Vien R. Guenther
Hiking/Tramping to Tasman Glacier Viewpoint – Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand
Updated: Jan 8
Driving to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is an experience by itself. The gorgeous mountain landscapes are awe inspiring; even from afar you will be eager to see what lies ahead. These mountains look mysterious and impressive so it's no wonder they are sacred to the Maōri - even the melt-waters from the glaciers. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, there is some evidence that Māori also traveled here, moving on foot into the mountains.
There are two different entry signs at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (see photos), one on each side of the road. So as not to be confused, South West New Zealand World Heritage Area encompasses Aoraki/Mount Cook, as well as Westland/Tai Poutini, Mount Aspiring/Tititea and Fiordland National Parks. It covers ten percent of New Zealand’s total land area.
We arrived at the park with gorgeous weather, and with enough time to hike to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint. We had to take advantage of it since out there in New Zealand you never know what the weather is gonna be like. One good thing about renting a van when we explored New Zealand is that we had everything we needed with us everywhere we went, so spur of the moment decisions were not a problem for us. Changing from street shoes to hiking boots is a breeze.
At the end of the Tasman Valley Road is the parking area to the viewpoint. The hike is just about a half mile to the top, but we detoured to the Blue Lakes going back down which added another half mile, so about two miles hike return all together.
Hiking to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint is one of the easiest and most popular hikes in the park. It was a steep climb to the top but the alpine view was spectacular.
Many well-built steps were placed along the trail (see photo), though I much prefer a natural incline so I can climb on my own pace and stride. I’m short, and the steps were not built for people with short legs, or should I say, “vertically challenged,” people (to be politically correct).
Climbing up to the top of the moraine you can look either way and the view does not disappoint at all. It was a different scenery and environment from any other hiking adventures we ever had. We also found different plants along the trail that I hadn’t seen before.
The plants here are found only in a moraine environment which is an accumulated pile of debris (rocks, etc.) carried by glaciers as they advance down the valley. These piles of debris were left behind at the end of the last Ice Age when glaciers retreated. In time, plants grow on these moraines, such as mat-forming plants, lichens, and moss. As the soil and nutrients built up, shrubs followed. This is one example of mother nature's ability to transform a barren land into a beautiful garden landscape.
These moraine plants are adapted to the constantly changing environment and weather pattern in the alpine area. They thrive here.
The viewpoint was not as crowded as we expected it to be, considering there was a stream of people going up and down the trail. Don't they stay and absorb the beauty of the place, I wonder?
Though the mountains were partially hidden by clouds, it was still an impressive sight. The face of the glacier was far from the viewpoint, about four miles, and the whole top was covered with debris which camouflages its icy blue color. But the edge where it touched the milky-grey water of the lake was quite visible.
To get up close and personal to the glacier you have to take a tour boat. But up at the viewpoint you will see a partial aerial view of the Tasman Lake.
Tasman Glacier is the longest glacier in New Zealand, about 16 miles long. It is one among several glaciers that flow south and east towards the Mackenzie Basin from the Southern Alps. You wonder why the lake's water looks white and not blue. Its milky color is due to large amounts of “glacial flour” or ground up rock and gravel produced by glacial abrasion. When glaciers melt in spring and summer, the silty particles that are dumped into the lake remain suspended in the water, until the melt-water stops or the lake freezes over, when they settle to the bottom. The suspension which makes the water look cloudy is known as glacial milk.
Tasman Lake was formed as the glacier receded as it melted continuously (melt-water created small ponds, which merged and created lakes in the park). By 2008 the lake was four miles long, 1.5 miles wide and 800 feet deep. Yes, that deep!
It is believed that the glacier is now in a period of accelerated retreat and the terminus is not only melting but also calving which results in icebergs. It is predicted that the glacier will disappear eventually and the Tasman Lake will reach its maximum size in about 10 to 19 years?
On our way down, we detoured to the Blue Lakes. Along the trail, a sign will point out the way for you. Before reaching the largest Blue Lake you will pass the two small one. The Blue Lakes look green today.
They were named before the glacier started to recede, when turquoise glacial melt-water filtered through the moraine, constantly refreshing their water. After the glacier receded, the water bypassed the lakes, which were then replenished by warmer rainwater only, which allowed green algae to take over since the water was not being replaced regularly. The lakes support large numbers of native fish today.
The trail continues on, but we stopped just above the last of the Blue Lakes. We don't know where the trail ends and we didn't have enough time that day to explore more.
If you want a little adventurous and longer day hike, you can hike the Hooker Valley Track. This is a beautiful trail with three swing bridges, awesome mountain landscapes and glaciers lakes.