The idea of doing the Mueller Hut hike at Mt Cook National Park danced in my head whilst I planned our NZ trip. I had read quite a few TripAdvisor reviews and the like and had this feeling it might just be one of those things that would be kind of be unachievable for me, an inexperienced hiker. The hike’s rated difficult, but at the same time, everything you read about it begs for you to climb it. And climb it we did. But not without some difficulty – at least for me!
“At 1800 metres on the Sealy Range, Mueller Hut provides a 360-degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks.” – Department of Conservation, New Zealand.
Quick track overview
Track: 5.2km one way, so 10.4km return.
Approximate time: 4 hours up, 3 hours down (7 hours total).
About the hike
Like most hikes in Mt Cook National Park, the Mueller Hut route starts at the White Horse Hill camp ground. It’s shares the same starting path as the Kea Point Walk and the first half to the route is actually just the Sealy Tarns track.
So the first part of the Mueller Hut route is the Sealy Tarns track. And this is a 2 hour walk up staircase after staircase. Each staircase is about 10-20 steps high. There’s about 2000+ steps here (someone actually marked the 1000 step mark!) but the steps can be quite steep. If you’re from Melbourne and you’ve frequented the 1000 steps route at Mt Dandenong, then I’d say this wouldn’t be too bad at all. There’s nothing too challenging about this part of the hike, it’s very safe as they are manmade stairs and whilst it is quite narrow going up, there are plenty of opportunities to take a rest if needed.
Along the way, you will feel like the stairs are quite never-ending. You ascend fast so it doesn’t take long to feel like you’re already so high up and wonder how much higher these stairs can possibly go. It’s also a little confusing, because from the campsite, you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain you are climbing, so you really can’t tell what you’re in for until you get there!
They say it takes 2 hours to do the stairs and I’d say that’s about right. We took about that to reach Sealy Tarns.
The beautiful view of the valley and Mt Cook Village, as well as the camp ground / carpark area. Can you spot it ever so small in the distance?
The never-ending stairs, which are actually the easier part of the hike.
Once the stairs end, you’ll arrive at one of the most stunning sights in NZ that I’ve ever seen – a picturesque mountain lake, still as still can be, reflecting the background mountain range onto the water’s surface. I had no idea what to expect of Sealy Tarns, because I didn’t see any pictures of it online prior to going on the hike. However, I did not expect anything like this at all. This was one of the most incredible sights I’ve seen in New Zealand and it’s also one of the less commonly documented sights (compared to places like Roy’s Peak, etc). Sealy Tarns was just breathtaking because of all the crazy ice-covered mountains surrounding it, as well as being able to see the valley below, and Mueller Glacier nearby. You could even see the entire Hooker Valley Track from here as well, which was just bizarre because you’re already so high up and yet with two hours of hiking left to go, you wonder how much possibly higher can you get!
I’d definitely recommend taking a short break at Sealy Tarns. There are picnic tables here and plenty of places to sit and have a snack. You’re going to want to fuel up, because the second part of the Mueller Hut route is the part that gives it the difficult rating.
Part 2 of this route is what gives Mueller Hut that air of difficulty. But fear not! If I eventually made it up there alive, then you totally can too! Provided the weather is good (read more about weather issues below) and you have comfortable shoes on too.
For the next two hours, you’re going to be hmm how can I describe this? Basically scrambling up rocks. Look, it’s not all that bad. If you have hiking poles, then you can walk up it quite easily. If not, you’ll still be fine. It’s just that every now and then you’ll be using both your hands and feet because it’s a slippery, steep uphill climb. And it kind of does get worse the further up you go.
But hey, here’s a pictorial reference, so you can judge for yourself.
If you look closely, you’ll see the rocky path up to Mueller Hut. It does look intimidating, especially for a first time hiker like me, but I promise you, it’s achievable. At least this part of the rocky climb.
Ok, so you’ll go up this rocky uphill path for about an hour before it starts to even off and move towards the right. At this point, you’ll be faced with a small field of large boulders. This is where you’ll really be climbing rocks. Maybe about 20 minutes or so of boulder climbing will get you up to the next rocky challenge – slippery small rocks! I think this was the most difficult part of the track because it was a steep uphill of slippery loose rocks. You really do have to kind of crawl up at some points if you don’t have hiking poles. After about half an hour, you’ll finally reach the ridge where you’ll be greeted with a crazy view of the ice shelf of Mount Sefton.
At this point of the track, you’re pretty high up and Mount Sefton suddenly looks humungous up close. And it’s absolutely incredible. You’re basically facing it up so close that it looks out of this world.
It’s a good idea to take a break because there’s still a bit more rock scrambling to go!
From the ridge, you continue to follow the orange markers through the basin of the mountain until you finally see Mueller Hut. It’s probably about 30 minutes to the hut. Whilst the rocks here are humungous boulders, it’s quite easy to scramble through this part because it’s quite flat. Nothing as bad as those slippery rocks just before!
…and you made it to Mueller Hut!
To be honest, I didn’t even think I’d make it. I was ready to give up and turn back at each new rock challenge but Tom really wanted to push on, so I guess I just followed.
The craziest thing that I kept thinking whilst resting at Mueller Hut was, how did the New Zealanders here even manage to build a hut so high up onto the mountain via such a crazy rocky track? I honestly have no idea.
Also, it doesn’t seem like the track is that long once it’s done. But when you look back and see how small the people are compared to the mountain, it’s crazy to think how far you’ve walked but also, how incredibly huge mountains can be. It really makes you feel so small compared to the incredible beauty of nature.
Mueller Hut is a fully equipped mountain hut for overnight stays. There are lots of picnic tables and benches here, as well as a questionable but very well appreciated drop toilet next to it. Lots of people camp here overnight when doing the route as a 2 day option. If you’re keen on that – you can find lots of information on it online. But keep in mind you can only do this in summer and you have to book well in advance.
Going down was much less difficult than going up but the rocks are extremely slippery so it may take just as long to get down as it took you to get up. Be careful and use your hands if you must – no shame in keeping safe!
Once you get back to Sealy Tarns, the stairs do come as a welcome relief because they’re not so hard on your feet compared to walking steeply downhill.
Things to bring
For this hike, you’ll definitely need sunscreen. Most of the path is exposed, so you’ll feel every wind gust and ray of sunshine on your way up.
Food, snacks and water.
Also, make sure you bring food, snacks and lots of water. The round trip takes a minimum of 7 hours on average so that’s like, a whole day’s worth of food to pack. When it comes to water, bring enough water to last at least one way up. I heard you can re-fill your bottles at the hut, so if you want to pack strategically, you can take that into account.
Heaps of layers.
No matter the weather, the conditions so high up are ever changing and always different to what you feel at ground level. We hiked on a 24 degree day, starting in the morning at around 7:30am. In the morning, it was really cold and windy so we had all our layers and jackets on. By the time we reached halfway up the stairs, it was extremely hot and we were puffed. From there on we were basically in tank tops all the way up to the top. At Mueller Hut, it was actually quite cold and windy so we were back in our layers again.
Two pairs of socks.
From experience, I find that wearing two pairs of socks when hiking saves your feet. That extra layer of cushioning I wore to climb Mueller Hut made such a difference to post-hike pain. That’s a hack I’m going to be instigating every time now on!
Camera/phone for pics!
This hike is super picturesque and whilst you won’t be able to take pictures whilst rock scrambling, it’s still worth bringing a camera or phone for when you reach the lookout points! Plus, I was super surprised to find reception for the majority of this route (and for the entire Mt Cook village area as well). I had pictured Mt Cook National Park to be some reception-less secluded place, but the coverage here was much better than many other places we visited.
How long we took
We started our hike at 7:30AM and including all our breaks, ended up back at the camp ground at 4:15PM. It took us approximately 1hr 50 min to get to Sealy Tarns. 2 hours from Sealy Tarns to the ridge line of the mountain and a further 30 minutes to finally arrive at the hut. That’s about the standard estimated time (to be honest, I was surprised because we normally take longer than the advertised time).
Going down, we took 1 hr 45 minutes from Mueller Hut to Sealy Tarns. From Sealy Tarns, we took 35 minutes (!!! how even? vs 1 hr 50 min going up!) to get back to the camp ground. I think I was bouncing with adrenaline and disbelief that I had completed such a hike that I literally ran down the stairs in happiness HAHA.
Total time up: 4 hr 20 min.
Total time down: 2 hr 30 min.
What fitness level is needed?
I’m going to put it out there. I don’t think I’m that fit for a person my age, but I did it! Someone asked me if you have to train for it or not, I didn’t and I think it’d be possible to do it as long as the weather conditions are good (aka hasn’t been raining, isn’t too windy or cold), you wear proper shoes (hiking shoes highly recommended) and you take your time and take care.
This route is definitely not one you want to do if it’s been raining or the day is wet, windy or cold. Summer would be the easiest time to do this hike. In winter, there can be snow making it really slippery. Before you go, always do your research and check in with the visitor centre as well as they do also recommend you to log your intention to hike with them.
Hope you guys enjoy this post and let me know if you ever visit Mueller Hut too!