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Standing at the southern end of Hooker Lake

During the global COVID19 pandemic, activities in New Zealand – like the rest of the world – were severely restricted. Fortunately, right before my 19th wedding anniversary these were reduced to “Level 2” meaning domestic travel was permitted and so I took the chance to head south to Tekapo for a couple of nights with my wife.

During this time away we completed two short day hikes:

Both are excellent and, if you’re in the area, I encourage you to check them out.

Hooker Valley Track

We were already in Tekapo, so it was around 75mins to drive to the well signposted carpark and start of the track. From Christchurch, it’s a considerably longer drive:

Google Map:

Depending on when you head to the track, you need to be very mindful of the driving conditions with snow and ice (including black ice) frequent on the roads. Drive with care! Cruising past Lake Pukaki is an absolute delight with the stunning, glacier-fed waters an unbelievable blue colour.

Below you can see the GPX routes of the hike:

Route map for Hooker Valley Hike by Sam McNeil on plotaroute.com

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The walk is very straight forward and incredibly accessible for all abilities. Large sections of the track have been tidied up with boardwalks and there are new swing bridges in place after parts of the previous track were destroyed by a landslide.

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The trail is incredibly easy – this photo is indicative of the vast majority of the route

It’s important to remember this is definitely “alpine territory” – the weather changes fast and it can alternately rain, snow or be blazing hot sun, followed by bone chilling wind. We certainly experienced a mix of all of this during our hike in!

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The first elevated viewing platform overlooking Mueller Lake

There are three great swing bridges to cross – each can support up to 20 people – but take care as they are high and any fall below would cause serious injury. My wife and I both noticed the spring on these bridges caused mild imbalance and sense of dizziness after exiting at the end. This only lasted 30 seconds or so but it was certainly the first time I’d experienced this on a swing bridge.

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Looking down on the Hooker River that feeds into the Mueller Lake

The day before we arrived in Tekapo there had been a significant southerly front come through and dumped a lot of snow that was still prevalent on the ground. This had turned into ice in parts on the track.

After about 4km of the 5km track there is a short side trail of around 150m taking you to a small alpine tarn (mountain lake). This was approximately 2/3 frozen over… proving irresistible for me to lob a small rock through the ice. It was fascinating watching the resulting air bubbles race under the thin ice to escape to the surface at the other end of the tarn.

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Alpine tarn about 1km from the end of the track

A slight incline towards the end of the track signals the approach of Hooker Lake and there are some awesome elevated views by permanent picnic tables where a break can be appreciated as you soak in the view.

There is a short path down to the lakeside where there were many visible icebergs that had broken off the glacier at the far end of the lake and been blown to the southern end.

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The views at Lake Hooker, even in the absence of Mt Aoraki / Cook which was covered by cloud, were simply stunning

My wife picked up a broken shard of ice floating by the shoreline and I speculated about how “old” that water was – when did it fall from the sky, become part of the glacier, move down the mountain, snap off into the lake and float to the end to be picked up.

Throughout the walk, there are also huge piles of rocks left by the glaciers – I referred to them as “nature’s junkyard” as they appeared to simply be piled up and left over.

With the weather starting to turn and a freezing northerly wind blowing down the lake, we happily started the return journey with the wind at our backs. As is so often the way in Alpine areas, by the time we were back at the car it was sunny and relatively warm as we drove alongside Lake Pukaki and headed to Twizel for a late lunch.

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Blue skies once more as we headed to Twizel

Having told a few people about our trip to Lake Hooker, it’s been surprising how many people say this is one of their absolutely favourite walks in New Zealand. Therefore, if you get a chance to do it, it’s only a couple of hours, 10km in total for the return trip and with the new swing bridges and boardwalks it is incredibly accessible for all ages and fitness levels.

Mt John Observatory Summit Circuit Track

If you’re passing through Tekapo this is a “must do” as it’s only around 10km in total and walking distance from the main township. If you’re coming from Christchurch Airport, here’s the map:

Google Map:

Below are the topographic maps:

Route map for Mt John Observatory by Sam McNeil on plotaroute.com

View Larger Topographic Map

You start this trail directly to the left of the Tekapo Thermal Springs and Ice Rink – a great place to relax and unwind at the end of a long hike. Fortunately, this gentle track won’t tire you out too much taking around 2hrs at very gentle pace. We clocked up around 330m of elevation but, for the most part, it’s a very gentle incline that most reasonably fit walkers should have no difficulty with and the path is very well marked.

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The view of Mt John as we walked towards the starting point.

Given the recent snowfall, much of the path was still covered in frozen snow making it quite slippery in places. We resorted to walking along the very edges of the pathway where there was soft and powdery snow that was easy to walk in.

Where there was no snow, the track was a featherbed of pine needles which was a joy to walk on

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The tall trees and soft pine needles made for a quiet and beautiful ascent to the top of Mt John

About 3/4 of the way up the hill, it breaks out into the open allowing you to view how much elevation you’ve achieved and provide stunning views back over Lake Tekapo and the township itself. Looking to the south east, you see endless tussock surrounded by snow covered mountains on all sides:

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Looking south in the general direction of Twizel once you’ve cleared the tree line in the ascent to the top

As you enter the summit you have a choice of going straight to the Mt John Observatory where the telescopes are, or starting the loop circuit track that takes you around the back and provides views of Lake Alexandrina which, with the backdrop of mountains, was simply breathtaking:

Given the impact of COVID19 and the continuing closures of New Zealand’s international borders, there is no external tourism and only limited domestic tourists. Therefore, both the Mt John Observatory (which offers night time viewing of the stars) and the cafe were closed. Nevertheless, the view down over Lake Tekapo was certainly worth the hike to the top:

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Final Thoughts

Both Hooker Valley Track and Mt John Observatory Summit Circuit Track are easy walks for all ages and abilities and definitely ones you should check out if you’re in the area.

The views are super – just be sensible with the conditions and ensure you take the appropriate clothing and gear.