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  • Vien R. Guenther

Tramping/Hiking the Hooker Valley Track - Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

Updated: Feb 23

Our month long trip to New Zealand was spent mostly on the South Island (Te Waipounamu, in Māori). South Island is the larger of the two main islands, but far less populated than the North Island. It is bordered to the north by the Cook Strait, to the west by the Tasman Sea, and the South Pacific Ocean to the south and east.


You cannot explore South Island without visiting at least few of the national parks, or even hike in one. One of the short hikes we did here is in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (Te Wahi Pounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area). The highest mountains and the longest glaciers can be found here in the South Island. Among the more than 140 peaks higher than 6,500 feet, 19 reach over 9,800 feet.


Entrance to the park

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park was formally established in 1953 and received recognition as a World Heritage site in 1986. There is a small village in the park with a permanent population of just over a hundred people, but during the peak summer season there are many as 3,000 people per day, or an estimated 300,000 visitors each year.


The famous New Zealand mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, trained here on Aoraki/Mount Cook before climbing Mt. Everest which he did successfully in May 1953.




HOOKER VALLEY TRACK/TRAIL - 7.5 miles


Hiking, or tramping to Kiwis, in the Hooker Valley is one of the most popular hikes in this park. The hike is easy and short with a well-maintained track - but you don’t want to be straying outside of the trail, rapid changes in weather anytime of the year are common. This trail has been named one of the “best day walks in New Zealand”.


The day of our hike started with some pretty ominous weather, which is not surprising in New Zealand. We don’t usually go hiking when it looks like the weather will turn out bad. But we only had one day to hike the Hooker Valley, and it’s not like we can return here anytime we want. We live 7,000 miles away. So, off we went tramping.


Alpine Memorial

The trail begins at the White Horse Hill camping ground - there is an ample car park at the end of the Hooker Valley Road. A short distance from the car park, the trail passes close to the Alpine Memorial. Here, you will see the names of the mountaineers who have died in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park over the years. While there are plenty of plaques there, I don't think it is a deterrent for climbers wanting to conquer the mountains in the area. We skipped the memorial on our way in and later went back to look it over on our way back.


About 15 minutes from the beginning of the trail is the first overlook with a view of the Mueller Glacier and its lake. The glacier, though far from the viewpoint, appeared immense, and it is. Glaciers cover 40 percent of the national park and Mueller Glacier is eight miles long. It was named after German-Australian botanist and explorer Baron von Mueller.


There are three swing bridges to pass on this trail and the first one is right by the Mueller Lake, crossing the Hooker river.

Chilly and cloudy morning
The first swing bridge
Mueller Lake

The Mueller Lake is the remnant of a glacier that used to cover the valley floor. Above the lake is the peak of Mount Sefton covered with snow and cloud, but we could hear the groaning of the hidden glaciers as chunks fell down from above. It's "kinda" cool actually to hear them.


The second swing bridge is the Hooker Bluff Bridge, located past the Mueller Lake. This bridge also crosses the Hooker River. Here, the track goes between old moraine ridges and humps. The vegetation changes to more open tussock and a wider valley floor.



The second swing bridge, the Hooker Bluff Bridge
The trail along the Hooker River
Aoraki/Mt. Cook behind me

From here you will see Aoraki/Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. It used to be the world's 37th most prominent mountain standing, until the eastern face of its northern peak fell off in 1991. The mountain was renamed Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1998 following a settlement between the Crown and the local Māori tribe, Ngai Tahu. In honoring the original Māori name, (Aoraki, meaning "Cloud Piercer,") the mountain stands as an example of a conjoined name in New Zealand, where the Māori name is expressed first, signifying the mountain's national cultural importance.


Aoraki/Mt. Cook shows its summit from time to time

The third swing bridge, the Upper Hooker Bridge

A third swing bridge leads to the source of the Hooker River, the Hooker Lake.  During our hike, Mount Cook mostly stayed hidden, but whenever the sun came out we were ready to take pictures.


Buttercups along the trail.

Along the trail you will find Mount Cook Buttercups, (kōpukupuku in Maōri) or Mount Cook Lily, the largest buttercup in the world.



Mount Cook Buttercup

The trail ends at the Hooker Lake which sits at the base of the Hooker Glacier. Hooker Lake was formed when the Hooker Glacier started to recede in the 1970's, and it is still receding. As the glacier rapidly melts and as the glacier recedes farther up the glacier bed, the lake is expected to expand even more.


Mount Cook's summit resembles the tip of an arrow from this trail, don't you think?. We were lucky to find its face mostly free of clouds as we reached the lake.


Aoraki/Mt. Cook (elevation 12,218 feet)
Hooker Lake with its floating icebergs

Although we would have loved to stay longer and enjoy the magnificent view of Aoraki/Mount Cook and its surrounding landscape, the chilly wind made it so unpleasant that we reluctantly hiked back down after our lunch. The sun came out just long enough for us to eat our sandwiches.


Looking back to Aoraki/Mount Cook as we headed back down
The sun came out as we hiked back

Blue sky appeared as we head back down. We were glad to be able to hike this valley and see Aoraki/Mount Cook in its glory. Words cannot express all the beauty of this place, so I just attached more pictures than I usually do.

The memorial dedicated to the climbers and guides who died from avalanches and falls while climbing the mountains in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park


NOTE:


Be prepared for the change of weather. Good hiking boots can take anything, from rough terrain to a rainy day. A rain jacket is not only for protection from the rain but it's extra protection from the chilly wind as well.


If what you want is a really short hike with incredible views, you can go up to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint. Even non-hikers can do this hike.


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VIEN R.GUENTHER

Travel Journal

Colorado, U.S.A

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