The best of Aoraki/Mt Cook: Sealy Tarns & Mueller Hut Track (updated 2020)
As we prepared for our trip around New Zealand and looked into the seemingly infinite number of incredible hikes on offer, the trek to Mueller Hut was an immediate standout. If the stars aligned and we were lucky enough to have clear skies, we’d be rewarded with unparalleled views of the majestic, snow-capped Mt Cook nearly close enough to touch.
I’ve done this trek twice now, obsessed with the alpine scenery and incredible landscapes along the trail, and I’d honestly have to say it’s my favourite hike in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, possibly even in all of New Zealand. As an overnight tramp to Mueller Hut, a long day hike, or even a shortened walk to Sealy Tarns, it’s impossible to beat these views!
All the details: Sealy Tarns & Mueller Hut Track
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is about 4 hours SW of the Christchurch Airport on NZ’s South Island
White Horse Hills Campground in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (I’d recommend staying here for a few days to explore the NP; camping is $15/person, paid on arrival)
If you’re doing this as a 2-day tramp, you’ll stay at Mueller Hut ($45/night; book in advance during the summer to ensure you get a spot). Mats are provided, but bring your own sleeping bag, cookware, and food. Then, either the following day or later that afternoon, you’ll need to turn around and return to White Horse Hills.
10.4km return to Mueller Hut
3-4hrs to Mueller Hut + 2hrs back to White Horse Hills (1.5hrs to Sealy Tarns + 1hr back to White Horse Hills)
Moderately difficult; there are 2,200 stairs straight up to Sealy Tarns and then the track to Mueller Hut is even steeper, covered in scree, and sometimes even snow. I’d recommend trekking poles, sturdy hiking boots, and some tramping experience!
As mentioned, you can do just half of the hike to Sealy Tarns in a couple hours, which is still spectacular. From Mueller Hut, there’s also an excellent scramble up Mt Ollivier (under 1hr return from the hut), which I’d highly recommend.
10/10 for surreal views of Mt Cook and the surrounding mountains, plus the most scenic hut in all of NZ
White Horse Hills
After packing up our tents at White Horse Hills and stuffing our packs full of cold-weather clothing and camp equipment, Cal and I (plus my parents) set out on our hike to Mueller Hut. For the first time since we arrived in New Zealand, it’s warm enough to take off our jackets and we even manage to get a good sweat going straight out of camp.
The first 20min of the trek are relatively flat and well-graded as we walk towards the mountains, following the Kea Point Track until our trails deviate, but soon we reach stairs that are to continue for the next hour and a half. There are apparently 2,200 stairs up to Sealy Tarns, and we certainly feel every single step with our large packs. Our ascent is made all the more challenging by the searing sun, but the ever-improving view is a perfect distraction from our puffing.
After about 90min, we reach jaw-dropping Sealy Tarns, looking back at Mt Cook and the Hooker Valley stretched out below us. The day couldn’t possibly be any more perfect, all the mountains in full view and fluffy white clouds scattered into amazing patterns by a strong wind.
After enjoying the scenery, a quick lunch, and a well-deserved rest, we continue straight up from Sealy Tarns through a scree field that eventually turns into large boulders. Positively exhausted and just generally shocked by the physical demand of the hike (after just that morning having had a massively overconfident conversation with Cal about how we don’t go to the gym, but just naturally have the fitness level of Olympic athletes), we are forced to admit that it would not hurt us to go to the gym. And we have a fitness level more comparable to middle-aged women.
For the next hour, I am convinced that we are no more than 5 minutes from Mueller Hut and am continuously surprised to see even more mountain unfolding in front of me. The last part of the hike has us tramping up the hill on snow, a task made quite difficult by my hiking boots, which surprisingly do not double as snow shoes. Finally, the hut is just one snowfield away and we truly are only 5 minutes off.
Inside the hut, there’s one giant top and bottom bunk, each of which sleeps a dozen or so people, packed in side by side. Unfortunately, the respite is short-lived and we have to leave fairly immediately to scramble up nearby Mt. Ollivier before clouds obstruct the views of Mt. Cook. We’ve heard from a lady at the DOC that clouds frequently cover most of the peaks, so we are eager to capitalise on our lucky weather this afternoon for even more fantastic views.
The scramble up Mt. Ollivier only takes about 30min, and then we are standing high over Mueller Hut, surrounded on all sides by tall, snow-capped mountains. The temperature is dropping and massive winds are threatening to toss me right off the rock, but the view is almost unbelievable. At each stage of this trek, I’ve wondered how things can possibly get any more spectacular— and then every step is better than the last, culminating at the top of Mt Ollivier with the most impressive panorama yet.
It’s hard to drag ourselves off the summit, wanting to enjoy every possible second of the view, but the promise of dinner eventually does the trick. Exhausted but ecstatic, we watch Mt Cook light up in golden alpenglow tonight and marvel in our good fortune at what has been a picture-perfect day in the mountains.
Overall impressions: Sealy Tarns & Mueller Hut
Mueller Hut just may be the most spectacular alpine hut in all of New Zealand, and this track is an equally strong contender for the best tramp. In a country with more hiking trails than you could hope to complete in a lifetime, it’s a big call, but one that would be difficult to argue considering the non-stop mountain scenery.
The route is challenging, particularly after passing Sealy Tarns and ascending on uneven screen, boulders, and even snow in the middle of summer, but the rewards are well worth any amount of exertion. You won’t find better views in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the Mueller Hut Track to anyone as an NZ must-do!