🥾 Sealy Tarns and Hooker Valley tracks at Aoraki/Mount Cook

One of the activities I was most excited about doing in New Zealand was a couple of hikes in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. There is absolutely no shortage of hikes and nature walks in New Zealand—they are everywhere. We avoided visiting places that would be far from our general direction of travel from north to south on our trip, and Mount Cook fit into our itinerary quite well. Considering the other things we wanted to fit in, planning to visit Mount Cook was easy.

We also did some research into the various hikes around the country, and we didn’t have a lot of time on the trip so weren’t particularly keen on a multi-day hike (so that ruled out the Milford Track). A full-day hike was possible, so we did contemplate doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but gave it a skip because it would really take a full day and we’d have to organise drop-off and pick-up. We decided to leave it for another trip.

A small lake atop a mountain. A gravel path is to the left and the side of the mountain continues up on the right.
One of the tarns (lake in the mountains) at the top of the Sealy Tarns track.

The easy Hooker Valley track in Mount Cook seemed like a must-do if we were going to visit the national park, but I looked into the other options there to see if we could squeeze in a more challenging hike. I settled on the Sealy Tarns track, which seemed very worthy of doing even though it’s described as the “Stairway to Heaven” with 2,200 stairs. The track is pretty much just stairs, with an altitude of over 500 metres (1,640 ft). Nick and I are quite fit so I was sure we would have no trouble. Different sources said that hiking the track ranged between 2.5 and 4 hours.

Both hikes were return hikes, so we would come back to the starting point. The starting point of both hikes were in the same area. The plan was to do the Sealy Tarns track first thing, arriving as soon as the park opens, and—factoring in crowds and heat during summer—then do the “easy” Hooker Valley track. If we did the easy track first, we might be way too tired to climb stairs, whereas climbing stairs, followed by climbing back down, and then walking a mostly flat track, would be like active recovery. 😉

A view of a mountainous region with some hiking trails, and a carpark in the foreground. The sky is blue with some clouds.
A view of Aoraki from the trail heads and carpark area
A sign at a trail head reading “Kea Point Track”, “Sealy Tarns”, and “Mueller Hut Route” with various times.
The trail head

It turns out we didn’t have to worry at all about sunshine and heat. It was incredibly cloudy and cold when we arrived at Mount Cook. We made good time, arriving at about 8:45am and getting started with the Sealy Tarns hike immediately. In our bag we had packed some snacks, including cereal bars, crackers, fruit, and salami for protein; ponchos; some spare items of clothing; sunscreen; and of course lots of water. It was forecast to rain at around 2:00pm but we estimated we would be done with both hikes by then.

The Sealy Tarns track was probably one of my favourite hikes I’ve ever done. I think the thing that really got me about it was the beautiful views, and the fact that most every other stair-climbing or inline hike or track is through trees or doesn’t have any kind of view for most of the way up, but on the Sealy Tarns track, everywhere you looked had an incredible view. Granted, it was mostly the same as you went around. But it meant you never really got bored, and you could physically see how far you had walked from your starting point (be it vertically or as the crow flies).

A view of some tree-covered mountains, with a rocky snow-capped mountainous region in the middle
Shadows cast by the clouds at the beginning of the track
A mountainous scene, the mountain in the background covered in some snow, and the one in the foreground covered in green. Between the mountains are still bodies of water that are almost white.
A gorgeous view.
Nick, a white man with short dark hair, wearing a black t-shirt and beige pants, holding a pair of sunglasses in his hands. He is standing on a hiking trail on the side of a mountain with a hazy, mountainous view in the background.
Nick on the hike
Flat yellow-green land with some small roads and carpark areas, among hilly dark green areas and mountainous areas with white snow
Can see the carpark now.

It was only a slightly strenuous hike, and the stairs felt like a huge challenge at first, but the further we went along the track, the easier it felt. I roughly counted the stairs and it seemed that there were a little less than 2,000!

A set of wooden stairs on a hiking path, leading upwards. Where the path leads can’t be seen, but the surrounding area is light green and hilly, and the sky is blue but with many white clouds.
Stairway to Heaven 😲

There is a spot about halfway where you can get a very good view, but I figure if you make it that far, and aren’t completely cooked, you may as well make it to the top. The track continues onto the Mueller Hut track but that is a more advanced track—you need to be prepared especially in extreme weather conditions. We weren’t game enough to do that track, and we weren’t too keen on preparing for it with all the other travelling we were doing.

At the top of the Sealy Tarns track are beautiful views of the mountains, and in the distance you may be able to spot some with snow. We were able to see a lot of clouds, and the sky wasn’t completely clear. It would be clear on a good day but I recommend sunscreen regardless of the weather, as you are quite exposed to the elements because you are on the side of a mountain the whole time.

A hiking track comprised of mostly stairs, heading upwards and around the side of a mountain with light greenish-yellow vegetation.
Going around the side of the mountain now
Wooden stairs on a hiking trail, heading up and around to the left. The path ahead cannot be seen. In the background is a slightly hazy view of mountains with lakes between them, and big clouds in the sky.
A gorgeous view beyond the path.
Nick, in the same outfit as a previous photo, wearing sunglasses. He is standing in front of a view of mountains with snow on top of them. It is sunny in the foreground but the sky has big grey clouds.
These views are unreal 🏔️
Me, Georgie, standing in front of a biew with mountains and bodies of water in between them. I have one arm up in the air, and I’m wearing sunglasses, a black t-shirt and dark blue leggings.
The views were so good at the top, the photos make it look a bit like a painting.

There are some large picnic tables, but there are no other facilities. On the day we went, it was quite cold and windy so we didn’t want to stick around too much. We ate some cereal bars and took some photos before heading back down. It’s definitely tougher on the knees when you head back down so many stairs. In total, it took us almost two-and-a-half hours to do the hike from the starting point and back, including a short break at the top. We obviously had to stop at some points along the hike to catch our breath!

Nick standing on the steps of the trail, heading downwards. The stairs go down and to the left, descending in altitude. The background gives an idea of the high altitude.
The stairs are certainly steep—this is a view down

After returning to the start of the hike, we took refuge inside the indoor shelter, and ate some more snacks from our day bag before continuing on the Hooker Valley track. The wind started to pick up a bit while we were on the track, and we moved faster when this happened. The weather had started out looking rather fine, just a little bit cold. We were expecting it to get worse, though.

A suspension bridge seen from a distance, going over a river with white waters, with mountains in the background, slightly covered in snow.
The first suspension bridge, an increidble view.
A view down a suspension bridge made of light grey wooden planks. Green vegetation covers the mountains in the background.
Down one of the suspension bridges before the weather changed

The track crosses three suspension bridges, and apart from a few steps here and there, is otherwise mostly flat with no incline. It’s easy for young children to do if they don’t mind long periods of walking. My only minor disappointment is that it didn’t feel like we could fully enjoy the view from the bridges or take too many photos on it—I believe the wind speed was at least 50–60kmh (31–37mph) and it made it rather uneasy to walk on the bridges so people were moving very fast. I did get this sense of trying to get the hike done quicker to avoid being rained on at 2:00pm.

A river in the mountains made of white water, between rocky shores. In the distance are mountains with snow. The sky has big white clouds.
Icy cold waters
A large suspension bridge connecting over cliff faces. The depths below are concealed by green vegetation on the cliffs.
Wind started to pick up.

At the tail end of the hike was access to the edge of a stream of water, and some hikers were enjoying a snack or sitting near the water. There was a sign with a warning that the water was very cold—about 3ºC (37ºF)—which instantly made me think of a refrigerator or freezer, and I thought it mustn’t be too bad to at least touch and put my hand in for a second or two. It was not as cold as I thought, but definitely cold! It felt so fresh.

A gravel path heading forwards, with a man in the distance walking forward. The gravel continues to the left on an incline, and mountains are on the right.
Close to the end
A lake of light green-grey water, stretching between mountains. Some lark dark grey rocks are scattered throughout the water, some covered in ice.
Again, this looked incredible.

Unfortunately the rain came an hour earlier than the forecast suggested, so we were were about to start our return when it started drizzling, then quickly picked up speed. It was at that moment that I asked Nick to help me put a poncho on. He had bought a waterproof rain jacket earlier in our trip and didn’t need a poncho, haha. 😛 The wind was being a nuisance and made it difficult to get the poncho on properly. We noticed other people with the same struggle. 😅

Nick walking on a gravel path in the rain, facing away from the camera. He is wearing a black jacket with a hood. It is raining heavily and the view ahead is obscured.
An idea of how wild the weather was

It didn’t feel like the poncho did too much, mostly because it kept being blown by the wind on the return. The winds were so strong that I noticed—for myself and other people my size—it was effectively blowing people across the path so they were propelled forward and forced to run. You could also see some of the shrubs and grass on the sides of this boardwalk leaning very far in the same direction because of the wind.

A wooden boardwalk as part of a hiking trail going through light yellow brush. Mountains and a cloudy sky are in the distance.
You might be able to notice the grass tilting to the left in the wind.

It felt like a hurry to get back, as the rain starting getting worse and everyone wanted to be undercover. Lots of hikers were moving very quickly back to the starting point, while some families with children were still very keen to get photos on the suspension bridge closest to the starting point—despite the blowing winds!

A selfie of me, taken slightly at an angle, wearing a poncho with the hood down, with my hair wet and a slight smile. It appears bright but in the background is rain obscuring the mountains.
That was quite the hike!

It’s funny how the rain can drench your clothes even though it’s not bucketing with rain, but merely from a light amount of rain over an extended period of time. We were very keen to jump back into the car and drive out of Aoraki/Mount Cook, out of the mountains and into the warm sunshine outside of the park. 🌞

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Never been hiking and definitely not in good enough shape for it. 😂

But man those views are amazing. I’d love to see something like that in person. Shame the weather got bad near the end though.

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