Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki in the Maori language, is South Island’s top destination for mountain climbers, geology enthusiasts, Tolkien fans, wine moms, and hikers alike.
Mount Cook is the largest peak in all of New Zealand and offers scenic views of the Southern Alps. Any trip to this mountain range will immerse you in the incredible Lord of the Rings landscape and make you search far and wide for Frodo and Gandalf. It is an unreal and unforgettable destination, so get ready for an epic road trip!
HOW TO GET THERE
Unfortunately, it is not very easy to reach Mount Cook. You can rent a car and drive from the Christchurch or Queenstown airport or take a bus. Christchurch to Mount Cook is 330 km away, around a 3 1/2 to 4 hours’ drive. From Queenstown the drive is 271 km, around a 3 to 3 1/2 hours’ road trip. During my trip, I flew from Auckland to Christchurch then rented a car to finally reach Mount Cook. Driving throughout South Island was also a great way to see more of the region. During our road trip, we took a pitstop in Oamaru and discovered the marvelous steampunk scene, so be sure to allocate lots of time to explore your route. Another way to arrive at Mount Cook is via a bus. You can use the Intercity platform or the Great Sights platform to book a trip either from Queenstown or Christchurch. Overall, I would recommend allocating a couple of days for your trip to the Southern Alps so that you can stop and fully take in the scenery while making some fun pitstops along the way.
There are several lovely classic lodges that you can stay at Aoraki / Mount Cook. All of them are close to the hiking trails and other significant sites in the area. One of the most famous lodges is the Hermitage which opened in 1884. Outside of this hotel you can find a statue dedicated to mountain climber, Sir Edmund Hillary, who later went on to climb Mount Everest. At the Hermitage you can stay at their lodge, hotel, motel, or chalets, which all vary in price. Another celebrated lodge in the area is the Aoraki Alpine Lodge which is located in the heart of Mount Cook village. It has stunning views and an impeccable location for all types of visitors. Mount Cook village is very small and quaint so nearly all the lodges in the village are at an ideal and scenic spot.
You can see Mount Cook from nearly anywhere in the valley. So the best idea is to get as close to it as you can. Thankfully, there are many ways that you can view this mountain and its stunning valley. One easy, but more pricey way is by boat. The Glacier explorers boat trip has tours every day and conveniently departs from the Hermitage hotel. I have never been so close to a glacier until this boat tour. The trip is 2.5 hours in total and gets you up close and personal with the largest glacier in New Zealand, the Tasmian Glacier. There is also a helicopter tour around the mountain if you are looking for an even more thrilling trip.
For those who are active and seek adventure, the next best way to see Mount Cook is to hike it (or at least near it.) Hiking to the top of the mountain requires intense training and preparation, however, if you are looking for an easier and shorter hike, there are plenty! Hooker Valley track takes you across three frightening suspended bridges towards the base of the mountain. It is an easier hike and fun for all ages! The Mueller Hut pass route is more for the pros. It is 6-8 hours in total and takes you up to the peak of Mount Olivier where you can also spot the gorgeous Mount Cook peak. If you grow tired of the outdoors and just want to sit back and relax, the Hermitage Hotel is also home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. This centre has an informative museum and movie theater about the climbing history of the region.
You might notice that Hermitage Hotel is the second center of Mount Cook Village other than the mountain itself. The hotel’s dining experience at The Alpine Dining Room is also out of this world and has the best view, in addition to serving New Zealand’s local cuisine. If you aren’t sure what to order, you can never go wrong with New Zealand lamb paired with some local wine. They are famous for it! Another historical restaurant in the area is The Old Mountaineers Cafe. Overall, the vibe is more casual, yet still true to the authentic New Zealand atmosphere and cuisine. It is key to open your mind to this beautiful country’s cuisine and taste local wines. The view from either of these restaurants will make your culinary and outdoors adventure a walk in the park.