Free (and Cheap) Activities in Aoraki Mt Cook
It’s amazing where you can set to by simply using your own two feet. While helicopter flights, boat tours and 4WD excursions tempt tourists with their epic viewing of the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, the local walking trails are nothing to scoff at. Admittedly, most of the activities on this list of free things to do in Mt Cook are walks, but that’s simply the best free way to enjoy the vistas of this World Heritage Area for free. We’ve also mixed in some alternative free and cheap thing to do in Mt Cook, such as museum attractions and bike trails, should you crave something different.
For more budget advice for your visit, check out The Guide to Mt Cook on a Budget and the 5 Best Budget Accommodation in Mt Cook.
1. Walk the Hooker Valley Track – FREE
Let’s start with one of the most popular hikes in Mt Cook, the Hooker Valley Track! This three-hour return walk boasts tremendous views of the Mueller Glacier, Hooker Lake and Aoraki Mt Cook on a well-maintained and easy trail made up of boardwalks, three swingbridges and gravel. The track is mostly flat and you’ll need to return the same way. See more hikes in and around the area in the 10 Must-Do Hikes Around Mt Cook.
Location: White Horse Hill Campground, end of Hooker Valley Road, approximately 3km (2 miles) from Mt Cook Village.
2. Check Out the Art and Exhibitions of the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre – FREE
Now that we’ve got the must-do hike out of the way, a good place to start in Mt Cook is with the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre. Although a visitor centre doesn’t sound too exciting, it’s actually more like a museum. You’re welcomed into the free attraction by spectacular Maori carvings and artwork. Check out an array of exhibitions on about the national park’s flora, fauna and landscape, including videos and interpretation panels.
Location: 1 Larch Grove, Mt Cook Village.
3. Hike Up the Red Tarns Track – FREE
Back to the magnificent array of walking trails in Mt Cook, another scenic walk worth checking out is the Red Tarns Track. The track dips down toward a stream before steeply climbing to a tarn pond with breathtaking panoramic vistas. The walk takes approximately two hours to complete. Return the same way.
Location: Mt Cook Village Public Shelter, 59 Bowen Drive, Mt Cook Village.
4. Explore the Forest of the Governors Bush Walk – FREE
For something a little easier (and different), try the Governors Bush Walk. The one-hour loop takes you through stunning beech forest. Look out for kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, and fantails along the way. The walk is a good one for families, as featured in the 7 Things to Do in Mt Cook with Kids.
Location: Mt Cook Village Public Shelter, 59 Bowen Drive, Mt Cook Village.
5. Do Some Stargazing – FREE
While there are stargazing tours in Mt Cook that are well worth checking out, if you don’t have the budget for it, just head outside on a clear night and look up! Mt Cook is in the middle of an International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning it has some of the darkest skies in the world for the best star viewings. Choose a clear night and try to get away from artificial light to enhance the view of the stars. See What to Look for When Watching the Stars in New Zealand for astronomical features you may see.
Location: Anywhere (but preferably outside of the village and away from artificial lighting).
6. Check Out the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre – CHEAP
Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of cheap things to do in Mt Cook. One attraction that breaks the mould, however, is the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. This museum in The Hermitage Hotel is a tribute to the New Zealander who was among the first to summit Mt Everest. Learn about his life and his mountaineering training in this small museum, which also houses historical transport and hotel relics from Mt Cook’s history. There’s also a 2D and 3D Dome Planetarium which has regular showings on the flora, fauna and night sky in the national park. Entry is typically NZ$20 per adult and NZ$10 per child.
Location: The Hermitage Hotel, 89 Terrace Road, Mt Cook Village.
7. See the Tasman Glacier on the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Walks – FREE
If heli-hiking on the Tasman Glacier is out of your budget, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out! The Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View Track is just a 40-minute return walk, featuring spectacular views of the Tasman Glacier and its lake full of icebergs (or frozen over in winter). The Blue Lakes is a quick side trip to a summer swimming spot. Branching off the Blue Lakes Track, the Tasman Glacier Lake Track is a flat one-hour walk to get another perspective of the terminal lake of the Tasman Glacier.
Location: Tasman Glacier Car Park, Tasman Valley Road, approximately 8km (5 miles) from Mt Cook Village.
8. Hike the Kea Point Track – FREE
Need more spectacular glacier and mountain views in your life? The Kea Point Track is another worthy walking option, which can be walked from either Mt Cook Village, taking two hours to do the return walk, or from the White Horse Hill Campsite, which is one hour return. Either way, you’ll meander through grasslands until you reach viewing deck overlooking the Mueller Glacier’s moraine wall – stunning!
Location: Mt Cook Village start – Mt Cook Road just before the turn-off to the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre. White Horse Hill Campsite start – End of Hooker Valley Road, approximately 3km (2 miles) from Mt Cook Village.
9. Tackle the Mueller Hut Route – FREE
Definitely one of the most challenging hikes in the area, the Mueller Hut Route takes you 1,800m (5,900ft) up the Sealy Range providing rewarding panoramic views for those who make it the whole way. The hike can be attempted between December to April, but still take some warm and waterproof clothing (and lots of water and snacks) even in the height of summer. At the top is the striking red Mueller Hut, which you can stay in overnight (bookings required with the Department of Conservation) or you can make your way down the same way you came.
Location: Start on the Sealy Tarns Track (see above). Mt Cook Village start – Mt Cook Road just before the turn-off to the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre. White Horse Hill Campsite start – End of Hooker Valley Road, approximately 3km (2 miles) from Mt Cook Village.
10. Cycle the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail – FREE
Only free if you have your own mountain bike and transport (otherwise, mountain bike hire isn’t exactly cheap), the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is more than 300km (190 miles) from the slopes of Mt Cook to the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru. You don’t have to do the whole trail though. Part of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail follows the east side of the Tasman River and Lake Pukaki, best accessed from Pukaki from the south or else you’ll have to take a helicopter flight to access it from the north. Alternatively, you can mountain bike at Glentanner Station by getting land permission from the owners (Ross and Helen Ivey on +64 34351843).
Location: Alps 2 Ocean – Start anywhere along Heyman Road, approximately 69km (43 miles) from Mt Cook Village. Glentanner – State Highway 80, approximately 22km (14 miles) from Mt Cook Village.
More Free Things to Do in Mt Cook
- 10 Unmissable Things to Do in Mt Cook
- Aoraki Mt Cook National Park – Guide for Backpackers
- 5 Aoraki Mt Cook Must-Dos
That’s it for our list of cheap and free things to do in Mt Cook. For more free stuff, check out the 50 Best Free Things to Do in New Zealand.