Arriving in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a humbling experience. Vehicle access is a rather linear affair, with only a few short sections of road deviating from the main route in and out. This means that hitchhiking into and out of the campsite(s) and trailheads is not particularly challenging. In addition to the ease of access, the drive into the UNESCO World Heritage Site via the Hooker Valley is nothing short of magnificent. As you enter the national park, undulating hillsides begin to sweep upwards in a skyscraping show of geologic prominence. Mountains rise on both sides and begin to draw in towards the highway, as though your vehicle were passing through a closing palm.
Of course there are many mountain ranges around the world which have the same ability to induce the sensation of being swallowed (and by no means do I wish to discredit any of them or rank them as lesser), but I find it difficult to not mention the uniqueness of the Hooker Valley. There is to a large extent, a distinct lack of trees on the valley bottom, despite verdant forests growing along the slopes of the mountains themselves. In many places, rock falls and avalanche chutes cut through the greenery, giving the region a diverse colour scheme of green, grey and golden hues, capped by brilliant white peaks.
Hiking opportunities abound in the park, with most being easily accessible, relatively short and not particularly challenging. I will post a slideshow of some of these easy routes below. More information about these paths can be found here (for the Hooker Valley) and here (for the adjacent Tasman Valley).
Since most people who wind up in Aoraki National Park end up hiking the aforementioned paths, I’d like to move on to what I think is by far, a much better hike than of those above: The trail to Mueller Hut.
Beginning in the Whitehorse Hill campground at the very end of Hooker Valley Rd, the Mueller Hut trail cuts a gruelling 5.2 kilometre path up the side Mt Oliver, gaining 1000 metres of elevation in the process. The first half of the ascent is made easier for some by the presence of stairs; although I found they tended break my natural stride, which in turn made the trail more difficult than it otherwise would have been. Regardless, the stairs end at Sealy Tarns, which are a collection of alpine ponds tucked into the the steep mountainside (in addition to being a decent name for a folk band).
Carrying on, the trail curves about the right side of the mountain, affording hikers a clear view of Mount Sefton; below which, massive blocks of snow and ice can be seen calving from the fringes of the melting Frind Glacier. We sat here for some time, watching sheets of ice crack and plummet towards the white mass of the Mueller Glacier one hundred metres below.
The Mueller hut is not too much farther from this point, between 15 and 30 minutes if I recall correctly, and rewards hikers with an expansive panorama of the surrounding peaks, including the formidable Mt Cook. It is possible to sleep in one of the hut’s 28 beds, but be aware that there is no online reservation system and bookings must be made ahead of time at the visitor centre.
For us this was the apex of our hike, though I understand that you can continue for about 30 minutes to reach the summit of Mt Oliver. Incidentally this is the first peak that Sir Edmund Hillary ever summited, kicking off a long career in mountaineering that would eventually lead to the first documented ascent of Mt Everest. In any case, the trail takes roughly eight hours to complete, with the ascent and descent being of (more or less) the same duration. If you are interested in learning more about the trail, I’ve linked a park pdf about it here.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is named for the enormous mountain at its heart, whose indomitable presence is inescapable. From nearly every trail in the region, the mountain can be seen gleaming pure white as though to blend in with the clouds. Sitting at 3,724 metres, Mt Cook’s peak is the tallest point in all of New Zealand and has played an important spiritual role within the local Maori community for over one thousand years. Legends claim that the mountain is the one of the sons of Ranginui and Papatuanuku (the sky father and earth mother) and as such, bears his name. Maori creation tales explain that while Maui heaved New Zealand’s north island from the depths with his fishing hook and line, Aoraki is responsible for the creation of the South Island (unfortunately through his own loss of life). As such, most southern tribes believe that Aoraki is their most important and revered ancestor.
Lastly, I would like to make a short aside about a hike which I regrettably wasn’t aware of during my visit. The trek is called the Ball Pass Crossover and navigates over the arms of Mt Cook itself, from the Hooker Valley to the adjacent Tasman Valley. After learning about this trail, I can safely say it has been added to my bucket list. Although I do not have much firsthand information about this trip, I’m happy to share with you a video which made me take notice of the multi-day journey.