Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, standing at over 3,700 metres tall, sitting in the Southern Alps in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Its mountain range runs the length of the South Island, thus the drive from Queenstown to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park was filled with stunning scenery. The drive took about 3.5 hours, but it didn’t feel draggy because I was trying hard not to be distracted by the beauty. We kept stopping along the way to take pictures too!
The national park was started in 1953 and it has over 140 peaks and 72 glaciers, so you can imagine how pretty the entire place is. Mount Cook Village is where the population of 3,000 lives. It serves as a tourist centre, as well as a base camp for the mountain. There is only one hotel there, The Hermitage Hotel, and only one other cafe, The Old Mountaineers Cafe Bar & Restaurant, besides the hotel’s F&B offerings.
These are some of the views that I saw along the drive:
What I did at Mt Cook:
1) 4WD & Argo Adventure
Ask for a map from the hotel reception and you will see the different routes you can walk or cycle within Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Another way is to go for the 4WD & Argo adventure, where the guide will pick you up in a 4WD from the hotel and take you to the Blue Lakes car park. Changing over to the Argo vehicle, he will then drive you down the Tasman Glacier Lake walk to a vantage point that overlooks the Tasman Glacier terminal lake.
The Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest and longest glacier, is 27 kilometres long and has ice as deep as 600 metres. The Tasman Glacier Lake was only formed in 1974 and you can even do commercial boat and kayak tours on it. The large terminal moraines mark the foot of the Tasman Glacier.
Price: NZ$79 (adults); NZ$39.50 (child 4-14yo)
Tip: Bring a wide angle lens to capture the view of the entire glacier.
2) Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is a 301-kilometre ride from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean. There are nine sections altogether and the first section starts from Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Bicycles and helmets can be rented from the Mt Cook Backpackers at the Village. It’s downhill to the airport, so the first half of the ride is easy. Remember to look behind and admire the Southern Alps!
Once you get to the airport, the only way to continue on the cycleway is to take a short helicopter ride across the valley. Otherwise, you can just U-turn at the airport and head back. Total distance would be 10km. However, the ride back was quite painful because of the uphill and strong headwinds. Have fun!
Price: Free (bike rental at NZ$15 for two hours)
Tip: The return is really quite tough, so take your time. Start out earlier and make sure you come back before the sun sets, or it will get too cold and dark.
3) Tasman Glacier helihike
This was the one thing I was looking forward to during my visit to Mount Cook Village! The Tasman Glacier helihike gives you the chance to explore New Zealand’s longest glacier, the Tasman, up close. Chief guide Charlie Hobbs, who has over 30 years of guiding experience and owns the Old Mountaineers Cafe Bar & Restaurant, takes two groups out a day – one at 930am and another at 130pm – during peak season.
Weather conditions have to be favourable, otherwise there is a chance of cancellation as it involves helicopter rides. Meeting at Old Mountaineers first, you settle your indemnity forms there and get dressed properly before setting off. They provide jackets, pants and shoes in case you don’t have the right ones. Heading to the little airport next, we fly out to the Tasman Glacier via helicopter and the views are amazing!
Once you are on the glacier, the guides will hook your shoes up with crampons and hand you ski poles so you can walk on the smooth white ice safely. This is where everything becomes surreal – it’s quiet, peaceful and you’re surrounded by nothing but the pretty white ice of the glacier and the magnificent surrounding mountains. Charlie then took us to this cave, where we got to crawl through a tunnel and witness the deep blue of the glacier water. In single file, we continue walking down to explore more of the glacier before the helicopter returns to pick us up. Total duration of the trip is approximately four hours.
There are full day private alpine trekking tours if you want more, but that requires more fitness.
Price: NZ$480 per pax (no child rate; min. 8 yo)
Tip: Try the glacier skiing or glacier kayaking if you have time
4) Hooker Valley Walk
The Hooker Valley Walk is one of the most popular walks in the park, taking you up the Hooker valley towards Aoraki/Mount Cook. The route includes the Alpine Memorial (a great viewpoint), Freda’s Rock, the Mueller Glacier and then you come to the first swing bridge which will take you across the Hooker River to another swing bridge. You will see many old moraine ridges and humps along the way, until you get to a third swing bridge that will lead to the East Hooker. This track ends at the glacier lake, where you should spend some time soaking up the views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps.
I didn’t get to go for this walk because it was raining miserably in the afternoon, but here’s a photo by SoniaM Photography of an example of the views along this walk:
5) Big Sky Stargazing
Mount Cook has some of the darkest skies in New Zealand, which is what you need for viewing the stars. You can go out after dark and shoot on your own, or you can join the Big Sky Stargazing tour at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre which is next to the Hermitage Hotel. The tour starts with an introduction and orientation in the Digital Dome Planetarium that explains stars and the galaxy, as well as highlights the features of the southern night sky you need to look out for. The astronomy guide will then take you out for a short drive to the outdoor stargazing site, where you will get to use telescopes, astronomy binoculars or your own eyes to try and identify different elements of the spectacular southern sky.
I was all equipped and ready to shoot stars, but alas, the weather was too cloudy during the nights I was there, so the outdoor part of the tour was cancelled. BOO! If the guides cancel the outside part of the tour, you can get a partial refund of the full tour fee paid. I was really upset that I didn’t get to shoot the stars. Here’s how it would look like on a clear sky day:
Price: NZ$65 (adults); NZ$32.50 (child 4-14yo)
Tip: Remember to bring a tripod and dress warmly!
Where I stayed at Mt Cook:
1) The Hermitage Hotel
There is only one hotel in Mount Cook Village – the Hermitage Hotel. There are a few accommodation types available – the main hotel complex I stayed in has 164 rooms and there are another 20 self-contained chalets located 200m away from the hotel. The hotel is comfortable and clean, with different types of rooms (Premium Plus, Premium, Superior or Standard) depending on your preferences. Wi-Fi connection isn’t the greatest but then again, you’re far out in the mountains. Views from the front-facing rooms are beautiful and I found myself sitting at the window just staring out at the mountains a couple of times, heh. If your budget is tight, you can consider the backpackers motel further down below the hotel.
Price: From as low as NZ$179 during low season
What I ate at Mt Cook:
1) The Old Mountaineers Cafe Bar & Restaurant
This Old Mountaineers Cafe Bar & Restaurant is an icon of Mount Cook Village. It is the only business within the Village that is officially opened by Sir Edmund Hillary. If you are tired of eating within the hotel or you just want to grab a cuppa, you can walk out to this cafe which serves food with organic options, beer, wine or simply coffee. The accompanying views of the mountains make for a relaxing meal.
2) The Panorama Room
This fine dining restaurant within the hotel serves an international menu, a la carte or set dinner style.