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Home » Aoraki/ Mount Cook » Hiking the Hooker Valley Track in Mt. Cook National Park

Hiking the Hooker Valley Track in Mt. Cook National Park

by Nikos Taskos
30 mins read

Glacier lakes, check. Floating icebergs, check. Swinging bridges, check. Sacred valley, check.

There are times you look at a view and you can hardly believe your eyes. Well, that’s exactly the case with Hooker Valley.

Who is it for?

Hooker Valley Track is ideal for those who don’t have enough time to explore Mount Cook National Park and are looking for an easy hike with spectacular views.

Besides, who would miss the opportunity to see ancient glaciers, have fun bouncing on swing bridges and catch some real icebergs?

mount cook reflecting on hooker lake with icebergs floating
(Credits: Kerensa Pickett, Unsplash)

In this travel story you will:

  • read an overview of the track
  • get important before-you-go tips
  • view incredible photos of Hooker Valley

What you can see in Hooker Valley

Hooker Valley Track is one of the most scenic yet easy half-day hikes in New Zealand.

Here are some highlights of the tramp:

  • Glaciers and glacier lakes with floating icebergs
  • Suspension bridges (yes, you can bounce on them)
  • Amazing views over Aoraki/ Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps
  • Alpine valleys with tussock vegetation
  • Moraine ridges (material left behind by retreating glaciers)
  • Endangered species and endemic wildflowers
What does tramping means?

What different countries call hiking, trekking, rambling, backpacking or bushwalking, Kiwis name it tramping. It basically means going for a hike.

the glacier mueller lake with Aoraki/ Mt. Cook in the background
The huge moraine walls hide Mueller Lake from Aoraki (Credits: Michal Klajban, Wikipedia)

Overview of Hooker Valley Track

  1. White Horse Hill Campground (the start of the trail) – a shelter with information, directions & toilets
  2. Alpine Memorial (5 mins) – a memorial dedicated to mountaineers who died in Mt. Cook National Park
  3. Mueller Lookout (15 mins) – breathtaking views of Muller Glacier Lake and Hooker Valley
  4. Lower Hooker Suspension Bridge – 1st bridge over Hooker River (downstream of Mueller Lake)
  5. Hooker Bluff Bridge – 2nd bridge over Hooker River (upstream of Mueller Lake)
  6. Stocking Stream Shelter – the remains of a shelter with self-composting toilets
  7. Upper Hooker Bridge – 3rd bridge over Hooker River (downstream of Hooker Lake)
  8. Hooker Lake (75 mins) – picnic tables, a glacier lake beach and the most amazing views of the hike
  9. Return trip – return on the same track enjoying different views of the valley and the Southern Alps
Hooker Lake & Hooker Glacier Under the Shadow of Mt. Cook
The pixel-perfect reflection of Aoraki/ Mt. Cook over the Hooker Lake

Helpful info

Even if the hike is relatively easy without any technical difficulties or obvious hazards, there are certain things you need to know before heading outdoors.

Hooker Valley Track at a glance

Total Distance: 10 kmDifficulty: Easy
Trail Type: Out and backActivity: Walking & tramping
Estimated Time: 3-4 hours (return)Elevation Gain: 124m
Permit: Not requiredSurface: Gravel & boardwalks
Highest Point: Hooker Lake (877m)Weather info: Dept. of Conservation
map of hooker valley track hike
A map of Hooker Valley Track Hike (Credits: graficana.gr)

How difficult is the hike?

Hooker Valley Track is more of a walk than a hike. Therefore, it’s easy to complete for people of all ages and reasonable fitness levels.

Additionally, it is well-maintained & easy to follow, a mixture of flat boardwalks & gravel paths. At some points, the trail has a few stepped mild inclines, with a total change in elevation of just 124 metres. Estimate a 10km round trip between 3 to 4 hours, including photo-stops and admiring the views.

New Zealand’s DoC describes it as a gentle walk for people with low to moderate fitness and abilities. The track is clearly signposted, streams & river crossings are bridged and track markers (orange triangles) are available.

mount cook national park with aoraki in the background
Mount Cook National Park; an ancient iconic peak and a sacred Māori valley (Credits: Kewl, Pixabay)

Do you need special equipment?

Technically, no. However, most of the tramps in New Zealand, no matter how easy or technically hard they are, are within alpine environments. That means that weather conditions can change without any warning and you can experience strong wind, high rainfall, dense fog, drops in temperature etc.

Packing list
  • plenty of drinking water
  • walking shoes or hiking boots
  • a fully charged mobile phone
  • sunscreen protection
  • windproof jacket, hat & gloves
  • a torch
  • layered clothing

Avoiding the crowds

Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular half-day walks in New Zealand, so expect company. Both early mornings & late evenings are ideal to enjoy the views. In addition, they offer better light for photographs. The peak time is from 09:00 in the morning to 17:00 in the afternoon.

What’s the best time to do the walk depending on the season?

Winter – Autumn: Start as early as possible for smoother weather, better sunlight & fewer walkers. Early risers will catch some stunning views of the first sun rays creeping over Mt. Cook. So wake up at 07:00 am and grab that cup of hot coffee!


Summer – Spring: Not a morning person? Depending on the exact sunset time you might be able to walk the track after 17:00. Make sure to start the tramp at least 3 hours before sunset to leave some daylight time for your return trip.

Keep an eye for…

Along the route, you will see the largest species of buttercup, an endemic wildflower species called Mount Cook lily.

Mount Cook buttercup or Mount Cook lily
Mount Cook buttercup or Mount Cook lily (Credits: Krzysztof Golik, Wikipedia)

Make sure to watch out for the “clown of the mountains”, the endangered Kea, the only alpine parrot in the world. Their notorious urge to explore, destroy and manipulate made the bird famous among residents & tourists.

Did you know?

There was a long controversy about whether the Kea prayed on sheep, lasting from the mid-1860 up to 1992 when it was finally captured on video. That was one of the reasons the kea was killed for bounty until 1986.

green kea parrot standing in a rock
Watch out for this one and make sure to keep an eye to your stuff (Credits: Tomas Sobek, Unsplash)

Starting the Hooker Valley Track

The beginning of the hike is at White Horse Hill Campsite next to the car park. For the most part of the tramp, you will be walking along the rumbling Hooker River. The trail starts out pretty flat between open grassland.

Hooker Valley Track Hike surrounded by snowy mountains
Hooker Valley Track is surrounded by the Southern Alps

Conquering Mt. Cook in a Victorian dress

Near the start of the track, on your left, there is a short trail leading to a boulder known as Freda’s Rock. Emmeline Freda Du Faur was photographed here, in December 1910 after being the first woman to climb Mount Cook.

The self-taught mountaineer challenged the social norms of the time by climbing in long Victorian dresses, which was standard clothing for women while wearing her leggings and hob-nailed boots underneath.

Did you know?

It was on Mt. Cook that Sir Edmund Hillary perfected his mountaineering skills before conquering Mt. Everest itself, the tallest mountain of the world.

Long-gone but never forgotten

Next, is the Alpine Memorial, honouring all explorers that never made it home. At first, the memorial was dedicated to three climbers who died in an avalanche, back in 1914. However, numerous other plaques were added for all those who perished in the Southern Alps.

To the memory of mountaineers and guides lost to the hills.

Reading the sign, I kept wondering whether reaching the summit really outweighs all the potential risks. What’s so captivating about Aoraki that makes alpinists risk their lives to summit it?

There are more remembrances, quotes, names and stories about all those now long-gone. One of them read “I am not gone – I am in these mountains, I am in the stars, I am all around you, always near, never far”.

Mueller Lake & the Guardian of Aoraki

Next, is Mueller Lookout – the view of Mt. Sefton towering at 3.151 metres above the proglacial Mueller Lake can easily take your breath away. “The Mountain of Gods” (called Maukatua in Māori), watchfully stands guard over Aoraki.

Mueller Glacier Lake and Mount Sefton
Mueller Lake & Mt. Sefton as seen from Mueller Lookout

Ground sediments suspended by neighbouring glaciers have transformed the colour Mueller Lake to a milky blue-grey – making it rather unusual.

Moreover, colossal moraines surround the lake – chunks of rock, soil and debris left behind by the retreating glacier with some of them reaching up to 100 m.

All that, along with the surrounding snowy mountains turn the landscape into a dramatic work of art.

Take a moment to remain silent and you’ll hear the rocks & snow tumbling down from the mountains. “This is the sound of change”, a local guide said. “There are signs of change all around you – the glaciers are retreating and the mountains are being torn down by water & ice”, he added.

Listen to the rumbling of avalanches from Mt. Sefton and spot them before they crash into Muller Lake below.
The moraine walls of Mueller Lake and the surrounding southern alps
The hike offers some great close-ups – better get that camera tripod useful!

It is incredible that almost a hundred years ago Mueller Glacier filled the valley floor. Therefore, you would have been able to walk right into it from this position. Today, it is all but hidden up the valley.

Turn your back to Mt. Sefton and indulge in the extraordinary scenery of the valley to the south – Lake Pukaki with its vibrant blue waters can be clearly seen at some distance.

Hooker Valley and Lake Pukaki as seen from the track
Hooker Valley and Lake Pukaki as seen from the track

Bouncing over Hooker River – the suspension bridges

Hooker Valley Track is famous for its iconic swinging bridges and bouncing your way through them adds to the experience.

Right after Mueller Lookout is the first swinging bridge of the hike, the Lower Hooker Suspension Bridge. The bridge looks so small & insignificant below the surrounding mountains.

Lower Hooker Suspension Bridge at Hooker Valley Track
Lower Hooker Suspension Bridge

Up close, the bridge didn’t look scary or dangerous. Ηowever, a sign reminded visitors to make sure that no more than 20 people should use it at a time.

While crossing the bridge I could feel the roaring Hooker River rushing underneath on its way to Lake Pukaki down the valley.

Hooker River as seen from Lower Suspension Bridge
Hooker River as seen from Lower Suspension Bridge

Make sure to look down at the powerful, milky-coloured river. The bridge’s height and the occasional bouncing got me a bit dizzy; however, I took a big pause in the middle of the bridge. The rushing river below was hypnotizing to watch and the view was simply mesmerizing.

Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton
Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton

The trail then skirts further into the valley with great looks of Mueller Lake on your left.

Next, it’s the second suspension bridge, Hooker Bluff Bridge. This is a great spot to examine Mueller Lake up close. Its colour, along with the gigantic moraine walls was such an alien sight.

Mueller Lake as seen from Hooker Bluff Swing Bridge
Mueller Lake as seen from Hooker Bluff Swing Bridge

Τhe track turns away from Mueller Lake and continues north, through the sacred Tōpuni area of Hooker Valley, following the river upstream.

An enigmatic Maori Chief in disguise

After conquering the first two swing bridges, I headed north across tiny hills and valleys cherishing the lone company of Hooker River.

As I walked around a large bend a magnificent sight dominated the horizon, forcing me to stand my ground and feast my eyes on it. Standing firm and massive, masked within a thick veil of mist as if coming from an imaginary clay pipe, the great elder chief, Aoraki, in all its majesty came into view.

First Views of Mount Cook from Hooker Valley Track
First Views of Mount Cook from Hooker Valley Track

Behind its cloak, Aoraki enjoyed keeping its highest peaks hidden from me. It was much later that I learned about the local Maori story; it is totally up to the mountain to decide when and to whom it will show itself.

Mount Cook is dominating the horizon during the second part of the hooker valley track hike
Mount Cook is dominating the horizon during the second part of the hike

The Great Chief had retired to his tent; unfortunately, this time, I was not granted an audience. Several minutes passed before I could break free from its spell and be on my way; I still had some icebergs to catch.

Hooker River along with a clouded Mt. Cook
One of the most famous shots of Hooker Valley Track hike – too bad Mt. Cook was hidden

Into the realm of Lord of the Rings

As soon as the landscape opened a bit more and the snowcapped Southern Alps loomed in the background the scenery was nothing less than epic. Going deeper into the lush valley surrounded by glacier-covered cliffs it was easy to portray the White Mountains of Middle-Earth.

I was sure I heard some goblin screams; all caves inside those mountain ranges must be swarming with them. But I definitely felt safer when I caught a glimpse of a dozen Longbeard dwarves dressed in steel mails, double-axes on hand.

For all those LOTR fans out there, this is one of your many chances in New Zealand to walk right into Tolkien’s fantasyland.

the third swinging bridge in hooker valley track with mountains in the background
Can you spot the Orcs hiding in the bushes?

Hiking under the shadow of Mount Cook

The second part of Hooker Valley hike is mostly upon wooden boardwalks over the swampy vegetation. You will be hiking right into a meadow surrounded by alpine tussock grass with panoramic views of the Southern Alps. Aoraki remained visible through that part, silently monitoring my every move from its throne.

Did you know?

Mount Cook actually consists of three summits – the Low Peak (3.593 m), the Middle Peak (3.717 m) and the High Peak (3.724 m).

Hooker Valley Track - Heading towards the glacier lake
Hooker Valley Track – heading towards the glacier lake

The track continues into the wide flat valley floor before crossing Hooker River for a final time. Suspension bridges served as good milestone points on my way back providing an estimation of where approximately I was.

As soon as I bounced my way across Upper Hooker Bridge, I found myself right below the moraine walls of Hooker Lake.

Looking over Upper Hooker Bridge you’re in line for views on the ridgeline extending southwest from Mount Sefton above Mueller Glacier
Looking over the bridge you get some amazing views of the surrounding mountains

Turn back and look at the amazing scenery – Mount Thompson at 2.642 m. and Mount Brunner at 2.643 m. will proudly greet you.

Hooker Lake – the end of the walk

Climbing over the moraine the most picturesque surprise awaited me. Standing under the shadow of an imposing Mount Cook I was facing the ancient Hooker Glacier itself.

The intense mint colour of Hooker Lake along with a foggy Mount Cook in the background created the eeriest atmosphere. The thick clouds still did not permit me to view Aoraki and all I could do is imagine the unspeakable height of this iconic summit.

Weird Fact

Aoraki’s height decreased to 3.724 m. (from 3.764 m.) due to rockslide in 2014.

Floating icebergs within Hooker Glacier Lake
Floating icebergs within Hooker Lake

To be honest, I expected Hooker Glacier to be icier. However, after having a closer look I could easily distinguish a body of dense ice mixed with rock and debris accumulated as the glacier kept collapsing over the years.

That’s exactly how Hooker Lake formed sometime in the 1970s as Hooker Glacier started slowly melting.

The Hooker Glacier Terminus at Hooker Lake
The Hooker Glacier Terminus at Hooker Lake

What a wonderful experience it was – at about 900 metres above sea level I was lucky enough to witness such a surreal environment. The lake’s surface was calm, perfectly reflecting the surrounding snowy mountains upon its surface.

Have you ever seen floating icebergs?

The viewpoint above Hooker Lake is where the trail ends, but I wasn’t done exploring yet.

I noticed a short path leading down to a rocky beach; a great chance to get closer and feel the icy water. I also had the chance to touch some icebergs that strayed on the shore, having broken off from the nearby glacier.

If the lake is frozen enough you can even walk on its surface. However, make sure to avoid getting close to the icebergs; even the slightest movement around them may cause the ice to break.

Hooker Lake's rocky shore
Hooker Lake’s rocky shore on the left

I picked a flat rock and admired the scenery in complete silence. I was so privileged to stand on the shore of an iceberg-speckled lake facing directly an ancient glacier under one of the most iconic peaks of the globe.

As the icebergs were slowly drifting on the lake I was able to catch some magnificent reflections of Mount Cook and the surrounding Alps over the icy surface.

Environmental impact

Sadly, the seven-mile-long Hooker Glacier is melting rapidly, as a result of global warming. Therefore, the lake will grow in length as Hooker Glacier retreats further up the valley. That little shore won’t exist in some decades.

Hooker Valley Lake and Hooker Glacier under Aoraki / Mount Cook
That view alone was worth all the trip from Queenstown

Small drops of rain started upsetting the lake’s surface… and interrupted my thoughts. After a quick last glance at the stunning landscape, I forced myself to head back as it was already getting late.

Hooker Valley Track – the return trip

On the way back you can enjoy more views down the valley and across Sealy Range from a totally different perspective. I have to admit that the scenery was equally impressive and interesting especially as the clouds are descending lower.

Muddy path in Hooker Valley Track with clouds
The way back – it get’s even greater when the clouds go lower

Luckily enough I had the track to myself so I made several photo-stops. The silence all around me was only interrupted by the constant rumbling of the Hooker River.

The alpine scenery was so majestic and tranquil, it felt unreal.

Crossing the Upper Hooker Bridge
Crossing the Upper Hooker Bridge

Random encounters with cheeky Keas, a couple of blackbirds and several rabbits made the return trip more fun. I have also spotted many different wildflowers along the way; celmisia and kōpukupuku, the world’s biggest buttercup.

Lower Hooker suspension bridge
Lower Hooker suspension bridge
Discover the track’s Easter Egg

Right before you get back to the car park try locating a secret code to claim your Kiwi Adventure Medal – a real medal to remind you of that extraordinary hike. Look for a signpost!

Waving goodbye to the Great Chief

Up until the last moment I got into the car I was really hoping that the clouds would part so I can have a glimpse of Mount Cook.

Unfortunately, every time my hopes were confronted by mist and clouds – the “Cloud Piercer” definitely didn’t live up to its name that day.

Driving off Mount Cook National Park through State Highway 80, I kept peeking on the wing mirror. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t get Aoraki off my bucket list – I was so close!

And then, the peak was revealed!

Aoraki / Mount Cook as seen from State Highway 80
Aoraki / Mount Cook as seen from State Highway 80

Even if it lasted a couple of minutes, I didn’t miss the chance to pull over and capture it.

There I was, standing in the middle of the highway, miles away from home, staring Aoraki eye to eye. It was as if the Great Chief was waving goodbye.

Verdict: Is Hooker Valley Track worth a visit?

Surreal, milky lakes, spectacular glacier views, lush valley meadows, picturesque icebergs, fast-flowing rivers and swing bridges. The scenery is truly breathtaking and will have you reaching for your camera at every turn.

Besides, you have the opportunity to spot some of Aotearoa’s most unique alpine flora and fauna.

All those make Hooker Valley Track one of the most epic short hikes in New Zealand and a must-do for all first-timers in South Island.

Don’t get discouraged

It’s common for Aoraki to be hidden behind clouds or thick layers of fog. Give it some time and perhaps you’ll get your chance to meet the great chief.

view of aoraki mount cook from State Highway 80
The view of Aoraki/ Mt. Cook from State Highway 80 (Credits: Jean Pierre Brungs, Unsplash)

Know before you go

Is Hooker Valley Track difficult?

Hooker Valley Track is quite easy, great for people of all fitness levels & ages. Learn more about the difficulty of the trail here.

Is any equipment needed?

Hooker Valley Track is a trail inside an alpine environment and weather conditions can change without warning. This is the packing list you are going to need.

How long is Hooker Valley Track?

The length of the Hooker Valley Track is 10 km (6.2 miles). That is the total distance you will cover both ways. View a detailed map of the hike here.

How much time does it take to complete the hike?

I would allow 3 to 4 hours to complete the walk; That includes taking pictures, stopping by to admire the views and even having a quick bite by the lake. View a detailed map of the hike here.

What is the best time to visit Hooker Valley?

Both early mornings & late evenings are ideal to enjoy Hooker Valley Track. Learn more about the best time to visit to avoid the crowds.

How can you get informed about the status of the trail?

Sometimes, the walk is closed either due to bad weather conditions (especially during winter) or for maintenance. The most reliable source of information about the status of the trail is the Department of Conservation.

Where can I get a Hooker Valley Track map?

The Department of Conservation has published an online map of the trail, with a printable version available. Click here to view a detailed map.

Are toilets available in Hooker Valley Track?

Yes, toilets are available at White Horse Hill Campground (the start of the trail) and at the Stocking Steam, in the middle of the track.

Is parking available nearby?

Yes, parking is available at White Horse Hill Carpark at the end of State Highway 80. It has a parking space for around 200 vehicles. Visit during those hours to secure a parking spot!

Are dogs and bikes permitted on Hooker Valley Track?

Dogs are not allowed on any tracks on Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park. Similarly, bikes are forbidden on Hooker Valley Track but there are other trails in the area allowing them.

Is Hooker Valley Track kids-friendly?

Yes, the trail is easy to complete by kids. Learn more about the difficulty of the trail here.

How can I get from Queenstown to Hooker Valley?

The best way to do it is by renting a car and making the 3-hour trip (264 km) at your own pace. There are several interesting stops on the way from Queenstown to Mt. Cook National Park.

photo of aoraki mount cook with snow on the peak
The snow-peaked Aoraki (Credits: photosvolvob12b, Flickr)

Best season to do the Hooker Valley Track

I have visited Hooker Valley in late October, which is considered to be mid-spring in New Zealand. It’s a great time to visit since you will be getting the best from both seasons, winter and summer.

Advantages of doing the tramp on spring:

  • you still get the snowy peaks and the dramatic scenery
  • the hike is easy to complete without any fear of slippery ice
  • you will witness the blooming of mountain wildflowers
  • it’s one of the least busy months for tourism in Mt. Cook

Staying near the Hooker Valley Track 

Even if Hooker Valley Track is the perfect half-day hike and won’t take more than 4 hours to complete, if possible, get accommodation nearby. Doing so will help you maximise your time in the area and start the walk either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

The nearest towns are:
  • Mount Cook Village (3 km)
  • Twizel (68 km)
  • Lake Tekapo (105 km)

Mount Cook Village is the most convenient location, in terms of distance from the trail, but there are only a handful of accommodation options available. Most of them are booked out in advance, so make sure to book ahead.

The view of Mount Cook Village and Aoraki/ Mt. Cook National Park from Sealy Tarns
The view of Mount Cook Village in the flat valley floor

A more flexible (and adventurous) option for those with campervans, caravans or tents is White Horse Hill Campground. The campsite is conveniently located at the start of Hooker Valley Track. With basic amenities like drinking water, a shelter for cooking, toilets and fees starting from 15 NZD per person, per night it is an excellent choice.

You don’t get the chance to camp beneath a magnificent alpine scenery often so I definitely recommend it.

More info available at the official DoC website.


All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Are you planning to do the Hooker Valley Track? Do you recommend any other tramps? Leave your thoughts below!

4 thoughts

Diana Southern 2nd Mar 2020 - 17:57

Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog to chat about New Zealand. We loved our visit there, campervanning around both islands. The scenery was spectacular!

We would have loved to spend more time at Mt Cook. We only drove to the park and took a few photos on a short hike, but it seemed like there were some pretty epic hiking opportunities around there. Something for next time!

Reply
Nikos Taskos 2nd Mar 2020 - 19:07

I would love to do the Kea Point Track the next time, I have been told that the scenery is epic from up there!

Reply
Lizzy 18th May 2020 - 01:58

Awesome blog about mount cook- cant wait to do it next week now!
Did you do another other hikes in the area whikst you were there?

Reply
Nikos Taskos 19th May 2020 - 21:08

Thanks, Lizzy! You can also try the Kea Point Track; it’s short, sweet, and has some incredible mountain views!

Reply

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