National Parks - Aoraki Mount Cook

Home of the highest mountains and the longest glaciers. The Mt Cook National Park (also known as Aoraki National Park) is alpine in the purest sense - with skyscraping peaks, glaciers and permanent snow fields; all set under a star-studded sky.

Mt Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, helped Sir Edmund Hillary to develop his climbing skills in preparation for the conquest of Everest.

According to Ngai Tahu legend, Aoraki and his three brothers were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. While on a sea voyage, their canoe overturned on a reef. When the brothers climbed on top of their canoe, the freezing south wind turned them to stone. The canoe became the South Island (Te Waka o Aoraki); Aoraki and his brothers became the peaks of the Southern Alps.

Key Highlights

Although it encompasses 23 peaks over 3000 metres high, this park is very accessible. State Highway 80 leads to Aoraki/Mt Cook Village which is situated beside scenic Lake Pukaki and provides a comfortable base for alpine activities. Far from city lights, the stargazing here is magnificent - Aoraki Mount Cook National Park forms the majority of New Zealand's only International Dark Sky Reserve. 

Mountaineers regard the area to be the best climbing region in Australasia, while less skilled adventurers find plenty of satisfaction with the mountain walks that lead to alpine tarns, herb fields and spectacular glacier views. Encounters with cheeky kea (mountain parrots) are part of the fun.

At 27 kilometres in length, the mighty Tasman Glacier is a powerful piece of landscaping equipment. While it slowly carves the valley sides, it provides a landing place for small ski planes and helicopters. Surreal, milky lakes are a feature of the park - suspended, glacier-ground rock sediment makes the water opaque.

Accommodation

The Department of Conservation provides 17 huts in the park. Most are positioned to provide accommodation for mountaineers, and you need climbing skills to reach them. Read more about these huts here. Non-climbing visitors can enjoy the attractions of Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, which offers everything from backpacker lodges and camp sites to luxury hotels. The Hermitage Hotel is famous for its barstool views of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

The nearest towns are Twizel and Lake Tekapo. They both offer a range of restaurants, cafes and accommodation options.

Key Activities

Mountain walks

There are 10 short walks beginning near the village. All tracks are formed and well marked. The Red Tarns Track, Kea Point and the Hooker Valley Track each take around two hours return. For more experienced alpine hikers, there are three mountain pass routes - over the Mueller, Copland and Ball passes.

Glacier viewing and skiing

Helicopters and ski-planes provide access to the park's fabulous glaciers. The Tasman Glacier is an excellent choice for intermediate skiers, while the Murchison, Darwin and Bonney glaciers promise excitement for advanced skiers. Landing among spectacular ice formations and caverns is the start of an unforgettable experience. From October until May, you can explore the Tasman Glacier's terminal lake by boat.

Mountaineering

Climbing Aoraki/Mount Cook remains the ultimate challenge, but there are many other peaks to tempt experienced climbers. Tasman, Malte Brun, Elie de Beaumont, Sefton and La Perouse are local favourites.

Key Tips

  • Climbers don't require permits, but are requested to complete a trip intentions form at the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre
  • Local guides are available for climbing, walking and glacier skiing
  • Winter climbing is an extreme sport - only recommended for well-prepared, experienced mountaineers
  • The weather can change very suddenly - be prepared for heavy rainfall, snow and/or high winds
  • The park has an airport serving domestic commercial flights and scenic flight operators.