The steep but short hike up to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is typically hiked as an in & out day hike with plenty of time to make the long drive back to town for a good meal. Being someone that is more about the views than just camping, I usually prefer just a day hike. However, it pays to take it easy and smell the roses sometimes. Rather breaking the hike up, camping on the top of the world, and under the stars was a worthy experience. From our tent, we could hear the surrounding glaciers crack and had a perfect view of the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Aoraki/Mount Cook.
This is the seventh entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering our tramp of to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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Sitting at 6,167 ft (1800 meters) on ridge of Sealy Range, you feel like you are on top of the world with a front row seat of the many glacier covered peaks. This included Aoraki/Mt Cook summit, the tallest in New Zealand.
- name: Mueller Hut Route
- type: in & out
- distance: 6.35 miles (10.2 km)
- elevation change: 3,550 ft (1,082 m)
- time: 2 days (4:42 hours moving)
- location: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, near Twizel, New Zealand (google map directions)
Mueller Hut is operated by the DOC and can be booked online for NZD$45 per night per adult (NZD$35 for New Zealand Alpine Club members). During peak season from November to April, booking must be made ahead of time and hut passes and tickets cannot be used. Since our trip was all last minute, no space was available in the 28 bunk beds hut.
The current hut is the fifth edition of the hut, the first of which was built in 1915 and named after Danish scientist and explorer, Ferdinand von Mueller. There is a vault toilet and gas cookers for the inhabitants to use. Water collected from rain is available at the hut for all to use as well.
Camping is the other option around the hut. You can camp beside the hut for NZD$15 per night per adult. Payment can be made at the DOC visitor centre in the park. This payment allows you to use the Mueller Hut facilities.
However, wilderness camping (aka free) is allow on Sealy Range 200 m away from the Hut. You still need to register at the DOC and they want you to use the vault toilet located at the lodge since the ridge is an alpine zone. Please practice LEAVE NO TRACE (NPS) principles should you plan to camp.
There are actually plenty of wilderness spots on ridge and Sealy Range. We ended up on a bluff north of Mueller Hut where there were a couple of spots with rock wall windblocks. I couldn’t have asked for a better camping spot and the view was much better than those immediately around Mueller Hut.
After exploring the ridge, I found a couple other spots west of the hut with a view of the Mueller Glacier. Since the hike up isn’t all the long, take your time to look around your perfect spot.
Awareness of the environmental conditions is very necessary for camping. We were warned by the DOC at the time of our hike that there were plenty of snow covering on Sealy Range around Mueller Hut and that we may need to camp on snow. Fortunately we found some rocky bluffs to camp on that met the 200m distance away from the hut wilderness camping regulation. We were also fortunate with the most perfect weather we could have asked for with no wind, no rain, and no blizzard. But any one of those would be brutal to camp in. The last worry for campers are the Kea that live on Sealy Range. Do not leave your tent unattended for long, especially if you see Kea around, as they will happily provide you with some extra ventilation holes in your tent or rainfly.
getting in & Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
To reach the trailhead of the hike (google map directions), you have to drive SH80, off of SH8, all the way to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. The road takes 45 minutes one way and dead ends at the village. It is advised to buy all the groceries and fill up on gasoline before you head down SH80 since the town has limited services and they are expensive (wikipedia). The closest town is Twizel, which has a grocery store, gas stations, hardware store, outfitter, and restaurants.
In the Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, there is the Hermitage hotel, couple of motels, and four restaurants. There is an overpriced gas station behind the Hermitage and small convenience store in the hotel (Wikipedia). You can also hire tour guides at different locations around the village.
The most useful buildings for the typical visitor is the DOC visitor center, where there are some historical exhibits and park rangers to help you plan your hikes, register for overnight hikes, or pay for huts.
Secondly, the White Horse Hill campgrounds provides for cheap lodging for visitors (DOC). There are plenty of parking here, both for campervans and day hikers as it is also the trailhead for the Mueller Hut Route, Kea Point hike, and Hooker Valley Track. We spent a night in our cars here in the corner without being bothered here.
Lastly, we did find sporadic cellphone signal around the village as part of my Google Fi (referral link).
Being only a 1 night hike, our backpacking equipment was our standard loadout.
other hikes & activities
Our original plans for Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park was to hike the expert rated Ball Pass Crossing (DOC, Halfway Anywhere), we even flew with our crampons. However a couple of factors prevented us from heading up this time around. The major issues was a slip that took place on December 2019 on the Ball Hut Route (DOC) making the section between Ball Hut and Blue Lake trailhead impassable according to the DOC. Recent trip reports suggest a reroute, albeit more difficult and technical, is now in place (Adventures from the South). Secondly, Meg and I were both under the weather with some sort of sinus issue during her time in New Zealand, so it wasn’t the smartest idea to go against the DOC recommendations.
Outside of these advanced hikes, there are several easier options for you to enjoy in the national park. As mentioned earlier, the first half of the hike to Mueller Hut is the Sealy Tarns Track (DOC). The end of the 2,200 steps provides for a good viewpoint of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mueller Lake, Hooker Glacier, and Hooker Lake on a clear day. From the same area at White Horse Hill Campgrounds, There is the Kea Point Track (DOC) and the longer Hooker Valley Track (DOC). In the Tasman Glacier valley, there is a couple of other easier hikes. We did the short hike to the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Viewpoint (DOC), more details of the hike to come. The other hike here heads down the Tasman Glacier Lake (DOC).
While there are certainly many peaks that can be bagged via mountaineering and climbing in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, the DOC website doesn’t list any useful information. In the printed brochure, the DOC recommends the book Aoraki Mount Cook a guide for mountaineers by Alex Palman, NZAC, 2001. Otherwise, Climb NZ is free online database. Similarly, the only information the DOC provides on skiing and ski touring are guided trips, helicopter trips, and possible touring around Tasman & Kelman huts. The print brochure again has more information by describing the face in front of Mt Ollivier, the Annette Plateau and the descent from Mueller Hut to Sealy Tarns provide challenging routes for backcountry skiers and boarders. Additional the DOC recommend the book New Zealand Backcountry Skiing by James Broadbent, NZAC, 2004. In short, a brief google search will show plenty of guided options. If you have any suggestions on an entry point for these activities, I’d love the learn about it.
We pick up our trip report after Mark and I finished the Rees Dart track. As we left the Queenstown area, we had a final adventure rafting down the Shotover River with Go Orange (formerly Queenstown Rafting). This was unlike other rafting experiences I’ve had as the meat of the rapids were in a very narrow portion of the canyon and consisted of 3 class IV rapids. Unfortunately, Go Orange no longer allows GoPros on the river so I’ll have to leave you with Youtube videos from others. From there, it was a drive back to Christchurch where Mark and I parted ways for the rest of the trip.
Fortunately for me, Meg flew in to join me for our last week on the South Island of New Zealand. But unfortunately for us, lost luggage and sinus infections kept us in Christchurch longer than anticipated (more on Christchurch later). After 3 hotel nights, we were finally off to the Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Before we left Christchurch, we stocked up on groceries for the next few days and I had to buy a replacement pocket rocket stove to replaced the one I left at one of the hut on the Rees Dart track. It was important that we had all our supplies before we headed down SH80 toward Aoraki/Mount Cook Village since supplies would be limited and expensive in the remote park town. It was a bluebird afternoon as we drove along Lake Pukaki, so naturally we made a few stops.
Once at the village, we inquired with the rangers at the DOC Visitor Center to confirm that the slip on the Ball Hut Route portion of Ball Pass Crossing was impassable and registered our plans to visit Mueller Hut. Afterwards, we pulled into a quiet corner at the White Horse Hills parking lot and settled in for the night.
day 1: White Horse Hill campgrounds to Mueller Hut
- distance: 3.3 miles (5.4 km)
- elevation change: 3,484 ft (1062 m) ascent & 126 ft (38 m) descent
- time: 4:04 hours (2:50 hours moving)
Our hike started at the White Horse Hills campground parking lot around 9:30 am. The trail is shared by the Kea Point Track for the first half mile. The elevation gain is minimum at 4.6% grade but the crowds of other visitors will be the main obstacle here.
For the next third of the mile, the trail heads into the brush gaining elevation at a steeper 14.5% grade. It would be the warm up for the “stairway to heaven” that comes next. That is the 2,200 stairs over 0.7 miles at roughly 36.6% grade. The stair workout can seem endless, especially since it curves through a ravine and the entirety of the hike isn’t reveal. It doesn’t help that there is no cover from elements, which was the sunbaking us on this day. I still consider us lucky with the blue bird day. It is not technical however and there is no reason to rush as there are plenty to look out when you stop for breaks.
The views get better and better and at the end of the stairs is the Sealy Tarns Viewpoint. The tarn refers to the small pond here.
There are a few picnic tables and plenty of boulder you can sit for a 180 panorama. From here, we could see Mueller Lake directly in front us and Hooker Lake behind a moraine wall in the distance. We could just catch The Footstool on the ridge to the left with the Tewaewae Glacier and Eugenie Glacier underneath it. Further right on the ridge is the next highest peak in Cadogan Peak. In the distance behind Hooker Lake is Aoraki/Mount Cook. On the ridge to the right there many peaks with Mount Wakefield probably the most visible from here.
We took a long snack break before continuing on the next uphill. The route from here is more technical and Sealy Tarns provides a good enough view should you be apprehensive about continuing on. The elevation profile for the next 0.7 miles with an average of 37.4% grade.
The route from here is marked by orange pylons and is mostly loose rocks, dirty, and a few boulders. We could make out part of the route by the hikers ahead of us, but not all all is visible as the top portion is blocked by a bluff.
More than halfway up this section, we cross a large boulder field
and then cross the only snow field on this section of the hike. It was a little soft from the sun, but was pretty sticky overall. We didn’t feel any additional traction were needed and I’m not sure it would have helped since it was pretty soft at this point. Again we did this hike mid January so your own experience may vary.
After the snowfield was the steepest portion of the route topping out around 56% grade. It consisted of boulders and steep loose gravel.
After that, we were pretty much done with the uphill as the route flattened and curved around the mountain toward the pass.
At the pass, the Mount Sefton motif come into full view with Frind Glacier running under it. The route continues to the left here,
but we head up the hill to our right for another viewpoint.
After another break here, we returned to the pass and continued on the Mueller Hut Route along the backside of the ridge. We were roughly half mile from the hut and the elevation gained slightly in comparison at 7.2% grade.
The next portion of the route had us going over some boulders
and then the rest of the way was on a large snowfield. The soft mushy afternoon snow made this more of a slog then it seemed. Mueller Hut sits just under Mount Ollivier, the first peak Sir Edmund Hillary ever climbed.
We didn’t head directly for the hut, rather we started looking for our campsite first. Once camp was up, we headed over to get water, cook dinner, and to enjoy the view at the top of the world.
camping around Mueller Hut/Sealy Range
Arriving early afternoon, we had plenty of time to enjoy the views surrounding us on the ridge of Sealy Range. From our camp, we had a great view up Mueller Glacier.
Later in the afternoon, a flock of Kea started to circle around the ridge. They were not shy and were rather aggressive at picking anything rubber like. This includes tents, so you need to be vigilant around your camp if you see these endangered parrots around.
We thought about climbing up Mount Ollivier, but opted to take a more relaxing approach since we were still fighting our sinus issues. We did see a few people make their way up the snowfield underneath the peak for some glissading fun. Had we brought our snow axes, this would have been a good opportunity to practice our arrests.
As evening drew near, the clouds lifted to reveal both Mt Sefton and Aoraki/Mt Cook.
During the night, I happen to wake up around midnight to pee. The night sky was in perfect conditions for me to fumble around with some astrophotography.
I’m pretty proud of myself for being able to capture the Milky Way on my first attempt, with plenty of beginners luck. After about a half hour, the near full moon made its appearance and that meant It was time for me to head back to bed.
The next morning, we woke early to catch the sunrise.
We packed up our camp with a beautiful morning alpenglow on the mountain ranges.
day 2: Mueller Hut to White Horse Hills campground
- distance: 2.9 miles ( km)
- elevation change: 39 ft ( m) ascent & 3,396 ft ( m) descent
- time: 2:01 hours (1:53 hours moving)
What goes up must come down and it was a thigh burning, knee hurting all the way down. We started off pretty early, just after sunrise, to avoid the heat. This also meant the snow field was more firm, making the crossing easier. We also had some fun glissading on the only snowfield along the route on the downhill.
For once, I think was was glad for the stairs on the second half since it meant I didn’t have to think too much of where I was putting my foot. All I had to do was flow downhills.
Otherwise, the downhill wasn’t too eventful and we were back at our car roughly the same time we started the day before. Lastly, we checked in with the DOC visitor center and reported the conditions to conclude a successful night in the mountains. We couldn’t have paid for a better experience… and we didn’t since it was all free.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1-5. For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
views/experience: 4. The complete rating here is pretty much all from the amazing camping around Mueller Hut on Sealy Range.
We felt like we were on top of the world as we were surrounded by the massive Mount Sefton motif and Aoraki / Mount Cook.
We had Kea circling us during the day and it was the stars shining bright at night. Not to mention we fell asleep to the cracking and groaning of the many glaciers around us.
It was among the most scenic campsites I’ve ever stayed at and for once, I hiked to camp rather than camp to see cool stuff.
difficulty: 3. For how short the hike is, there are plenty to make the hike difficult. Overall, the total elevation gain is enough for a full day worth of hiking. However it is the elements that will wear on you. If it is a bluebird day, then you are baking under the sun the entire way as there is no cover on the hike. Similarly, that exposure means you are open to any rain, snow, or wind on the trail. Lastly, There was snow on portions of the route during our hike and trudging through that requires more stamina especially since it was becoming slushy around midday when you are likely to arrive there.
technical: 3. The DOC rated as advanced is accurate. While not a lot of it, there are sections of snow crossing, boulder hopping, and exposure that requires some hiking experience. But because the sections of it are short, it’s not so bad that a novice hiker can’t do it in good weather. Everything become that much more technical in bad weather and the experience to know when to turn around is important here. Route finding wise, the DOC does a great job marking the trail with poles and you shouldn’t get lost easily.