A Night at Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
One of the places I was most excited to visit in New Zealand was Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. Like most of our experiences on the South Island, our overnight trip to Mueller Hut was affected by the weather. But this time, a weather delay actually worked in our favor!
Mueller Hut is an extremely popular destination, so when I was planning our trip in June I made sure to book Alex and myself spots at Mueller Hut on the day the reservations became available. Unfortunately, the beginning of our trip got off to a soggy start. After Alex and I hiked the Routeburn Track we were supposed to spend one night in Queenstown and then head straight into the Gillespie Track. Due to our exhaustion from hiking the water-logged Routeburn almost immediately after landing, we pushed back our start date for the Gillespie by one day and spent an extra day relaxing in Wanaka instead of hiking. This was a much needed break but it also meant that our whole itinerary was off by a day. I frantically rearranged our hotel reservations but there was nothing I could do to get us to Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park for our Mueller Hut reservation date. Reluctantly, I cancelled our booking, but this didn’t mean we wouldn’t still be able to spend a night up near the hut. The Department of Conservation allows visitors to camp within 200m of Mueller Hut for a $15/person fee, so we decided we would go this route and camp instead!
We arrived to Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park late on the night of our original reservation. It was pouring rain and the clouds were so low that we couldn’t see any of the mountain peaks. We knew the views surrounding us were likely magnificent but, for the time being, that was left up to our imagination. We were also very thankful that we weren’t spending the night in the rain, sleet, snow, or whatever other precipitation the thick clouds were wringing out onto the mountaintops.
We checked into the Hermitage Hotel and settled into our room. It was going to be another quick turnaround. We had just completed the Gillespie earlier in the day, so our backpacks were still packed. We unpacked and then quickly repacked our bags with fresh food and clothes to replace what we had already used. We then grabbed burgers from the Chamois Bar and Grille before heading to bed early.
The next morning we looked out the hotel windows and saw the clouds were still thick and low, but the rain had stopped. We headed to the lobby and began to pick our way through the buffet line. We loaded up our plates with pastries and fruits and sat at a table near the massive floor to ceiling window in the dining hall. As we were eating breakfast I noticed the clouds had begun to dissipate and then, at an impossibly lofty height, a mountain peak broke through the clouds. Mt. Cook was beginning to show its face. Aoraki is the native Maori name for Mt. Cook and it means “cloud piercer”, it was becoming very apparent how the mountain earned its name and seems much more fitting. While we finished our breakfast the rest of the mountain continued to materialize out of the fog. It seemed as if we were going to have a perfectly clear day to hike!
After breakfast we headed to the Department of Conservation office to buy our camping tickets. With our tickets in hand we hurried back to the hotel, loaded our gear into the car, and then drove the short five minutes to the trailhead. All of the clouds that had been blocking the peaks the previous evening were completely replaced by blue skies. For the first time on our trip it felt like summer.
The hike up to Mueller Hut is short, but strenuous. The trail is under 3 miles long but has 3,400’ of elevation gain. It also requires climbing some 2000+ stairs. It felt a little like a never-ending stair master workout from hell. I appreciated how quickly the stairs helped us gain elevation but they were a butt-kicker! We kept our pace steady and took breaks every 30 minutes. As we gained elevation Mueller Lake and Hooker Lake began to shrink below us, making for quite the captivating panorama.
The Sealy Tarns mark the end of the stairs and the beginning of the scramble. We also used it as a spot to eat lunch and take an extended “packs off” break.
From the Sealy Tarns the trail transformed into more of the rugged, unmaintained trails we had grown accustomed to in New Zealand. It was rocky, scramble-y, and tiring, especially with the hot sun beating down on us. The ridge where the hut stands still seemed so far above us; I tried not to look up often. Instead, I tried to keep my head down and focus on moving forward. Ever so slowly the ridge grew closer.
Finally, we turned a corner and there it was: the bright red Mueller Hut stood out prominently against the gray rocks like a bright beacon. After hiking for three hours in the high noon sun we couldn’t wait to set up camp and relax.
Since we paid the $15/person fee we were allowed to set up camp within 200m of the hut and use its facilities (if you don’t pay the fee you must camp at least 500m from the hut and you are not allowed to use its facilities). The area surrounding the hut is peppered with cozy camp spots that past visitors cleared. We chose one that had a commanding view of Mt. Cook and Hooker Lake. This spot seemed a far better place for us to spend the night than the hut. The hike up may have been incrementally more arduous since we had to carry the tent and sleeping pads, but it already seemed that camping at Mueller Hut is the better option if the weather cooperates—a big IF in New Zealand.
We had all afternoon to relax so Alex napped and read while I wandered around the rocky terrain and admired the views. One of the best parts of Mueller Hut is its proximity to so many beautiful, massive glaciers. There were many opportunities to hear and see avalanches. They went off regularly throughout the afternoon, as the sun cooked the snow. They were loud, even the smallest slides seemed to reverberate at a disproportionate decibel through the mountains. It was a beautiful show but also a reminder of how inherently dangerous mountains are.
By the time the sun began to sink below the horizon, all of the campers and the hut occupants lined the rocky ridge and watched as alpenglow turned Mt. Cook orange and then pink. There weren’t many clouds (I am certainly not complaining about that) so there wasn’t a fiery show but the sunset was still spectacular. Blue hour lingered and then we were plunged into darkness. I headed into the tent for the night while Alex set up a few timelapses. I’m not sure if it was the sun that zapped my energy or the accumulation of miles we had hiked on our trip thus far, but I barely stirred through the night. I woke up feeling rested and recharged.
The next morning everyone woke up early and lined up again to watch the sunrise. It was nice to get to talk with everyone—to learn where they were from, what their plans in New Zealand were. We added a few more hikes to our never-ending list as they recommended trails we hadn’t even heard of. We also happened to run into two other couples from Seattle up there, such a small world!
Shortly after sunrise we made breakfast and coffee. We enjoyed watching the views as the sun continued to rise. After we finished our coffee we packed up and, just like that, we hit the trail and began the steep descent back to the car. Going down was much faster than going up, but by the final few staircases my knees were really beginning to feel it. I even found myself longing for Washington’s switchbacks!
Exactly 24 hours after we left, we were back at the car. It was another beautiful day—clear and sunny—but that night was a stormy one and when we hit the road the next day there were dark, ominous clouds in our rear view mirror. We had just barely squeezed our trip to Mueller Hut in during the clear weather window, and for that we were so grateful.