All about Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

No other national park in New Zealand can match Mt Cook for big mountains and real alpine scenery, right in front of your eyes. This is the heart of the Southern Alps, and close to many Kiwi hearts in other ways too. The ghost of the most famous New Zealander of all, Sir Edmund Hillary, is all around Mt Cook, and the mountain itself is topuni (a special place) to the Ngai Tahu people. Whether you’re coming for the day or heading off into the hills, Aoraki Mt Cook is a must see national park in New Zealand. Lucky for you, it’s really easy to get here and there’s heaps to do and see.

We’ve been visiting Mt Cook since we were kids, here’s everything we know and love about Aoraki, ‘the cloud piercer’. How to get here, fitting Mt Cook into your itinerary, what to do, weather and a handy Kiwi tip or two.

Where is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park?

Aoraki Mt Cook Location Map

If we could only choose one Mt Cook activity...

Just being in Mt Cook is pretty awe inspiring, but to us, nothing beats the Tasman Glacier. There’s nowhere else in New Zealand it’s so easy to get up close or on to glacier like this, and as we all know, these glaciers will not be around forever! There are some great short walks in the Tasman valley to one of glacier viewpoints or even better, get out on the terminal lake in a kayak or an inflatable boat!

Our other favourite things to do in Mt Cook

Walking & Hiking - Mt Cook as an excellent network of tracks leaving right from the village, and they’re making new ones all the time. Day walks we love are the Hooker Valley, Kea Point and the Red Tarns. For a bit more of a grunt, climb the switchbacks to the Sealy Tarns.

Harder Hikes & Day Peaks - Walking up to the Mueller Hut in summer doesn’t require any special gear and is the best view around, but check the weather and don’t go alone. For a real scramble up and down, Sebastopol peak is great fun, a long slog up and really fast run down the gravel slopes if you’re up for it and have good ankles.

Mountaineering - Of course, Mt Cook is a climber’s haven, all of New Zealand’s highest peaks are right here. Don’t be fooled by the lower altitude of the peaks here, this is serious mountaineering and requires experience, equipment and guidance.

Scenic Flights & Snow Landings

There’s nothing like soaring above the glaciers and peaks of Aoraki Mt Cook, if you’re coming to New Zealand to tick a few items off your bucket list then here’s a few for you. Do an image search for ‘Tasman Glacier New Zealand’ and see what we mean! You can even land on the glacier in a ‘ski plane’, a canny Kiwi invention which allows small planes land on ice fields and glaciers, created right here in Mt Cook.

Visitors Centres & Musems - The first two are easy to find - the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre (this one’s free) has recently been upgraded and is excellent, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Hermitage Hotel is great too, but where’s the third? It’s a little alpine museum and gallery, run by locals Charlie and Mary, inside the Old Mountaineer Cafe. A bit more homely than the other two, a real slice of Kiwi alpine history run by really nice people!

Stargazing in the Aoraki Mackenize Dark Sky Reserve

We’ve got to tell you about this, you’ll love it! Kiwis have always know that the Mackenzie Country has the very best night sky in New Zealand, and for a long time now visitors have been enjoying the stellar displays too. Since 2012, the night sky above Mt Cook, Tekapo and Twizel has been officially designated as a Gold Standard International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only a handful in the world. It’s like a national park in the sky, and there are strict building rules in place now to limit light pollution. In our years visiting Mt Cook, we’ve never met anyone who hasn’t been blown away by the Mt Cook night sky and we bet you will too! When was the last time you wished upon a shooting star?  From Mt Cook village you can just wander outside at night for a look by yourself, or there’s a Stargazing tour you can go on, which starts with a planetarium show then takes you outside with some expert guides and telescopes.

In summer time the days are long, so sunset is late, and if you’re anything like us after a fun day out exploring it can be hard to keep your eyes open till dark, but we promise it’s worth it. The night skies in Queenstown and Wanaka are great too, but there are very few places you’ll stay where you can walk for a few minutes and get right away from the lights like you can here at Mt Cook.

Something you can only do in Mt Cook

There are a couple we love, and to do them both makes for a red letter day on your tour. It’s the only place in New Zealand you can fly on a ski-plane and land on a glacier and it’s also the only ‘Dark Sky Reserve’ in the country. How about a night out stargazing before your glacier landing the next day?  Post those pictures on Facebook and see all the jealous comments you get from home!

Ski plane on the Tasman Glacier - Mt Cook National Park Tours

Kiwi Favourites in Mt Cook

If you dig just a little below the surface, Mt Cook tells so many stories about New Zealand, and that’s why Kiwis love visiting too. Here’s a teaser: the peaks of Aoraki and the surrounding Southern Alps represent the sons of Ranginui, the Sky Father, who have turned to stone atop of their canoe, Te Waka o Maui, which represents the whole South Island.

Mt Cook is also the ‘home ground’ of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest. We love the story he told about sitting in the bar at the Hermitage Hotel and seeing the welcome two returning mountaineers received after a successful summit of Mt Cook, and deciding then and there to dedicate his life to mountaineering! The Hermitage is still there, and so is lots of ‘Sir Ed’s’ memorabilia.

Happy couple with views of Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook - National Park Tours

How to fit Aoraki Mt Cook National Park into your South Island itinerary

Mt Cook is mid way between Queenstown and Christchurch, a little closer to Queenstown than CHCH and about 50 km / 30 miles off the main road. If you’re planning to travel between Christchurch and Queenstown, you’ll drive right past the turnoff, easy! Going south, spending a night or two in Mt Cook before continuing on to the Southern Lakes is perfect. If you’re travelling north, then the same thing works in reverse. You can also get to Mt Cook from Timaru, on the east coast south of Christchurch, or Oamaru, coming up the Waitaki Valley.

Suggested Mt Cook Itinerary

We don’t reckon you should try and go Christchurch to Queenstown (or Wanaka) via Mt Cook in a single day, you’d be surprised that some people do. Break the trip up over 2 days, we reckon the best place to stay is right in the heart of it all at Mt Cook village. It’s an easy half day to the Southern Lakes so you don’t have to leave Mt Cook till after lunch. There are walking tracks right around the village, our favourite is the Kea Point track, you’re right on the edge of the Mueller glacier lake at the lookout there. Checking out New Zealand’s longest glacier is pretty easy too, there are plenty of options for you including kayaking, walking, boat or even helicopter. Lunch out on the deck at the Hermitage looking right up at Mt Cook caps it all off perfectly.

Boating on the Tasman Glacier Lake - Mt Cook National Park Tours

How to get to Mt Cook?

The only way to get to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, is to head to the very end of State Highway 80, 50km / 30 miles from the turnoff on Highway 80 just on the south side of Lake Pukaki. Looking at a map you may be tempted to think you can drive from Fox Glacier, it’s so close! But alas, no road sorry, 450 km / 280 miles round the long way (or 10 minutes in a helicopter!)

Domestic Flights to Mt Cook 

Mt Cook does have a small airport but this is only used for scenic and glacier flights. The runway is long enough for domestic flights to land and this has happened in the past, but at the moment there are no air services to Mt Cook. Write to your local politician to get them re-instated!

From Christchurch to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

Most international visitors arrive into the south island at Christchurch and Mt Cook is an easy day trip from the garden city. We always like to take our time and pop in to see friends for lunch on the way, so we allow 5 hours for the 310 km / 190 mile trip.  Make sure you stop off at the big blue lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki on the way, no, we’re not putting dye in the water, they’re that colour naturally!

From Queenstown to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

You won’t want to miss Queenstown, and it’s the perfect spot from where to head to Mt Cook, giving you two iconic Kiwi mountain towns in the same day.  As with all the drives across NZ, there’s so much to see and some pretty windy roads so we always like to allow 4 hours for the  240 km (150 miles). 

From Wanaka to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

A bit shorter than travelling from Queenstown, but equally as stunning. We always make lots of stops along the way and take 3 hours to travel the 185 kilometers (115 miles).

A couple of alternative jump off spots for Mt Cook National Park are Twizel and Tekapo, sometimes it’s hard to get a room in Mt Cook, lucky for you we’ve planned ages ahead so you don’t have to! Tekapo is about 100 km / 60 miles from Mt Cook, a little over an hour, Twizel’s about half that.

Mt Cook village is the one and only entry point into the national park. It’s a dead end road, you can’t miss it!

Mt Cook in snow, Lake Pukaki in the foreground - National Park Tours

Weather in Mt Cook National Park

You’re in the heart of the Southern Alps now, with our highest mountain and longest glacier right in front of you, so it’s fair to expect a bit of alpine weather from time to time! Even in summer it can still be a bit ‘fresh’ so be prepared! (‘Fresh’ is a South Island word meaning ‘cold’, you’ll come to realise that no-one in New Zealand, well the South at least, will ever admit to feeling cold!)  Even if you’re just heading out for a short walk, make sure you know what the weather is doing, ask your guide, check at the visitor centre or online.

Mt Cook Average Temperatures

• Summer, December - February. High: 68F, 21C. Low: 55F, 13C.

• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High: 68F, 20C. Low: 50F, 10C.

• Winter, June - August. High: 55F, 13C. Low: 45F, 7C.

• Spring, September - November. High: 63F, 17C. Low: 52F, 11C.

Something you don’t know about Aoraki Mt Cook

Mt Cook is shrinking, but it’s got nothing to do with erosion! For years the official height was 3764m (12,218 feet), until a massive avalanche at the peak in 1991 reduced this to 3754m (12,316 feet), or at least that’s what we thought! The mountain was resurveyed in 2014 and the official height came back at 3724m (12,217 feet), thirty metres gone just like that. Spare a thought for all those climbers whose feats weren’t quite as impressive as they thought!

Sir Edmund Hillary at Mt Cook

‘Sir Ed’ as Kiwis call him, was a regular visitor to Mt Cook and it was actually on a holiday here as a young man that he decided to become a mountaineer because his life was ‘dull and boring’, as he put it. His first major peak was in the park, Mt Olivier in 1939 and he was in the first party ever to climb the south ridge of Aoraki Mt Cook too. Right through his life he was a regular visitor to Mt Cook and the alpine museum in the Hermitage Hotel bears his name and has a lot of his climbing memorabilia. There’s an excellent 3D movie presentation ‘Hillary on Everest’ in the hotel theatre too.

Visiting Mt Cook with MoaTrek

Mt Cook is always a highlight for us, we love getting back to Mt Cook and so do our guests. We arrive late afternoon with the evening free for walks and stargazing after a great dinner with a view you’ll never forget. If you’re visiting in summer there’s daylight till 10pm, great for walking and those sunset photos of the mountain although it makes staying up for the stars a little tougher though. Our next morning is free for exploring the Tasman glacier, heading out for a walk, getting up in the air on a scenic flight or just relaxing!

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