March 6, 2017

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

After getting married in Queenstown, we headed north to explore around New Zealand’s tallest mountain (3,754 metres/12,316 feet) in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park!

Here, we planned to spend three days to tackle two of its most spectacular hikes: The Hooker Valley Track and The Mueller Hut Route.

Our honeymoon was about to officially begin!

Aoraki Mt Cook was known originally to the Maori as Aoraki. It was later renamed to Mt Cook by European settlers. In 1998, however, it was renamed once again to Aoraki Mt Cook to incorporate its Maori heritage.

While Aoraki Mount Cook National Park features expansive views, Aoraki Mount Cook Village is extremely small. Trying to book accommodations in the village turned out to be an adventure in itself. The village has limited places to stay and the prices can get extremely high. Luckily, we were able to secure a last minute room at the Mount Cook Lodge and Motel.

The lesson to be learned here: book well in advance!

As promised by many, the drive into Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is spectacular. The views start south of Twizel as you drive past the High Country Salmon Farm floating in the torquoise, glacial waters of the Wairepo Arm.

Past Twizel, we continued north along Lake Pukaki, another spectacular alpine lake. The drive along the lake was beautiful and we felt so lucky to view its turquoise waters on a perfectly sunny day.

As we continued north, the Sealy Range and Aoraki Mount Cook eventually came into view.

As a reminder, this is just the DRIVE into the park!

When we arrived, we stopped for lunch at The Old Mountaineer, and then checked-in to our room.

Hooker Valley Track

Deciding to take advantage of the excellent weather, we immediately headed off to tackle our first major attraction in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park – The Hooker Valley Track.

While researching hikes in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, I consistently read about how this is probably one of the best view-to-effort hikes in the world.

The track starts from the Whitehorse Campground at the end of Hooker Valley Road. Adjacent to the campground, there is a car park, toilets, and a large modern shelter with informative panels.

You can either drive to the parking lot, or take the walking trail that connects the village to the campground. The trail is located across the road from Department of Conservation Visitor Centre near the Hermitage Hotel. Walking from the village adds an extra hour return to the walk.

We drove. Don’t judge us.

The hike is 5 km (3 miles) one-way with the first part of the trail almost completely flat. In fact, the total elevation gain of the entire trail is only 80 m (262 feet).

It’s really more of a stroll than a hike.. but don’t let that fool you. The views on this stroll are some of the best New Zealand has to offer!

After 15 minutes, we reached the Mueller Lake Lookout. The lake formed as a result of the Mueller Glacier retreating over time.

Just passed the Mueller Lake lookout is the first of the three suspension bridges featured along the Hooker Valley Trail.

Note: it was incredibly windy passing over the bridge!

After the first bridge, the picturesque views of the Sealy Range continued.

Eventually, we came up to the second suspension bridge located about half-way along the trail.

From here, the track began to follow along the Hooker River.

Eventually, we moved onto a wooden boardwalk crossing over a large, flat area filled with tussocks. The views along the boardwalk were amazing!

At the end of the boardwalk, we crossed over the river on the final suspension bridge.

The last stretch of the track included the greatest elevation gain revealing majestic views of Hooker Lake and Aoraki Mount Cook.

And the views continued all the way back to the parking lot!

Overall, we could not have asked for a better day exploring the Hooker Valley and capturing a clear view of Aoraki Mount Cook, the most spectacular mountain in all of New Zealand.

The Mueller Hut Route

The next day was go-time. It was time to tackle the Mueller Hut Route! Considered one of New Zealand’s top overnight hikes, the Mueller Hut Route features panoramic views of glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces, and the best looking hut in New Zealand.

While we hoped to stay the night in the Mueller Hut, we were unable to secure a booking. Feeling up to the challenge, however, we planned to hike in and out in the same day.

While the Mueller Hut Route is only 5km (3 miles), it has an elevation gain of 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) including 1,800 steps. That’s a 20% grade. If you know hiking, you know that’s steep. To be honest, I had never hiked anything that steep in my life.

I decided to approach the hike, however, with an extremely positive attitude! I mean, if it was too difficult I could turn back at any time, right?

Right?…..

While it started off on a flat gravel trail, that lasted only about 15 minutes. After that, the stairs started. All 1,800 of them.

I’m not going to lie, it was difficult. Stairs have never been my thing. A few years ago, I thought about quitting using the elevator at work and walking up the six flights of stairs everyday.

It lasted one day. I immediately decided stairs weren’t for me.

Now, I was cursing myself for that attitude. At the same time, I made a mental note to never do the Grouse Grind in Vancouver with its 2,830 steps. NEVER. I had nothing to prove.

As I hiked up one step at a time, I eventually saw a note on one of the steps, “1501 more steps.”

Oh for f*** sakes.

When I saw the “1000 more steps,” I was really annoyed. Not even half way!

I do have to admit, however, that the higher we climbed the more motivated we became as the views really opened up. Not to mention, we lucked out with two clear days on the mountain in a row. It wasn’t quite as sunny as the previous day, but the views were just as incredible!

Trying to keep up with Kevin, I eventually made it to the Sealy Tarns Lookout. We took a quick break here to enjoy the views and to prepare ourselves for the next section of the hike.

While the stairs had FINALLY ended, they were replaced with the steepest, rocky terrain I have ever attempted.

Honestly, who did I think I was attempting this?

Determined, I kept up my pace following behind Kevin the best that I could. As I stared up at the trail, I had to admit how impressed I was with myself. Never in a million years did I think I would attempt a scramble like this!

Every now and again I got a little overwhelmed and tired. It was at this time Kevin stepped up the words of encouragement to keep me going.

“My wife is SO hardcore,” he yelled as he pulled out his camera to document the experience.

I wasn’t sure what I was more excited to hear – that I was a wife or that I was seriously hardcore!

Eventually, the uphill scramble subsided and was replaced with rock hopping around the mountain towards the hut. Continuing we on, we finally saw the famously red Mueller Hut in the distance.

That is truly one good looking hut!

We stopped into the hut for lunch and took a substantial break. As the clouds rolled in while eating lunch, we layered up before heading back out.

Then I mentally prepared myself for the final stretch…

Uphill is always exhausting but downhill is hard on my body. I literally had no idea how this would go.

We approached the downhill portion, the same as the uphill, slow and steady. Luckily, we stopped often to take in the views. It really was an amazing hike!

Heading back down the steep, rocky, scree-like section of the hill went better than expected. My poles saved my life (or should I say my knees) as I drove each pole in the ground.

One foot at a time, I gently lowered myself down that mountain.

Maybe I’m finally mastering this hiking stuff?

Then came the stairs. All 1,800 of them were still there, waiting for us.

Like the walk up, I tried to keep a positive attitude.

I was almost done, after all. Not to mention, once I was done, I was DONE. This wasn’t a multi-day hike, and we had no additional hikes planned in the near future.

I eased myself down one step at a time. Slowly I made progress, while slowly losing sight of Kevin. I tried my best to keep up but it was getting harder with every step.

I HATE stairs..

I stared down at, what I am sure, was still 1,000 steps to go. Quickly, I made a decision that I was going to walk my ass out of there. I could do this. I NEEDED to do this.

I started experimenting with different ways to walk to relieve the pain. Obviously my normal technique needed some improvement, so now was as good a time as any to find some alternatives. I quickly discovered that walking down the stairways sideways relieved some pain.

So there I was, high on the mountain, walking sideways down the next 1,000 steps!

Kevin kept checking in on me to see if I was okay. I yelled back that I was doing great, just needed to go slow and steady.

That day, I walked my ass up and down that mountain. I have never tackled that many steps in one day and I sure as hell have never scrambled up the side of a mountain like that before. I was tired and I was sore but I have never felt the level of accomplishment I felt when I finished that day.

So you know what, Mr. Sheff, you’re right. Your wife is pretty f*cking hardcore.

For more information on the Mueller Hut Route and bookings for the hut, please visit The Department of Conservation website.

2 thoughts on “Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

  1. I’m in awe!! How many hours did the walk take you?
    Would love to do it this October (weather permitting) so giving myself some time to climb stairs in the meantime.

    1. Hi Rachael, you definitely should put the Mueller Hut Route on your list! It took us a total of 8 hours including stops for rests, photos and lunch.

      I’m not sure if the Trail would be open in October, however. I’ve read it is generally open from mid-November to late-March. Here is a Department of Conservation Brochure I just found online for more information:

      https://www.hikespeak.com/pdf/Mueller-Hut-Route.pdf

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