The Mackenzie Basin encompasses the three lakes Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo. The area is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations. In addition to undisturbed nature, it offers a plethora of outdoor activities including hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing and horse trekking.
For the advanced alpinist, mountaineering and ice climbing are possible, while the romantic soles can relax in hot tubs and enjoy star lit nights free from light pollution.
Plan several days to fully explore the area. While the three lakes are only 1.5 hours apart you need considerable time to get to the respective lake head.
If you are in a hurry, stay at least the night in Twizel and have a look at Mt Cook the next day.
Activities at Lake Ohau
At the head of Lake Ohau, Huxley valley and Hopkins Valley deeply cut into the New Zealand Alps. Remotely situated, the Ruataniwha Conservation Park around lake Ohau is not as popular as Mt cook but offers some challenging hikes off the beaten track. Huts are self servicing and on a first come first serve basis.
Hiking the Hopkins Valley
Hopkins Valley is a 40 km long, straightforward valley at the head of Lake Ohau. The track through the valley is about 35 km long and takes 7 to 12 hours one way. There are multiple self servicing huts on the way with plenty of opportunities to stay the night. Take care during rain fall as the river swells easily and you need to cross it multiple times.
Park your car at the Ram Hill car park at the road end, or if you have a 4WD vehicle carry on to Monument Hut.
Hiking the Huxley Valley
Forking from Monument hut, 2 hours on the Hopkins trail, this is a 23 km long track which takes about 9 to 11 hours in one direction, depending on weather conditions. As with the Hopkins Valley track, take care when it is raining, as the river rises easily.
Hiking Snowy Gorge Creek
This is an unmarked route and will take you into complete solitude.
Lake Pukaki and Mt. Cook
Lake Pukaki borders the eastern slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is the largest of the three lakes in the Mackenzie Basin and welcomes you with perfectly blue water due to finely ground minerals in the glacier-fed waters. In spring and summer, the hills around the lake are covered with brilliantly colored lupine flowers. A nice contrast to the blue lake and snow-capped mountains. It is no wonder Peter Jackson chose this place for three shots when filming Lord of the Rings.
At the head of Lake Pukaki, Aoraki Mt Cook with an altitude of 3754 meters overlooks the area while the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's largest glacier with a length of 27 km, flows down a side valley,
Unfortunately Mt. Cook it is often covered in clouds. So count yourself lucky if you can see its tip against a blue sky.
The only settlement in this valley is the small Mt cook village about an hour drive from the main road. From here two valleys, Hooker and Tasman valley can be explore on day trips and multi day hikes.
Hooker Valley track walk probably is the most popular one in the area. Starting at White Horse Hill campground and car park it is an easy 2 to 3 hour walk leading to Hooker lake with Mt cook towering in the background.
Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier
After a few kilometers driving from Mt. Cook village, a short stroll takes you to the blue lakes and the 29 km long and up to 3 km wide Tasman Glacier. With the glacier retreating further every year, only the moraine is visible. Consider walking towards ball hut to get a better view on this ice giant.
Mueller hut route
A 5.2 km long trail via the sealy tarns (small mountain lakes) climbs 1000 m on the way to Mueller hut at 1800m. The reward is a 360-degree panorama over the glaciers, rock faces and New Zealands highest peaks.
Two day hike via Ball Pass Crossing
This 28 km trail, climbs 1800 m and nothing except climbing Mt. Cook itself will get you closer to this mountain. You can start either at the Hooker Valley car park or the Blue Lakes car park.
As much as I am pointing out how easy it is to hike the great walks in Fiordland, this route requires alpine experience. If you feel comfortable with crampons, no cell phone reception and only a few rock-stackings showing the way, give it a go.
Before starting the tour, make sure to check with the Mt. Cook visitor center if the Caroline Hut, your sleeping place, is open. Additionally tell them when you leave and even more important, tell them when you got back. Otherwise people will send out a rescue party.
Biking to the Ocean
Should you desire to explore the great New Zealand Outdoors via bike, Mt Cook Village offers a good opportunity as it is the starting point of the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, New Zealand’s longest continuous bike ride. The trail descends over 609 m and travels 300 km to the coastal town of Oamaru.
The details and bike hire agencies getting you to Mt. Cook Village can be found on its dedicated website.
Star gazing at Lake Tekapo
While offering some smaller walks, lake Tekapo is most famous for star gazing. Strictly controlled, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve offers almost light-pollution-free skies making for exceptional night sky viewing.
Mt John and Cowan's Observatory both offer night tours showing you the detailed beauty of a night only lit by stars. Make sure to book your tour online in advance as they are booked out early.
Should you be staying in Mt Cook Village, there also is a planetarium at the Alpine Centre offering virtual 3D tours of the sky.
Hiking trails around Lake Tekapo
With the Godley and Macaulay valley tracks at the northern end, Lake Tekapo offers two multi-use hikes. This means walkers, mountain bikers or horse riders all share the same track.
Distances range from 18 to 32 km.