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All about the Tasman Glacier
If you want to see glaciers in New Zealand, you can’t miss the mother of them all, the mighty Tasman Glacier in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park! This is New Zealand’s longest, largest and without doubt, most spectacular glacier and the good news for you is that it’s super easy to see or get onto. It’s 27 kilometres (17 miles) long, up to 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) wide and 600 metres (2,000 feet) thick and has an area of 101 square kilometres (39 square miles). The Tasman is a special place for us Kiwis, it’s right next to our tallest peak, it’s so closely connected to the story of the greatest Kiwi explorer of all, Sir Edmund Hillary, but most of all because it’s just such a damn fine place. When you're standing out in the middle of the Tasman Glacier, looking up at Mt Cook and around at the big sky, jagged peaks and the ice field that seems to go on forever, you know you’re in the real heart of New Zealand.
Most Kiwis, especially South Islanders, have made a visit to Mt Cook on holiday to check out the Tasman Glacier! Here’s everything we’ve learned from a lifetime of Kiwi holidays, where is the Tasman Glacier and how to get there, some suggestions for fitting it into your itinerary, the best tours, walks, flights and boat trips on our around the glacier. Plus a few tips from all our Kiwi holidays to Mt Cook and a mate of ours to drop in and say gidday to!
The best way to see the Tasman Glacier
That’s easy - Tasman Glacier Ski Planes
We love the ski planes landing high up on the glacier. You can make your flight by helicopter too, but it’s right here on the Tasman glacier that ski planes were pioneered in the 1950s. This is something you can’t do in too many places, land an aeroplane on a glacier! After your flight head into the Alpine Museum in the Hermitage Hotel and learn a bit more about how this Kiwi invention came to be. Close second to the ski plane - the boat trip on the terminal lake.
Tasman Glacier Boat Trip or Kayaking
The terminal lake of the Tasman glacier is just a 20 minute stroll on a well graded track (a few little ups and downs, that’s all) from the Tasman Valley carpark. From the lake edge you’ve got a couple of options, go under your own steam with Tasman Glacier Kayaking, or get right up to the terminal face on one of the little motorboats run by Glacier Explorers. Both of these are great fun and it’s really up to you to figure out which one suits you best, you’ll get awesome views of Mt Cook and the surrounding peaks, for the closest views of the glacier itself then the glacier boat is the one, but on the kayak you’ll still get up close to the icebergs floating in the lake and for some people, gliding across this serene spot is better done under your own power and in an eco friendly way.
Scenic Flights and Snow Landings
If you’re in New Zealand and are only going to make one scenic flight, then a lot of Kiwis would tell you it has to be at Mount Cook. Seeing the Tasman Glacier, Mt Cook, Mt Tasman from above puts in all into perspective. You can see right over to the west coast you’ll realise just how close to the ocean you still are! As well as the ski planes mentioned above, you can take a helicopter higher up the glacier or a scenic flight without the snow landing, you’ll actually see more of Mt Cook and over to the coast this way.
Walks around the Tasman Glacier
You can’t get anywhere close to the glacier itself unless you’re an experienced mountaineer, but there are a couple of short walks for great views of the glacier lake, plus for hardened adventurers, a pretty intense route to the Ball Hut. Your short walks (and we mean short) around the Tasman are the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Lake Walk. You can walk all of these tracks in just a couple of hours, you’ll need transport to the carpark and back, which is about 8km (5 miles) from Mt Cook village.
If you’ve got a bit more time and are up for a full day (or overnight) hike, then you’ll love the Ball Hut Route (not to be confused with the Ball Pass, which is for serious mountaineers only). This spot offers the best views of the Tasman glacier you can get to by foot, you’re bound to meet a few ‘Kiwi Trampers’ while you’re there too. Don’t be afraid, they may look old and crusty but they won’t bite! Just nod and smile while they rave on like they own the place, give them a chocolate biscuit to shut them up. It’s a tiny hut and there’s no way to make a reservation, so make sure you take a tent and bedroll just in case!
Tasman Glacier Heli Hike
If you want to get right out on the ice itself, then this is the only way to do it, unless you’re a hard core mountaineer, and you know what? We’re not hard core mountaineers, never have been! But, we know a great guy who is a bit of a Kiwi mountaineering legend who these days happens to lead tours on the glacier. His name is Charlie Hobbs and he also runs the Old Mountaineer Cafe in the village. Him and his team will kit you out, throw you in a helicopter (or a ski plane) then show you round the glacier for a couple of hours. It’s really easy, not ice climbing or anything like that at all, if you like hiking you’ll have no problem. They’ll give you all the gear you need and make sure you’re safe. It’s about getting out on the middle of the most stunning scenery in all of New Zealand - Google a picture of the Tasman Glacier Heli Hiking and tell us you don’t want to do this?
If you visit in winter time you can make this glacier skiing!
Fitting the Tasman Glacier into your South Island Itinerary
To visit the Tasman Glacier you need to stay in Mt Cook village, it’s 50 km (30 miles) off the main road up the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, you could make a day trip from either Tekapo or Twizel, but we reckon spending at least one night in Mt Cook is the best way to soak up the alpine magic of Mt Cook. Over the past few years the number of accommodation operators in Mt Cook village has increased, you’ve got the Hermitage Hotel, a couple of motels and lodges, three backpackers, a camping ground for camper vans and tents.
Itinerary suggestions for visiting the Tasman Glacier
Mt Cook is smack bang in the middle of Christchurch and Queenstown, which will be on most people’s travel routes. If you’re travelling south, a night or two in Mt Cook before continuing on to Wanaka or Queenstown is perfect. Going the other way, same thing. You can also get to Mt Cook from Timaru, on the coast south of Christchurch, or Oamaru, coming up the Waitaki Valley.
How to get to the Tasman Glacier
The Tasman Glacier is inside Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, accessible from Mt Cook village, so get yourself here first!
Are there flights directly to Mt Cook?
There is a small airport in Mt Cook and in the past there have been domestic flights on smaller planes from Christchurch, but these don’t run any more and the only flights in and out of Mt Cook these days are scenic flights. As recently as 2012, flights to Mt Cook did start up again but didn’t last. One day again in the future, maybe, but right now the only way to get to Mt Cook and the Tasman Glacier is by road.
From Christchurch to the Tasman Glacier / Mt Cook National Park
Christchurch is the gateway to the South and Mt Cook is a cruisy day’s drive from there, many people go this way. To use a rugby term, it’s a real ‘drive of two halves’ - with the first half being on the flat straight roads of the Canterbury Plains and the second twists and turns through the foothills and high plateau of the Mackenzie Country. The distance is 310 km (190 miles), for which we always allow 4 - 5 hours - you won’t want to miss the lookouts at Lake Pukaki and Tekapo!
From Queenstown to the Tasman Glacier / Mt Cook National Park
Another obvious route, and a popular one! Shorter than travelling from Christchurch and without the long straight flat bits. It’s (only) 240 km (150 miles) but with all the stops and views along the way you’ll want 3 - 4 hours to do this. A Kiwi tip - stop for fresh stone fruit in season from one of the many roadside stalls around Cromwell (oh, they have hokey pokey ice cream too!).
From Wanaka to the Tasman Glacier / Mt Cook National Park
A pretty similar trip to travelling from Queenstown, but you’re a bit further down the road so you miss Cromwell. Kiwi Tip - Check out all the beautiful merino gear in Tarras, heart of Merino country! Only 185 kilometers (115 miles) but you know the drill by now, windy narrow roads, sheep, incredible views round every corner so allow up to 3 hours driving time.
Other ways to get to the Tasman are from Tekapo and Twizel, both only around 100km (60 miles) only from the glacier, either of these is a good option if you can’t find a room in Mt Cook (yes it does happen!). You can also travel from Timaru (190 km / 120 miles via Geraldine) or Oamaru (190 km / 120 miles via Omarama) on the East Coast of the South Island in a day too.
Weather on the Tasman Glacier and in Mt Cook National Park
Even though the village and glacier are just within a stone’s throw of each other, the weather can be quite different in the Tasman Valley microclimate. If you’re going on a glacier tour, your guides will make all the decisions for you, they’ll let you know what’s happening. If you’re walking up the valley, check out the weather in the visitor centre or hotel before heading out, you're in the mountains and things can change quickly. If you’re on a tour ask your guide, they’ll known what’s going on.
Tasman Glacier Average Temperatures:
• Summer, December - February. High: 77F, 25C Low: 54F, 12C.
• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.
• Winter, June - August. High:.59F, 15C Low: 41F, 5C.
• Spring, September - November. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.
Something you can’t do anywhere but the Tasman Glacier
Land on a huge glacier in a ski plane! What is a ski plane? A small (-ish) plane which has retractable wheels and snow landing skids, like long skis, which allow it to take off on a normal runway and land on the snow high up on a glacier! The only other way to get this high up the glacier is to climb over the treacherous terrain, only for experienced mountaineers. Ski planes are a proud part of our Kiwi pioneering history, you can see ski planes in places like Alaska and even the Antarctica and it all started right here on the Tasman Glacier.
Something you don’t know about the Tasman Glacier
Sir Edmund Hillary was a regular around Mt Cook and the Tasman Glacier in the 1950s and was a passenger on the very first day Sir Harry Wrigley launched his ski plane business in 1955.
Kiwi Tip for the Tasman Glacier
Your guides will remind you, but take sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen if you’re going out on the ice. The sun reflects off that bright ice and you’ll get a few jibes from your friends if you come off the glacier bright red. Just show them the photos though and that will quiet them down!
Visiting the Tasman Glacier with MoaTrek
We take our time to get to Mt Cook, with a hosted lunch at Akaunui Homestead with our mates Ian and Di before spending a luxurious night right in the heart of it all at the iconic Hermitage Hotel. If you’re visiting in spring or summer, there’s plenty of daylight for evening walks and we’ve got the entire morning free for walks around the village, up the Hooker or Tasman valleys and of course time for to discover the Tasman Glacier!
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