EXPLORE / South Island / Mount Cook

Mount Cook (Aoraki)

Given that this area is home to New Zealand's highest peak (Mount Cook), largest glacier (Tasman), even the world's largest buttercup (Mount Cook Lily), it's hard to believe that it's often overlooked by travellers to New Zealand.

It shouldn't be.

Surrounded by the Southern Alps, our Mount Cook section has serene beauty and natural wonders as well as extreme sports and adventure activities. The area's terrain, enclosed by high peaks, may have helped keep it a secret in the past, but holidaying Kiwis have been visiting here more and more often in recent times.

They visit to take in the glory of Mount Cook, the light blue color of lakes like Pukaki, the clear night skies above Lake Tekapo and even the fresh salmon available just outside of Twizel. If you're visiting New Zealand for its breathtaking views and unbeatable scenery, then this section of the country can't be missed.

So instead of spending the last of your time and funds partying in Queenstown only to catch a flight out, take a bus from the ski town to Christchurch and make sure to spend at least a day or two in Mount Cook. There are lots of accommodation options here. Check out Wotif for the best deals on Mount Cook accommodation.

Destination Mount Cook: Getting There

We recommend arriving here by car or coach, not only because it's the best way to see everything in the area, but it's also the most affordable option. While you can find a few small airports in the region, arriving directly by plane is quite expensive as it requires a chartered flight.

Whether coming from somewhere else in New Zealand or overseas, the quickest option is to arrive at either Christchurch or Queenstown international airports. Lake Tekapo is only about a three hour drive from either city and the three towns included in this section are no more than an hour drive from each other.

Renting or traveling with your own car or campervan will give you the most freedom to explore this area at your own pace. It's also easy to navigate as all our recommended stops in this section are either on SH 8 (Tekapo-Twizel Road) or just off it on SH 80 (Mount Cook Road). Beyond that, the drive between Queenstown and Christchurch is pretty straightforward and most rental companies allow customers to rent a vehicle in one city and drop it off in another.

If driving isn't for you, public buses stops in Tekapo and Twizel. A few local tour companies operate around Mount Cook, but this option can be expensive. 

Destination Mount Cook: Orientation

These are the main towns of the West Coast moving from north to south. 

  • Aoraki / Mount Cook Village :: Located at the end of SH 80, this is your nearest access point or base for all things Mount Cook National Park. From here, people can view and access the 3,754-meter-high Mount Cook, Tasman Glacier and the blue lakes. They can also plan walks to places like Kea Point and book activities at the Visitor Center here. The village offers accommodation at various prices, whether it be pitching a tent at White Horse Hill, shacking up with fellow backpackers or living the highlife. It also has a few restaurants and cafes.
  • Tekapo :: While Mount Cook is this area's most popular sight, Tekapo is its most popular destination. The quiet family friendly town on a lake has really come into its own in recent years. It offers quite a few accommodation options, water sports in the summer and skiing in the winter and it is a fabulous place to see and learn about stars.
  • Twizel :: Similar to Tekapo, but quieter, Twizel is the furthest south of the three. The town was developed in 1968 for workers building a hydroelectric power station nearby. Today, its proximity to Mount Cook is what makes it most popular. Like the other two recommended destinations, Twizel offers accommodation, but it's less-likely to fill up. Lake Ruataniwha is the place to play here. People can fish in waterways around town, including the Mount Cook Salmon Farm, located just south of Twizel.

Destination Mount Cook: Hot Spots

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

As mentioned above, this is the area's biggest attraction. In this park, there are heaps of fantastic walking opportunities and the experienced mountaineers can climb Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak, as well as several of New Zealand's other massive mountains.

There are also several great lookout points including Mount Cook Lookout on SH 8, which gives you a stunning view of Mount Cook above the light bluish, green Lake Pukaki. The park has no shortage of walks with great sights along the way.

Another sight not to be missed in Mount Cook National Park is Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's largest glacier. Visitors can just view the glacier as well as the Blue Lakes on a walk or they can explore it with a variety of tour companies. Like Mount Cook, Tasman is not the only glacier in this area, just the biggest.

Hike to the Mueller Hut

While the hike to Mueller Hut from Mt Cook Village is a bit of a grunt, it's absolutely worth it. The hut sits at 1,800 metres - about half the height of Mt Cook - and is surrounded by impressive glaciers. The walk takes about three - four hours one way, but when you arrive at the hut you'll forget about the pain of the walk up.

The views are incredible, and you'll fall asleep listening to the sound of avalanches and rock and ice falls from across the valley. This walk isn't accessible over the winter months or in times of bad weather, but if you have a good forecast when you're in Mt Cook Village - it's a trip worth seriously considering. You can read more about it on our blog here - Mueller Hut Overnight Trip.

Experience the Intensely Blue Alpine Lakes

 This part of New Zealand has an abundance of lakes, each more stunning than the next. The colors and size of lakes like Tekapo and Pukaki will have you mesmerized and wondering.

So how do these lakes get their baby blue color?

The grinding action of glaciers releases a fine dust of rock and mineral called "rock flour". Rock flour mixes with clear glacier water, which forms the waterways in this region. This mixed with the sun's reflection creates the interesting water color.

The lakes here can be explored in a number of ways, whether it be taking a chilly swim, fishing or kayaking.

See the Starry Night

Since the night's sky is incredible all over New Zealand, calling the Mount Cook area one of the best places to see it in the country is really saying something. A mixture of clear skies and minimal light pollution make Lake Tekapo and surrounding towns a great place to star gaze.

Checking out the southern stars, you might even be lucky enough to catch a meteor shower or the Southern Lights from here if your timing is right. Visit Mount John Observatory to learn more and get a better view.

Winter Sports

Come snow season (July - October), this region has snow-covered mountains as well as plenty of ski and snowboard operators. Mt. Dobson and Roundhill offer skiing and snowboarding from Lake Tekapo. People can also cross country ski the Two Thumb range here. Not into skiing? Lake Tekapo has an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter months as well.

Fancy a ski down New Zealand's highest peak? That's totally possible here too. Companies like Alpine Guides and Alpine Recreation offers ski tours here. But Southern Alps Guiding offers heliskiing. Intrigued? Read the next section.

Take in the View from Above

We might not recommend flying into the Mount Cook area, but that doesn't mean we don't suggest taking advantage of the many air tours or activities here.

There are several scenic flight companies operating out of Mt Cook, Twizel and Tekapo. Scenic flights here allow people to see incredible views of the summit of Mount Cook, the full size of the Tasman Glacier from above and even a chance to walk on the top of a mountain in the Southern Alps.

But people can do more than just sightsee with flight companies here. If you're keen, consider heli-skiing or heli-mountain biking for a once in a lifetime experience.

Destination Mount Cook: Final Thoughts & Recommendations

With how much there is to see and do in this area you would think it would be more popular amongst tourists. The area still remains quite untouched and very serene.

A holiday to Mount Cook can cost as little or as much as your budget provides. It would be amazing to take a helicopter ride here or ski Mount Cook, but all these things are expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars on these activities.

The good news is, you don't have to. The place is incredible enough without tours. The most popular sights here can be seen for free and there are plenty of walks at all different levels that don't require a guide.

On top of that, this is one of the few areas in New Zealand that still allows some freedom camping. Independent Overnight Camping is available in reserved areas on Lake Opuha, Lake Tekapo and Lake Wardell.  Make sure to leave your site as you found it.

Finally, for those on a budget, make sure to stop at a grocery store prior to visiting to the region. The restaurants and cafes here can be expensive. Even the Four Square Supermarket in Lake Tekapo will have you paying more than you need to.


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