Kia ora! I’m Alice from Alice Adventuring. I’m a Kiwi lass who’s grown up tramping (what we in New Zealand call hiking) around this beautiful paradise at the bottom of the world. I write a New Zealand hiking blog to document my adventures and to help inspire others to get outside and have adventures too. Mueller Hut is one of my all-time favourite hikes in New Zealand – so I was stoked to be able to write about it for Hiiker.
New Zealand’s most spectacular mountains, including its tallest peak, are found in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. And Mueller Hut, perched in the mountains high above Mt Cook Village, has arguably one of the best views in the park. From its deck there are panoramic views over the snowy Southern Alps, cracking glaciers, glacial-fed turquoise lakes, and, best of all, a direct view across to Aoraki Mt Cook itself, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Mueller Hut should be on every hiker’s bucket list.
Quick Overview of Mueller Hut route
Length: 10.4 km return on the same track
Elevation gain/descent: 1000+ m each way
Time: 4 – 5 hours up to hut, 3 – 4 hours down
Trailhead: Whitehorse Hill campground, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
Elevation of hut: 1,805 m
What you need to know
When to go: Mueller Hut is technically accessible year-round – so long as you have experience with crampons, ice axes and the skills to travel up near vertical snow slopes. If you’re not an experienced mountaineer, then stick to the summer months (December – February down here in the Southern Hemisphere) when there is less snow.
What you need to take: In summer, it is less likely you’ll need any snow gear (but check with the local Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre first, as New Zealand weather is extremely unpredictable and snow can fall on this route year round). You’ll need to carry in food, a sleeping bag, a head torch and toilet paper, as well as adequate clothing. The hut has running water, mattresses and gas cookers, but no heating.
Bookings: bookings are required to stay at Mueller Hut between November and April. You can book online using the DOC website. It costs $45 per night.
Kea: the world’s only alpine parrot often makes an appearance at Mueller Hut. Don’t leave any piece of gear unattended, as these curious birds are likely to pick it up and fly off with it. There is a slush room for all boots, packs, etc. Do not feed the kea, they are wild animals.
Cell service: you normally can’t rely on cell service in the New Zealand backcountry, but Mueller Hut sits just above Mt Cook Village. There is no service at the hut, but closer towards the cliff edge you can get a few bars when in sight of the village far below. But if you’re using Hiiker then you don’t need cell-service to track your elevation (which trust me, will be so helpful on this climb that seems never-ending).
Both times I’ve climbed up to Mueller Hut, we’ve started before sunrise to avoid the heat of the day (having grabbed our tickets from the DOC visitor centre the day before, and written in the intentions book the morning before we headed out).
The first five minutes of walking from Whitehorse Hill Campsite is deceptively flat. But for the rest of the four hours, the climb is unrelenting – it’s sometimes called New Zealand’s version of Stairway to Heaven – and there is virtually no shelter from the elements (including the burning New Zealand sun) for the entire way up. The upside of such a steep track is that it’s very efficient. It isn’t long before there are amazing views down to Mueller Lake and the gravel-covered lower part of Mueller Glacier.
The track climbs up a gut in the hillside, before gaining a ridge where we could look down to Mt Cook Village where we started the morning. It started to look very far below, as by this stage we’d already climbed over 300 metres. But there was still a lot of climbing before we would even make it to the halfway point.
The track (and steps) continue up the ridge, before a few switchbacks (‘zig zags’ in New Zealand parlance) lead to Sealy Tarns. There is really just the one tarn (small mountain pond) visible from the viewpoint, the others don’t come into view until you climb up higher, but the views from here are downright amazing. Our group sat at the picnic table and soaked in the sun, views and kea. The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot, and perhaps the world’s smartest bird (and also my favourite). We watched our belongings, as the kea like to steal anything that’s not nailed down. The reflections in the tarn of Aoraki Mt Cook and Mt Sefton are gorgeous, and I could have stayed for the whole day just taking photos and looking out at the mountains and glaciers. But Mueller Hut was calling.
The climb continues …
Most people stop at Sealy Tarns and turn back around to the carpark – a respectable 3-4 hour return day walk. We, however, had another 500 metres elevation to gain to Mueller Hut.
From Sealy Tarns the track becomes a route. Although still easily visible from lots of foot traffic, the track becomes smaller and rougher (and steeper, if that’s even at all possible). Huffing and puffing we made our way up to the boulder field, and then the steep scree scramble (which challenged some in our group), before reaching the corner of the upper ridge. Here we took another break – it felt like we were level with the glacier covered slopes of the mountains around us, the creaking and rumbling of ice and avalanches filling our ears.
From the corner, it was only about 20-30 minutes of walking over rocks to reach Mueller Hut. Once the bright red walls of the hut came into view, I breathed a sigh of relief. The climb was over! (Or so I thought).
Mueller Hut sits at 1800 metres and often still has patches of snow around it in the summer (December – February in the southern hemisphere). The two bunk rooms (with platform bunks) sleep 28 people, and there is a mountain radio for communications (but no fire for heating). We had some drinks and snacks, and took in the view of towering Aoraki Mt Cook from the wrap-around deck. Words can’t really do justice for how amazing the view from Mueller Hut really is in person. But believe me (and I don’t say this lightly), it’s worth the climb.
Just when I thought our climbing for the day was over, we decided (after a quick nap) to climb up Mt Olivier behind Mueller Hut. Mt Olivier is the first proper peak that Sir Edmund Hillary climbed (one of the first men to climb Mt Everest in 1953 and who appears on the New Zealand $5 dollar note). However Sir Hillary climbed a much harder route from Mt Cook Village far below, for us it was only 30-40 minutes of scrambling up steep boulders behind the hut to gain the summit.
Back at the hut we had a deliciously warming dinner, before falling asleep to the sound of avalanches cracking and rumbling (safely across the other side of the valley).
The climb back down from Mueller Hut takes the exact same route as the way up the day before. Some people can climb up to Mueller Hut and back down in a day, but you have to be pretty fit to be able to climb and descend the steep 1000m+ vertical. The descent was much quicker than the climb up, and it took us less than 3 hours before we were back at Whitehorse Hill Carpark (minus a stop at Sealy Tarns to soak in the views one last time).
Mueller Hut is one of my favourite spots in the New Zealand backcountry. There is a reason it is so popular with Kiwis and international visitors alike. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully one day with the skills and experience to tackle it in winter, when snowdrifts sometimes bury the door to the hut. It’s a view that you can’t help but keep returning to.
If Mueller Hut seems like a bit of you, you can check out the route on Hiiker. Or if you want to see what other spots I’d rate as must-sees when hiking in New Zealand – then check out my favourites here. I love chatting with people over on my Instagram if you have any questions, or want some New Zealand hiking inspiration, so please reach out and say hi!