How to Plan a Trip to Aoraki Mt Cook
After a mind-blowing road journey alongside the impossibly blue waters of Lake Pukaki and the braided Tasman River, you’ve arrived at the “peak” of New Zealand’s alpine wilderness. It’s a landscape and ecosystem so spectacular that it has UNESCO World Heritage and Dark Sky Reserve statuses under its belt. Making the tiny Mt Cook Village your base, you have access to the surrounding peaks, glaciers and lakes through a wealth of alpine adventures, from ski planes to hiking trails.
At the centre of it all is the highest peak in New Zealand which gives the village and national park its name, Aoraki Mt Cook. “Aoraki” meaning “cloud piercer” in the Maori language and “Cook” after the first European explorer to set foot in New Zealand.
So plan your alpine adventure in Aoraki Mt Cook with this complete travel guide to Mt Cook, including links to more guides to suit your travel style.
Common Questions About Mt Cook
Before we get into our complete travel guide, here are a few common questions travellers have about visiting Mt Cook.
Is it Worth Visiting Mt Cook?
Yes! If you have the time to take the 45-minute one-way detour off the main highway between Christchurch and Queenstown, then we fully recommend it to see some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes in New Zealand.
How Many Days Do You Need in Mt Cook?
On limited time to explore the South Island, we recommend at least two days to visit Mt Cook. If you have more time, there’s more than enough to do for a rewarding three to four days.
Where is Mt Cook Located?
On the South Island, halfway down the Southern Alps in the Canterbury region.
- Christchurch to Mt Cook – 4 hours drive (330km/205 miles)
- Queenstown to Mt Cook – 3 hours drive (262km/163 miles)
- Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook – 1h10mins drive (103km/64 miles)
How Do You Get to Mt Cook?
Mt Cook is connected to the rest of the South Island via State Highway 80 and State Highway 8. The closest international airport is Queenstown Airport (3 hours drive), which also has frequent domestic flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Mt Cook is on the main national bus route, which you can find more information about in Bus Networks in New Zealand.
Day tours to Mt Cook are available with Cheeky Kiwi Travel from Queenstown (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook) and with Leisure Tours from Christchurch (on Viator and Tripadvisor).
Do I Need Snow Chains to Drive to Mt Cook?
It is highly unlikely that you’ll need snow chains to drive to Mt Cook, as the road there (State Highway 80) runs along a valley floor with little elevation. If travelling between June and August, New Zealand’s winter, it is a good idea to carry snow chains. Check the road conditions on the NZ Transport Agency website.
What is the Mt Cook Weather Like?
The daily average temperature is 8.6°C/47.5°F with a yearly average rainfall of 3,656mm/143.9″. Find out more in What is the Weather Like in New Zealand?
What to Do in Mt Cook
With so much breathtaking scenery to admire, what are the best ways to lap it all up?! Mt Cook’s activities both include the surprising and the not-so-surprising, from landing on a glacier in a ski plane to rambling on the hiking trails. Whatever your budget or interests, there’s something in Mt Cook to suit.
The Top Experiences in Mt Cook
What are the must-dos? Here are some of the Mt Cook highlights:
- Walk the Hooker Valley Track
- Land on the Tasman Glacier in a ski plane (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor or Klook)
- Heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier with Mt Cook Glacier Guiding (on Viator and Tripadvisor) or The Helicopter Line (on KKday and Tripadvisor)
- Go boating on a glacier lake with Glacier Explorers
- Stargaze in the Aoraki Mt Cook International Dark Sky Reserve…
… And the list continues over on our 20 Best Things to Do in Aoraki Mt Cook.
Rainy Day Activities
Don’t despair if you find yourself in Mt Cook in bad weather. Wet weather alternatives include:
- Visit the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre
- Check out the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
- Walk under the shelter of the trees on the Governors Bush Walk.
Plus, a few more ideas can be found in our 6 Things to Do in Mt Cook on a Rainy Day.
Where to Stay in Mt Cook
Despite having such a small village, Mt Cook has accommodation options for all tastes and budgets. The only trouble is, it’s hard to tell the difference between accommodations, with them all seemingly having the same name! Don’t get confused and check out the accommodation lists we’ve compiled especially for you:
Mt Cook for Budget Travellers
Lace up your hiking shoes because a budget trip to Mt Cook means a whole lot of walking! Among the glacier valleys and towering peaks of New Zealand’s highest mountains, the walks are among some of the most memorable in the country. Visitors can also enjoy the local visitor centre for free, which is more like a museum and art gallery. While there are cheap places to stay in Mt Cook, the downside is that they’re limited. Check out our budget tips and advice in The Guide to Mt Cook on a Budget to start planning your trip.
- Hike the Hooker Valley Track
- Visit the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre
- Check out the views from the Red Tarns Track
- Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
- Do some stargazing!
For more details, hikes and experiences, see the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Mt Cook.
Mt Cook Village has a backpacker hostel/lodge, while a holiday park can be found in Glentanner on the way to Mt Cook. Due to the limited budget accommodation in Mt Cook, we recommend booking as early as possible. See some other nearby recommendations in the 5 Best Budget Accommodations in Mt Cook.
Mt Cook for Luxury Travellers
As you arrive in the tiny alpine village of Aoraki Mt Cook and see the grand structure of The Hermitage Hotel perched on a hill, you know you’ve come to a place of luxury. Helicopter and ski plane operators get you among the peaks effortlessly, while private guided mountaineering, climbing and glacier-hiking guides offer more ways to tackle the extreme alpine landscapes. When you’re done with the day’s adventures, retreat to either one of the five-star lodges of Lake Pukaki or, of course, indulge in the hotel’s array of dining options and activities. Plan your luxury getaway with The Luxury Guide to Mt Cook.
- Land on the Tasman Glacier in a ski plane (more details on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook)
- Do a heli-hike on New Zealand’s longest glacier with Mt Cook Glacier Guiding (on Viator and Tripadvisor) or The Helicopter Line (on KKday and Tripadvisor)
- Treat yourself to a spa day at Lakestone Lodge or Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat
- Do a guided hike in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
- Do some epic backcountry skiing.
For more details on each experience and more, see the 10 Luxury Experiences in Mt Cook.
You won’t struggle to find luxury accommodation in Mt Cook, as The Hermitage Hotel boasts a large number of rooms wrapped in contemporary luxury. For those looking for something more “boutique”, luxury lodges can be found scattered along the lakeshores of Lake Pukaki and the Ben Ohau Range. Find out more in the 5 Best Luxury Accommodations in Mt Cook.
Mt Cook for Families
Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is, without a doubt, one of the best places to bring children to experience the alpine landscapes. An array of family-friendly walks await (just bring a baby carrier if you have infants), while glacier lake boat tours and even awesome helicopter and ski plane flights with snow landings are just some of the family-friendly experiences available. As for accommodation, either bring your own supplies and stay in one of the self-contained motels or make it a real holiday by staying at the hotel and getting someone else to do the cooking for you. Get more advice in The Guide to Mt Cook for Families.
- See the Tasman Glacier on the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Lake Track
- Roam around in the forest on the Governors Bush Walk
- Take the skies in a helicopter or ski plane (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor or Klook)
- Check out a planetarium and use powerful telescopes on a stargazing tour
- Whiz around a glacier lake with giant icebergs on a boat tour.
For more details on each experience, check out the 7 Things to Do in Mt Cook with Kids.
Take your pick from motel units with kitchen and bathroom facilities within easy reach, cheaper lodge rooms, private holiday homes or a double-queen room in the hotel! Either way, make sure to book your accommodation as early as possible in this busy hotspot with limited accommodation. Check out your options in the 8 Best Family Accommodations in Mt Cook.
Mt Cook for Couples
Experience alpine romance in Aoraki Mt Cook, where the snowcapped mountains and glistening glacier waters provide an awe-inspiring yet romantic backdrop to your getaway. From ski plane flights to having a picnic among the peaks to teaming up in a double kayak to explore the icebergs of a glacier lake, there are many adventures for couples to experience together. As for accommodation, well, the views do most of the talking… Plan your perfect honeymoon, anniversary or couples’ getaway with The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Mt Cook.
- Enjoy an intimate helicopter flight and picnic among the peaks
- Tackle the Mt Cook hikes together
- Do a glacier kayaking tour with Southern Alps Guiding
- Explore the Tasman Glacier on a heli-hike with Mt Cook Glacier Guiding (on Viator and Tripadvisor) or The Helicopter Line (on KKday and Tripadvisor)
- Have a tipple at the Snowline Bar.
For more details on each activity, see the 9 Romantic Activities in Mt Cook for Couples.
The boutique lodges on the shores of Lake Pukaki are undoubtedly the most endearing option for couples, especially if celebrating a special occasion. However, lodge, motel and hotel rooms in Mt Cook Village are well-appointed and almost all have breathtaking views to really set the tone for a romantic stay. Check out our recommendations in the 5 Best Romantic Accommodations in Mt Cook.
Mt Cook for Foodies
This is the part of the travel guide where we would fill it up with all the food tours and experiences you could be having. However, once you see the towering peaks of this World Heritage Area, food is pushed way into the back of your mind. Nevertheless, if you really want a gastronomical experience incorporated into your trip, then your best bet is to stay with Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat for their garden-to-table cooking demonstrations, wine cellar stargazing observatory experience, and indulgent cuisine.
Where to Eat in Mt Cook
While Mt Cook does have some restaurants, most of which are run by The Hermitage Hotel, the most striking thing about them is the architecture. All of Mt Cook Village’s restaurants and cafes boast towering floor-to-ceiling windows facing Aoraki Mt Cook and the Tasman Valley.
Check out the Panorama Restaurant in the Hermitage Hotel for the closest thing to fine dining in Mt Cook Village. For lunch, The Old Mountaineers’ Cafe is a popular spot along with its organic coffee (it was also officially opened by Sir Edmund Hillary, himself).
More About Mt Cook
That’s it for our complete travel guide to Mt Cook, but it’s by no means the end of our advice. Check out the guides below for more Mt Cook literature:
- 10 Best Hikes Around Mt Cook
- 20 Unmissable Things to Do in Mt Cook
- 5 Things to Do in Mt Cook on a Rainy Day
- Aoraki Mt Cook National Park – Guide for Backpackers
Finally, plan the rest of your road trip using the South Island in One Week: New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary or South Island in Two Weeks: New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary.