Mount Cook’s Hooker Valley Track is arguably the most famous day hike in the South Island, and should be on every road trip itinerary. Only trouble is that like many of the most gorgeous places in NZ, it’s off the beaten track. I’d say that a great place to stay within driving distance is the beautiful (and relaxing!) Lake Tekapo. Covering our experience in both places – the perfect way to wrap up our campervan trip!
Also known as Aoraki, Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It sits in a national park and is surrounded by 23 smaller peaks. As you journey into the park, you’ll be driving alongside Lake Pukaki, a stunningly turquoise blue that looks milky from glacial flour. Looking across the lake to Mount Cook is pretty amazing, so be sure to pull over on the way for some pretty pics.
When you’re planning your trip in, beware of the weather – it can change very suddenly, with storms developing over the Tasman Sea. You’ll want to pick a clear day to visit so you can see Mount Cook sparkling in the sun… seriously! (We saw the weather was supposed to be amazing the day before we had planned to go, so we left Queenstown earlier in the day to complete it that afternoon.)
The Hooker Valley Track took us under the estimated three hours to complete, with a short stop at the vista point. It’s relatively flat since you’re hiking the valley (vs. climbing the mountain!), and much of it is on a platform. There are a few fun swing bridges to cross as well! The vista point is pretty amazing – a full frontal of Mount Cook with icebergs floating in the lake below. A must see!
We had originally planned to stay a night at the White Horse Hill Campground managed by DOC, but it was so incredibly crowded (and we were done with the hike by early afternoon) so we opted to continue to Lake Tekapo. There are other hikes in the national park that we could have done, but we were excited for some relaxation.
This was an added bonus of a stop for us. Since we moved our Mount Cook trek up by a day, we had more time to stay and chill. We checked into the only holiday park, and were lucky for a spot with a pretty view of the lake.
After a relaxing dinner in town and good night’s sleep, we set out for a couple hiking adventures the next day:
- Mt. John Observatory: The University of Canterbury operates an astronomy research facility atop this mountain. Lake Tekapo is located in a Dark Sky Reserve with hardly any light pollution, making stargazing a must. Unfortunately you can’t visit at night unless you’re on a tour, so we went up during the day for lake views. There are three ways up – driving, a one hour climb, or a “tiki tour” (scenic route) that takes about two hours. We opted for the shorter climb, and were greeted by crazy winds at the top! We warmed up in the cafe with adorable space cappuccinos. I mean come on – the cutest!
- Hidden White Bluffs: We got this recommendation from our trusty NZ Frenzy tour book (highly recommend!). This isn’t advertised at all, so there were no trail markers. I’m not sure if we got there (or back) the right way… we basically climbed up the face of a mountain to get back. The bluffs were incredible, but it was a long journey.
- Church of the Good Shepherd: Situated right on the lake, this stone church is a popular photo op. There were way too many tour buses around it to really even take a picture though.
- Lupin Hunting: Lupins are technically an invasive weed, but they are beautiful! We heard they only bloom for one month a year, so we were incredibly lucky to be able to see them. The contrast of purple and pinks against the deep blue lake made for pretty amazing photos.
- Hidden Zipline: We had a bit too much fun on this playground-style zipline by the lake!
- Tekapo Springs: We didn’t make it here, but a good option for relaxation.
Lake Tekapo was our very last stop before driving back to Christchurch to return our campervan. Bittersweet handing that beast in – so glad to not be responsible for it anymore, but sad that our adventure came to an end! Until next time, South Island!