Aoraki Mt Cook Travel Guide
Aoraki Mt Cook is a special place for all New Zealanders and somewhere most Kiwis dream of visiting at least once in their lives. If Aoraki Mt Cook is on your NZ bucket list tour then this handy guide is for you, with history and legends, where to stay, the best short walks and activities, weather and answers to the most common questions we get about visiting Mt Cook.
We’re MoaTrek and we’ve been travelling to Aoraki Mt Cook on our New Zealand small group tours since 1971 and over the decades have learnt a few tricks to help make your Mt Cook visit extra special.
Where is Aoraki Mt Cook and how do I get there?
Aoraki Mt Cook is right in the middle of the Southern Alps (Tiritiri o te Moana), deep down in the heart of the South Island. There’s only one way to get to Mt Cook and that is to drive on State Highway 80. From the turn off at the southern end of Lake Pukaki you drive 30 miles (50km) on Highway 80 to Mt. Cook Village, which is at the end of the road the one and only entry point into the national park.
From Christchurch, the drive is around 5 hours and you can stop at the beautiful big blue lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki on the way. Coming the other way, the drive from Queenstown will be around 4 hours and there are some very windy mountain roads.
There is a small airfield at Mt Cook but this is used only for scenic and glacier flights, there are currently no domestic flights to Mt Cook.
Māori legends of Aoraki
In Te Reo Māori, Aoraki means “the cloud piercer”. Legend tells of a young boy named Aoraki, son of Ranginui the sky father, whose canoe was stranded on a reef while on a journey around Papatūānku (the Earth Mother). He and his brothers climbed to the top side of their canoe but were frozen by the southerly wind, their canoe turning to stone and becoming “Te Waka o Aoraki”, the Ngāi Tahu name for the South Island. Aoraki and his brothers remain frozen in stone as the highest peaks of the Southern Alps: Aoraki (Mt Cook); Rakiroa (Mt Dampier); Rakirua (Mt Teichelmann) and Rarakiroa (Mt Tasman).
To Ngāi Tahu (the main Māori tribe of the South Island) Aoraki represents a sacred ancestor and standing on the peak denigrates its tapu status. The 1998 Ngāi Tahu Treaty of Waitangi claim recognizes the original name, and renames the mountain officially as Aoraki / Mt Cook.
European history of Aoraki Mt Cook
Aoraki Mt Cook was first seen by European eyes in 1642 by Abel Tasman and also again by Captain Cook in 1770. It was named after Captain Cook in 1851 by another British Navy captain. It was first climbed on Christmas Day in 1894 by three local New Zealanders (Jack Clarke, Tom Fyfe & George Graham) who were motivated to be the first to climb their own mountain after hearing well known overseas climbers had their eyes on the first ascent.
Australian woman Freda du Faur was the first woman to summit Aoraki in 1910 and actually the first person to complete the “Grand Traverse” climb of all three peaks of Mt Cook later in 1913. There’s a fantastic old photo of Freda in her climbing gear at “Freda’s Rock” just a few hundred metres up the Hooker Valley walking track, and more in the national park visitor centre.
Sir Edmund Hillary & Aoraki Mt Cook
The Mt Cook area is steeped in legend of the most famous Kiwi of all, Sir Edmund Hillary. There's a great story about how he was sitting in the Hermitage Hotel while on a climbing holiday when he saw the hero’s reception given to returning climbers so he decided then and there to dedicate his life to climbing.
Sir Ed started his serious climbing career in Mt Cook in 1939 and made his first ascent of Mt Cook in January 1948 and the very next month was in the very first group to climb the South Ridge to the Low Peak. The ridge was renamed the Hillary Ridge in 2011.
Inside the Hermitage Hotel is the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, with films and memorabilia from his adventures both here and around the world.
Where to stay in Mt Cook?
Aoraki Mt Cook village is a tiny settlement of about 200 people at the end of State Highway 80 with just the Hermitage Hotel, the National Park Visitor Centre and a few other cafes and motels. Which is perfect because the reason you’re coming here is to experience the alpine environment, not for city amenities!
The village is definitely the best place to stay as you’re right there in the heart of the National Park, Aoraki Mt Cook is right there and you just need to step out the front door to be in an outdoor paradise. We like to stay at the Hermitage Hotel for the history and comfort, why not spoil yourself at such a bucket list destination?
Short Walks in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
Surrounded by all that inspiring mountain scenery and tales of adventure you’ll feel inspired to get out into the fresh mountain air for your own adventure and luckily is all right there - right outside are some of the best short walks in New Zealand. Here are our favourites:
Kea Point Walk:
This easy two-hour return walk can be done in any season - it’s particularly beautiful when the mountains are dusted with snow. A boardwalk trail takes you to a lookout point with views of Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton.
Governors Bush Walk:
A different experience to the many alpine tracks in the park, this very short and accessible walk takes you through native New Zealand forest. The one hour loop goes through lush, old temperate Silver Beech rainforest, with mountain views to reward you at the top.
This is the premier day walk in New Zealand and takes from 3-4 hours for the return walk to the beautiful glacial Hooker Lake. The walk starts at the White Horse Hill Campground car park and is easy to follow and well graded all the way to the lake where you’ll get jaw-dropping views of several major glaciers and Aoraki Mount Cook.
Tasman Glacier Lookout:
A short 30-minute uphill walk that will reward you with breathtaking views from a rocky outcrop overlooking the terminal lake. Gaze at the beautiful Blue Lakes, their tranquil glacial meltwater reflecting the Mount Cook Range.
The Red Tarns Track:
It’s a short steep climb to these alpine tarns, named for the red pond weed that grows within them. The two-hour return hike follows an easy walking track and offers beautiful panoramic views of the whole area.
What to do in Aoraki Mt Cook?
Nature lovers and adventure-seekers visit Mt Cook from all over the world to enjoy and explore the wonderful outdoor world here. Some of the most popular activities:
Tasman Glacier Explorers
A guided boat trip on the terminal lake to view the glacier terminal wall, icebergs and the surrounding alpine wonderland.
Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
Built to strict codes to reduce light pollution, Mt Cook village is the perfect place to view the spectacular night sky alive with constellations. There are guided tours and a planetarium in the Hermitage hotel.
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
A tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the most famous Kiwis of all, this centre has fascinating exhibits on his exploits and stories and people of Aoraki Mount Cook.
In spring and early summer (Sep to Dec), huge colourful fields of brilliant pink and purple flowers bloom all over the riverbeds and lake shores in this area. They are a photographer’s dream, especially against the backdrop of turquoise glacier lakes and snow-capped mountains.
One of the best ways to see the region is from the air, with a scenic fixed wing or helicopter flight over the mountains to land high on the Tasman Glacier. This is the way to really see the Tasman Glacier!
Aoraki Mt Cook is blessed with two excellent museums/visitor centres, a luxury for such a small town! One is the privately owned Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre inside the Hermitage Hotel and there’s the National Park Visitor Centre run by the Department of Conservation. There’s also an excellent little gallery inside the Old Mountaineer Cafe run by local alpine guide Charlie Hobbs and his wife Mary.
What’s the best time to visit Mt Cook?
In the cozy surroundings of the Hermitage Hotel you’re super comfortable at any time of year and a lot of people love going in winter for the snowy views, but we prefer to visit when the days are a little longer so we can spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors. Our favourite time to visit Mt Cook is from spring through to autumn, October through to April.
Mt Cook Average Daytime Temperatures
• Summer, December - February. High: 21C (68F) . Low: 13C (55F).
• Autumn, March - May. High: 20C, (68F). Low: 10C (50F).
• Winter, June - August. High: 13C, (55F). Low: 7C, (45F).
• Spring, September - November. High: 17C, (63F). Low: 11C, (52F).
Frequently Asked Questions about Aoraki Mt Cook
How long does it take to drive from Christchurch to Mt Cook?
The drive from Mt Cook to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is 330 km (205 miles) and can take up to 4 hours as these are country roads and there are so many fantastic stops along the way. Our favourites are Geraldine, Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki.
How long does it take to drive from Queenstown to Mt Cook?
The drive from Queenstown to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is 265 km (165 miles) and takes around 3 hours. Recommended stops along the way are Cromwell, Tarras and Lake Pukaki.
How much does it rain in Mount Cook?
There are an average of 163 days of rain a year in Mt Cook village, with a total annual rainfall of 4485 mm (176 inches). Rainfall is spread quite evenly throughout the year, with more rain in the spring months of September to December.
What are the months with the most sunshine in Mount Cook?
January and February are the months with the most sunshine, February is the warmest month of the year in Mount Cook.
What are the best things to do in Mt Cook?
According to Tripadvisor, the five best things to do in Mount Cook are:
- Visit the National Park Visitor Centre
- Hiking in the National Park on trails like the Hooker Valley
- Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
- Short walks like the Red Tarns & Governor’s Bush
- Visit the Tasman Glacier
Visiting Aoraki Mt Cook with MoaTrek
Our overnight stay in Mt Cook is a highlight of several of our tours, including the Kakapo 21 day tour, Kaka 17 day tour, and 9 day South Island tour visiting all the iconic spots of the South Island, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka, Glacier Country, the West Coast and of course Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.