A Complete Guide to Mount Cook: New Zealand’s Highest Mountain

Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3,724 metres (12,218 feet). It is part of the Southern Alps range which dominates the landscape of the country’s South Island. Throughout the year, the mountain and the other prominent peaks of Mount Tasman, Mount Hicks and Sefton offer a stunning visual backdrop to the scenery of the West Coast, Lake Tekapo and the Canterbury region of the East Coast.

The mountain holds particular significance for the Maori people, who named it Aoraki according to local legend. It is definitely a “must-see” sight on any New Zealand tour, since you can’t truly understand the geology of the country or the mountain’s prominence in the national psyche without a visit to the park that bears its name.

Where is Aoraki/Mount Cook? 

Aoraki/Mount Cook is on the South Island of New Zealand, a four-hour drive from the city of Christchurch and three hours from Dunedin. The mountain can also be viewed from the West Coast at the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier (although there is no access from these townships).

The mountain is part of Mount Cook National Park established in October 1953 to protect the area’s unique vegetation and landscape. The park encompasses 279 square miles, of which approximately forty per cent is made up of glaciers including the Tasman Glacier, the Mueller Glacier, the Hooker and Murchison Glaciers.

The Geology of Aoraki/Mount Cook 

As part of the Southern Alps range, Aoraki/Mount Cook was formed by the tectonic uplifting as the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates collided along the island’s West Coast. The mountain is relatively young in geological terms, formed about ten million years ago. It lies at the centre of the distinctive Alpine Fault which is responsible for the shift of Aoraki/Mount Cook and is believed to move every one hundred to three hundred years.

Maori History and the Legends of Mount Cook 

According to Maori legends, the name Aoraki is that of a young boy who went on a voyage in a canoe with his three brothers around Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother. The canoe got caught up on a reef and began to submerge, so the four boys climbed on top of the canoe to save themselves. However, the great South Wind froze them and turned them into stone. 

It’s said that the canoe became the South Island, Te Waka o Aoraki, the prows the Marlborough Sounds and the brothers created Ka Titiri o te Moana, the Southern Alps. Aoraki, being the tallest, became the highest peak. 

Ngai Tahu, the main iwi(tribe) of the South Island consider Aoraki the most sacred of ancestors, linking the supernatural world with nature. 

Historically, the Maori name has been spelt “Aorangi”, with many believing its original meaning was “cloud piercer.” 

European Discovery of Aoraki/Mount Cook 

The first Europeans to sight Aoraki/Mount Cook were probably the members of Abel Tasman’s crew who voyaged to the South Island in 1642. They recorded “a land uplifted high” while off the West Coast of the South Island. Captain James Cook did not see the mountain, but like Tasman speculated that there was a great mountain range in the Interior. His name was given to the mountain by Captain John Lort Stokes in his survey of the country in 1851.

The name of the mountain was officially changed from Mount Cook to Aoraki/Mount Cook following a settlement between the New Zealand Crown and the Ngai Tahu in 1998. 

Mountaineering at Aoraki/Mount Cook 

Many mountaineers have been attracted to Aoraki/Mount Cook since the end of the nineteenth century. The dramatic mountains provide a rare challenge. 

The first recorded attempt on the summit was made by the Reverend William Green who together with a Swiss hotelier Emil Boss and a Swiss Guide, Ulrich Kaufmann (according to local sources) came within fifty feet of the summit.

The first successful ascent was made on the 25 December 1894 by New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, John Clarke and George Graham via the Hooker Valley. 

They were spurred on to complete the ascent in the knowledge that an American mountaineer, Edward Fitgerald had his eyes on the summit. The first female ascent of Aoraki/Mount Cook was made by Freda Du Faur, an Australian, on 3rd December 1910 and the first Maori to scale the peak was George Bannister, nephew of Pahikore Te Koeti Turanga of Ngai Tahu in 1912. 

Of course, the most famous mountaineer to have climbed Aoraki/Mount Cook was Sir Edmund Hillary who completed an ascent in January 1948 with Ruth Adams, Harry Ayres and Mick Sullivan. This climbing achievement was the forerunner to his famous climb of Mount Everest, as part of Sir John Hunt’s team in 1953. 

The Flora and Fauna of Aoraki/Mount Cook 

As you would imagine, the plant life in the Mount Cook region consists mainly of alpine plants. The vegetation you will see consists of tussock grassland, golden speargrass, mountain daisies and the unique Mount Cook Lily, the largest buttercup in the world. In the Tasman and Hooker Valleys you will find non- native species, particularly lupins, broom and grasses.

There are about thirty plus species of birds in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Park. In Mount Cook Village you’re likely to find finches, sparrows and fantails. As you travel up the valleys you will encounter Kea, riflemen and possibly the tiny rock wren; an endangered species and the only bird that lives in the high mountains.

How to get to Aoraki/Mount Cook   

The nearest town to Mount Cook Village is Twizel, about a forty minute drive along the scenic highway 50 road. There are pull-in points along the road to view the mountain and take photographs. The drive is made particularly attractive as it runs alongside the sparkling aquamarine Lake Pukaki, before entering a broad alluvial plain which runs directly to the village, where the road ends.

The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is the start of one of the country’s main national cycle trails; the Alps to Ocean Trail, over three hundred metres to Omaru.

Accommodation at Aoraki/Mount Cook 

Accommodation in the park is dominated by the Hermitage Hotel complex. This includes a four star hotel with one hundred and sixty four rooms, graded according to their views of the mountains; an alpine lodge, privately owned and operated and Mount Cook Lodge and motels run by the Hermitage.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, detailing the life and mountaineering achievements of the great man is located in the hotel and is well worth a visit. 

The motels are self-contained apartments, individually sited and consisting of one bedroom, two bedrooms or more. All of which are suitable for families or for travellers looking for more of their “own space”. Guests in the lodges and motel can access the restaurants in the hotel or alternatively, use the nearby Mountaineer restaurant.

Aoraki/Mount Cook Walking Trails

Our favourite walk in the park and the one we always recommend to Silver Fern travellers, is the Hooker Valley walk. An easy trail that ascends over two swing bridges to a glacial lake for wonderful close up views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps.

Other walks include those to Kea Point for outstanding views of Mount Sefton, Footstool and the Mueller Glacier lake and to Red Tarns – a great spot to watch the sunset from in the Summer months. For those seeking more challenging routes, the trek to Ball Hut is a three to four hour track walk offering spectacular views.

Other activities at Aoraki/Mount Cook  

Helicopter Flights Around Mount Cook 

If you haven’t been able to take a helicopter flight on the West Coast to view the mountains and glaciers before, then Glentanner Park is the place from which to do it. There are flights of varying lengths and costs and we highly recommend pre-booking an excursion – just check the weather forecast and give them a call to hold a place. 

Glacial Lake Trip 

Visit New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier terminal lake for a fascinating glacial encounter. Cruise the rapidly growing terminal lake taking in spectacular mountain views and scenery.  Icebergs of every shape and size periodically tear away from the glacier, allowing you to touch and taste the 300-500 year old glacial crystals. This excursion can be booked via the Hermitage Hotel Visitors Centre

Stargazing Excursions 

We usually recommend stargazing from Lake Tekapo, where you can join other travellers on Mount John to view the night sky. However, if you are not stopping at Lake Tekapo, then exploring the stars with a dedicated Mount Cook stargazing trip is certainly worth it.

Astronomy guides use state-of-the-art telescopes and high-powered binoculars to explore the skies over the mountains. The duration of the outdoor tour is around 90 min. Transportation from The Hermitage Hotel is provided.

Insider Tips 

We recommend at least a two night stay at Aoraki/Mount Cook and most of our suggested tour itineraries, even the tours that include both islands such as the Complete New Zealand, Grand Tour of New Zealand or Best of New Zealand offer this length of stay as a minimum. The routing on these tours is from Queenstown, a four hour drive away which means you’ll arrive in the early afternoon with time to settle in, grab a bite to eat and check out the Hermitage complex. 

Your first port of call should be the visitors centre to gain an overview of the mountain panorama and get up to date information on weather conditions for the following day. You should also make time to visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre and find out which films they may be showing that evening or the next day. Then head to the Mountaineer or if you want to splash out, the Alpine restaurant in the Hermitage. There is no better way to end your day than lying back in an easy chair, glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, gazing up at the snow-capped mountains! 

The next day, you can set off on the well-marked Hooker valley trail, leaving the coach tourists behind to walk through bush and then out into open land as you ascend to the glacial lake for a magnificent close up view of New Zealand’s highest mountain. Don’t forget your camera! 

If you are only travelling in South Island, perhaps on our suggested South Island Tour, then your arrival from Christchurch will be later, since you will probably have stopped off at Lake Tekapo en route. An early start is advisable to give you maximum time in this most beautiful area.

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