If you plan on venturing around the South Island on your next trip to NZ, Mount Cook National Park, otherwise known as Aoraki should 150% be included in your itinerary. It is an absolute must-do! Simply put, it’s stunningly beautiful, and the most perfect alpine setting you’ll find on this side of the world. With towering peaks, long glaciers and permanent snow fields you’ll find yourself wanting to look everywhere, all at once!
Whether you’re an alpine enthusiast, trekker or hiker, or just a casual explorer, Mt Cook has something for everyone! While I’d certainly recommend spending longer in the area, we only spent one day there and this was still enough to enjoy the beauty of the park. This post will talk about our perfect day in Mount Cook National Park (including the part where we got engaged! 😱).
A Little Background Information
Aoraki, or Mount Cook National Park is located on New Zealand’s South Island about 3 hours from Queenstown or 1.5 hours from Lake Tekapo. The national park spans 772 square kilometres and is home to New Zealand’s highest mountain (Mount Cook) topping 3,724m above sea level.
To get to Mount Cook Village, you’ll travel along State Highway 80. This has got to be one of the most scenic ‘highways’ I’ve ever travelled on 😍. Running alongside Lake Pukaki, the drive will take around 45 minutes to 1 hour from the turn-off. This timing takes into account the multiple stops you’ll undoubtedly make for photos!
Mount Cook Village is the only ‘town’ within the national park, and there are only a select few accommodations options and restaurants. If you want to stay within the park, I would recommend booking well in advance, and be prepared to pay top dollar for your accommodation 🤑. If you are wanting to really get dug into this area, I would say the extra money to stay here is worth it, rather than doing the drive from Lake Tekapo or Twizel each day. You’ll also find a visitors centre here, as well as a DOC (Department of Conservation) office.
Things to Do in Mount Cook National Park
If you’re into hiking, you will be in heaven here 🙌🏼. There are so many different walks and hikes to do. Some hikes take only a few hours, to a full day. If you’re super keen, you can even do overnight hikes! I am not going to go through them, because we only did one, which I’ll cover below.
Aside from hiking, you can take a scenic helicopter ride, some of which also include a glacier landing. You can visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Centre and learn about how he used Mt Cook to train for his Mt Everest summit climb. You can also experience glacier kayaking 😱, have an amazing dinner with a view or go star-gazing!
Mount Cook National Park is apart of the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. This is a 4.3 thousand square kilometre area which is protected from artificial light pollution. It’s the only dark sky reserve in the southern hemisphere. If you’ve never been in an area without loads of light pollution, you’ll be positively amazed at how many stars are in the night sky. And that you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye! 🤩
The Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is reportedly one of the most popular things to do in Mt. Cook. It is a relatively easy 10km return hike, which is mostly flat and suitable for all fitness types. I will say that the way there, felt more uphill than the way back. Could I have been distracted by the new thing on my left hand? 🙈 Who knows!
The Hooker Valley Track starts from the White Horse Hill Campground which is located inside the national park. You will see the turn off for this campground on your right before you reach Mount Cook Village. From the carpark, you’re looking at a 3 – 5 hour return hike, depending on your fitness level. This does including stopping along the way to take loads of photos and a lunch stop at the lake.
Hot Tip: Make sure you take plenty of water, and some lunch or snacks for the hike. There is basically zero protection from the weather along this track, so make sure you layer up, and wear a hat or sunscreen. You would not believe how strong the sun is, even in early Spring!
Hooker Valley Track Highlights
Some of the highlights you’ll see along the Hooker Valley Track include the Mueller Lake, Mueller Glacier, Hooker Lake and Mount Cook.
During our time in NZ, we noticed that all of the lakes were very low! Some locals even said it was the lowest they’d ever seen them due to low rainfall during winter. Once the snow melts, these lakes will of course, fill up again. These sites are naturally still very beautiful, but don’t be surprised if what you see in real life, is different to those Instagram posts you’ve saved as travel inspiration 😂.
The other cool thing you’ll find along the track are the three huge suspension bridges used to cross over the Hooker River. If you find yourself on one of these bridges with no other people, grab a picture quickly! And if you get nervous about wobbly or bouncy bridges, cross quickly 😬.
Of course, the real highlight of this track, and the reason you’re here is, Hooker Lake with stunning Mount Cook staring you straight in your face. Freaking amazing! 😍🤯
We easily spent over an hour here – eating our lunch, taking in the view, taking photos, climbing up a little ridge and getting engaged! 🎉
Despite the fact that we had been together for 5 and a half years at this point, I was just not expecting it to happen on this trip. We had agreed to work towards other goals first, and I’d decided I was okay with that. Brandon had always said that he would never do it on holidays as, ‘that’s what everyone would expect’. It was only a split second before, that I realised this could be it – so he absolutely nailed the surprise factor 😍.
It really was the most magical spot for such a special moment, and for this reason, Mount Cook will always be one of my happiest places on Earth.
That’s a Wrap…
That pretty much sums it up guys. If you only have time to do one thing in Mount Cook National Park, it should hands down, be the Hooker Valley Track. Short, easy and stunningly beautiful – what’s not to love?
If you didn’t already, make sure you pull over on your drive back out of the park to take some scenic snaps of Mt. Cook and Lake Pukaki. Please 🙏🏼 do this with caution – this is a highway after all.
Have you visited Mount Cook National Park recently? I would love to hear what your favourite parts were! Feel free to leave your experiences or questions in the comments section below ☺️