Follow State Highway 80 to it’s terminus, past the bright blue glacial waters of Lake Pukaki and right at the foot of Aotearoa New Zealand’s highest mountain, to find one of the most charming winter destinations in the South Island.
Aoraki Mount Cook Village known mostly as the top basecamp for climbers and alpinists from New Zealand and beyond, but you don’t need to have any climbing skills at all to enjoy the place, even in winter. There are plenty of rivers, glaciers and hills within easy walking distance, there’s lots to see indoors as well, and you only have to step outside to see the stars.
But the best thing about Aoraki Mount Cook Village is that it is the gateway to Aoraki Mount Cook national park.
Whether you want to get out and walk amongst it’s wonders, or just gaze at the spectacular scenery of Mount Cook National Park through the window of a car (or a bar), it’s all right there at Mount Cook.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is spectacular
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park was established in 1953. It’s a magical place. For one thing, it hosts both 19 of the country’s 23 above-3000-metre peaks in its mountain ranges, and five significant valley systems: Godley, Murchison, Tasman, Hooker and Mueller.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is chocka with glaciers: the Tasman Glacier, the Hooker Glacier, and so many more
Even better, forty percent (yes, almost half) of the 700 square kilometres that make up the national park are covered in glaciers. Aoraki Mt Cook itself is bordered by the Tasman Glacier to the east and the Hooker Glacier towards the west coast.
Skiers take note: at 23 kilometres, the Tasman Glacier is the longest glacier in New Zealand, and you can ski on it.
Find yourself a very big buttercup
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park also home to an array of cool plant life, including the famous Mount Cook buttercup – it’s the world’s biggest buttercup, and worth having a search for. Also known as the Mount Cook lily, it can grow to over a meter tall and its has huge cup-shaped leaves that collect water. Trampers sometimes stop to take a drink from them.
You can take a walk beneath the Southern Alps in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is also home to what some people call the country’s best day walk: the Hooker Valley Track.
A nicely-graded flat track with three swing bridges (that’s Kiwi for suspension bridges), a boardwalk, picnic tables, a significant river, and amazing views of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana and Aoraki Mount Cook, which gets closer as you hike up the Hooker Valley.
Along the way, there are views of the Mueller Lake and the ancient snow fields of the Mueller Glacier, the Hooker River, Aoraki Mt Cook and the ridges left behind thousands of years ago in the form of glacier moraine.
The end of the Hooker Valley Track up the valley rewards with a lookout point that serves up amazing views over Hooker Lake. It’s a glacier lake, and you can often see icebergs bobbing on its surface, like a giant gin and tonic.
It’s easy to see Aotearoa New Zealand’s highest peak in Aoraki Mount Cook
Aoraki Mt Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain. The highest point of the Southern Alps, it reaches an altitude of 3,724 metres (12,218 feet) – high enough to be permanently covered in snow.
Climbers have been coming from all over the world for more than a century to climb Aoraki, and not because it is easy. It’s a serious climb, both due to the vertical scale and to the weather.
The first recorded ascent of Mt Cook was the successful summit of the New Zealand climbing trio of Jack Clarke, Tom Fyfe and George Graham, who reach the top of the mountain on Christmas day in 1894.
Spare a thought for the Reverend W S Green, who twelve years earlier had come within 20 metres of the top of Aoraki. So close, but not close enough to become more than a footnote in the history of alpine climbers in New Zealand.
The road in to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is one of the most spectacular on the South Island
The only to and from the park in a car is along State Highway 80, which is just fine, because it’s a stunner. It skirts the milky-blue waters of Lake Pukaki, the largest lake in the Mackenzie District, through a rolling landscape that ends at the foot of the mighty Southern Alps.
Along the way, the combination of the turquoise lake (made bright blue by the presence of “glacier flour”, fine partials of rock ground up by glaciers on the move), golden alpine grasses, multi-hued lupen flowers and snow-capped hills create a layered symphony of colours made for your Instagram feed. Spectacular views: check!
Wow, cool! How do you get to Aoraki Mount Cook national park?
If you are on the South Island, you can drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook from either the north (the direction of Christchurch), or the south (Queenstown and Dunedin). The turnoff is well signposted. There are also buses from Christchurch, Queenstown and Wanaka.
Not keen on driving? You can fly into the airport at Mt Cook from South Island bases like Queenstown and Lake Tekapo for a scenic day trip.
Aoraki Mount Cook is big, but the township is small
It’s namesake, Aoraki Mt Cook, may be Aotearoa New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but the town that sits in its shadow is tiny.
About 250 people live there, and visitor numbers drop in this popular tourist destination off significantly in winter. The local school (which, fun fact, is New Zealand’s only school inside a national park) has a roll that hovers around 10.
We don’t know about you, but for us, it’s the perfect, peaceful alternative to the resort-town madness in places like Queenstown and Ohakune during the winter months.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre is amazing
The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Hermitage Hotel is a one-stop-shop when it comes to learning about the Aoraki/Mount Cook region.
Its museum houses treasures ranging from a vintage flyer promoting a ‘Mount Cook Boogie Weekend’ to the OC3 Oliver tractor used to transport ski gear into the parks’ hills 30 years ago.
And did we mention the movies?
The Centre’s theatre plays both 2D and 3D films, and has a planetarium. Apparently, it’s the only place in the world you can find these three things together in one room.
Highlights: ‘Mount Cook Magic’ in 3D, which takes you straight to Aoraki’s summit without the pesky 18-hour walk, and ‘Mountain Rescuers’, which reminds you why it’s best you didn’t try it on foot.
Aoraki Mount Cook is a great place to gaze at the stars
There are plenty of mountaineering starts in in Aoraki Mount Cook – turn any corner and you’re bound to bump into someone who has a first ascent, or a speed records, or some sort of landform named after them.
But that’s not what we mean.
In June 2012, a 4300-square kilometre area, which includes Aoraki Mt Cook Village, was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR).
An IDSR has strict controls on light pollution, and the night sky at Aoraki Mt Cook Village is a revelation, a reminder that our mountain may be big, but in the true scheme of things, they are very very small.