A Guide to Backpacking in Aoraki Mt Cook
With the highest mountain, longest glacier and the darkest skies, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is a must-visit both day and night! The national park is in the centre of South Island, where backpackers visit for some of the most impressive mountain walks in New Zealand. There’s everything you could want from glacier lakes scattered with icebergs to long vertical heli-skiing runs.
Want to learn more about backpacking in Mt Cook? Read our guide below to see why Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is the perfect mountain escape in New Zealand for backpackers. Plus, we have more tips for sticking to a backpacker budget in The Travel Guide to Mt Cook on a Budget.
Things You Can’t Miss the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
- Take a short walk for a warm-up…
- … then a day walk to see the spectacular scenery of the Hooker Valley and Aoraki Mt Cook
- Explore the Tasman Valley on foot
- Kayak on glacier lakes to fondle icebergs
- Ski on the untouched snow of the majestic mountains
- Hike inside New Zealand’s longest glacier
- Stargaze in one of the clearest skies in the world.
About Aoraki Mt Cook
The Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is named after the highest mountain, which is recorded at 3,724 metres (12,218 feet) tall.
The European name, Mt Cook, was given to the name to honour Captain James Cook who first surveyed New Zealand, despite Captain Cook never seeing the mountain. In 1998, the mountain was officially named Aoraki Mt Cook to incorporate the historic Maori name for the mountain.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
Since then, the mountain is famous for being generally large and is one of the mountains Sir Edmund Hillary perfected his mountaineering skills to be the first to climb to the summit of Mt Everest, the highest mountain in the world. There is a museum to commemorate his achievements in the national park, The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, which has a small admission fee but is well worth visiting on a rainy day (along with the 6 Things to Do in Mt Cook on a Rainy Day). You can also see the mountaineer’s face on the NZ$5 note.
Short Walking Tracks in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
Want a quick stroll from Aoraki Mt Cook village? These walks range from 10 minutes to 1 hour.
Bowen Bush Walk (10-Minute Loop)
The Bowen Bush Walk is situated near the self-service petrol station. This is a loop walk through the forest to the sound of birds (admittedly, some sounds are artificial) and can be joined with the Governors Bush Walk.
Glencoe Walk (30 Minutes Return)
This 30mins return walk takes you through forest and up to a lookout. Get an amazing view at sunrise and sunset of the Hooker Glacier and Aoraki Mt Cook. Start behind the Hermitage Hotel.
Governors Bush Walk (1-Hour Loop)
The highlight of this one-hour return walk is the stunning lookout point of Wakefield Ridge and Aoraki Mt Cook, making this a popular walk. It is a sheltered forest walk so can be done in drizzly weather.
Check out updates on these walks on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.
Day Walks in Aoraki Mt Cook
Although the above walks are good, you’ll get a better backpacking experience in Mt Cook if you make a day of it. Again, you can access these from the Aoraki Mt Cook village. For more awesome walks, be sure to check out the 10 Must-Do Hikes Around Mt Cook.
Kea Point Track (2 Hours from the Village; 1 Hour from the Campground)
Go to the Department of Conservation (DoC) Visitor Centre then start the 2-hour walk across the road towards the Hooker Valley. The walk goes through grasslands to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall a wall deposited by the glacier. You then take a walk through land formed by a river only in 1913. The grand finale is a wide view encompassing Mt Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier lake and Aoraki Mt Cook! Find out more on the DOC website.
Sealy Tarns Track (3-4 Hours Return)
An alternative and challenging track, Sealy Tarns Track branches off the Kea Point Track. Just follow the signs. It is best to do this 3-4 hour return tramp in the summer to see alpine flowers in bloom. The view will also give you a different perspective of the Hooker Valley.
Hooker Valley Track (3-4 Hours Return)
Starting from the same point as the Kea Point Track, this is an extremely popular walk in the national park. As the name suggests, you walk up the Hooker Valley towards Aoraki Mt Cook. Keep hiking to multiple swingbridges and viewpoints. The vegetation changes throughout the walk until you are faced with Hooker Glacier, glacier lake and Aoraki Mt Cook. The Hooker Valley Track is a 4-hour return if starting from the village.
Red Tarns Track (2 Hours Return)
Start from the public shelter and walk across the bridge to the Black Birch Stream. Prepare yourself for the steep climb ahead. Like any steep climb in New Zealand, you are rewarded with captivating views. First, you’ll see the red pondweed, which gives the name Red Tarns. Then take in the views of Aoraki Mt Cook and the village below. This walk is a 2-hour return.
Tasman Valley Walking Tracks
Now you need to drive to a new area in the national park, Tasman Valley. As you can imagine, the drive is splendidly scenic. Start these walks from the Blue Lake car park.
Ball Hut Route (3-4 Hours One Way)
Get awesome views of the Tasman Glacier by taking the 3-4 hour one-way hike to Ball Hut. Follow the Ball Hut Road along the Tasman Glacier. You can stay in the hut overnight at the cost of NZ$5. Be sure to pay at the visitor centre before you take the track. [Update: Due to accessibility issues on the track, this track is only recommended to hikers who have a high level of tramping skills].
Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View (40 Minutes Return)
Just a 40min return, this track takes you to the top of a moraine wall. Not only do you get views of glaciers, but you can take a dip in the Blue Lakes by taking a detour off the main track towards them. Of course, it’s best to swim in the lakes in the height of summer.
Tasman Glacier Lake (1-Hour Return)
It takes 30 minutes to reach the lake. Branch off the Tasman Glacier View Track just after the Blue Lake Shelter. You’ll reach the lookout over the glacier lake, which is the source of the Tasman River. The lake changes over seasons, being dotted with icebergs in summer and completely frozen in winter.
Flights Around Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
While on a backpacking trip to Mt Cook, get a mind-blowing perspective of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park from the skies. There are plenty of providers offering trips over the Southern Alps via helicopter and even via skiplane.
The Cheapest Scenic Flight in Mt Cook
None come at a more competitive price than the Mt Cook 360 flights by INFLITE Experiences. Take to the skies for 30 minutes and soak up the views of New Zealand’s highest mountains, longest glacier, the glacial lakes and every alpine valley in between. If you missed seeing the famous Franz Josef and Fox Glacier on the West Coast, then don’t worry, because once you cross the mountains known as “The Divide” you will see where these glaciers actually start!
Skydiving in Mt Cook
Another way to hit the skies over the scenery of Aoraki Mt Cook is from the shores of Lake Pukaki. Combine stunning landscapes and adrenaline on a thrilling freefall with Skydive Mt. Cook! Jump from either 9,000ft, 13,000ft or 15,000ft with your expert tandem master. Experience incredible speeds during a 30-45-second freefall, then soak up the views as you head back down to earth under the parachute.
Glacier Kayaking and Boating
Dodge icebergs like a boss in the Aoraki Mt Cook kayaking and boating trips.
Kayaking on a Glacier Lake
The kayaking season is between early October and 30-April in the national park. You have the option to kayak in the impressive Tasman Glacier Lake, where you are more likely to see icebergs.
Start your kayaking adventure with Southern Alps Guiding, located at the Old Mountaineers Cafe Bar in Mt Cook Village.
Glacier Lake Boat Tours
Get up-close to these ice giants on a boating tour on the lake! Tours with Glacier Explorers involve a drive and short walk to the lake where you’ll then board a small boat for a trip on the vibrant turquoise glacial lake that is ever-changing. In fact, the lake only formed in 1989 and has been expanding ever since. Be aware that this activity is also seasonal, available between early September and late May.
Ski Down the Tasman Glacier
Yes, you can ski down New Zealand’s longest glacier, the Tasman Glacier! There are several heli-skiing sites in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, including New Zealand’s first heli-skiing site, Ben Ohau.
Unlike the skiing experience you get in the ski fields of New Zealand, heli-skiing allows you to do super long vertical skiing and snowboarding in untouched snow! Heli-skiing tends to be beyond the budget of backpackers, but dedicated snow sports enthusiasts have to try this at some point in their life!
There are activity providers for heli-skiing in Queenstown, Wanaka, and Mt Cook village. That latter is available with Alpine Guides, along with INFLITE Experiences‘ ski plane or The Helicopter Line‘s helicopter.
Heli-Hike Inside the Tasman Glacier
See what it’s like to walk in a world of ice. Mt Cook Glacier Guides and The Helicopter Line (on KKday and Tripadvisor) take you to the Tasman Glacier so you can walk on and inside the glacier!
This is much like the activities found in the renowned Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. You’ll be getting the experience of exploring the longest glacier in New Zealand, which is far less crowded and has better weather days (so less likely to be cancelled). However, it is more expensive than what is found in the Glacier Country on the West Coast.
Learn more about New Zealand’s glacier activities in the 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers.
Stargazing in Mt Cook
As Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is part of the largest International Dark Sky Reserve, there is no better place to see the night sky with clarity. Out here in the mountainous wilderness, it is almost completely free of light pollution.
Stargazing can be enjoyed on a backpacker budget by simply driving or walking out of town, away from any light pollution, and looking up at the stars. See what to look for using our guide, What to Look for When Watching the Stars in New Zealand. Plus, get stargazing tips from The Best Time to See the Milky Way in New Zealand.
For those who want to learn more about what they can see in the sky at night, astronomy guides can put the stars of the southern sky in perspective for you using telescopes and astronomy binoculars. Join a stargazing tour from the Hermitage Hotel, starting with an orientation in the planetarium. You’ll then be taken to a stargazing facility away from the artificial lights of the village where you’ll get the chance to look at the night’s sky through powerful telescopes.
If You Have More Time in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park…
- Explore the Tasman Glacier lake onboard a MAC boat to touch the icebergs!
- If you cannot be bothered walking or don’t have fully functional legs, you can still see the serene national park from different viewpoints by taking a 4 wheel drive (4WD) tour
- Learn about Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and its great explorers at The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the form of a museum and a 2D, 3D and Digital Dome Planetarium
- Start the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail starting beneath the peaks of Mt Sealy and Aoraki Mt Cook.
All of these experiences and more are outlined in the 20 Best Things to Do in Aoraki Mt Cook.