10 Incredible Mt Cook Walks – Amazing Aoraki
Discover the walks that Aoraki Mount Cook has to offer. From stroller and wheelchair-friendly trails to challenging tramps, this incredible national park has a range of fantastic hikes on offer.
Approximately 4 hours’ drive from Christchurch or Dunedin, nestled deep in the heart of the Southern Alps, the Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park has long been touted as a wonderland for mountaineering. It was even one of Sir Edmund Hillary’s training grounds.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is also part of the wider Te Wahi Pounamu South-West New Zealand World Heritage area.
Aside from mountaineering, the park features a number of popular walking tracks with a mixture of grades and abilities. There are also several tracks that are lesser-known but well worth doing.
How Long and Challenging are the Walks at Mt Cook?
Most of the tracks we’re about to share are easily completed by most people.
To make life easy for you, we’ve gone ahead and separated them into three distinct categories – the most popular Mt Cook walks, family-friendly options and advanced trails.
Each of the tracks listed here includes an estimated walk time.
The times posted by the Department of Conservation are fairly conservative, although if you’re like us, you’ll want to add 20-30% to the times to take photos and soak up the scenery.
With all of that said, keep in mind that you are in a challenging alpine environment so it’s important to be well-prepared in case conditions change quickly. And they frequently do.
For more challenging hikes, we strongly encourage you tramp with a personal locator beacon. You can never be too safe!
Do you know the history behind the Māori word for Mt Cook? Aoraki was a Māori demi-god who descended to visit Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, with his brothers in a giant waka (canoe). He managed to get himself stuck there and we then turned to stone and ice.
Frequently wreathed in clouds, Aoraki Mt Cook only shows himself to those he deems worthy. He does this by parting his cloudy cloak from time to time, so that you may gaze upon his face.
The Best Aoraki Mount Cook Walks
Having lived in the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park village for a brief period, as well as being frequent visitors, it’s fair to say we know the Mt Cook National Park well.
Each of the walks we share below is worthwhile for a variety of reasons and attractions. The best walks for you will just depend on how much time you have, your mobility, and if you’re travelling with children.
One important point to note before you go though – dogs are not allowed in any national parks in New Zealand. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is no different.
Book: Discounted skydiving at Mount Cook.
Book: Discounted heli flights and ski plane flights.
The Most Popular Hikes in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
These walks are the most popular in the park. Don’t let that put you off though – they’re popular for good reason!
Most of them are suited to even though with low levels of fitness, with many of them even appropriate for families.
Related: The best accommodation at Mount Cook.
Related: The best short hikes in the South Island.
1. Hooker Valley Track: 3-4 Hour Round Trip, Easy Difficulty
The Hooker Valley Track is easily one of the most popular and spectacular walks in the park – especially on a sunny or snowy day. Jaw-dropping mountain views, crashing rivers, waterfalls and ice-laden lakes are but some of the views to be savoured.
This easy 10 km round trip is over iconic wooden boardwalks or well-graded trails the whole way. The gradient is relatively flat and requires only a low level of fitness – most people can complete the walk (with time for photos) in three hours. If you plan to walk from the Hermitage Hotel or DOC Visitor Centre, allow another hour or so.
Ideally, the best times to go are early morning before the crowds (and with the best light), or in the afternoon after the bulk of the visitors have gone and the soft lighting has returned.
The trail is hard to miss as it’s well signposted (and it attracts a lot of walkers).
Hooker Valley Track, Mt Cook National Park 7999
From the western end of the White Horse Hills campground (which is the main hiking car park at Mt Cook, found at the end of the Hooker Valley Road), follow the Mueller Point and Hooker Valley signs. Initially, the track meanders around glacial moraine, obscuring the view of the valleys and mountains ahead until you get to the top of the first initial climb at the Mueller Point Lookout. There you’ll find a cairn devoted to those that have lost their lives climbing in the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park, and the first fantastic views over the Hooker Valley itself.
From there a short descent takes you over the first of three large, but well constructed, swing bridges, crossing the Mueller and Hooker Rivers. From the second of the trip, Aoraki-Mt Cook dominates the skyline at the head of the valley.
Enjoy the surrounding scenery, with the mountain peaks towering above you, until shortly after crossing the third swing bridge where you’ll come to the Hooker Glacier terminal lake. From there you will see Aoraki-Mt Cook, seemingly just across the lake.
We suggest you wander down to the lake foreshore. On a hot day, you can dip your hands and toes in – though remember, the water is very cold! Alternatively, you might be able to touch one of the many small icebergs floating on the lake near the shoreline.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have the time to walk the full length of the trail, it’s possible to walk as far as suits before turning around. We recommend heading to the Mueller Lookout Point (around 30-40 minutes return). This can be a good option for views of the Hooker Valley if you’re short on time, or have infants/toddlers with you in a stroller. If you just walk to the lookout, you’ll find yourself stopping just before the first swing bridge.
What Season is the Best Time to See the Hooker Valley Track?
In spring and summer, the Hooker Valley is laden with flowers. Throughout the walk, you’ll hear the groan of glaciers and crashing avalanches on the slopes of Mt Sefton.
In the winter season, hikers marvel at frozen lakes that are home to massive icebergs. Snow providing a magical ground cover really is the icing on the cake on extra chilly days.
Though if we’re being honest, there really isn’t a bad season to visit the Hooker Valley.
Related: Things to do in Mount Cook.
Book: Discounted tours from Queenstown to the Hooker Valley Track.
2. Kea Point Track: 1-2 Hour Round Trip, Easy Difficulty
A short easy walk with a gentle to moderate gradient towards the end, the Kea Point Track is about one hour return from the White Horse Hills Campground (at the end of the Hooker Valley Rd). Or, if you’d prefer to walk from theHermitage Hotel and DOC Visitor Centre, this is a two hour walk.
In either case, follow the signposted directions east from the campground, or north from the village.
You’ll find the signposts to the Kea Point Track in the same area as the Hookey Valley Track – at the White Horse Hills Campground.
This trail features an easy, gravelled track with occasional wooden boardwalks – follow them until you reach the lookout on the moraine wall above the Mueller Glacier terminal lake.
From there, you can look into the depths of the Mueller Glacier Terminal Lake, or better still, straight up the Hooker Valley at the southern face of Aoraki Mt Cook.
Off to your left, as you look up the Hooker Valley, you’ll find the overarching ridgeline of Mt Sefton and The Footstool. Keep an eye (and an ear) out on those cliffs, as avalanches regularly cascade down those faces with a thunderous roar – especially on warmer days.
Also, look out for the spiky Spaniard. This alpine plant has hard, flax-like leaves with very, very sharp tips.
And, of course, who could forget our native alpine parrot, the kea? You may get to see some weka birds too!
Return to the campsite or village the same way you came.
3. Sealy Tarns: 3-4 Hour Round Trip, Moderate-Hard Difficulty
Nicknamed the ‘stairway to heaven’, Sealy Tarns is a fairly challenging walk that rewards trampers with incredible spectacular views and both alpine lakes and flowers.
Though I’ve not counted them personally (as I gave up at about 1500 steps), I have it on good authority that there are around 2,000 steps up the mountainside to get to the Sealy Tarns. The climb is a good lung-and-leg-burning stair stepper but with outstanding views, I’m sure you’ll agree that this walk is worth the effort.
Starting off on the Kea Point Track, the Sealy Tarns Track soon branches off to the west. It starts easily enough, although you’ll notice warning signs abound of the strenuous nature and potentially hazardous terrain that you are about to encounter.
Once at the infamous stairs, you could be forgiven for assuming they go on forever – whoever took the time to build them needs a medal! Thank goodness they persevered, is all I can say!
The higher you climb the more impressive the track and the views become, as the stairs wind their way up and along the steep hillside. Parts of this track are fairly exposed, so please do take care.
As you climb the views of Mueller Lake, Hooker Valley, Hooker Lake, and the impressive summit of Aoraki Mt. Cook just keep getting better – even as Mt. Cook Village recedes to a small speck on the valley floor.
There are also expansive views to the south as well, as the braided Tasman River winds its way towards Lake Pukaki in the distance.
The trail eventually levels out at the tarns themselves and ends at a picnic table with more outstanding views. Make sure you bring some nibbles and a drink so that you’ve something to enjoy and replenish your energy before undertaking the punishing descent back down those 2,000 odd steps.
Did you know? A ‘tarn’ is a small, freshwater alpine lake.
4. Blue Lakes & Tasman Glacier View Walk: 1 Hour Round Trip, Easy Difficulty
With fantastic views of New Zealand’s longest glacier, the 27 km long Haupapa/Tasman Glacier, this is one of the best short walks in the Aoraki Mt Cook catalogue.
This track as a gentle gradient overall, interspersed with rock steps.
Though the Tasman Glacier View track is relatively short it brings you out above the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake where you’ll find some spectacular views up the lake and over the Haupapa/Tasman Glacier. To your left, you’ll also see the back of Aoraki Mt Cook.
For a bit of a diversion, or as an extension, you can also do the short (but moderately steep) side track to the Blue Lakes (although they seem to have lost their distinctive blue colour in recent years). There, you may be lucky enough to see the diminutive rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest bird flitting from bush to bush.
Return is via the same path.
Book: Mount Cook heli hike.
5. Red Tarns: 2 Hour Round Trip, In and Out, Moderate Difficulty
The Red Tarns walk leads trampers to stunning red-tinged alpine pools suspended high above the valley floor.
Sure, it features a whole heap of steps, but this Mt Cook walk is certainly worth the effort!
From the public shelter in Mount Cook Village, follow the marked track to the south, along a paved path that winds its way out of the village and across the Black Birch Stream. It’s at this point that the climb begins, as the track heads straight up the lower slopes of Sebastopol.
Whilst moderately steep, the track is well-formed and has many steps to assist. It provides a good workout though and can get quite warm – especially in summer!
The higher you climb, the better the views of Mount Cook and the surrounding valleys. Eventually, the climb tops out at a hidden bench in a valley beneath Sebastopol, where the Red Tarns are tucked in against the mountainside.
This is a popular sunset walk from the village thanks to its fantastic views.
Did you know? There is also a small loop at the top of the trail, allowing hikers to explore the Red Tarns themselves.
6. Bowen Bush Walk: 10-15 Minute Loop, Easiest Difficulty
A few short steps from the roadside opposite the village fuel pumps will get you ‘lost’ in the bush of the Bowen Bush Walk. A partially concealed bench seat denotes the start of this Mount Cook walk.
Enjoy the sounds of local birdlife as you work your way up a short flight of steps to the start of the loop track itself.
The track is well graded but includes some ups and downs via stairs on your way around. This makes it a good little workout if you feel like rushing it, otherwise, just take your time and enjoy the flora and fauna of the area.
At only 200 metres long, this is perfect for even the littlest of hikers.
7. Glencoe Walk: 30 Minute Round Trip, In and Out, Easy-Moderate Difficulty
Starting just behind the Hermitage Hotel itself, this walk zigzags up through tōtara trees and ferns to emerge at a lookout near the water tanks above the hotel.
With a 40 metre climb, and bird’s-eye views of the village (and beyond to the white ice of the Hooker Glacier and Aoraki/Mount Cook), the best time of day for this walk is either sunrise or sunset. Especially if you want to catch the light-play over the surrounding mountains.
8. Governors Bush Walk: 45 Minute to 1 Hour Loop, Easy Difficulty
The Governors Bush Walk is a lovely little bush track that can be combined with the Bowen Bush Walk to create a longer nature walk.
This track is well-gravelled and stepped although there is the odd tree root to step over – all the more fun for kids. It is also reasonably well sheltered which means this track can often still be enjoyed in poor weather.
Starting at the public shelter, there are two options to enter this track. Either follow the path alongside the road (before heading up the Governors Bush Walk when the track splits off from the Red Tarns track), or simply start your ascent from the public shelter. Since it is a loop track, you’ll get to enjoy both points anyway.
Make your way uphill through stands of silver beech/tawhai, climbing steadily to a ridge overlooking Mount Wakefield and Aoraki Mt Cook. You’ll find a bench seat at the top of the track which will allow you to relax while soaking in the views.
Continuing along the ridge, you will eventually make your way back down, using more wide-spread steps. On this part of the walk, you can expect to see more beech, along with totara and ribbonwood.
Near the junction with the Red Tarns track, you will also be able to hear and see a rushing stream in the distance – it’s a favourite spot for bird spotting.
Mount Cook National Park, 59 Bowen Drive, Canterbury 7999
Pro Tip: For the more adventurous it’s also possible to link Governors Bush walk with the Red Tarns walk.
Advanced Mt Cook Tramps
Please note that these routes are serious undertakings, especially in winter and spring. They carry a high risk of avalanche and should not be taken lightly.
In winter and spring both routes require advanced mountaineering skills including the use of, and familiarity with crampons and ice axes. An avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel are a must too. Ensure you are familiar with their use and are experienced in avalanche dangers, alpine navigation and route finding.
It is strongly recommended that you log your intentions with the local Department of Conservation staff, including your departure and return times, and intended route.
Having said that, in summer the Mueller Hut route is suitable for moderately experienced trampers with reasonable care. To be safe, we recommend an emergency beacon as an essential piece of kit at all times.
Don’t let us scare you though – countless people enjoy these incredible Mt Cook tramps each year without any issue at all.
9. Mueller Hut: 6-7 Hour Round Trip, In and Out, Advanced Difficulty, Seasonal Trail
At 1,800 metres above sea level and sitting high above the Sealy Tarns and the Aoraki Mt Cook Village, the Mueller hut offers 360° alpine views of the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park.
To get there, start off on the same track as for the Sealy Tarns. Once past the tarns, follow the orange markers up through the tussock and then across the scree slopes. Be aware that there may be snow there at any time – especially so in winter and spring.Once above the Sealy Tarns, the track is not maintained and becomes an alpine route.
Allow approximately four hours to get to the ridgeline where the route flattens out for a relatively easy scramble and stroll to the Mueller Hut itself.
The Mueller Hut itself is located about 1 km back along the ridge. Look for the obvious big red shed – it’s an iconic sight!
From mid-November to 30th April, bookings are required for the hut due to its popularity. You can also expect to see the resident hut warden there inside the season.
Return is via the same route. Do not be tempted to take any shortcuts as it is too easy to get stuck in sections of bluffs along the route.
This really is an incredible Mt Cook walk, and assuming you’re well prepared, is one of the most memorable in the park.
10. Ball Pass: 2-3 Day Loop, Advanced Difficulty, Seasonal Trail
Caution: This is an unmarked route, and anyone contemplating this trip must have excellent route-finding ability in steep alpine terrain, be experienced in snow travel and be able to confidently use crampons and ice axes. Alternatively, if you have any doubts as to your ability, go with a guided party.
The Ball Pass is a demanding, but incredibly rewarding alpine crossing.
It flows from the Hooker Valley, near the Hooker Glacier terminal lake, up and over the Kirikirikatata/Mt Cook Range ridgeline (between Mt Wakefield and Aoraki Mt Cook), and into the Tasman Valley.
While it can be done in either direction, most parties start from the Hooker Valley side as it’s a little easier that way, and rewards trampers with better views.
Speaking of views – as you top out on the pass and continue northeast before dropping down the ridgeline towards Haupapa/Tasman Glacier you will be in awe. These views are practically unrivalled in the Mt Cook National Park!
You’ll see the mighty East Face of Aoraki Mt Cook, along with the Caroline Glacier and Endeavour Col. Not to mention expansive views north up the Haupapa/Tasman Glacier to the lofty peaks of De La Beche and The Minarets, and off in the distance, Mt Elie De Beaumont.
For the full route information, please consult with the Department of Conservation office in the Aoraki Mt Cook. They will be happy to provide guidance on the best route based on current conditions.
By Alan MacKay of Koru Scenic Tours