The Mt Cook area is one of the most visually spectacular areas of our country. Our highest mountain Aoraki Mount Cook juts fiercely into the skies, and other jagged peaks hide various snow-covered glaciers, including the mighty Tasman Glacier. This was the landscape that taught Sir Edmund Hillary the skills to summit Mt Everest. If you’re visiting the area, we’ve got a list of 6 unmissable experiences – from scenic flights to museums to stargazing.
1. HOOKER VALLEY WALK
This day walk leads up through the spectacular Hooker Valley, crossing three swing bridges over the Hooker River. It winds between moraine (glacial debris) ridges and humps, and through tussock and forest. It finishes at the Hooker Lake at the foot of the Hooker Glacier, with views up to Aoraki/Mt Cook itself. The lake may even have floating icebergs if the glacier has recently calved. You certainly don’t have to be an athlete to do this walk – the track is an easy 3-hour return and the many wooden walkways are well maintained by DOC. Look out for cheeky kea and the Mount Cook buttercup/kōpukupuku (the world’s largest buttercup).
2. SCENIC FLIGHT
The best way to take in the full grandeur of the landscape is scenic flight by helicopter. At Heliworks Mount Cook we have a whole range of exhilarating packages that all whisk you away over glittering peaks and deep valleys, with some flights landing in the year-round snow on top of the Tasman Glacier.
The theatre here has 2D, 3D and a Digital Dome planetarium, and it screens movies ranging from Sir Edmund Hillary, to prehistoric New Zealand, to a 3D Aoraki animation. In the small adjoining museum, visitors (especially those that might have had relatives with a mountaineering background) will find it amazing to view all the old climbing gear, and the history behind it all. Aviation enthusiasts will love seeing the first ski plane to land on the Tasman Glacier (it’s hanging from the ceiling).
4. SEALY TARNS
If you’re game for a workout, head behind the village and brave the 2,200-step “stairway to heaven” that leads up to the freshwater lakes of Sealy Tarns. You will be well-rewarded for the effort, with epic views of the Hooker Valley and its peaks including Aoraki/Mt Cook, and in the summer you will be treated to gorgeous alpine flowers. The Red Tarns, up another steep track, is equally as insta-worthy at the top, and the tarns are coloured by a red pond weed.
This is one of the most epic and intrepid guided experiences you can have in the Mt Cook area. Your helicopter lands on the lower moraine-covered reaches of the Tasman Glacier. There you ascend by foot onto the glacier, equipped with harnesses and crampons, following your guide’s lead. They will be looking for ice caves, deep blue holes in the ice that can spontaneously form overnight with the glacier’s movements (you rarely see these from the air – so being on the ground is key). Your guide will lead you inside them if deemed safe. The caves sometimes lead deep into the glacier, and sometimes fully connect two areas of moraine so you can walk right through.
The Mt Cook area is almost completely free from light pollution (in 2012, 4300sq km was declared the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve) and so of course the stars glitter with an intensity rarely able to be seen in other areas. If you want an immersive night sky experience, the Hermitage Hotel has a resident astronomy guide who will take you out with telescopes and tell you all about the stars and other wonders of the night sky (weather dependent of course).