Mt Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, helped Sir Edmund Hillary to develop his climbing skills in preparation for the conquest of Everest.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is home of the highest mountains and the longest glaciers. It is alpine in the purest sense - with skyscraping peaks, glaciers and permanent snow fields, all set under a star-studded sky.
According to Ngāi 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.
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.
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. Or for something a little more secluded try Lake Oahu Lodge.
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.
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.