularly less-prepared tourists on shorter, main routes. I understand that, but I also found it frustrating as we may have allocated some of our time differently if it had been easier to learn about these options.

Once back down, we took in views of the valley and started the drive out, heading toward Lake Tekapo.

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