Mount Cook National Park is situated in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island and is centered around Mount Cook – the country’s highest mountain – after which it is named. The park was officially formed in 1953 and comprises over 70000 hectares – nearly all of which is alpine wilderness and much of which is covered with ice including the massive 27km long Tasman Glacier – the largest in New Zealand which amazingly is up to 2000 feet deep in places.
Most visitors will arrive here by the only road access along the shores of Lake Pukaki – whose waters are a curious deep turquoise colour due to the sediment from melting ice – to Mount Cook Village which is the only township within the park boundaries. You simply follow Highway 80 from Twizel all the way to the end of the road with spectacular views of the mountain throughout. Mount Cook Village has a visitor centre which provides detailed information on the area and there are numerous walks of varying difficulty starting from here. The Red Tarns and Kea Point tracks lead easily to viewpoints while longer trails wind into the Hooker Valley. Please note that some of the routes from here such as the Sefton Bivouac, Ball Pass and Copland Track venture into mountaineering territory and should only be attempted if you have the relevant experience. The visitor centre will advise on suitability of a route or hiring a mountain guide if necessary. Climbing Mount Cook is a serious mountaineering venture.
There is a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite in a spectacular location just beyond Mount Cook Village and another with more facilities back down the valley near Glentanner which also offers self catering cabins, backpackers accommodation and a number of activities including horse riding. Mount Cook Village has several hotels including the celebrated Hermitage Hotel which overlooks the village.
Walking and hiking is the main activity in the park with almost countless opportunities at all levels of difficulty but there is plenty to challenge the more serious climber too with 23 peaks of over 3000 metres in the area. Mount Cook – Aoraki in the Maori language which means “cloud piercer” – towers to 3754 metres just beyond the village and Mt Tasman, Mt Sefton and Mt Elie de Beaumont, the best known of the other major summits rise along the ridge of the Southern Alps. Just a glance towards the head of the valley from the village will reveal vast walls of rock draped with the ice of the glaciers.
The Hooker Valley Track and Tasman Valley Road lead off into the wilderness and provide opportunities for the mountain biker though off road riding isn’t permitted in the national parks of New Zealand. If you are planning to drive the Tasman Valley or anywhere beyond Mount Cook village in a hire vehicle then check you are insured for these unsealed gravel roads.
Anther justifiably popular activity is a plane or helicopter flight over the glaciers – it’s worth paying a little extra for a flight that lands on the glacier as I did this from Franz Josef on the the other side of the mountains and it’s absolutely awesome as they say in New Zealand. One trip I didn’t get to do though is the inflatable boat trip on the terminal lake of the Tasman Glacier. It goes right up past the drifting icebergs to the edge of the glacier itself – now that is my idea of a good day out. Whatever your idea of a good day out though, if you’re heading to New Zealand this year and want to experience some of the best of what nature has to offer then the Mount Cook area is for you – enjoy your trip!