Exploring Aoraki Mount Cook

At 3,754m, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Situated in the Southern Alps on the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook is in good company; there are a couple of dozen other peaks in the Southern Alps that are higher than 3000 metres, which makes this region such a spectacular place to visit.

On a road trip through the South Island, I almost skipped Mount Cook entirely. I had lunch at a lovely little cafe in Twizel, and after hours on the road I wondered whether I really wanted to spend another hour driving the long straight stretch of road to Mount Cook Village; but I am so glad I did!

Aoraki Mount Cook

Mount Cook National Park

The weather was splendid and so we stopped a lot along the way. There are a few rest stops and viewing points along Mount Cook Road, which leads straight from Twizel to Mount Cook Village. Here’s a view from one of them:

Lake Pukaki, fed by the Tasman Glacier

Lake Pukaki, fed by the Tasman Glacier

Mount Cook Village

Mount Cook Village isn’t a big place – it is mainly a tourist centre with hotels, hostels, motels, campgrounds and a few shops and restaurants. Only about 230 people live there, most of which are staff of said hospitality providers and tourism operators. The most well-known hotel is most certainly the Hermitage Hotel, which in its current form dates back to 1958. The hotel has seen major renovations and additional wings in 2001. However, tourists have flocked to earlier versions of the hotel since the late 19th century. This is not surprising, considering the views you get from your room!

The Hermitage, Mount Cook Village, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains

The Hermitage, Mount Cook Village

The Mount Cook settlement also has a great tourist information centre, the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centre, where bookings for accommodation and activities can be made and displays, DVDs and exhibits inform about the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and its natural environment. There’s also the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, where you can watch a 3D movie about Mount Cook, visit its full-dome digital planetarium, and the museum with lots of information about Sir Edmund Hillary and the history of this alpine region. There are plenty of other things to do, too, fromΒ boating on the glacier lakes to fishing, horse treks, 4WD drive tours and, of course, scenic flights, and even guided ski tours in the winter months.

Aoraki Mount Cook

Aoraki Mount Cook

The glaciers

Mount Cook National Park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Area, the so-called Te Waipounamu, or South Westland world heritage area. Again, perhaps no surprises there, once you’ve seen this region you’ll treasure its beautiful natural landscapes, which were shaped by five glaciers by the names of Tasman, Hooker, Mueller, Murchison and Godley. At 27km length, the Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest glacier.

I was so taken with the spectacular views, the nature and all the information that we decided to make base for a night at the Department of Conservation’s White Horse Hill campsite off Hooker Valley Road. It turned out a great place to stay due to the various hikes and walks starting there. If you don’t have much time or stamina, do the Kea Point Walk, which takes about an hour (return), leads to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall, and gives you excellent views of Mount Cook which you can enjoy from a viewing deck. Other walks starting from the campsite include the Hooker Valley walk, the Sealy Tarns walk (both half-day walks) and the Mueller Hut walk (full-day walk). For more info on walking tracks and routes, just check with the fantastic Department of Conservation, who seem to have all the brochures and leaflets you could possibly want. Here’s a link to their Mount Cook walks brochure.

Another walk I can highly recommend if you’re pressed for time is the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walk, which starts from a shelter just off Tasman Valley Road. It takes only about 40 minutes (return) and leads past the lakes (which, in the summer, are perhaps more like ponds…) to the moraine wall viewpoint of the Tasman Glacier.

Tasman Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook

Tasman Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook


Tasman Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook

Tasman Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook


Tasman Glacier Valley, Aoraki Mount Cook

Tasman Glacier Valley, Aoraki Mount Cook

And what about the name?

Aoraki Mount Cook carries two names: one given by European settlers and one by the Maori. The mountain was named Mount Cook in 1851, after the famous English Captain James Cook. However, for the Maori, Mount Cook has always been known as Aoraki. An old Maori legend says that the Southern Alps came into being when a canoe stranded, and its passengers, including a boy named Aoraki, climbed on top of it and were first frozen by the wind and then turned into stone. To the Maori tribe Ngai Tahu, Aoraki remains the most sacred ancestor.

Have you done one of the hikes around the Mount Cook region? How would you spend your visit to Mount Cook National Park?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  30 comments for “Exploring Aoraki Mount Cook

  1. 22 September, 2011 at 14:55

    Aoraki looks absolutely beautiful. Next time we’re in new Zealand, we will definitely see the South Island.

    • Christina
      22 September, 2011 at 16:41

      Great! I highly recommend it!

  2. 22 September, 2011 at 14:57

    Visiting this park was one of the highlights of my trip around the South Island. Did the walk to the, what I think was called the Hooker Glacier? Also had my first experience with the Kea birds. Parts of my flip flops where missing the next morning πŸ™‚

    • Christina
      22 September, 2011 at 16:42

      The keas are really cheeky. You really have to watch your stuff or they’ll nick or destroy it. Shame about your jandals!

  3. 22 September, 2011 at 17:04

    What dramatic views! I love the mountains so exploring an area like this really gets me excited. Fantastic photos and what a beautiful location. New Zealand seems to have so much to offer, especially if you like the outdoors!

    • Christina
      22 September, 2011 at 21:36

      Thank you, Jeremy! I guess you’d love New Zealand, if you’re outdoorsy, which you seem to be! Glad my post inspired you πŸ™‚

  4. 22 September, 2011 at 20:53

    Looks like a great place to visit. Maybe one day!
    Good pictures.
    John D. Wilson

    • Christina
      22 September, 2011 at 21:37

      Make it happen, John! No excuses. And enjoy πŸ™‚

  5. 23 September, 2011 at 05:38

    gorgeous!!! i’ve never even heard of this area!! I can’t wait to make it down there!

  6. Christina
    23 September, 2011 at 09:12

    I’m looking forward to reading about your Mount Cook adventures!

  7. 23 September, 2011 at 21:22

    Loved the ride from the main highway up to Mount Cook Village during the day. Great vista points indeed, watching Mount Cook get bigger and bigger straight ahead. The whole area and Lake Pukaki is definitely a must see! Also hiking from The Hermitage to Kea Point provides great views.

    A little scary on Mount Cook Road at night though. No cars around and lot’s of rabbits. Hit a couple that jumped onto the road. I’m guessing they were attracted to the vehicle lights. πŸ™

    • Christina
      26 September, 2011 at 11:45

      Oh no! Had no idea about the abundant wildlife on the roads at night… Thanks for the warning.

  8. 24 September, 2011 at 15:57

    What a beautiful place!

  9. 25 September, 2011 at 18:32

    We don’t actually do much hiking, but New Zealand might change that for us. πŸ™‚ Gorgeous views!

    • Christina
      26 September, 2011 at 11:46

      I’m sure you’ll be doing a few walks and hikes when you go there!

  10. 25 September, 2011 at 23:14

    So beautiful! We actually didn’t make it there but it looks so fresh and inviting for such a big mountain

    • Christina
      26 September, 2011 at 11:49

      I totally recommend it. Plus, if you don’t have time to go to Milford Sound for spectacular mountain scenery, as it’s quite remote, Mount Cook is bang in the middle of the South Island. So on your next visit when driving to Tekapo, take a side-trip to Mt Cook πŸ™‚

  11. 26 September, 2011 at 11:08


  12. 27 September, 2011 at 19:47

    These are truly gorgeous views. It must be a a place that refreshes you when you visit it.

  13. 28 September, 2011 at 12:19

    We’re saving the trip to NZ and Oz for a few more years down the road. When we do make it, we’re definitely making a stop here!. Wonderful pictures!

  14. 2 October, 2011 at 04:32

    In a word: awesome! I’m glad you decided you took the extra time to make the drive to Mount Cook Village, too. Beautiful photos!

  15. jalil
    26 November, 2011 at 11:10

    Amazing. Coming from a tropical country (Singapore) with lots of building, i’m totally amazed. Beautiful sceneries. I’ve never seen snow capped mountains in my life. We are going NZ end Nov and Mt Cook is definately in our itineries. Thank you so much for sharing Christina.

  16. 9 December, 2011 at 23:36

    Gorgeous rugged scenery!

  17. 9 February, 2013 at 16:33

    What great pictures and experience…great shots Christina!

    • Christina
      9 February, 2013 at 18:43

      Thanks Charu! New Zealand is easy to take great pictures of πŸ™‚

  18. 8 March, 2013 at 06:25

    This looks like my dream place to camp. Lovely photos!

    • Christina
      10 March, 2013 at 21:01

      Cheers Christy! It is out of this world! Well not really, you just have to go to New Zealand.

  19. 23 April, 2013 at 17:14

    It looks gorgeous! I can see why you liked it so much. I must get to New Zealand!

  20. 17 June, 2013 at 14:12

    New Zealand has always been on my to do list but |I ran out of money before I could get there!

    • Christina
      24 June, 2013 at 20:49

      Ha – well, Simon, hope you make some money fast and get yourself over there. Perhaps in spring / summer?

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