I have a lot of favorite spots in New Zealand. Some are secret and some are not-so-secret. Some are off the beaten path, and some are obvious. I love them all, I’m not picky.
But if there is one place on the South Island if you ever asked me would I drop everything I was doing and head over immediately, it’s Mt. Cook.
Aoraki/Mt. Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain topping out at at a whopping 3,724 meters (12,218 ft) located in the center of the South Island in Canterbury, one of my favorite regions. And trust me, she’s a beauty. With a bold, super iconic peak, there’s no mistaking Mt. Cook when you are within a hundred miles of it. It stands out above and beyond the surrounding Southern Alps.
Most of the time Mt. Cook is clouded over, so when you finally get the chance to see it, it will blow you away. At least it did for me.
I’ve always been fascinated by mountains and mountaineering, and seriously, nothing excites me more than be in the shadows of these snowcapped peaks. Though I am really intimidated by the thought of alpine climbing, I hope one day I can at least learn the basics.
Mt. Cook village is a little town 12km from the base of the mountain, and it’s a tiny little town that I love to just hanging out in. Population – 250 on a good day. 2.5 hours from Wanaka, it’s a great weekend getaway or easy day trip. Sometimes I even just go over and camp or sleep in my car there, I love it that much.
And my favorite time to explore Mt. Cook? Winter – when everything is frosted over white and the town is empty of summer hikers.
The Mackenzie Basin (Mackenzie Country), the area of Canterbury where Mt. Cook is located, is one of my favorite corners of New Zealand. It’s rugged and wild, an open land as far as you can see with unbelievable white mountains and glaciers peeking over the horizon and more sheep than people.
It’s named after James Mckenzie, a shepherd and sheep thief of Scottish ancestry which makes me love this area even more. Wild and wonderful.
And what do I love the most about Mt. Cook? The views. Seriously, the views rock. Here are my 10 favorite.
1. Road to Mt. Cook Village
This dead end chunk of highway has to be one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand, not to mention the world. It’s mindblowingly beautiful.
I wish I could give you a time for how long it takes to drive from the top of the road where you turn off the main highway to the village, but I don’t think I have ever made it the whole way without stopping about 10 times for photos.
On that note, I will add that there are plenty of safe pull offs in both directions where your car is at least a meter away from the highway. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost run over tourists or almost had an accident from people just parking half on half off the road. Be sensible!
My 3 favorite views on the road into Mt. Cook Village are the following:
- Peter’s Lookout at the top
- When you cross all of the one lane bridges
- The last part right before the village in a long stretch that faces directly at Mt. Sefton
As an extra photography tip, I’ll add that if you have a telephoto lens (like my Canon 70-300mm) you will be able to capture the most beautiful depth with the road leading down to Mt. Cook.
2. Hooker Valley walk
The Hooker Valley walk has to be the easiest walk to most rewarding view ratio to be found in New Zealand. You could do this walk in your flip flops; it’s such a nice, flat groomed trail, and it’s a really mellow walk down the Hooker Valley to a glacier lake at the bottom of Mt. Cook.
More icebergs than you could ever want and a few fun swing bridges to bounce along and freak other walkers out on. It’s around a 3-4 hour return but be sure to give yourself plenty of more time because you will probably stop for photos every 5 minutes. There is no ugly part of this walk.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out to the Hooker Valley, but I know that I will probably keep heading out there every time I’m in the Mackenzie.
3. Mt. Sefton
Mt. Sefton ties Mt. Aspiring as my favorite New Zealand mountain.
It is called the Guardian of Mt. Cook and towers over the village. No matter where you are in the park, Mt. Sefton seems to be watching you. Covered in hanging glaciers and ice, it’s blue face is just spectacular. I love it!
I dream of one day being able to climb Mt. Sefton even though it scares the pants off me and I doubt I will ever be a good enough mountaineer or hiker to try. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and watched huge icefalls and avalanches tumble down from it.
In the meantime I’ll just admire it from a distance. Or even from the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe in town with a warm cup of cocoa in my hands.
4. Governers Bush walk
Most people look to do more alpine walks when at Mt. Cook, but as much as I love that, I also love walking through native New Zealand forest because it’s just incredible.
Quiet and pure, with a feeling of being ancient, I love the gnarly old temperate rainforests, especially around the South Island. The Governers Bush walk leaves from the village and is a mellow 1 hour loop up through the Silver Beech Forest with mountain views at the top.
It’s one of the lesser known tracks in the area but worth doing if you have time.
5. Helicopter flight snow landing
Being able to see Mt. Cook from a chopper is one of the best ways to experience this part of New Zealand and really get a scope for how dramatic and wild the landscape is here. The Helicopter Line has heaps of different flight options for the Mt. Cook area.
My favorite part is flying over the braided rivers that lead down to Lake Pukaki. In the late afternoon light they look like they are on fire!
We landed up in the snow in the shadow of Mt. Cook, made some snow angels and took about a million photos before flying back to Glentanner.
6. Tasman Valley walk
I’d been to Mt. Cook so many times and never turned down the road to the Tasman Valley, having heard it wasn’t as dramatic as its counterpart – the Hooker Valley.
Wow, was that wrong!
The drive out to the start of the walks is beautiful, and the walk is more interesting than the Hooker Valley thanks to a more varied and challenging trail with a bit of climb. You’ll past a couple of beautiful little greenish blue ponds on your way up which are worth stopping at, and in winter they might be frozen over.
The view at the top looking down at the Tasman glacial lake is just stunning and you can see the solid blue ice wall at the end of the glacier leading up to the back of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook. Usually there’s a handful of icebergs floating around as well.
7. Lake Pukaki lookout
On the main highway between Twizel and Tekapo, there is a visitor’s centre, which I’ve never actually been inside of, public toilets and a huge car park looking out over Lake Pukaki. While it’s super popular, especially with tour buses, this part is still one of my favorite views of Mt. Cook.
On a good, clear day you can see Mt. Cook easily at the other end of the lake, and if there’s no wind, there is usually an amazing reflection.
Not to mention Lake Pukaki is so blue it looks fake. Because of suspended glacial flower in the water, it stays a solid turquoise, and on cloudy days, reflects into the clouds making them look green, very surreal.
8. Mueller Hut hike
I’ve written a whole story about Mueller Hut, and I am pretty sure it’s New Zealand’s sexiest hike. It’s a beautiful red hut that looks directly out at Mt. Cook. Seriously, it couldn’t be prettier and it’s definitely one of New Zealand’s more accessible hikes.
Many people climb up there and back as a day hike but I think it’s the best at night so it’s worth carrying up a heavier pack to experience it overnight.
In winter you will probably need mountaineering experience to access the hut, especially if there are avalanche warnings (check with DOC and always register your intent at the local DOC office). My friends Jenna and Jordan from Stoked for Saturday missioned up there this winter and made a beautiful video.
9. Kea Point walk
I did this walk for the first time on my last trip out to Mt. Cook this winter. It’s an easy walk from the village along the same boardwalk trail that leads to the Mueller Hut and just continues on to give you amazing views over the turquoise Mueller lake and out towards Mt. Sefton.
It was snowing and freezing when I was there and you can still do it in that weather. It’s an easy 2 hour return you can do all year.
I love walking in the snow!
10. Under the stars
Mt. Cook is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which is the biggest dark sky reserve in the world. Here is one of the best places to see the stars because there is almost no light pollution.
As someone who grew up on the urban east coast of the US, I can tell you there are few things I appreciate now quite like the New Zealand sky. It is just spectacular, and I pinch myself every time I see the Milky Way.
Make sure to stay away and go for a walk, camp or just sit outside and stare at the stars if you visit Mt. Cook. They’ll blow you away.
Many thanks to Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism for hosting me for a few days at Mt. Cook. Like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!