If you’re eager to see New Zealand’s Southern Alps in all their glory, a visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is an absolute must. With a compelling combination of jagged peaks and glacial beauty, this place is a treasure trove of natural attractions. Here are some of the best.
The Mackenzie Country, where you’ll find Aoraki/Mount Cook, is blanketed by a stream of violet hues between November and February – all thanks to the Russell lupins that bloom by the shores of the area’s lakes and rivers. These roadside beauties are at their best and brightest around Lake Tekapo, and they were planted in the late 1940s to embellish the golden pastures. There are fields of them on the State Highway 8 between Twizel and Fairlie, especially on Burkes Pass.
The great thing about Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is that it has loads of hiking opportunities for all ability levels. Those looking to take it easy are spoilt for choice when it comes to short walks, with several trails around Mount Cook village as well as easy hikes that will bring you close to the park’s Tasman Glacier. For the highly experienced, there’s the unmarked multi-day Ball Pass Crossing alpine trek, which provides incredible views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Sefton, the Copland Pass and the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers. If that proves too much, there are plenty of three-to-eight-hour return journeys to keep you busy.
If you’re travelling in summer, you might want to walk along the Hooker Valley Track to access the swimmable, iceberg-speckled waters. The day hike traverses three different swing bridges, offering a glimpse of the stunning Mueller Lake and Glacier before reaching the Hooker Lake and Glacier. And if you’re not ready to plunge into those crisp waters, you can simply spend some time admiring the majestic Aoraki/Mount Cook from a not-too-faraway distance.
Climbing Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak, is a mountaineer’s rite of passage, so much so that Sir Edmund Hillary himself made it his mission to scale the mountain before making history on Mount Everest. It’s fair to say this feat is not for the inexperienced: Aoraki/Mount Cook’s heavy glaciation and turbulent weather conditions call for previous mountaineering training and knowledge. If you’ve got all the right prerequisites but don’t want to do things solo, there are local guides available for mountain- and rock-climbing expeditions across those unforgiving terrains. Alpine Guides offers mountaineering masterclasses.
If you want to explore the wider Mackenzie Basin, a horseback trek will make for a memorable experience. Depending on your chosen riding tour, you might get to see more of those stunning lupins previously mentioned or the exquisite Southern Alps from a whole new perspective. Try hitting up Mackenzie Alpine Horse Trekking – it typically hosts guided horse treks, ranging from 30 minutes to 3.5 hours, from October through to May.
The South Island is quite famous for its incredibly scenic roads, so it’s no wonder that postcard-worthy stopovers surround Mount Cook. State Highway 80 is the main entrance point for drivers heading to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and village, with Lake Tekapo being the main township that leads people into the area. Twizel is another township nearby that will enable you to see some stunning lakes and mountainous vistas as you drive through it.
While it’s true that there are no forests within its rugged terrains, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is home to many nationally significant plants and wildlife – that’s what made it part of the Te Wāhipounamu Unesco World Heritage site in the first place. Highlights include the famous Mount Cook lily, which is the largest buttercup in the world, as well as an abundance of birds. Many of these are found in higher areas, though the lower slopes are known to house several small insectivores and introduced species. Whether you find yourself on lower or higher ground, you should always stay vigilant. After all, you never know what might be hiding in plain sight.
Stretching across 27km (17mi), the Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest glacier. Its terminal lake is famous for being one of a handful in the world to contain a cluster of floating icebergs – a phenomenon that has been brought about by the ice shelves naturally tearing away from the glacier itself. With such a vast distance and interesting formations on show, taking a boat tour is the perfect way to soak up this spectacular glacier and the opaque blue waters that surround it. Glacier Explorers provides the ultimate ice experience.
One of the best places to view the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) during the winter months is Lake Tekapo, which is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Gaze up at the night sky on a stargazing tour and choose from different locations such as University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory, the Church of the Good Shepherd or Cowan’s Observatory.
At the end of the day, it’s the national park’s scenery that will make the trip something to cherish forever. So, sit by the jagged shores and finish things off by watching the sun tuck itself away behind the awe-inspiring alpine ranges you’ve been so diligently exploring on your travels. Peter’s Lookout offers views over Lake Pukaki, perfect for a sunset.
Take in the astonishing views of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park from above on an air safari, hovering over a region with 19 peaks higher than 3,000m (9,843ft). If you want to burn some calories as well, try a helicopter hike, which involves a scenic flight with two hours on the Tasman Glacier.
After an adventurous day of climbing hills or horse riding, soak away the aches and pains in one of the hot pools at Tekapo Springs. Gaze at the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps while relaxing in one of the hot pools, situated at about 720m (2,362ft) above sea level. If you want more of a thrill, go snow tubing from June until September, when you can take a wild round and spin down a 150m (492ft) slope on inflatable tubes.