Adventure travels and reaching for the sky at Aoraki Mount Cook 

When it comes to adventure travels, no South Island road trip would ever be complete without a visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook, and New Zealand’s largest alpine national park.

Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand
Reaching for the sky above the shimmering turquoise waters at the head of Lake Pukaki, snow-capped Aoraki/Mount Cook is a magnet for photographers, hikers, star gazers, adventure seeking tourists and alpinists.

Aoraki/Mount Cook – the Māori name means ‘cloud piercer’ – stands as an iconic symbol of Aotearoa New Zealand, a place that is significant in Māori culture as it represents the most sacred of ancestors, a link between the supernatural and natural worlds, and as the inspiration for many great human exploits. 

At 3724m, Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, and the centrepiece for New Zealand’s greatest alpine park. 

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park extends across 70,696 hectares encompassing New Zealand’s highest mountains (19 peaks over 3000 metres) and largest glaciers (covering 40 per cent of the area). 

With its deep blue glacier-fed waters, Lake Pukaki is the largest of three lakes occupying ancient glacial valleys flowing down from the mountains. The other two lakes, Tekapo and Ohau also share the same distinctive blue tones produced by finely ground minerals carried in the glacial waters.

Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's largest and longest glacier at 27km, is clearly visible from the main highway at the entrance of the park and easily accessible via a short walk.

Great exploits

The mountain has been the scene of many great exploits. 

Celebrated New Zealand mountaineer and favourite son, Sir Edmund Hillary, trained on Aoraki/Mount Cook for his successful May 1953 ascent of Everest. Visitors can learn about his life and achievements at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village.

It was here, also, that New Zealand tourism pioneer Sir Henry [Harry] Wigley created aviation history in 1955 when he made a world-first snow landing in a plane with modified retractable skis. Wigley had spent years perfecting the skis before he piloted the first ski plane from Aoraki/Mount Village to the Tasman Glacier. 

Less than a year later, Wigley was taking tourists on scenic flights and glacier landings; today, 65 years later, Mt Cook Ski Planes operated by INFLITE Group is still flying visitors up onto the mountain for the same unique thrills.  

Outdoor adventures

This region is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations and, while mountaineers regard it as the best climbing region in Australasia, there is also a wide variety of outdoor activities for all fitness levels from mountaineering and ice climbing to walking and hiking to pretty alpine tarns, magnificent scenic flights and landings on snow and ice, cycling and stargazing.

Encounters with cheeky kea (mountain parrots) are part of the fun. About 40 species of birds are found in the park, along with rare insects and lizards, and the beautiful Mt Cook lily. 

Explore some of the 10 short walks that begin near Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. All tracks are formed and well-marked. The Governors Bush Walk, Bowen Bush Walk and Glencoe Walk each take under one hour to complete and offer an easy meander through New Zealand native bush to a lookout point.  Or, take a guided hike to explore the McNulty’s Tarns and the Hooker Valley Track

Glacier viewing and skiing

Helicopters and ski-planes provide easy access to the park's incredible glaciers. The mighty Tasman Glacier is one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. While it slowly carves its way down the mountain, it provides a landing place for small ski planes and helicopters.

Visitors can experience the surreal, milky terminal lake and its icebergs on a Glacier Explorer inflatable (October to May).

Intermediate skiers can ski the Tasman Glacier, while the Murchison, Darwin and Bonney glaciers provide exciting slopes for advanced skiers. Landing among spectacular ice formations and caverns is the start of an unforgettable experience. 

Stargazing and Cycle trails

Far from city lights, the stargazing is magnificent. The rare quality of the region’s almost light-pollution-free skies was officially recognised in 2012 with the establishment of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, a vast 4300sqkm gold-rated dark sky reserve in the skies above the national park.  

The uninterrupted darkness provides visitors with an ideal opportunity to explore the skies with the help of expert astronomy guides. Powerful telescopes are available to allow a close look at the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, the Southern Cross, star clusters and distant galaxies. 

Starting from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail is New Zealand’s longest continuous bike ride. The 300km trail descends over 609m from the Southern Alps through the central South Island and the Waitaki Valley to Oamaru and the Pacific Ocean. 

Aoraki/Mt Cook Village

State Highway 80 leads to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village which is situated beside scenic Lake Pukaki and provides a comfortable base for alpine activities. 

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, adjoining the iconic Hermitage Hotel, attracts visitors of all ages keen to pay tribute to the legendary Kiwi who was a friend and mentor to many, humanitarian, ambassador and one of New Zealand’s most famous sons. It includes a purpose-built entertainment and education centre with a full-dome planetarium, a museum and stargazing deck.

Aoraki/Mount Cook Village offers everything from backpacker lodges and campsites to 5-star lodges and the lovely The Hermitage Hotel which is famous for its barstool views of the mountain. 

The Department of Conservation provides 17 huts in the park. Most are positioned to provide accommodation for mountaineers, and climbing skills are required to reach these. 

The nearest towns are Twizel and Lake Tekapo. They both offer a range of restaurants, cafes and accommodation options.