Out of all the hiking possibilities in New Zealand, this Mueller Hut day hike was the one I wanted to try the most. Most online descriptions of the walk advise you to hike up, stay the night at Mueller hut before returning the following day. But alas, I was too late to book accommodation, and we had no chance of staying up above the clouds. Looking at the statistics for the hike, I was pretty confident we could manage the walk in one day, as long as we could stay nearby once we descended all those steps. Marc is happy to follow my lead, so I was reeeeeeally hoping we could do this walk.
However, when you reeeeeally want to do a walk, the New Zealand weather will do its best to scupper your plans! I was checking the weather (slightly obsessively) for the 10 days before this walk. Most apps predicted clouds and rain. (Nooo!) We couldn’t afford to stay in Aoraki / Mount Cook village for more than one night, so we only had two possible days when we could attempt this walk.
We had to wake up at ridiculous o’clock to drive up from Lake Tekapo. It was raining when we left, BUT we’d already done one walk in the rain (you can read about it here) and that had been really fun. So, we drove up while hoping really, really hard for clear skies, even though I didn’t really think we’d get to try the Mueller Hut day hike.
Mueller Hut trail Map
Mueller Hut – the basics:
Distance: The hike is 10.5 km (in total)
Height: Start = 762m, Sealy Tarns = 1250m, Mueller Hut = 1800m, Mount Ollivier = 1933m
Elevation gain: At least 1038m
Time: 7-8 hours
Toilets: There is a toilet in the car park, and one by Mueller hut, but nothing in between. Tinkle before you start hiking!
Can you do it? This is not an easy hike, mostly because the first 3-4 hours are a constant (although beautiful) climb. If you have reasonable health you should be able to manage it, but don’t make this your first long walk of the summer! Get some warm up hikes in first to make sure your legs can cope!
What you should bring:
- Loo paper
- Plenty of food – there is nowhere to buy sustenance.
- Plenty of water – there were a couple of small streams on the way up to Sealy Tarns, but it’s safest to just bring plenty of water. We couldn’t find a tap/water at Mueller hut.
- Camera – Because you will take a zillion photos!
- Hiking poles if you have them! They make the return journey so much easier.
- Quite a few layers. It is hot at the start of hike and freezing once you reach the clouds
- Waterproof coat (and waterproof bag cover if you have one!)
The amazing Mueller Hut day hike
When we arrived, Mount Sefton was hiding in the clouds BUT the staff in our hotel were really excited about the weather. They had just had a couple of weeks without any sunny days; But we had arrived to a cloudy, but perfect day for walking! Yay! The bloke at the check in counter said we couldn’t check in until the afternoon anyway, so we might as well head straight out for a walk.
It was a gorgeous, sunny start to the day, but we could see clouds at the top of the ridge we were about to climb. We are an optimistic couple though so we headed towards the steps and started climbing. All we could do was walk, and hope. The start of the walk is gorgeous. You walk through under blossom-covered trees, next to pink-berried-bushes and bunches of foxgloves.
Steps up to Sealy Tarns
You need to follow signs for Sealy Tarns. We saw a sign saying there are 1964 steps up to the Sealy Tarns viewpoint. That is quite a lot of stairs! The first part of this walk is pretty popular. There was a huge range of ages, including whole families who were attempting this natural stair master. The views are pretty decent once you gain a little elevation!
I waited until slightly higher up the trail before taking photos, so you can’t see how busy this route was. Near the bottom, the stairs are close together so you get a real leg workout. Once you climb higher, there are more switchbacks so it actually gets a bit easier the higher you climb.
It took us just over an hour to make it up to the Sealy Tarns. Do you know what a tarn is? I didn’t! Apparently it is a small mountain lake.
We thought everyone was heading for the Mueller Hut day hike. But, actually things calm down considerably once you get past this point. If your legs can’t make it all the way up to Mueller Hut, this IS an amazing place to hike to. You will have a really good close up view of the glacier on Mount Sefton.
This is the view of the glacier and the other view back down into the valley. Not bad eh!? The Hooker Valley is pretty stunning.
Sealy Tarns to the Skyline Ridge
Unfortunately now we were as high as the clouds, the sky did start to spit on us a little from here. Next, there was a long hike up to the top of the ridge. This part of the walk is much harder. You climb over scree and need to scramble over large, pink rocks. There are markers, but you have to be careful to watch out for them. It is more of a tramping route so harder than the path lower down the mountain. This part is about double the height of the walk up to the Sealy Tarns, so we climbed well into the clouds! We slowed down a little on this section, so it took about an hour and forty minutes.
Once we’d made it up to the skyline ridge, we were rewarded with an amaaaazing view of the Mueller glacier and the ice shelf on Mount Sefton. You can also see the hike along the ridge walk over to Mueller hut and Mount Ollivier. It was pretty misty when we arrived onto the ridge, but I was still happy to see such stunning views.
Skyline ridge walk
After another 20-30 minutes you’ll reach the Mueller hut. The whole way along the skyline ridge you can see the various glaciers. We also saw large sections of the hanging glaciers break off and fall in a huge cascading ice-falls down the cliffs. The sound of these ice-breaks is like thunder on steroids! The first one was pretty terrifying, but once we realised what it was, we did our best to watch out for them.
It is hard to describe just how epic these views are. They made me feel tiny. I don’t feel like these photos really do the scale of the glaciers or surrounding mountains justice. These were some of the most amazing vistas I have ever seen. Seriously. The Mueller Hut day hike has to be one of the most impressive places you can get to within a single day. Even when the views are in the clouds.
This is the famous Mueller hut. If you are lucky enough to be able to stay in the hut, it has to be one of the most impressive places to sleep in New Zealand! We stopped at the Mueller hut to eat our lunch and admire all these gorgeous views.
The Mueller Glacier and Mount Sefton
The clouds started to lift as soon as we arrived (all my hoping paid off!) So, this is my panorama when we finally got to see the shape of the surrounding mountains. Mount Sefton is sooo impressive!
I’d had never seen this kind of glacier, clinging to the edge of the mountain range. We could have stared at them all for hours! I love the way the ice shines a sort of turquoise blue in the sun.
The views were gorgeous in all directions! I had to say “squeeee” quite a few times as we ate our sarnies and looked around.
We kept going past the Mueller hut, up to Mount Ollivier. We got most of the way to the top, but we wimped out on the last few boulders as it just felt too unsafe to climb past SUCH steep cliffs. I think we probably went the wrong way, but we decided it would be better to enjoy the day, rather than attempting a climb boulders that we didn’t feel comfortable with!
Once we’d climbed down from Mount Ollivier’s peak, this is the view further up into the valley. There is sooo much more to see! I guess if you stay in the Mueller hut overnight, you’d have time to explore this area further!
Crash of ice
Just before we turned around to head home, (after using the most picturesque toilet on the planet!), there was another huge crashing sound. It reverberated around the whole valley with an impressive thunder-like echo. A large section of a hanging glacier had decided it was time to drop off the cliff. I managed to photo the last few seconds of this giant ice cascade. The waterfall to the left was always there, with water gushing off the melting glacier. However the area that looks like a waterfall to the right of it, is actually the powder that was thrown down by the falling ice.
Mueller Hut Day Hike – the return journey
I am normally not a big fan of walking *down* mountains. I mean, it normally makes my knees ache and my legs turn to jelly. The Mueller hut route has 1000m elevation gain, so your poor knees have to take the shock of all that elevation loss on the way home! This is one walk when you will be reeeeally glad if you bring hiking poles!
Having said that, the return journey was even better than our hike up. The weather improved considerably so we were treated to more stunning views of the glaciers that had been hidden in clouds during our ascent.
The views of the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook just got better and better. The clouds descended again on the Skyline ridge, but the valley below was bathed in sunlight. This was our gorgeous view once we’d made it halfway down to Sealy Tarns.
Mount Cook showed up!
So, Aoraki /Mount Cook had been pretty shy all day. We were really curious to see the shape of it! In our last hour of walking the clouds parted and we were treated to stunning views of Aoraki /Mount Cook and the glacier and lake in the Hooker Valley.
It was so gorgeous that we even tagged-on an extra mini walk at the end of our day to see the views from Kea Point.
I love the way Aoraki /Mount Cook looks exactly like the kind of stereotypical mountain that I would attempt to draw as a child. It has a good spiky shape and a snow-covered cap!
We made it back down to the car park without too much stress on my knees and we headed over to the amazing Aoraki Court Motel. This was easily the most pleasant place that we stayed in Kiwiland. It was also the most expensive(!) We had an amaaaazing view of the mountains from our room. And it was a quick walk over to a lodge with hearty food to fill up the hole we had just walked off!
The weather forecast looked pretty hopeful for the following day, so we made the most of our spa-bath to relax our leg muscles and get ready for more tramps the following day!