Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

The legend of Aoraki

Aoraki (the Maori name for Mt Cook) is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3754 metres or 12,316 feet. Mt Cook National Park lies in the Canterbury region of the South Island and is home to many of New Zealand’s highest mountains and largest glaciers, including its namesake. 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 Mt Cook (from a passenger jet say) it is indeed noticeable higher than other peaks in the Southern Alps.

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. Because Mt Cook is higher than any others, it’s often capped by cloud when other peaks are clear, hence its name ‘cloud piercer’ in Maori.

mt cook 1

The peaks and glaciers of Mt 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 Mt Cook village, at the entrance of Mt 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. Due to Aoraki Mt 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 Mt 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 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.

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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 Rimu 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.

Hiking Mount Cook

Sir Ed and 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.

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Trip Reviews

  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 16244 reviews)

    Rimu - NZ South Island

    Our Rimu trip with Ken and Elder was truly a trip of a lifetime. The two of them were the perfect pair to lead our adventure -kind, warm, funny, and incredibly encouraging (for those of us who weren't quite sure we'd make it up the mountain!) My husband and I were fortunate to have both of our adult boys join us which made for a very memorable experience. New Zealand's South Island offered some of the most breathtaking landscapes we had ever seen. The hiking, kayaking, and biking was challenging and exhilarating. It was hard to say goodbye to the group who became like family. We have stayed in touch with some, and look forward to our next trip with Active.
    Gigi Altaras Review Image
    – Washington, United States
    Rimu, November 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 16244 reviews)

    Chris Darcy review of Rimu Trip

    The term trip of a lifetime gets used far too frequently. This was one. The South Island of New Zealand is likely the most beautiful place on earth, pound for pound. Nowhere else can you find so much beautiful landscape, diverse landscapes and microclimates packed into such a small area, which can be travelled in such a short amount of time while still doing it justice. Our guides, Holly and Claire, were fantastic - wonderful dispositions, knowledgeable, tireless and attentive - and made the trip special. And Kiwis are some of the nicest folks on earth (after Canadians of course) - we didn't have a single negative experience the whole time we were there. If you've been thinking of going to New Zealand don't wait - you can't do better than this trip - just make sure you take extra memory cards for your camera.
    Chris Darcy Review Image
    – Ontario, Canada
    Rimu, November 2016
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 16244 reviews)

    Tui in February

    I combined Kauri with Tui and it was the perfect blend to see both Islands in New Zealand. My Tui experience was terrific. It certainly was an active adventure!
    Andrea King Review Image
    – Connecticut, United States
    Tui, March 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 16244 reviews)

    North Island - Kauri

    From the first day to the last, I have enjoyed travelling through the North Island with our fantastic guides Jo and Andy. Rain or shine there was always an interesting hike to go to, or a point of view worth stopping at and they know them all. The landscaping of NZ is fabulous in many areas and I liked the fact that we went out of the major tourist attraction points. Andy, excellent driver, is also an encyclopedia of information and such a good narrator he makes the long road trips fill shorter and very pleasant. Jo the mermaid is an excellent cook who enjoyed preparing meals for kings even in restrictive facilities. I enjoyed the fact that we could participate in a good variety of activities as we were hoping to. We felt secure at all times, we learned a lot about the Maori nation and their influence on the actual NZ.
    A very informative and pleasant trip overall, with excellent guides who adapt easily to any group of people or situations they have to deal with. Two tums up, I will definitely recommend this adventure to anyone who enjoys nature and culture out of their comfort zone.
    Claude Remy Review Image
    – Ontario, Canada
    Kauri, December 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 16244 reviews)

    Last 5 Days Kauri

    So much packed into just a few days. From walking to tops of (several!) mountains to floating through underground tunnels, plus geothermal springs and Maori culture. A whirlwind central North Island adventure!
    Matthew Gonser Review Image
    – Hawaii, United States
    Kauri, January 2017

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Why travel with Active Adventures?

Above all, we aim to be amazing hosts. We're proud of our kiwi roots, and our professional, warm and relaxed style of running trips around the world is unforgettable.

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