Aoraki (the Maori name for Mount Cook) is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3754 metres or 12,316 feet. Mount Cook National Park lies in the Canterbury region of the South Island of New Zealand and is home to many of New Zealand’s highest mountains and largest glaciers, including its namesake.
Geologically, the mountain is higher than others because roughly the top third of the mountain has been pushed up along a major fault line (called the 'Main Divide' Fault), creating a kind of small mountain sitting on top of a big mountain. As Mount Cook is higher than any others, it’s often capped by cloud when other peaks are clear, hence its name ‘cloud piercer’ in Maori.
When is the Best Time to Visit Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park?
Mount Cook is spectacular at any time of year. Due to its high altitude, it is always snow-covered, so capturing images of New Zealands's tallest mountain will always be stunning. However, the summer months (December through to April) are more pleasant for hiking - and taking a dip in the glacial lakes if you're brave enough! Some of the hiking trails are not passable in the depths of winter due to snow and avalanche is a real risk. Given the alpine environment, hikers should always be prepared for sudden changes in weather, even in the height of summer, and carry supplies of food water, and warm weather gear for the cold and extreme conditions that may be encountered.
Summer average temperatures range from 8-14 degrees Celsius. The area has 160 days per annum of rainfall. It's an area of extreme weather, terrain, but also breathtaking beauty!
How to get to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is 330km (205 miles) - approximately a four-hour drive south of Christchurch along State Highways 1 and 8. If you're heading north from Queenstown, it takes about 3 1/2 hours to get there. It's a spectacular drive through the region of South Canterbury's Mackenzie Country, past glacial lakes such as Lake Tekapo and the iridescent blue lake Mount Cook towers above, Lake Pukaki.
What to do at Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
Climbing, hiking, scenic flights, or just relaxing in this truly spectacular part of New Zealand - there is no shortage of things to do in Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park!
Hiking trails abound through this alpine wonderland, or take a scenic flight for a bird's eye view of the 26km long Tasman Glacier in all its glory. Aoraki and neighboring MacKenzie Country have very little light pollution and the area is an official international dark sky reserve. This makes it the perfect place to spot the Southern Cross - a star formation only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hiking near Mount Cook
The park is most well known for its fantastic hiking opportunities that range from half-day hikes along trails that are well-marked and suitable for all ages, through to steeper quite iconic New Zealand hiking routes like the Ball Pass Crossing and the Mueller Hut hike. The Mueller Hut hike is a highlight on our Ultimate South Island Adventure and Manuka adventure tours – sitting at 1800 metres (5900 feet) elevation on the Sealy Range, the hut provides a 360-degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand's highest peaks. Trekking to the hut through the alpine scrub, herb fields and scree slopes is a pretty big achievement in itself, but is also a stepping stone for mountaineers who for decades have used this route to attack some of the formidable peaks in the area.
Scenic Flights & Heli Skiing
Next to hiking the trails, taking a scenic flight to get a birds' eye view is an incredible way to take in the majestic surroundings. Why not take it to the next level and embark on a guided backcountry ski adventure, down New Zealand's longest ski runs - heli-skiing down the Tasman Glacier?
Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
Talking about New Zealand’s most mountainous national park wouldn’t be complete without reference and tribute to New Zealand’s most famous climber and ambassador, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit (and successfully descend) Mount Everest. Sitting adjacent to the Hermitage Hotel is the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre an awesome facility designed to educate and entertain keen adventurers. The centre features a state-of-the-art 3D movie that doubles as a full-dome digital planetarium, photo gallery and a museum that documents the pioneering heart of the region. Also, in August 2011, the South Ridge of Aoraki Mt Cook was renamed the Hillary Ridge in recognition of Hillary’s achievements, including the fact that Hillary and three other climbers were the first party to successfully summit the mountain via this ridge in 1948.
The Peaks and Glaciers of Mount Cook National Park
There are 19 peaks over 3000 metres (9840 feet) in the park (so it must have been a pretty large waka!) and most of them rise up from near sea level. Upon entering Aoraki / Mount Cook village, at the entrance of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, you definitely feel a sense of being dwarfed. In a valley amongst these giants is the Tasman Glacier, there to greet you when you turn off the main highway; it’s New Zealand's largest glacier at 27 kilometres (17 miles) long.
Flora & Fauna of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Due to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park’s rugged terrain (over 40% of the park’s land surface is covered by glacier), there is almost no forest, but instead hikers are greeted with an abundance of alpine plants including the spectacular mountain buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii), which is also known as the Mount Cook Lily. Although it’s not technically a lily, it is the largest buttercup in the world.
A couple of other highlights of the park include the kea, an inquisitive native alpine parrot often encountered on our Active Adventures trips, as well as the jeweled gecko, a little fellow that is very secretive and rarely seen.
The legend of Aoraki Mount Cook
According to Maori legend, Aoraki, the eldest son of Raki (Sky) was travelling with his brothers in a waka (or canoe), when it ended up running aground on a reef and fell to one side. Aoraki and his brothers climbed to the high side of the waka and sat on the wreckage. The freezing south wind then turned them into stone, creating the Southern Alps. Aoraki was sitting higher than all the others, and if you look at Mount Cook (from a passenger jet say) it is indeed noticeably higher than other peaks in the Southern Alps.