Heading to Mount Cook National Park and want to head off on a hike up into the mountains? Well then, the Red Tarns Track is for you! Throughout the hike you are sure to see some vast views of the valley down below with the mountains of the national park out in the distance.
When it comes to getting those views in from above, there aren’t too many other trails in the area that can compete. This guide will give you an overview of the Red Tarns Track and what to expect along the way.
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1) Red Tarns Track Overview
Mount Cook National Park has several hiking trails to choose from all around the area. But if you are looking to actually climb up to some higher vantage points, there are really only two main options – the Sealy Tarns/Mueller Hut Track and the Red Tarns Track.
From each one you will get different views of the surrounding national park, however the Red Tarns Track is definitely the way to go if you are looking for a shorter trail option.
Below are some fast facts of the Red Tarns Track to better prepare you for the hike:
Starting & Ending Point: Public Shelter on Bowen Drive
Mid Point: Red Tarns
Length: 4KM / 2.5 Miles
Time: 2 Hours
Elevation Gain: 300 Meters / 984 Feet
Trail Type: Lots of Stairs
Note: instead of just taking part of the Red Tarns Track, you can actually combine it with the Governors Bush Walk. The two start in the same spot, so you can decide to do the bush walk, which would meet back up with the Red Tarns Track further along the trail closer to the Black Birch Stream.
2) Red Tarns Starting Point
The great thing about the Red Tarns Track is that the starting point is directly in Mount Cook Village itself.
Once you are in the village, you can simply make your way to the Public Shelter right on Bowen Drive and follow the signs for the Red Tarns Track from there.
If using Google Maps, simply type in “Mt Cook Village Public Shelter” – you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.
Below is a screenshot of the Public Shelter starting point on the right hand side of the road with the Red Tarns Track out in the distance.
3) Red Tarns Track Map
Below is a screenshot from the very helpful hiking app called maps.me. I have highlighted the starting point at the Public Shelter, with the route up to the Red Tarns.
You can also see highlighted the alternative Governors Bush Walk that you can add onto the beginning of the trail.
4) What to Bring on the Trail
Whenever heading off on longer day hikes, I always recommend being adequately prepared when it comes to the type of gear to bring along.
Check out the below packing list to get you ready for this hike and other hikes in New Zealand.
Hiking Packing List
In general when it comes to hiking, there are a few main aspects to consider. These includes clothing layers, hiking shoes, hydration & fuel, electronics, and other essentials.
Below in a breakdown of some of the top items, but be sure to check out the Hiking Packing List for a more comprehensive view.
Layering is going to be a top consideration when hiking. You will want to be prepared for all sorts of weather so you can be comfortable in different situations. Some items may include:
→ Hiking Shorts
→ Hiking Pants
→ Short Sleeve Shirt
→ Long Sleeve Shirt / Sun Hoodie
→ Mid Layer Fleece
→ Puff Jacket (not always needed)
→ Packable Rain Jacket (Columbia Watertight II)
Note that your layers should be made of moisture wicking material as they are breathable and quick drying.
Having appropriate footwear will also be very important. You will want to have shoes with the necessary grip and support to keep you safe on the trail.
→ Hiking Shoes (Keen Targhee)
→ Hiking Socks (Darn Tough)
Whether it is hiking gear, electronics, or just some miscellaneous items, here are some other essentials to bring along on hikes.
→ Hiking Backpack (Osprey Talon 22) & Rain Cover (Joy Walker Cover)
→ Hiking Poles (Black Diamond Trekking Poles)
→ Water Bottle (CamelBak Chute or Katadyn Filter Bottle)
→ Portable Charger (Anker PowerCore 5000mAh)
→ Action Camera (GoPro Hero)
→ Energy Bars & Snacks
→ Hat & Sunglasses
→ Sunscreen & Bug Spray
5) Red Tarns Track
The Red Tarns Track is pretty straightforward all things considered.
From the Public Shelter you can either choose to follow the path following signs for the Red Tarns or you can opt for the Governors Bush Walk route that eventually meets back up with the Red Tarns route.
Either way you choose, the trail starts out pretty flat as you walk along to the Black Birch Stream Bridge.
After the bridge, it is basically all uphill from there as you climb 300 meters of elevation gain on steps up the mountain closer to the Red Tarns.
Along the way you are sure to take some breaks to enjoy the view and snap some photos. As you get higher and higher the views will just get better and better.
You will be able to see Mount Cook Village down below, the vast valley floor, and plenty of mountain peaks all around you including Mt Cook itself.
Once you reach to the top of the stairs you will approach the Red Tarns (a tarns is a small mountain lake).
Hopefully it is a nice weather day as you can get some nice reflective photos of the Red Tarns with the mountains out in the distance.
Once all done up top, it is the same way back as you make your way down the stairs and back to the Public Shelter.
The Red Tarns Track makes for a great half day activity in the national park and it still gives you time to take part of other things to do around the area if you are looking to pack more into your day.
Overall, while the Red Tarns Track is one of the more demanding hikes in the area (due to the large number of stairs), it is definitely worth the effort to get those views.
6) Mount Cook Hiking Trails
Beyond the Red Tarns Track there are several other trails that you can hike during your time in the national park. Below are some of those options.
» Check out an overview of every single hike in the Mt Cook Hikes Guide «
1. Hooker Valley Track
The “must do” hike in Mount Cook National Park would be the Hooker Valley Track. An easy 3 hour trail round trip trail, this hike takes you alongside and into the valley beneath Mount Cook itself.
During the hike you will pass by the Mueller Lake, and onto three suspension bridges on your way to the base of Hooker Lake overlooking Mount Cook in the distance. Since it is a valley walk, there is barely any elevation gain/loss, making this a hike for nearly everyone to take part of.
2. Kea Point
An easy add on to the Hooker Valley Track is Kea Point. The hike to Kea Point starts in the same area as the Hooker Valley trail, and is a simple 1 hour round trip walk.
Once you have reached Kea Point, you will get a great view of Mueller Lake from another angle and Mount Cook out in the distance. You will also be able to see parts of the Hooker Valley Track that you may have just completed.
» Take a look at the Kea Point Track Hiking Guide to Learn More
3. Mueller Hut
The most demanding of hikes in the Mount Cook region is that of the Mueller Hut. While many may opt to do the hike in two days, it can also be done in one day instead. Expect the total round trip to be around 6-8+ hours depending on fitness level and the amount of time you want to spend at various viewpoints and the hut itself.
The track begins with 2000+ stairs (as part of the Sealy Tarns track), before continuing the ascent on steep rocky ground towards the Mueller Hut.
Throughout the hike you will be taking in views of the lakes down below, with Mount Cook out in the distance. As you get higher, the views just get better and better.
» Take a look at the Mueller Hut Track Hiking Guide to Learn More
Note: The Sealy Tarns Track is another option here if you do not want to complete the full trail to the Mueller Hut. Set aside about half the time if you are looking to just head up to the halfway point to the Tarns.
4. Blue Lakes and Tasman Lake View & Tasman Lake Track
While these may technically be a couple different trails, you should have no problem combining them into one longer route, taking you a couple hours to complete.
An easy trail takes you to 3 different small lakes around the Mount Cook area. The hike begins at the Tasman Glacier Car Park and follows a path to the first of the lakes.
When you get to each of these lakes note that you can go around each one and follow a path to the next. It may not be so obvious at first, but there is a path around. Once you have seen all of them, turn back around and head back towards the starting point.
On the way back you should see a sign pointing you towards the Tasman Lake View (you would have passed this same sign on the way to the lakes trail). Head up the path where you will be welcomed to a vast view of Tasman Lake down below.
Similarly, as you are walking back you should be pointed in the direction towards the base of Tasman Lake.
Follow that path to get you right towards the waters edge, where you can take in the view from down below. It was quite surreal seeing the small icebergs pass by as you enjoy the glacier lake’s surroundings.
» Take a look at the Blue Lakes and Tasman Lake View & Tasman Lake Track Guide
7) Where to Stay in Mount Cook Village
Staying in Mount Cook Village gives you the ability to walk right outside your doorstep and hit the hiking trails. There are not too many accommodation options to choose from but below will be your main go to options.
If you cannot find something that fits your budget or if everything happens to be sold out, your next best bet is to stay in the town of Twizel or even around the Tekapo area. But like I said, if you want to be in the heart of the national park then Mount Cook Village is your answer.
Aoraki Mt Cook Alpine Lodge
YHA Mount Cook Village
Mount Cook Lodge and Motel
Now that you have more insight into the Red Tarns Track, it is time to tackle it for yourself. I hope this guide has helped you out a bit more to prepare for the trail but feel free to ask any questions below.
Also don’t forget to check out the other New Zealand itineraries and guides up on the site like the best New Zealand South Island trails for more amazing things to do in the country!