Road Trip to Mount Cook National Park - All You Need to Know
Mount Cook / Aoraki is the highest mountain in New Zealand and was the training ground of Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous New Zealand mountaineer who became the first person to conquer Mount Everest.
Apart from having one of the most extreme alpine landscapes in the region, Mount Cook is also an extremely beautiful place to visit.
The good news is you don’t have to be an expert hiker or mountaineer to enjoy the stunning spectacle. There are lots of trails in Mount Cook National Park that are beginner-friendly. What’s more important is proper outdoor wear. And common sense.
This article will tell you everything you need to know about planning a road trip from Christchurch to Mount Cook National Park, including the best time to go, where to stay, what to bring, and possible stops along the way.
- Mount Cook is also known as Aoraki, which means ‘cloud piercer’ in traditional Māori language.
- It has a height of 3,724 metres above sea level.
- It is part of the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana), which is a mountain range that runs the length of the South Island.
- According to the local Māori legend, Aoraki was a young boy who went canoeing with his brothers when they accidentally hit a reef. The canoe tilted and the boys managed to climb onto the high side. But the icy south wind froze them, turning them into what is today the Southern Alps.
- There’s a village within the national park called Mount Cook Village. It has a store, a visitor center, a DOC (Department of Conservation) office, as well as a few restaurants and accommodation options.
- The best things to do in Mount Cook National Park include hiking, camping, kayaking, stargazing, going on a scenic flight, and visiting the Sir Edmund Alpine Center.
Is It Possible to Climb Mount Cook?
Yes, visitors are allowed to climb Mount Cook (no permit required), but it is very challenging and should only be attempted by those who have had extensive mountaineering experience.
Best Time to Go to Mount Cook National Park
If you want to visit Mount Cook National Park when it’s relatively warm, the best time to go is between December and March, when temperatures hover around 19°C (66°F) during the day and rarely drop below 10°C at night.
However, this is also the peak season for tourism in New Zealand, which means that prices for flights and hotels will predictably soar during these months. If you plan to visit within this period, it is best to book everything well in advance to avoid disappointment and to take advantage of early-bird promotions.
Another good time to visit is in the spring season from September to November. The spring in Mount Cook National Park brings mountain wildflowers, including the Mount Cook lily, alpine daisies, gentians, and edelweiss.
I visited in late May, right at the end of autumn. It was starting to get very cold, with frost on the grass and some parts of the river already frozen. At that time, I had never seen snow up-close, let alone experience snowfall.
Although the higher parts of the mountains were partially covered with snow, there was none on the ground. I had to be happy with the frost on the grass.
How to Go to Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is located about halfway between Queensland and Christchurch. There is only one way in and out of the National Park, and that is via the State Highway 80, which fortunately happens to be one of the most scenic roads on the South Island.
There are several bus services to Mount Cook from Queenstown, Christchurch, and Wanaka. Traveling by bus in New Zealand’s South Island is very cost-effective and can also be quite flexible.
Some buses go to Mount Cook as part of day tours that stop for a short while at each destination before moving on to the next.
Alternatively, it’s also possible to travel there one-way and stay the night. Examples of bus operators are Intercity Coachlines and Great Sights. Look out for bus passes, which usually offer better value for your money.
I’m not going to encourage or discourage you from hitchhiking, but New Zealand is apparently a good and relatively safe place to do so, even if you’ve never hitchhiked before. In New Zealand, it’s not only backpackers that travel by thumb, but so do locals.
Jub from Chur New Zealand shares about his experience hitchhiking in New Zealand as well as tips and tricks for safe hitchhiking.
The best way to get around in the South Island is by renting a car. Having your own transport allows you to create your own itinerary, choose your own stops, and spend as much time as you like at each place.
I didn’t have an international driving licence or a credit card, both of which were required to rent a car in New Zealand. But as luck would have it, my Couchsurfing host also hosted another solo traveler from the Netherlands who was planning to rent a car and was only too happy to split the cost with me.
So, that was how I totally lucked out and managed to travel around New Zealand in a car without actually having to drive.
If you’re driving, the turn-off from Highway 8 to Highway 80 is well signposted and hard to miss.
The two nearest towns to Mount Cook are Twizel (65 km away) and Tekapo (105 km). Twizel will be your last chance to stock up on food and fuel before you head over to Mount Cook. Near the mountain, there is a small convenience store, but it only sells bare necessities at premium prices.
Pit Stop #1: Castle Hill
Driving away from Christchurch, the landscapes around us were beginning to look like my Windows wallpaper. I had never imagined the sky could look that blue and the grass that green without the aid of any Lightroom presets.
Dotting the grassy plains were black-and-white cows that I had only ever seen in milk commercials.
Our first stop of the day was Castle Hill (a.k.a. Kura Tawhiti) — only one hour away from Christchurch and approximately 90 kilometres northwest. By the time we approached Castle Hill, the landscapes around us had changed quite dramatically, from flatlands to hilly terrains.
Featured in Narnia and the Lord of the Ring, this place is characterized by gigantic rock formations looking like a haphazard, blown-up version of the Stonehenge.
These peculiar rock formations are actually limestone dating as far back as 30 – 40 millions ago during the Oligocene age, when most of current-day New Zealand was still covered by the ocean. What we see now are the water-eroded remnants of those limestone structures.
The rocks at Castle Hill offer world-class bouldering and rock-climbing opportunities for those who are more athletic and adventurous. Certainly not me.
Apart from the main path, Castle Hill does not have any other marked walking trail, which means you are free to wander around between the rocks in any which way you prefer. So, go ahead and be a kid again — play hide-and-seek behind those rocks or make the place your giant obstacle course. Just be careful not to trip!
It was a very windy day and I was using the self-timer on my camera. This was the result:
Pit Stop #2: Lake Pukaki
After a visually stimulating 4-hour drive from Castle Hill, we were starting to get glimpses of a huge body of water.
Is it the ocean?
Be prepared to see what’s possibly one of the most beautiful lakes in the world: Lake Pukaki.
Covering an area of 178.7 km², Lake Pukaki is the largest of the three alpine lakes in the area. It is surrounded by mountain ranges and farmlands. Seventy kilometres to the north, Mount Cook can be seen from the southern shore of the lake.
My photos (taken on an ancient camera) and my shoddy photography skills did not do the lake any justice, but the water in real life is a brilliant shade of blue.
The color of Lake Pukaki is the result of “glacial flour”, which consists of extremely fine rock particles from the glaciers. When the sun shines on the surface of the lake, it reflects off the floating particles and produces the blue color.
Lake Pukaki is fed by the Tasman River in the north, which has its source in the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers, close to Mount Cook.
To enjoy Lake Pukaki’s magnificent panorama, you can stop for photographs at the various lookout points along the shores. Make sure you park your car at a safe spot, as there have been accidents in the past involving tourists who parked at blind corners.
Mount Cook National Park
As we neared our destination, the views through the car windshield began to look even more dramatic.
I had never seen a snow-capped mountain up close before. Suddenly seeing them looming in front of me — with their sheer size and sharp jagged edges contrasting against the darkening sky — was rather discomforting, to say the least.
Mount Cook National Park was established in 1953 and spans an area of 722 square kilometres. It is home to the highest peak and 8 of the 12 largest glaciers in New Zealand. In fact, 40% of the national park is made up of those glaciers.
Spending the Night at Mount Cook National Park
The days in New Zealand were growing shorter in May, so that by the time we reached Mount Cook National Park at around 5 p.m., it was already approaching dusk. Any sightseeing would have to be put off till the next day. First, we needed to find a place to stay for the night.
Being the constantly broke backpacker that I was, I didn’t really feel like spending more money on accommodation and so decided to sleep in the car. I don’t know if Suzanne was facing similar financial issues or if she simply took pity on me, but she tried to keep me company. And she managed to… at least for the first two hours or so.
It was freezing cold in there despite our layers of clothing. Every so often, we had to turn on the heater. Mount Cook National Park is supposedly one of the best places to see the Milky Way in the night sky, but we were too busy trying to keep warm to pay any heed to that.
We were parked in front of a hostel. After a couple of hours of tossing and turning and shivering in the car, Suzanne finally gave up and went to check herself into the hostel.
There have been a few instances in my past travels that I’m not exactly proud of, and this is a fine example. For the sake of saving a few dollars, I had put my life in danger out there. It doesn’t take much for someone to die of the cold, but of course I didn’t know that. I doubt I even knew what hypothermia was.
When Suzanne woke me up the next morning, I could barely walk as my feet were all numb with cold. But I was lucky to have made it through the night.
Hooker Valley Track
When my limbs had thawed and rediscovered their purpose, we set out to explore the national park.
Named after an English botanist (William Hooker), the Hooker Valley Track is the most popular walking track within Mount Cook National Park.
As far as walking tracks go, this is a short and easy one at only 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) in length and gaining only about 100 metres (330 feet) in height. However, it is the one that comes the closest to Mount Cook.
The vegetation around the track, which is mainly alpine tussock spread over an open grassland, allows visitors to get a completely unobstructed view of the mountain.
The Hooker Valley track takes you across the Hooker River, past the Mueller Glacier Lake, over three suspension bridges, and ends at the Hooker Lake.
Overlooking the Mueller Glacier Lake is the Alpine Memorial, a site honoring mountaineers and guides who have lost their lives in the Mount Cook National Park over the years.
The best open view of Mount Cook is visible after the second bridge (Hooker Bluff Bridge) and remains in sight for the rest of the track.
A word of caution: the bridges are wide and sturdy, but I imagine they can still make your knees go weak if you’ve got a fear of heights.
After the third bridge, the trail gets a little swampy. You will continue walking on a boardwalk until you reach the last stop: the Hooker Lake.
This lake is not as blue as Lake Pukaki or Tekapo — it’s more of a light gray color, maybe with just a hint of blue. But it wasn’t any less magical, for floating on its surface were icebergs!
This was my first time seeing icebergs, and as you can imagine, I was beyond excited. The landscapes in New Zealand were all very foreign to me, I might as well have been on another planet.
Close to the shore, there is a lookout point with benches and picnic tables if you wish to take a break and refuel yourself with the snacks you brought with you (so, make sure you bring some!).
In the meantime, you get to enjoy the native flora in the area, including snow tussock, spear grass, and — if you go in summer — mountain daisies and Mount Cook lilies. I didn’t see any animal throughout the walk. In fact, for the most part, it felt like we were the only two living creatures left on Earth.
Once we were done catching our breaths and taking pictures by the lake, we went back the same way we came, and began our long drive back to Christchurch.
How to Get to Hooker Valley Track
The walking track starts near the White Horse Hill campground at the end of Hooker Valley Road off State Highway 80. If you’re coming from Mount Cook Village, you can either drive or walk the 4 kilometres to the start of the track.
Adjacent to the camping ground, there is a car park, public toilets, and a large shelter with informative panels.
Additional Info on Hooker Valley Track
- Walking on the Hooker Valley Track requires no permit or fee.
- It can get very busy during the day, but since we started early, we only encountered one or two other people throughout our walk. To beat the crowd, try going early in the morning or close to sunset. However, please exercise caution when walking in the dark. Come prepared and don’t go alone.
- The Hooker Valley Track is very easy, and suitable for visitors of any fitness level, including young children. It should take anywhere between 2 – 4 hours return, depending on how fast you go and how long you spend at each stop.
- Weather can change quickly in the national park. Always be prepared for variable weather conditions.
- Since the walking track is exposed to the sun with no trees for shade, make sure you put on sunscreen, especially at midday.
- In winter, it’s possible to walk on the icy lake, but be vigilant and ensure that the ice sheet is thick enough before you step on it. If you’re not sure, better be safe than sorry.
- Also, in winter, there can be snow and ice on the track, making it slippery.
- There are two self-composting toilets on the trail — on a concrete base of what was previously a hut near Stocking Stream.
- Dogs and bicycles are not allowed on the track.
Other Things to See and Do at Mount Cook National Park
Suzanne had an early-morning flight to Australia the next day to renew her expiring visa. I — on the other hand — were forced to shorten my trip from three weeks to one week because the airline I was flying with decided to no longer fly that route.
So, as we were both strapped for time, we had to head back to Christchurch after only one night at Mount Cook National Park.
If you have more time to spare, here are some of the other things you can do at Mount Cook National Park:
Tasman Glacier Lookout
The Tasman Valley lies parallel to the Hooker Valley, on the other side of the Mount Cook range. The hike includes a 30-minute uphill climb on several sets of stairs leading to the Tasman Glacier Lookout, which is on a 100-metre-high rocky outcrop.
The trailhead is only a few minutes’ drive from Mount Cook Village and is well signposted.
To get to Tasman Lake, you need to hike for 30 minutes on an alternative route that branches off to the right from the Tasman Glacier lookout trail.
The Sealy Tarns are another hiking option near Mount Cook. This route is only about 2.5 kilometres each way but is more challenging as the elevation gain is a whopping 520 metres. Hiking poles would be helpful for this hike.
Near the tarns (proglacial mountain lakes), there are strategically positioned picnic benches to let you sit and enjoy the view.
If you walk past the Sealy Tarns, the trail continues up a steep hill toward a large boulder field. Cross this and you will get your first glimpse of the Ngakanohi and Mueller glaciers in the distance.
From there, it will be another 30 minutes to Mueller Hut, which is said to be one of the most scenic backcountry huts in New Zealand.
This is quite a strenuous hike, with a distance of 4.2 kilometres and an elevation gain of 1,050 metres. It should take you about 6 – 8 hours return.
If all the other hikes intimidate you with their distances and elevation gains, try Kea Point. Only 1.4 kilometres in length and 200 metres in elevation gain, this hike only takes one hour to complete and overlooks the Mueller Glacial Lake.
It starts at the White Horse Hill campground, similar to Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns, and Mueller Hut.
If you have some extra cash lying around and want to see the mountains from above, a scenic helicopter flight is a good choice. The price ranges depending on flight duration and the number or landings.
Ski Plane Tour
A ski plane is an aircraft fitted with skis to enable it to land on and take off from snow. Like the helicopter rides, ski plane tours also promise to give you the best aerial views of the mountains, but they tend to last longer. However, planes are generally less maneuverable than helicopters and therefore less exciting.
Check out these tours on Get Your Guide:
Pit Stop #3: Lake Tekapo
On our way back to Christchurch, we stopped at yet another lake. If I thought Lake Pukaki was the most beautiful lake in the world, it was because I hadn’t seen Lake Tekapo yet.
Situated at the foot of Mount John, this lake is half the size of Lake Pukaki, but has a similar color of water obtained through the same process involving suspended particles of fine glacial dust. The lake is fed from the north by two braided rivers that have their sources in the Southern Alps.
Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the lighting, but somehow Lake Tekapo looked more dazzling to me.
It’s interesting to note that Lake Tekapo is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand with more than 2,400 sunshine hours each year on average.
The lake and the surrounding district are also recognized as a Dark Sky Reserve. This international recognition is awarded to places where the night skies are almost completely free of light pollution and ideal for stargazing.
Apparently, the best views of the lake can be had from the top of Mount John, which also has an astronomical observatory, but ain’t nobody got time for that now — we had to be content with the view from street level.
On the eastern shore of Lake Tekapo sits a small Anglican church called the Church of the Good Shepherd. It was built in 1935 as a memorial church to commemorate early settlers.
How Long Should You Spend in Mount Cook National Park?
We spent only one night in Mount Cook National Park, and got to visit the Hooker Valley. On the way to and from Mount Cook, we made quick stops at Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, and Castle Hill.
That was quite an achievement for a 2D1N trip, but we only managed to spend a short time at each place.
To get the most out of your trip without feeling rushed, spend at least 2-3 nights in the National Park. This should give you enough time to see most of the attractions at a more leisurely pace and maybe include a hike or two.
What to Bring on a Road Trip in South Island, New Zealand
- Warm clothes, no matter the season. Even in summer, it can get cold in the evening.
- Quick-dry pants and inner wear.
- A rain jacket, as the weather can change suddenly.
- Spare clothes in case you get wet.
- Hiking boots for the tougher hikes. Normal walking shoes are sufficient for the easier ones.
- Camping gear if you plan to camp at the campsite.
- Sleeping bag – I’m not sure if the hostels are heated, but you might want to bring your sleeping bag just in case. It’s also good if you want to sleep in a car like I did.
- Hiking poles for the more challenging hikes.
- A headlamp if you plan to hike in the dark.
- An emergency blanket.
- A basic first aid kit.
- Travel toiletries.
- Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses.
- Enough snacks and drinks. This can be bought in Christchurch or the nearest towns to Mount Cook to cut down on expenses. There is a store in Mount Cook Village, but it’s very expensive.
- Camera or camera phone. Seriously, you don’t want to go to Mount Cook National Park and forget your camera. Also, make sure you bring the charger/spare battery and memory card. It’s better to take too many photos than too few. You can always delete the unwanted photos later.
- A daypack to carry your essentials in during a hike.
Note: Carrying all your adventure gear may be a hassle and can also incur extra charges on a flight. If you don’t want to bring your own, there are companies that rent them out in Mount Cook Village and other cities like Christchurch and Queenstown.
When going on longer hikes, avoid going alone. Complete an intentions card at the DOC (Department of Conservation) visitor center before you begin, and rent an emergency locator beacon.
Where to Stay Near Mount Cook National Park
There are several accommodation options in and around Mount Cook National Park to suit all budgets.
White Horse Hill Campground – Operated by the Department of Conservation and located a few kilometres away from the village, it is the starting point of a few of the walking tracks, such as the Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns, Kea Point, and Mueller Hut. Hot showers are available at a public shelter in the village. The campground can get busy in the peak season. Starting from November 2020, advanced booking is required. Rate: $15 per adult per night.
Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge – A five-minute walk from Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, this lodge offers beautiful mountain and heated rooms. All rooms feature a flat-screen TV and an en suite bathroom with free toiletries and a hairdryer. Guests get 5GB free WiFi per device per day. There’s also a communal kitchen, a dining area, BBQ facilities, and a lounge with a fireplace. Rates start from $165 per night.
Mt Cook Lodge & Motel – This establishment offers a range of accommodation options, including motel rooms, lodge rooms, and shared rooms. All private rooms have an ensuite bathroom, TV, and coffee-making facilities. There’s an also onsite Chamois Bar & Grill where you can get pub-style meals, play billiard, and watch sports events on large screen TVs. Guests can enjoy free parking and a free shuttle to the Hermitage Hotel to make use of the restaurants, bars, and tour operator. From $168 per night.
Aoraki Court Motel – This modern accommodation features heated rooms with double-glazed windows, a flat-screen TV, and a patio with mountain views. All rooms also come with a microwave, a fridge, and kitchenware. It is 210 metres from Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center and offers free parking and Wi-Fi. Rates from $175 per night.
The Hermitage Hotel Mt Cook – All rooms and suites at The Hermitage offer mountain views, an ensuite bathroom (some with bathtubs), free toiletries, a satellite flat-screen TV, refrigerator, coffee-making facilities, and a hairdryer. In-room WiFi is available for an additional charge. The hotel, which is located adjacent to Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, has a range of onsite dining options. From $225 per night.
Renting a Car in New Zealand
Suzanne and I went on foot from one car rental company to another, looking for the best price. This was before the convenience of smartphones and online bookings.
Now that the technology is available at your disposal, you can simply pre-book your car online via websites like Expedia, Kayak, and Hertz, among many others. On average, car rental in New Zealand costs about $60 per day, while petrol costs around $2.90 per liter. Credit cards are commonly accepted at petrol stations.
In New Zealand, cars drive on the left side of the road and roundabouts go clockwise. Many roads in New Zealand are winding, so always be on high alert. Also, watch out for wildlife (or sheep) crossing the roads.
Suzanne and I got an automatic sedan. She had never driven a car with automatic transmission before, but it only took her a few minutes to get used to it.
The car worked perfectly fine for our 400-kilometre journey on paved roads. However, if you’re exploring more of the rural areas and mountain passes, it’s advisable to rent a four-by-four instead, preferably with tire chains.
Another popular way to get around in New Zealand is in campervans, which are offered by most major rental companies. Not only does a campervan have 4-wheel-drive capabilities for off-road driving, it also allows you to save money on accommodation.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Mount Cook National Park
Is Mount Cook National Park worth visiting?
Absolutely, 100% YES. Even after visiting 50+ countries, I still think this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. You’ve got to see it yourself to believe it.
Apart from being home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand, it also offers various trails, each one with spectacular views of mountains, lakes, and glaciers. Best of all — they’re very beginner-friendly, even for those with zero hiking experience.
Considering how easy it is to get to, it would be a real shame to visit New Zealand’s South Island and not visit its most iconic landmark. Just make sure that you come prepared and put safety above everything else. Never underestimate the power of nature.
New Zealand is the most beautiful country I have ever visited. What’s yours? Share in the comment section below.
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