Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
This was our last stop on the circle back to Christchurch and once I got there, I couldn’t believe that we saved the best for last. This was by far my favorite place on the South Island. Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and weather you are on the West Coast or Canterbury side, there is no mistaking this towering peak.
The closest place to get groceries in this area is Twizel. So make sure that you stock up so that you can spend as many days as you can in this magical area.
If you are on a budget, there is a free campsite with the most epic view and plenty of space at Lake Pukaki Campsite. It is about 50 minutes from the National Park, but believe me, it will take you longer because of how scenic the drive is. The scenic drive follows the shoreline of the turquoise Lake Pukaki. It’s one drive we didn’t mind repeating. So, we camped at this spot a total of three times. There are some awesome safe spots to pull over and take epic pictures, like Peter’s lookout, on your way to the park. I am sure that you will find quite a few more pull over spots on your way in, as it is very common to do so.
There is a DOC campsite at the base of the Hooker Valley, White Horse Hill Campground. It is a standard $13 per person per night and it has actual toilets, rubbish bins, drinking water, a big enclosed shelter to cook, and epic views and sounds of thundering glacier avalanches from Mt Sefton 24/7.
Mueller Hut is 1800 meters straight up and sits below Mt Oliver with views of the entire Hooker Valley, up close and personal views of Mt Sefton, and views of Mt Cook. We had been watching the weather forecast and timing our arrival to the area based on sunny weather combined with booking availability at this hut. It was our last must do hut in New Zealand. We booked the hut for a sunny day, but we totally blew it on checking out the wind aspect. For most of the climb, it is exposed to all the elements, but the most dangerous of them all, on this hike, is the wind. On our first attempt, the DOC refunded our payment and told us it was unsafe to go up, as the wind gusts in the valley below were 90 kmph and expected to exceed 100 kmph wind gusts on the trail. We were so bummed. It was a perfectly sunny day, but the wind could have blown us off the trail and down the side of the mountain. So, be sure to take into account the wind when planning your hike to Mueller hut!
Finally, there was a window of semi-cloudy weather, some cancellations at the hut, and a light breeze of 5 kmph. We booked it and made the 4 hour drive from Christchurch to get some redemption and get the Mueller Hut experience. It was worth the wait and worth the climb. Booking Fees for this hut are $36 per person per night and it is worth every penny (and that’s coming from these two cheap asses). There are gas stoves and water at the hut. So, no need to bring your cooking gear.
There are also plenty of rock bivvys set up for tent camping near the hut. The hut warden that was on duty, when we were there, was asking tent campers if they had proof of a camping reservation, but I know people do it for free. She scared a couple groups of prepared tent campers off that had hiked up all their gear, without a reservation. (You can get a reservation at the iCenter in the Village). But if you don't have a reservation, I’d say drop your stuff off under the hut, there is a rock bivvy under there. Then, set up just before sundown to avoid that hassle of being scared back down the mountain.
Hooker Valley had to be one of my all time favorite walks (I wouldn’t classify it as a hike or tramp). It was so effortless and beautiful that we did it 3 times in two days. I am not sure there was enough of an incline on the whole trail to even classify as a hill. So, it is perfect for the whole family. While the track is a 10km return, it really didn’t feel like it. There is so much beauty along the entire track that I could not believe it wasn’t officially among the best hikes/walks in New Zealand. This is a very popular track that is very well maintained with multiple swing bridges, look out points, picnic tables, and zig zagging board walks. The trail end is at Hooker Lake, where you will find floating icebergs and epic views of Mt. Cook and probably a few Kias, if you're lucky.
Sealy Tarns -This is the most maintained part of the Mueller hut track. It is stairs the entire walk and once you reach the tarns, you are half way to Mueller Hut. On a sunny day, you can get a nice reflection of Mt Sefton in the tarn and great views below. But, I really wouldn’t do this tramp on a cloudy day, unless you are purely up for the workout.
Mueller Hut - It actually surprised me how many people day hike this hut. They hike all the way up to have a snack or lunch and then walk back down! We thought about doing it the day after we got winded out, but if we made that effort, we wanted to see some stars, a sunset and sunrise. So we decided to wait till we had a reservation, but plenty of people day hike this hut. Once you get up there, you will see why.