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Medium Effort, High Reward: NZ's thrilling day hikes around Mt. Cook

In February of 2017, I moved to New Zealand for my junior year spring semester. It was by far one of the most visually stunning places I've ever been to, and throughout several more posts down the line, I'll highlight favorite hikes, road trips, and more local-to-Dunedin landscapes (a small city at the very bottom of the South Island where I attended the University of Otago).

For this post, I'd like to solely focus on one area of the South Island: Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. Located a manageable 4 hour drive from campus, it was my favorite place to explore and didn't require extensive planning. It also very conveniently was chock-full of astounding day hikes which highlighted so much of the beauty the park had to offer.

Even the drive in can make one stop and stare for a whole day before heading in the park! Coming from the south and driving up north into the park, drivers navigate a road hugging the shore of Lake Pukaki. And what a road it is...

Lake Pukaki, NZ

Once you're in the park, there are several day hikes that make the haul to New Zealand totally worth it. The three tracks I would recommend are Mueller Hut, Hooker Valley, and Red Tarns, with the first two being more heavily trafficked.

The Mueller Hut route is an incredible day-long trek, but does require an average level of fitness as you'll be gaining elevation the whole way up, with the first half via thousands of stairs. The beauty of this hike however is that the entire way up with every turn, you're treated to stark, inspiring landscapes. Here are just a few photos to give you an idea.

This panorama emerges a quarter into the hike

At the end of the hike up following a pretty hefty boulder field scramble, you'll see a little red house welcoming you- that's Mueller Hut. You can turn this day hike into an overnight by staying in the hut (have to book well in advance for this, but there are daily cancellations and walk-ups), or you can set up your tent by the hut. I did this trail on two occasions- once as a day hike and the other as an overnight in the hut, and would definitely recommend the latter. It's so fun to stay there; the hut has a friendly keeper, board games, cards and nice bunks. There is no electricity however, so you do still have to bring your own camping stove. A big container of water is around the corner for guest use.

Early morning sun peeking around the corner

Staying in the hut has an added bonus of an early wake up call for sunrise!

Sunrise best enjoyed with some friends

The second day hike, the Hooker Valley trail, is super accessible, flat the whole way, and can be done in an hour or two (2.5 miles each way). That also means it gets pretty crowded during the day, so I'd recommend doing it as an early morning or evening walk. Out of all the hikes I've done in 15+ years, this is by far the best in terms of ease-views ratio. Suitable in any type of shoe, this trail is perfect for a light stroll through the wondrous landscape.

Planks make for easy walking through the meadow

Hikers can see this beautiful, milky glacial melt stream running through

The trail ends with this stunning view of Hooker Lake with icebergs scattered across

The final day hike in the area I'm sharing today is the Red Tarns trail. At the top, you can enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the valley with Mt. Cook beautifully standing out. The trail is a little steep, with about 1,000 ft of gain, 3 hours out and back. But there are less people, and sunset views from here are absolutely stellar.

I snagged my all-time favorite sunset photo (below) from the top of this hike!

Last light on Mt. Cook

And with that, I'm wrapping up on this slightly long post. Enjoy, plan a trip to NZ, and hit up these exceptional day hikes. Please let me know if you have any further questions.


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