The Mueller Hut Route: A Gloriously Tough Day Hike

Mueller Hut Route
Location: Mount Cook National Park
Difficulty: Hard
Duration: 6-8 hours
Website: Department of Conservation

I’d never even heard of the Mueller Hut route in New Zealand’s Mount Cook National Park until my brother sent me a photo from near the top one day. It looked stunning, and I decided then and there I had to hike it myself.

It’s one of the few day hikes you can do in the country that gets you right up into real mountains without needing proper climbing equipment. In summer at least, it’s accessible to anyone with reasonable fitness and a minimum of gear.

This is definitely one of those trails that looks much easier on paper than it is in reality. It’s less than 6km (~3.5 miles) one-way — but almost all of that distance is straight up a mountain. Unless you’ve booked to stay in the hut overnight, you’ve then got to turn around and come straight back down again as well.

You climb about 1000m over the course of the hike. Since it starts around 750m, don’t be surprised if you’re really noticing the altitude by the time you get to the hut. I know I was.

Boardwalk to Mueller Hut route

After an early breakfast, I started walking at the Department of Conservation (DoC) information centre in Mount Cook Village at 8am on a glorious blue-sky summer day.

I was lucky — even more than the rest of the country, the area around Mount Cook has incredibly-changeable weather. It was the middle of January, but I’d still got totally soaked walking the shorter Hooker Valley track the day before.

Make sure the forecast is for good weather… then ignore it, and take a rain jacket and warm clothes anyway.

You’ll also need decent hiking shoes or boots, a hat, more than enough snacks to get you through the day, and especially if you’re tackling the track in summer, sunscreen and plenty of water (2-3 litres minimum). There are rainwater tanks at Mueller Hut you can refill from, but they can and do run out. Better safe than sorry!

The first twenty minutes totally lull you into a false sense of security, on gravel and flat wooden boardwalks through the grass and tussock. There’s lots of shade, the track crunches satisfyingly under your boots, the birds are singing, and all is right with the world.

And then you see this.

1964 steps to go

I’ve got no idea if there actually are 1964 steps, but it’s not at all hard to believe. The worst part? Those 2000-odd steps only get you halfway up the mountain. Cruel joke, guys.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, that climb is pretty tough. I’m in decent shape, and even so, as the morning wore on, I found myself stopping all. the. time. While there’s some shade when you first start out, it thinned out as I climbed… just in time for the temperature to start rising. Awesome.

Luckily, there were plenty of excuses to stop for a breather take photos, since the view over the Hooker Valley and nearby glaciers just kept getting better all the time. Even as a Kiwi who’s used to spectacular landscapes, this was something special.

View from Mueller Hut route

The steps stop abruptly at the end of the Sealy Tarns track, which marks the halfway point of the climb. You’ll totally want to take a break there, mainly because things don’t get any easier afterward, but also because it has what is almost certainly the world’s most scenically-located picnic table.

Picnic table, Mueller Hut

Eventually, no matter how good the views were, or how long I could drag out eating a snack bar, it was time to keep moving. From this point the track, such as it is, is shown by orange markers every couple of hundred metres up the mountain. In bright sunshine, they were usually pretty easy to spot. If it was foggy or raining? A lot less so, I’d expect.

Even without the markers, though, it wasn’t hard to figure out which direction to go. Up. Always up.

Other than the occasional large rock, there wasn’t any shade for the rest of the hike, since it’s too high for anything much more than tussock to grow. If I thought I’d been sweating during the first section of the hike, it wasn’t a patch on this bit.

After an hour or so, the scrub gave way to a large rock field. Sometimes I could walk between the rocks, other times I was carefully jumping from one to the next. This bit looked like it could be pretty slippery when wet, but thankfully all that rain from the day before had already dried up. Onward.

Rocky trail, Mueller Hut route

As a cruel joke, the last major section of uphill was a steep gravel (scree) slope. It’s covered in snow in winter, but in summer, was just a slippery mess of small stones that continually threatened to slide out from under my feet. Fun.

Eventually I reached the ridgeline, the first vaguely flat piece of ground in at least three hours. It’s fair to say I wasn’t sad to see it, even with the sudden accompanying blast of cold wind from the other side of the mountain. Hello, glaciers.

After missing a marker and wandering around aimlessly for ten minutes (hint: the track turns left almost immediately, rather than following the ridgeline), the end was almost in sight.

I’ve seen photos of this section covered in several feet of snow at other times of year, but other than a few small frozen areas, it was just bare rocks the rest of the way to Mueller Hut itself, around half an hour away.

Approaching Mueller Hut

I’d arrived early enough that there were only a few other people at the hut — a couple who were staying the night, and a small group of other day hikers relaxing in the sunshine.

It had taken three and a half hours to walk from Mount Cook Village to Mueller Hut, with only a few minutes of breaks along the way to eat a snack / have a drink / try to get my heart rate back to safe levels.

Sitting on the wooden bench, sheltered from the wind, with dramatic scenery in every direction, I ate my collection of unappealing fruit and snacks and for a few glorious minutes, almost managed to forget the pain in my legs.

Almost.

Mueller Hut

If I’d thought getting moving again at Searly Tarns was tough, it had nothing on leaving the hut. Never before has a bunk bed with an uncomfortable plastic-covered mattress looked quite so appealing. Or a long hike down a mountain looked quite so unappealing.

I wasn’t super-excited about the return journey. Even without the scree-filled slip and slide to look forward to, these days my knees complain loudly if I ask them to go downhill for too long. Especially on steps. Lucky there was only 1964 of them, I guess.

The sun was starting to get seriously hot by that point. Passing already-exhausted hikers on their way up made me feel better about that early-morning alarm.

After sliding down the scree and rock-hopping back to my favourite picnic table, I somehow managed to break into some kind of weird slow jog down those endless stairs.

It was totally a knee-preservation technique, but must have looked pretty odd to the people I passed. Luckily I was far too tired to care by that point.

Rocky viewpoint, Mueller Hut walk

And then, just as I started to wonder how long it would be before my knees actually fell off, I rounded a switchback, jumped off a step, and walked onto a flat dirt trail. The hard work finally done, my jaunty jog turned into more of a limping wander to the carpark.

I gazed toward the craggy mountain, and into the near-cloudless sky. Had I really walked all the way up there and back?

Ouch.

Yes, I definitely had.

I arrived back at the car on the dot of 2pm, exactly six hours after I’d left. Six long, sweaty, exhausting hours through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery New Zealand has to offer.

Not a bad way to spend a random Tuesday, really.

I spent the night before my hike at the Mount Cook YHA, one of those hostels with reviews so good you almost think they can’t be real. Clean and tidy, in a stunning setting, the staff were friendly and helpful. With comfortable (if smallish) dorms, a huge common area, and big commercial kitchen, it turned out the place deserves every five-star rating it gets from happy backpackers.

As a result, it’s not easy to get a bed there in summer. Even a week in advance, I could only get one night, and had to drive the three hours back to my parents’ place straight after the hike rather than relax with a beer and stay another night. You can imagine how thrilled I was about that.

The YHA does have a few private double and family rooms, but if you’re not really a hostel kind of person or there’s just no space available, there are a few other good hotel options in Mount Cook Village as well.

Failing that, the next-closest budget accommodation is at Glentanner Holiday Park, about a twenty-minute drive back down the road beside Lake Pukaki.

  • I left the car in the DoC carpark in Mount Cook Village, alongside the information centre. It’s not the biggest car park in the world, though, and was full when I got back. Go early if you want to park there.
    If you can’t find a space, just leave the car at the White Horse Hill campground/car park instead. You can start the hike from there as well.
  • Stock up with your favourite hiking/snack foods ahead of time — there aren’t many options in Mount Cook Village itself. I stopped at a supermarket in Twizel to buy my breakfast and hiking supplies before heading to the village. Dinner was at the viillage pub.
  • Take hiking poles if you’ve got them. I didn’t have any with me in New Zealand, and regretted it all the way up and down the mountain.
  • I go on about it a lot, but make sure you’ve got enough food, water, and clothing to cover most contingencies, even when you’re just walking the route as a day hike like I did.
    The weather was great for me the whole way, but it often isn’t. You don’t want to end up hungry, thirsty, and shivering on the side of the mountain if things change quickly.

 

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Hiking the Mueller Hut route - Mount Cook

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