Hiking, Heritage and Stargazing – the best way to explore the Southern Alps

A short itinerary suggestion for a little outdoor activity, some Kiwi history and discovering outer space, all in two memorable days in the Mt Cook region.

Hike through alpine valleys, explore glacial lakes and be inspired by the glittering lights of the universe – here’s how to experience the landscapes surrounding New Zealand’s highest peak.

The backbone of New Zealand, the Southern Alps stretch the length of the South Island, their crowning jewel being Aoraki Mount Cook – the country’s highest mountain. Steeped in local history, the foothills of this dramatic mountain range are home to stories of kiwi legends, walking trails and some of the best stargazing in the world. Make the most of this natural wonderland with a little advice from local experts.

One of the best bases from which to explore the Southern Alps is Mount Cook Village, located in the foothills of this grand mountain range. From here, world-class stargazing, stunning hiking trails and insights into New Zealand mountaineering history are all right on your doorstep. What’s more, surrounding this village are some of the most scenic roads in the country. The journey is just as beautiful as the destination when it comes to reaching Mount Cook Village. We recommend travelling the scenic road from Queenstown, staying a few nights in the village itself, then heading on towards Christchurch along yet another stunningly beautiful piece of highway.

Hooker Valley hiking

While you’re here, spend half a day walking to the very base of the Southern Alps along the Hooker Valley trail, one of the most scenic tracks in the country. Valleys of golden tussock contrast with soaring, snowy peaks, and the spectacular views of Aoraki Mount Cook – the Cloud Piercer – are breath taking. When in season, the delicate Mount Cook lily decorates the landscape even further. This well-formed track is mostly flat, crossing multiple swing bridges and incorporating a visit to the stunning Hooker Glacier terminal lake. The beginning of the track is a short drive from the village itself.

Home to the darkest skies in the world

In New Zealand, the heavens appear closer to earth – and nowhere more so than in the skies above  Mount Cook Village. Here lies the New Zealand’s International Dark Sky Reserve and one of only three designated ‘Gold’ reserves in the world. Covering 4,300 square kilometres and far from any city lights, this is the best place for stargazing in the country. Become orientated with the Southern Skies with a visit to the digital planetarium, run by Big Sky Stargazing, followed by a magical night of outdoor stargazing. High-powered binoculars and state-of-the-art telescopes bring the star clusters, planets, moons and distant galaxies of our universe to life.

A history of adventure

The Hermitage Hotel, located in Mount Cook Village itself, is steeped in the adventurous kiwi spirit. First built in 1884, the hotel has been challenged by flood, fire, triumph and tragedy; and today it is the ultimate place to stay for those wanting to experience the Mount Cook region first-hand. The hotel is also home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, an enduring tribute to one of New Zealand’s most accomplished adventurers. Sir Ed – as he is affectionately known – used the Southern Alps as a training ground for his mountaineering conquests. In 1953, Sir Ed was the first person to summit Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Afterwards, his philanthropy work in the Himalayas of Nepal cemented his place in New Zealand history. The Alpine Centre showcases the history of the Mount Cook region and the life of Sir Ed himself through a theatre, exhibitions and artefacts. After a day hiking in the Hooker Valley, spending an hour or two in the Alpine Centre helps you to gain a deeper understanding of the Aoraki Mount Cook region and its importance to generations of New Zealanders.

Lake Tekapo

Departing Mount Cook Village and travelling towards to Christchurch, you’ll drive past beautiful, jewel-coloured Lake Tekapo. Its panoramic views out towards the snowy peaks of the Alps make it a perfect photo stop. On its shore lies the tiny and charming Church of the Good Shepherd, once built for the pioneering families of the surrounding districts. Lake Tekapo is one of the most impressive highlights on the journey to Christchurch.

Inspired to explore more of New Zealand’s most beautiful places? Aoraki/Mount Cook and the foothills of the Southern Alps are just one of many stunning destinations – the country is also home to breath taking fiords, rainforests, glaciers, lagoons and forests. New Zealand Trails offer active, easy going guided walking tours of the South Island’s most magnificent natural locations – the suggestions above form days 11,12 and 13 of our small group guided walking tour itinerary. Find out more about New Zealand Trails here, or contact us now.

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