Aoraki/Mount Cook’s Ridiculous Scenery

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has ridiculously-amazing scenery from every angle and we wanted to take in as much as possible in the 30ish hours we had in the park. We arrived mid-morning, picked up our Mueller Hut permit, laced up our hiking boots, and didn’t stop until lunch the next day.

Hooker Valley Track
Destination: Hooker Lake
Mileage: 10 km (6.21 miles) round trip
Trailhead: White Horse Hill Car Park
Elevation:  750 up to 860 meters ( 2,460 up to 2,821 feet)

Our first Mount Cook adventure was the popular-for-a-reason Hooker Valley Track. We sped by jean-clad, selfie-sticking, toddler-toting tourists taking in the views and bouncing across the three swing bridges.

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The views are nonstop along the Hooker Valley Track. Photo by Compass

Even though our Hooker Valley tramp was whirl-wind, the views were absolutely stunning. Plus it was fun as we climbed up to Mueller to look back on the other side of the valley to see how far we’d traveled that day.

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One of three scenic swing bridges along the track. Photo by Compass

Hooker Lake is a terminal glacier lake, so keep an eye out for icebergs! I’m a fan of jumping in alpine lakes, but the wind on that spring day was already cutting through my jacket like a chilly knife. Instead we settled for a quick celebratory beer before retracing our steps. Hats off to those that brave the frigid water.

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Taking it all in at Hooker Lake. Photo by Compass

Whether it’s on the hike out or back, be sure to stop at the alpine memorial and take a moment to remember the intrepid adventurers that visited Aoraki/Mount Cook for the last time. As a fellow-adventurer, the memorial is a sobering reminder to be prepared when you head into nature and live life to its fullest because sometime Nature simply doesn’t care how well you prepared.

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The Alpine Memorial tells the tale of those that have perished in the national park.

Mueller Hut Route
Destination: Mueller Hut
Mileage: 10.4 km (6.46 miles) round trip
Trailhead: White Horse Hill Car Park
Elevation:  750 up to 1800 meters ( 2,460 up to 5,906 feet)

Mueller hut is a true alpine tramp that was on the top of my New Zealand list. However, I was a bit apprehensive when we picked up our permit and the ranger warned of winter conditions. We had microspikes, but rented ice axes from Alpine Guides across the street from the visitor center just to be on the safe/bad ass side.

If you want to prepare for your trek to Mueller Hut, get on a stair master for three hours, because that’s what’s in store. After a short warm up from the car park, the next mile…mile and a half is purely stairs. So many stairs that my quads burn just thinking back on the climb. Have no fear, because you can use the extensive views as an excuse reason to take a break.

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Miles of stairs. Photo by Compass

After about 10 false summits the stairs finally turn to rock and dirt. Enjoy Sealy Tarns, perhaps even enjoy the view and a snack from the picnic table, because while you’ve survived the stairs, the track now turns into a more of a rough trail/scramble. First through tussock and alpine scrub, followed by a, potentially snowy, boulder field, and then a scree slope – watch for the orange route markers. I can’t attest to the trail through the scree slope, as that was fully under snow, which is when we donned our microspikes.

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Assessing our snowy ascent. Photo by Compass

Cresting the snowy ridge to discover the view up the canyon that houses the Mueller Glacier was unreal. There’s a little notch to the west of the trail that’s worth a quick detour to take in the view. Then we continued on, following the orange route markers through another boulder field, until the red safe haven appeared in the distance and we were in the snowy home stretch.

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The final climb to Mueller Hut. Photo by Compass

Get to Mueller Hut early to nab a bottom bunk. If only top bunks are left, be cautious in your descents, lest you be hasty and take a tumble waking half the bunk room. Total hypothetical situation… On an unrelated note, feel free to sign my petition instituting a height requirement for ladder-less top bunks at DOC huts. If you’re unable to nab a choice bunk, you can easily settle for a choice bench on the deck where snow-covered mountains stretch out before you in all directions.

Sunsetting on Mueller Hut and a great day of hiking. Photo by Compass

Sun setting on Mueller Hut and a great day of hiking. Photo by Compass

The facilities at Mueller Hut include water from a catchment system that is untreated but didn’t cause me any issues, stoves with fuel, and outside toilets with no toilet paper. Thankfully I left my microspikes on my boots as the trail to the bathrooms turned treacherous once the temperatures dropped. Don’t forget to make reservations far in advance; even in early spring the hut was full.

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An icy trek to the bathroom.

I thought we’d have to be stealthy for our early-morning descent, but half the hut was already up waiting for the sunrise. Whether you’re hiking down in the wee-hours of the morning or staying at Mueller for a bit longer, I recommend waking up for Nature’s color show.

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The start of an early-morning descent. Photo by Compass

Depending on the time of year you visit, an early morning descent may be icy or a respite from the sun on the unsheltered mountainside. But considering the location, I wouldn’t blame you for lingering as long as possible. But we had reservations to make down in the Mount Cook Village and I was glad I had my microspikes and ice axe for the icy trip down.

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Looking out over the valley below.

To make it to the village in time, I practically ran down the stairs, which left my leg muscles quaking in their wake. I’m glad our last adventure was an upper-body work out; Mueller Hut was absolutely worth every muscle ache though.

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All of the stairs…and an amazing view! Photo by Compass

Tasman Glacier Lake Kayaking
Destination: Iceberg right ahead!
Mileage: 20 minute-ish hike to Tasman Lake
Trailhead: Meet at The Old Mountaineers Cafe in Mount Cook Village
Elevation:  732 meters ( 2,402 feet)

We paddled all over the milky-blue waters of Tasman Lake – past the lake outlet to a few icebergs, then toward the glacier where we pealed off to watch rocks and ice fall from the dead ice wall, and circled a few more icebergs. Not getting too close though, in case the whole tip of the iceberg situation happened, we wouldn’t want to cause the iceberg to roll knocking us into the frigid waters. Our guide did get close enough to a baby iceberg though and broke a piece off for a taste test!

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Tasman Glacier Lake. Photo by Compass

We met at The Old Mountaineers Cafe to sign all the inherent danger forms and learn the correct technique for using the sea kayaks. Then piled in a van and drove the 20 minutes to the car park. From there it was last call for a restroom and then a 20 minute hike to the kayak storage. We made reservations a few months in advance. I don’t think it was necessary in early spring, but definitely needed in the warmer months.

Our guide was fantastic -knowledgeable of the area, catered to our groups interests and abilities, plus she took photos of us kayaking around the lake and e-mailed us afterward. A truly fantastic souvenir.

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Iceberg kayaking! Photo by our guide

These are just three of the Aoraki/Mt Cook adventures. How many can you squeeze into your visit?

Happy,
Trails

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