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

Hooker Valley Track Hike in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

by Miles With Vibes

I was finally there. Standing bewildered under the shadow of an imposing Mount Cook I had the chance to face the ancient Hooker Glacier itself. The thick clouds did not permit me to view Aoraki at all its grandeur and all I could do is imagine the unspeakable height of its iconic summit; 3.724 m. is not a meager feat. Small icebergs were floating within Hooker Lake upsetting the perfect reflections of the tallest mountain of Southern Alps and its so-called guardian, Mount Sefton. Hooker Valley Track is definitely one of the most scenic yet easy half-day hikes in New Zealand.

How did I end up in Hooker Valley?

It was here, on Hooker Valley and more specifically on Mt. Cook that Sir Edmund Hillary perfected his mountaineering skills to conquer Mt. Everest itself, the tallest mountain of the world. I was so eager to learn what’s so captivating about Aoraki that makes alpinists risk their lives to summit it. Will the “cloud piercer”, as called by Māori, live up to its fame? Besides, who would miss the opportunity to see a glacier lake, have fun crossing swing bridges and watch real icebergs floating around?

Hooker Lake & Hooker Glacier Under the Shadow of Mt. Cook
Hooker Lake & Hooker Glacier Under the Shadow of Mt. Cook

Hiking the Hooker Valley Track – Starting the tramp

The beginning of the hike is at White Horse Hill Campsite near the car park. The tramp runs along the rumbling Hooker River starting out pretty flat between open grassland. During the walk, snowy mountains completely surrounded me; the Southern Alps are truly a magnificent sight.

Hooker Valley Track Hike surrounded by snowy mountains
Hooker Valley Track Hike surrounded by snowy mountains

Near the start of the track is The Alpine Memorial, honouring all explorers that never made it home after facing the Southern Alps head on. The plaque read:

I am not gone – I am in these mountains, I am in the stars, I am all around you, always near, never far

Looking at all those stories, names and dates I kept wondering whether reaching the summit really outweighs the risks. What’s so special about this iconic peak?

Mueller Lake and Mt. Sefton – The Guardian of Aoraki

Next, I reached the 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. Truly, you can’t face Mt. Cook itself without first getting screened but its watchful sentry, as you hike deeper into the valley.
Ground sediments suspended by neighbouring glaciers have transformed the colour of the water to a milky blue-grey – making it rather unusual. Colossal moraines surrounded Mueller Lake – chunks of rock, soil and debris left behind by the retreating glacier – some of them reaching up to 100 m. turning the landscape into a dramatic work of art.

Mueller Glacier Lake and Mount Sefton
Mueller Glacier Lake and Mount Sefton

Take a moment to remain silent and you should be able to hear the rocks and snow tumbling down from the mountains above. “This is the sound of change”, I heard a local guide saying. “There are signs of change all around you – the glaciers are retreating and the mountains are being torn down by water and ice”, he added.

It is incredible that almost a hundred years ago Mueller Glacier filled the valley floor meaning that I would have been able to walk right into it from this very 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

After snapping several photos I was back on track again; even though I have been granted a pass from Mt. Sefton, still, Mt. Cook was nowhere to be seen.

Crossing the suspension bridges – Swinging over Hooker River

Right after Mueller Lookout is the first swing bridge of the hike, called Lower Hooker Suspension Bridge. The bridge itself was overwhelmed by the height of the surrounding cliffs looking so small and insignificant below them.

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

Up close, the bridge didn’t look scary or dangerous; however, a sign kept reminding 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 reinforce Lake Pukaki down the valley.

Hooker river with opaque water as seen from Lower Suspension Bridge
Hooker River as seen from Lower Suspension Bridge

Avoid looking down if you can afford it; a piece of advice I should have followed myself. The bridge’s height along with an occasional bouncing got me a bit dizzy; however, I couldn’t help but take a big pause on the middle of the bridge. Hopefully, it was only me crossing so I simply stood still and enjoyed the scenery; feeling so small, several feet over a fast-flowing river on a swing bridge, surrounded by snowy peaks is unfortunately not a part of my daily routine, so I had to make the most of it. The trail then skirts further into the valley – you can still get great looks of Mueller Lake on your left.

Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton
Mueller Lake and Mount Sefton

Time to cross the second suspension bridge of Hooker Valley Track named Hooker Bluff Bridge. This is a great spot to examine Mueller Lake up close – its colour, reminding me of the Peruvian Blue Opal, along with the gigantic moraine walls fuelled my imagination; such an alien sight it was.

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

The track then turns away from Mueller Lake and continues north, through the sacred Tōpuni area of the Hooker Valley, following the Hooker River upstream. Swinging over the river was really interesting and fun, but I kept wondering about Mt. Cook. Was it possible to completely miss its peak due to the thick shroud of clouds? Moving further down the track my excitement started wearing down as all hope of finally meeting the Cloud Piercer was fading away.

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. I was SO unprepared for the following encounter.

As I walked around a large bend a rather magnificent sight dominated the horizon, forcing me to stand my ground and feast my eyes on it, having fallen under its irresistible spellbinding effect. 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

However, the fog concealing the mountain only kept me wondering about the immense height of that immortal power. Behind its cloak, Aoraki silently enjoyed keeping its highest peaks hidden from mortals. It was much later that I learnt about the local Maori story behind that mysterious veil of clouds; 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 have passed before I could break free from its spell and be on my way; I had some icebergs to catch.

Hooker River along with a clouded Mt. Cook
The opaque water of Hooker River along with a clouded Mt. Cook

Hiking under the shadow of Mount Cook

The second part of Hooker Valley hike was mostly upon wooden boardwalk over the swampy vegetation; you are hiking right into a meadow surrounded by alpine tussock grass enjoying panoramic views of snowy mountain peaks. Aoraki remains visible during the whole half of the trek silently monitoring your every move from its throne.

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 third and final time. Suspension bridges served as good milestone points on my way back providing an estimation of where approximately I was on the track. 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 Upper Hooker Bridge you’re in line for views on the ridgeline extending southwest from Mount Sefton above Mueller Glacier

After crossing the bridge take a moment to turn back and look at the amazing scenery – Mount Thompson at 2.642 meters and Mount Brunner at 2.643 meters will proudly greet you.

The end of the walk: Hooker Glacier Terminus at Hooker Lake

Climbing over the moraine the most picturesque surprise awaited me, the proglacial Hooker Lake. Its intense mint colour along with a foggy Mount Cook looming impressively in the background created the eeriest atmosphere. The base of New Zealand’s highest mountain is where the Hooker Glacier ends; the many icebergs floating – some massive, other tiny – have broken of the Glacier itself.

Floating icebergs within Hooker Glacier Lake
Floating icebergs within Hooker Glacier Lake

To be honest, I would expect Hooker Glacier to be icier. However, after having a closer look I could easily distinguish a persistent body of dense ice mixed with rock and debris accumulated as the glacier kept deforming and collapsing under its own weight. That’s exactly how Hooker Lake formed sometime in the 1970s as Hooker Glacier started slowly retreating.

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 face the glacier head-to-head in such a surreal environment. The water surface was calm, perfectly reflecting the surrounding snowy mountains upon its surface. I noticed a short path leading down to the rocky shore of the glacier lake; a great chance to get closer, feel the icy water and try touching some icebergs that strayed near the shore. Should the lake was frozen I would have been able to even walk on its surface. In case you do so, 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

I picked a flat rock at the edge of the lake and admired the scenery, taking it all in. Remember, you are so privileged to stand on the shore of an iceberg-speckled lake facing directly a 7-mile long glacier under one of the most iconic peaks of the globe. The lake’s maximum depth is 136 m. while it is expected to grow in length by 4 km. as Hooker Glacier retreats further up the valley; will that very shore exist in some decades?

Hooker Valley Lake and Hooker Glacier under Aoraki / Mount Cook
Hooker Valley Lake and Hooker Glacier under Aoraki / Mount Cook

Small drops of rain started upsetting the lake’s surface… and interrupted my thoughts; I still had to make the return trip. With one quick last glance at the stunning landscape, I forced myself to turn around and start heading back as it was already getting late.

Return Trip – Discovering the track’s Easter Egg

On the way back I had the change to 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 as the clouds had now descended even lower.

Muddy track at Hokker Valley Track with cloudy mountains on the background
The way back – Hooker Valley Track

Luckily enough I was rewarded with the serenity of sharing the whole track with only myself so I made some stops to get more shots. The silence all around me was only interrupted by the constant rumbling of Hooker River; it felt so 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 even more fun. I have also spotted many different wildflowers along the way; celmisia and Mount Cook buttercup/kōpukupuku, the world’s biggest buttercup.

Lower Hooker suspension bridge
Lower Hooker suspension bridge

Hint: Right before you come out of the walk back to the car park try locating the secret code so you can claim your Kiwi Adventure Medal – a real medal to remind you of that extraordinary Kiwi adventure.

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 could 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, it happened.

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,

as if the Great Chief was waving goodbye

Verdict: Is Hooker Valley Track Hike worth your time?

Surreal, milky lakes, spectacular glacier views, lush valley meadows, picturesque icebergs and fast-flowing rivers crossed by 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. The trail is well-maintained and gentle, starting out flat and slightly gaining elevation – about 124 m. over 5 km.

Know before you go

What is the best time to visit Hooker Valley Track Hike?

Hooker Valley Track looks fantastic early at dawn where you can get a glimpse of the first sunrays creeping over Aoraki and the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana). Alternatively, if you are not much of a morning person, you may walk the track late in the afternoon when it will be less crowded.

How can I get informed whether Hooker Valley Track Hike is closed?

Sometimes the walk is closed either due to bad weather (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 prepared an online map of the trail; you may view it here.

How long is Hooker Valley Track walk?

The official length of Hooker Valley Track is 10 km. That is the total distance you will cover both ways.

How much time does it take to complete the hike?

Walking, taking pictures, stopping by to admire the scenery and even having a quick bite by the lake; I would definitely allow 2 to 3 hours to complete the hike.

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 you can make along the way from Queenstown to Mt. Cook National Park.

Quick Facts

Date Visited: October 2018
Trail Type: Out and back
Recommended Time: 3-4 hours
Weather info: Hooker Valley Track DoC

Hiking Distance: 10 km
Elevation change: 117 m
Max Altitude: 877 m

Remote outdoors paradise; an ever-changing landscape, an ancient iconic peak and a sacred valley.

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