In the Shadow of Mount Cook – a Walk to the Red Tarns

During the summer of 2005 I spent a month journeying around New Zealand – a journey I would repeat tomorrow given the chance – and as the country remains one of my favorite places I’ve visited to date I thought I would share a few of the highlights here. The full story I recounted in 31 Days in a Campervan but these are new posts and not simply exerpts from the book and besides – we can put the photos on here.

Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps

A distant view of Mount Cook (left) from the shores of Lake Pukaki

To follow the post about climbing Mt Ruapehu up on North Island, here’s one about the area around the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook but I was not brave enough to attempt the ascent!

Situated in the Southern Alps some one hundred miles to the west of Christchurch, Mt Cook – whose Maori name Aoraki means “Cloud Piercer” – rises to 3754m or 12317 feet in a great fang of rock and ice above the Tasman and Hooker glaciers which form New Zealand’s largest ice fields.

Mount Cook from the Hooker Valley

The highest peak in NZ seen from Mount Cook Village in the Hooker Valley

Climbing the mountain is a serious undertaking but there is a wide range of walks to be had from Mount Cook Village in the Hooker Valley below the peak on the eastern side of the southern Alps that show off the sublime alpine scenery of the area. Our own far too brief visit was during the winter months so more involved routes such as the climb to Sefton Bivouac were well above the snow line and off limits to unguided walkers.

So it was we opted for the Red Tarns route which leaves Mt Cook Village in a southerly direction before climbing steeply out of the valley to a high sunny shelf far above, where the tarns are to be found at an altitude of 1050m or 3445ft – about the height of Snowdon. The route is easier than Snowdon though as the start point is something like 700m above sea level.

The path there is clear all the way being flat at first leaving the village then a series of steps for the climb out of the valley – over 1200 of them – so it’s a bit like climbing the Empire State Building on a day that the lifts are out of order! The Red Tarns – when you get there – are reedy pools of clear water set in a beautiful landscape with simply stunning views back up the Hooker Valley to Mount Cook and the seventeen other 3000m peaks that make up the highest part of the Southern Alps.

Mount Cook from Red Tarns

The Red Tarns are located on a sunny shelf just under 3500 feet above sea level with spectacular views of the highest peaks of the Southern Alps

The Hooker Valley and Aoraki

Looking up the Hooker Valley towards Mt Sefton and Mt Cook from a point close to the Red Tarns

The information leaflet and map available from  DOC (Department of Conservation) at the visitor centre says this is a two and a half hour round trip which is about right – and also lists several other easy but rewarding walks that can be done in this fascinating area which is part of the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.

About Pete Buckley

Hi I'm Pete and I'm a UK based outdoor enthusiast, part time writer and photographer. My work includes action adventure novel The Colonel of Krasnoyarsk as well as a couple of travel stories recounting firstly a campervan adventure around New Zealand and then a week on foot in the Swiss Alps, hiking from the Eiger to the Matterhorn. The subject of these pages is predominantly hiking in the English Lake District (which is near where I live), North Wales and the Scottish Highlands as well as cycling; from rides with the kids to trail riding in the Highlands of Scotland and other wonderful places... Thanks for visiting.
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12 Responses to In the Shadow of Mount Cook – a Walk to the Red Tarns

  1. Joe Milli says:

    amazing pete.. try to go to Komodo Dragon Island. It still has an ancient ecosystem


  2. thygersen says:

    Thank you for sharing .. your photo’s are great!!
    And your story is inspiring !
    It has always been a dream to go to New Zealand!!

    Thank you, Karri


  3. Amazing photos and description of your hikes. I love active travel as well, and New Zealand looks like a fabulous country to go “get outside”! It’s on my list of must-see places to visit.


    • Pete Buckley says:

      Hi and thanks. Your blog is pretty cool too! I like the look of the Cascades. You’re right – New Zealand is a totally perfect place for outdoor activity – we went in the winter and still managed a fair bit!


  4. Anne-Marie says:

    Hi Pete,
    Am a wordpress blogger..saw your amazing snaps of N.Z…a truely pristine place…very ispirational.
    I live in sunny Brisbane Australia but love NZ

    My blog is


    • Pete Buckley says:

      Hi Anne-Marie, I guess that’s part of the appeal of NZ – the landscape is so untouched, especially on South Island. We stopped a few hours at Brisbane on the way to Auckland. Looks a nice coast – I’ll have a stopover there next time. Thanks Pete.


  5. MikeP says:

    Well… now thats a hike or climb. Beautiful area …..NZ and Australia are on my wish list. Love the views of the Red Tarns.


  6. New Zealand is fantastic! Spent 3 awesome months there back in 1993. Happy travels!


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