Top Things to Do in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

Mount Cook – Must-Do Activities in Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook National Park is one of New Zealand’s premier natural treasures. If you’re headed to Mount Cook then you’re in luck, because this article will go over all the best things to do in Mount Cook National Park on New Zealand’s South Island. 

New Zealand might not have the highest mountains in the world, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have some of the most beautiful. The Southern Alps stretch from the top to the bottom of the South Island. At 12,218 ft (3724m), the apex of this awesome mountain range is Mount Cook, named after British explorer James Cook, but also known as Aoraki in the Māori language. 

The mountain peak is protected in a national park that offers some wonderful recreational opportunities. This post is all about visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park so read on to discover more about this truly breathtaking place!

Mount Cook – What You Need to Know

Where is Mount Cook National Park?

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is in the middle of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a solid 4-hour drive from Christchurch or a 3-hour drive from Queenstown, the nearest airports.

The park is at the north tip of Lake Pukaki and sits in the eastern side of the Southern Alps. The nearest town is Twizel, about 50 minutes south by car. It’s isolated, to say the least.  

How to get there

The best way to get to Mount Cook is by car, be it your own or a rental. Most people visit Mount Cook as part of a longer road trip around New Zealand. It’s a necessary stop on any two-week or 3-week New Zealand itinerary, but it’s also possible to do as a weekend trip from Christchurch or by flying in and out of Christchurch for the weekend. 

There are direct flights to Christchurch from almost every domestic airport in New Zealand, but not from overseas (though United claims to be starting a direct service from San Francisco to Christchurch in 2024). From Christchurch, it’s about 3 hours to Mount Cook. 

For booking rental cars in New Zealand we use discovercars.com. They offer great rates in New Zealand. You can check out rentals from Christchurch or Queenstown.

If you don’t feel like driving or just don’t want to drive on the left side of the road then you have two options. You can take a bus or an organized tour. The bus is not a bad option, as once you get to the park you do not need a car. 

There are numerous tours to Mount Cook from Christchurch and Queenstown. These give you less freedom but make life easier with all the logistics worked out for you. Some tour options are below. 

Day tour from Christchurch 

Day tour from Queenstown 

Weather and when to visit

You’re in the mountains here, so you really never know what you’re going to get when it comes to the weather. Expect a mix of rain, sun, and wind. Remember that summer in the southern hemisphere is December – February. 

You can expect a mix of warm days and cool days in the summer, but never too hot. It can be 80 degrees (27 C) one day and 55 (13 C) the next. You have to come prepared for all types of weather when you visit Mount Cook.

Winter in the park is cold and snowy. Unless you like hiking in the snow, you should visit Mount Cook between October and April. December to February will be the warmest and give you the best opportunity to see wildflowers. It’s also the busiest time of the year in the park, but you really want to visit in that busy window due to the weather. 

How long to spend at Mount Cook

People usually stay one or two nights at Mount Cook. Three nights will give you the best opportunities for good weather, though. Anything more than that really isn’t needed unless you’re planning on summiting Mount Cook. 

At a minimum, plan to spend one night in the park with a full day on either side. Lots of people just stop by Mount Cook for a day trip, but this really puts you at the mercy of the weather gods and I don’t recommend that unless you’re short on time. 

Food and money 

There are a few places to eat within the park, but if you’re on a budget, it’s best to bring your own food, as there is nothing fast and cheap. 

If you want a truly spectacular dining experience, have lunch or dinner at the Alpine Dining Room at the Hermitage Hotel. It’s a buffet meal with a perfect view of Mount Cook, like something from a dream. At $49 NZD it’s not cheap, but totally worth it. I’d never had such fresh and delicious salmon before in my life. 

It’s now well known, but New Zealand has some of the best king salmon in the world and it comes from the freshwater rivers around Mount Cook. If you have a chance to try Mount Cook salmon, don’t pass it up!

New Zealand uses the New Zealand Dollar. It’s usually about 0.7 to the US Dollar. Things are expensive in New Zealand, but for Americans and Europeans traveling there, costs are a bit better due to the exchange rate. 

You don’t need cash anywhere in New Zealand, but it’s a good idea to get at least a few bucks. Plus the notes are pretty cool. Try to rip them apart. You can’t, can you? 

Mount Cook Village

Almost all the lodging and dining within the park is located in a little area at the base of Mount Ollivier known as Mount Cook Village. You’ll likely spend at least some time here, even if you’re camping.

Things to do in Mount Cook National Park

Now that you know the basics about Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park let’s get into some of the best things to do at Mount Cook. There are a lot of activities in the park, but they are mainly centered around nature and the great outdoors. So if that’s not your thing, then this probably isn’t the best trip for you! 

Hiking

The highlight of any visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is getting out onto the trails. There are trails for all fitness levels in the park and everyone will be able to get some epic views of Mount Cook and the surrounding peaks and glaciers. 

This post doesn’t go into detail about all the individual hikes in the park, but just gives a quick overview of each hike. Refer to the provided links to the AllTrails website for starting locations and further details about the hikes. 

Hooker Valley Track (10.6km round trip)

The Hooker Valley Track is the most popular trail in the park. It takes you to the edge of a mountain lake right at the base of Mount Cook. It’s as close as you’ll get to the mountain unless you’re a mountain climber. 

It’s mostly flat and suitable for all skill and fitness levels. The cover photo for this post was taken from the trail. You’ll cross a few suspension bridges that can be quite exciting, but other than that it’s a very simple hiking trail that won’t test your endurance.

Mueller Hut Route (9.3km round trip)

The Mueller Hut Route is a steep, strenuous out-and-back hike that takes you to a mountain hut. You’re basically walking upstairs for an hour or two. 

It’s fun to spend the night up in the mountains at Mueller Hut if you have it booked in advance. You typically have to book really far in advance and plan your trip around it. 

No sweat though, the hike is satisfying as a day hike as well. Or really, a half-day hike since it’s not really that far. The route is busy but not nearly as busy as the Hooker Valley track.

Sealy Tarns Track (5.1km round trip)

If going all the way to Mueller Hut is a bit much for you, you can opt for the Sealy Tarns Track, which goes about halfway to the hut but stops at an alpine lake before heading back. 

Mount Ollivier Summit Track (11.5km round trip)

On the contrary, if the Mueller Hut Route isn’t daunting enough for you, you can always continue to the top of Mount Ollivier on the Mount Ollivier Summit Track. If you make it to the top here, you’ll truly be looking down on Mount Cook Village and across to Mount Cook. 

Kea Viewpoint and Sealy Tarns (7.8km round trip)

For a nice walk along the base of a mountain with a bit of climbing to a lake, opt for the Kea Viewpoint and Sealy Tarns track. The trail starts and ends in Mount Cook Village and offers lovely views of surrounding peaks. It’s a moderate hike and good for hikers of all fitness levels.

Tasman Lake Track (3.5km round trip)

While the focal point of the national park might be Mount Cook itself, there is more to the park than just the famous mountain. On the other side of Mount Cook is the Tasman Glacier, the longest glacier in the country. At the base of the glacier is Tasman Lake, a large lake with nearly 360-degree mountain views. 

The Tasman Lake Track will take you to the main viewpoint for the lake and glacier, as well as a few other viewpoints. There are quite a few walking paths in this region that you can wander around as well. It’s mostly flat and difficult to get lost. 

Ball Hut Route (15.5km round trip)

If you’d like to walk alongside the Tasman Glacier you can trek to Ball Hut and back on the Ball Hut Route. It’s a casual uphill hike that takes you face-to-face with the glacier. 

If you want you can also stay overnight at the hut. There are six beds and it’s first come first served. Note that the Tasman Glacier is not a beautiful white glacier or anything like that. It’s covered in rocks and mud and if you didn’t know better you wouldn’t even think it’s a glacier. 

Visit the Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre

The great Kiwi mountain climber Edmund Hillary used to train for Everest on Mount Cook. It was here at Mount Cook where we mastered the climbing skills that gave him the strength and skill to be the first person (along with climbing mate Tenzig Norgay) to summit Everest in 1953. 

At the Hermitage Hotel, you can visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and learn all about arguably the most famous New Zealander ever. The museum is open daily from 8 AM to 9 PM and costs $25 NZD for entrance ($15 for children). 

Mountain Photography

Mount Cook is the second most photogenic place in New Zealand (in my humble opinion), the first being Milford Sound in Fiordland. It’s a breathtaking place that will meet any photographer’s lust for beauty. 

There are two main spots to hit for the best photos of Mount Cook. The closest you can get to the mountain is at the end of the Hooker Valley Track. Hooker Lake stands between you and the foot of the mountain and usually has little icebergs floating around. 

The other popular spot for photos is on Highway 80 along the shores of Lake Pukaki. You’ll follow this highway for about 55 kilometers along the lake on your way to Mount Cook Village. As you drive this road the mountain will look like it’s right in your face, even though it’s dozens of miles away. 

There’s one scenic turnout you can stop at, but be on the lookout for the best views as you drive the road. With the sun shining on the mountain, it can look purely stunning. 

The road is usually not busy at all, and you can take photos of yourself in the middle of the road. Unfortunately for us, it was pretty cloudy that day so I couldn’t see Mount Cook from the road. But we did get some pretty good views on the way back to Christchurch. 

Take a Scenic Helicopter Ride

Taking a scenic helicopter flight high above the mountains is one of the most exciting things to do at Mount Cook National Park. The flights are short and expensive, usually 25-40 minutes for about $300 NZD. But most people who embark on the helicopter journey find it worth every penny. 

The helicopter tours also include a landing at a flat, snowy spot up in the mountains. You don’t have long to walk around, but you get a slightly different perspective than you can get from the hiking trails. 

Climb Mount Cook

If you have extensive prior mountain climbing experience, summiting Mount Cook is the most exhilarating thing you can do in the park. There are a number of outfitters that offer guided climbs of Mount Cook, such as Queenstown Mountain Guides

The climb will set you back a few thousand dollars, take up to 6 days, and you’ll have to prove to them that you have adequate climbing experience. But standing atop the highest point in the Southern Alps is priceless.   

Don’t be fooled by the relatively low elevation of the Mount Cook summit. Getting to the top is not easy. Serious technical mountaineering skill is required to make the summit due to the glaciated terrain of the mountain. If the outfitter decides that you don’t have enough relevant climbing experience, they won’t take you. 

Accommodations in Mount Cook National Park

There are multiple options for spending the night in Mount Cook National Park. From high-end hotels to camping, you can find something that suits your budget in and around Mount Cook Village. 

Camping

There is one campsite in the park. It has 60 tent sites and is managed by the national park. It’s a little north of Mount Cook Village, right where the Hooker Valley Track starts. Be sure to book in advance, as the campsite is in high demand in peak summer. A standard tent site is $15 NZD per night ($18 NZD between 26 Dec and 8 Feb). 

More information on the campsite can be found on the Department of Conservation website.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage Hotel is as luxurious as you can get in the park. But it also offers more basic motel rooms and simple cabins. The Hermitage manages the majority of rooms available in the park. 

The hotel is huge – more like a complex – and there are multiple different lodging types, with the motel being the cheapest and the hotel being the most expensive. Consult their website for more information. Motel rooms start at about $200 NZD and hotel rooms can run over $400 NZD for a superior room with a view of Mount Cook. 

YHA Aoraki Mt. Cook

YHA is a popular brand of hostels in New Zealand. They can be found all over the country. You can book a bed in a shared dorm at YHA Mount Cook for about $40 NZD. They also offer private rooms with private bathrooms more in the $150 NZD range.

Aoraki Court

Aoraki Court is a small, privately owned motel with room rates starting around $200 NZD. There is no restaurant and there are no services, but you can get some nice mountain views from the rooms. 

Aoraki/Mount Cook Alpine Lodge

The Aoraki / Mount Cook Alpine Lodge competes with the Hermitage, though it’s much smaller and offers more basic accommodation options. There is no restaurant at the lodge but there is a communal kitchen that guests can cook at.

Mountain Huts

There are 10 mountain huts within the park boundary. Mountain huts are very popular in New Zealand. It’s essentially a very simple shelter in the mountains with dorm-style bunk beds. 

The huts vary in services. Some offer bedding, some don’t. It depends on the hut. The Department of Conservation website explains what services are in each hut. If you want to stay in one of these, be sure to book well in advance, as they are an extremely popular thing for Kiwis to do. 

Mount Cook – Final Word

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is one of the most visited places in New Zealand, and once you see it you will understand why. Mount Cook itself is gorgeous, covered in ice and rising 3000 meters from the valley floor below. But there is more to the park than just the tallest peak in the country. 

Ancient glaciers flow down mountains into icy lakes and wildflowers bloom in the summer meadows. You’ll surely love your time in the park. Nobody leaves Mount Cook disappointed! 

Chris runs the travel blog Around the World with me.