Even after living in New Zealand for nearly 2 years, Mount Cook National Park and Lake Tekapo are still two of my favourite areas to explore. From snow-capped mountains, brilliant blue lakes and dramatic landscapes – there is much to see in this area of the south island.
For our first wedding anniversary, Jon and I went on a road trip to Mount Cook National Parkand Lake Tekapo where we revisited some of our favourite sights and checked out some new ones. Whether you are a tourist or a local, there are a lot of activities to do in this area and there is always something new to explore.
Here are some of awesome things to do in Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo:
Awesome Things to Do in Mount Cook National Park
Grab a Memorable Road Photo on the Way to Aoraki/ Mount Cook
I remember my excitement when I first saw Aoraki/Mount Cook from the road. I think I have it on video somewhere but Jon isn’t a fan of my high pitched ecstatic voice in that clip so we’ll leave that as a mystery. The towards Mount Cook National Park was just spectacular, where every bend of the road takes you a bit closer to a better view.
Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest and tallest mountain at 3,724 metres (12,218 feet). It’s stands out from the rest of the surrounding mountains of the southern alps and quite easy to spot even from afar.
The road leading up to Mount Cook National Park is usually not that busy so it’s possible to pull over a shoulder of the road if you wish to capture some road photos. Please don’t stop your car in the middle of the road to take photos though! (We’ve seen some tourists do this and it is a hazard to other people.) It’s possible to take road photos with people too, but just make sure to keep a look out for cars and get out of the way safely.
One of the best spots to take a photo along this road is at Peter’s Lookout. It also has great view of Mount Cook with Lake Pukaki on the foreground.
Do One of the Day Hikes around Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park covers a massive area of over 700km. This vast landscape is home to some of New Zealand’s most captivating scenery – mountains, glaciers and native alpine bush. There are several day hikes around Mount Cook National Park that offers incredible views of Aoraki/ Mount Cook and the surrounding terrain.
Here are some of the best day hikes around Mount Cook:
One of the most popular hikes in Mount Cook National Park, Hooker Valley is an easy to moderate hike that takes three hours return. The track goes through some scenic hanging bridges and a variety of vantage points with Mount Cook on the spotlight. The trail ends with the awesome views of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps and Hooker Lake.
I’m still uncertain when is the best time for doing this hike since the clouds surrounding Mount Cook can be temperamental and obstruct the views (make sure to check the weather before you go!). Jon and I did the hike late afternoon in autumn and that gave us enough time to reach Hooker Lake just before sunset. We did get cloud cover over Mount Cook in parts of the track so we did have to wait a bit for clouds to clear to get unobstructed views of Mount Cook.
This is one of the easier short hikes in Mount Cook National Park. It only takes an hour return from the White Horse Hill campground or two hours from Mount Cook Village. We did this walk with my family, which included my four year old niece and she managed to walk most of the way up to Kea Point without complaints. Her dad had to carry her in some sections but it was fine. The viewing deck at the end of the track has stunning views of Mount Sefton, Hooker valley, Mueller Glacier lake and Aoraki/Mount Cook. The track is mostly laid with gravel so keep that in mind with footwear.
Jon reckons I don’t trust his judgement enough on “good hikes”. We recently did the Red Tarns hike along with the Governors Bush walk during our recent visit and I was completely spellbound by how spectacular it is! The fresh snow from the day before definitely made the whole track and the outlying views more magnificent than usual. It was odd that it snowed in spring but it was dazzling! I even got to build my own snowman for the first time). The track is a continuous 300 m ascent which can be pretty exhausting but easy enough (with a few stops along the way). The views along the exposed trail and at the top are truly rewarding!
Governors Bush Walk
If you’re interested in exploring some native alpine bush around Mount Cook National Park, the Governors Bush Walk is an easy one hour return track from the Mount Cook Village. If you haven’t been hiking around New Zealand, it’s a good introduction to the different flora in this part of the world. It’s also a good place to spot some wildlife if you have the patience for bird watching. The top of the track offers stunning views of the Tasman Valley, Mount Cook and other surrounding mountains. It’s located close to the Red Tarns track and you can easily do both in a few hours.
Seally Tarns and Mueller Hut
Seally Tarns and Mueller Hut are located on the same track which overlooks the Hooker Valley, Mount Cook and its surrounding peaks. It is highly rated as one of the best day hikes in Mount Cook National Park, if not New Zealand so we are very excited to do this one. We plan to do the hike this year so keep a look out for that!
Blue Pools, Tasman Glacier View Track and Tasman River Track
On another side of Mount Cook National Park lies the track to the once blue, Blue Pools and the Tasman Glacier View Track. Jon and I went to have a closer look at the blue pools on our first trip to the national park but there wasn’t much else to see on the track itself. It’s not that impressive to say the least but it’s interesting enough if you want to have a closer look. If you are heading up to the Tasman Glacier View Track, you can also get a glimpse of the three pools along the track so you won’t miss much if you decide not to do it.
There are two tracks which give you splendid views of the Tasman Glacier, the Tasman Glacier View track and the the Tasman River track which goes at the edge of the Tasman Lake. Which one is better? Spoiler alert, the latter one is where you can see some small icebergs! The Tasman Glacier View track is only 15 minutes to walk up so you may as well do it. The views of the mountains are pretty good too, especially if you time your visit right and see some reflections on the lake.
Can you climb Mount Cook? Conquering Mount Cook itself is possible, but it’s a very technical hike which takes a few days. You will also need some serious alpine hiking experience and a good guide to share their expertise.
See Icebergs at Tasman Lake/ Tasman Glacier
The Tasman Glacier is the longest of New Zealand’s glaciers measuring 27km long and over 4km wide. While it may not look as prominent as Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, the Tasman Glacier is still pretty spectacular especially when viewed from the edge of Tasman Lake, where you can see speckles of icebergs floating on the grey Tasman Lake.
If you want to see the Tasman Glacier up close, you can also take a scenic flight which lands on top of it. Check out this post from Off the Main Road NZ which talks more about this experience.
See Keas Up-Close
Keas are some of New Zealand’s incredible native birds and the only alpine parrots in the world. They can only be found in the alpine regions of the South Island. You can spot Keas hanging around in groups at the Hooker Valley carpark or along the Kea point track. Please don’t feed them though and make sure to keep your distance.
Camp beneath Spectacular Mountain Scenery at Mount Cook National Park
Set among the stunning backdrop of Mount Sefton and Aoraki/Mount Cook, the White Horse Hill Campground located next to the Hooker Valley Carpark is possibly the best area to camp in Mount Cook National Park. It’s also conveniently located to many hikes in the area. The stars are pretty amazing at night here too! The temperature does drop quite a lot at night though so make sure you have enough warm stuff with you.
This is a Department of Conservation (DOC) Camp Site so it’s quite well maintained. Toilets, shower and cooking facilities are available on site. Camping fees are at $13 per person per night. Bookings are not required in this campsite.
Note that if you are not staying in the nearby Mount Cook Village, it takes about an hour’s drive to get to the nearest holiday park/camping ground (either in Lake Tekapo or Twizel) from Mount Cook. Driving back and forth to Mount Cook National Park will take up a lot time (and fuel) if you are not staying close to the area so plan your trip well.
Be Dazzled by the Turqouise Waters of Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is the largest lake in the area and offers a great foreground to the beautiful Mount Cook and Southern Alps. It is quite hard to photograph as the water reflects a lot of light during certain times of day and other times the mountains are in shadow. Be patient, though. Eventually you’ll get that perfect blue foreground to the southern alps!
Awesome Things to Do in Lake Tekapo
Visit the Church of the Good Shepherd
The Church of Good Shepherd is one of the most iconic photo spots in New Zealand. Couples from around the globe visit this tiny church on the shore of Lake Tekapo to get their wedding photos taken or even get married! Jon and I did consider this as a location for our wedding in New Zealand but after our first visit in, we were a bit underwhelmed with what we saw – the amount of tourists that come to visit definitely spoil the place a bit. During the day, the church gets very busy and so this location didn’t feel right for us to hold our wedding. That’s not to say that it’s not pretty! Our next visits definitely left us with a better impression of the church and Lake Tekapo as a whole. The best time to visit the church is late winter and early spring, when there is snow on the mountains and if you time it right (around November), you may see the famous purple lupins.
Take Reflection Photos at Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is a very photogenic location with its electric blue hue and stunning mountain scenery. While Lake Tekapo looks impressive from the town side, there are different vantage points to explore in this area including the top of Mount John Observatory and the Peninsula Walkway where you get more prominent views of the southern alps.
Have a Cup of Coffee at Mount John Observatory’s Astro Cafe
I am a huge coffee fan and if I love enjoying a good cup of coffee with a view! Mount John Observatory’s Astro Cafe is possibly one of the best spots for a coffee in New Zealand, where you get front row seats to the majestic views of Lake Tekapo!
To reach Mount John Observatory, you can either do the hike uphill or drive. There is a small fee to access Mount John but it’s well worth the views once you get up there. There are a few tracks along Mount John and the views are simply spectacular!
READ MORE: Coffee with a View at Mount John Observatory
Explore the Starry Skies with Earth and Sky’s Mount John Observatory Tour
One of my activities in my New Zealand bucket list is doing the Earth and Sky’s Mount John Observatory Tour. I’ve always been a fan of stargazing since I was a child. I remember how fascinated I was when I learnt about different constellations after a trip to the planetarium. I’ve never forgotten how to spot Orion’s belt since! Imagine how thrilled I was to get re-introduced to the stars in “real” life!
Earth and Sky’s Astronomy Tour takes place up Mount John Observatory, New Zealand’s premier astronomical research centre. The two hour tour introduced us to some of the constellations in the southern hemisphere, the Magellanic clouds and globular clusters. While the stars are very visible in Lake Tekapo at night, seeing the other stuff in the night skies on a telescope was incredible. I also really enjoyed seeing the night skies through the eyes of our guide, Sam, who was very enthusiastic about space and did very well to introduce these intricate concepts to all of us.
Where can I book the Astronomy Tour? If you’re interested in taking part in the Earth and Sky Mount John Observatory Tour, check out Earth and Sky for more information on their night tours. They also have astronomy tours which take place next to the Church of Good Shepherd if you are interested in taking some astrophotography with this iconic structure in the foreground.
What if the weather is bad? Note that the tours are weather dependent. Tours will be cancelled if there are high winds, rain, ice or snow so make sure to plan ahead. Worse case, you can always reschedule, get a full refund or if you’re only there for the day, you can take part in the tour of their research facilities and watch a video of what the night sky would have been like.
Why is it best to see the stars from Lake Tekapo? Lake Tekapo is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, a 4300 sqkm area where light pollution strictly controlled. It is the only dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere and only one of eight in the world.
Hike the Peninsula Walkway
There are a few tracks around Lake Tekapo but the best one is possibly the Peninsula Walkway which goes along the Mount John side of the lake. The walk is easy and it has sweeping panoramic views of the southern alps, the town, Lake Tekapo and Lake Alexandrina.
READ MORE: Hiking the Peninsula Walkway at Lake Tekapo
Relax and Unwind at Tekapo Springs
Finally, some relaxing time! Nothing beats soaking up in a hot pool after a long day of sightseeing. Tekapo Springs offers captivating views of Lake Tekapo as you unwind in one of their enchanting hot pools. The three pools, named Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo, range in temperature and some of the pools are even exclusive to adults.
If you have children, Tekapo Springs also have their own kid-friendly space too called the Aqua Play Area so don’t feel too bad if you ever have to step back for some needed “me” time.
Looking to have more relaxing time? Tekapo Springs also has a sauna and steam room on site for that much needed relaxation. You can get this included in certain tickets. Why not make a day out of it? They also have a day spa also available if you want to get a massage or even get your nails done while on holiday!
If you travel around winter, you can also do other fun activities like ice staking and snow tubing! Check out Tekapo Springs for more information.
If you plan to spend a full day in Tekapo Springs, you don’t have to worry about food! The Tahr Bar and Cafe located onsite serves a variety of light meals, snacks and drinks. You can also stop by the cafe even if you don’t use the pools.
Map of Things to Do in Mount Cook National Park and Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Do you have plans to visit Mount Cook National Park and Lake Tekapo in New Zealand? Which of these attractions are you most excited to visit? Let us know.
Disclaimer: We were hosted by Tekapo Springs and Earth and Sky during our visit to Tekapo. All thoughts and opinions in this post are our own.