Mt Cook National Park | The Ultimate Guide For First Timers

Rising from the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, Mt Cook National Park is truly a wonder to behold. There are very few places where you can easily immerse yourself within a powerful landscape dominated by proglacial lakes, icebergs, hanging glaciers and monstrous snow-capped mountains.

But that is exactly what you’ll experience the moment you begin your journey along the winding scenic road leading into the depths of Mt Cook National Park. 

If there were just one destination we could recommend for your New Zealand road trip, Mount Cook National Park would win without a doubt. Whether you’re a hard-core adventurer or amble along the breathtaking beginner-friendly trails, we guarantee you will fall in love with Aoraki/Mt Cook.

We spent a week in Mt Cook Village exploring the myriad of trails and gawking at the majestic 3,724m peak of Aoraki/Mt Cook – New Zealand’s tallest mountain – and were blown away by the incredible range of walks and things to do that accommodate every traveller.

There is undoubtedly something for everyone within the majestic boundaries of Mt Cook National Park and in this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know for your first time visiting Mt Cook. 

Light gleaming through Hooker Valley overlooking Sealy Tarns in Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand

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Your Complete Mt Cook National Park Guide For First Timer’s

Where Is Mount Cook National Park?

Located in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, Mt Cook National Park encompasses 60 km of the 500 km long Southern Alps that stretch from the northeast to the southwest of the South Island. The national park is home to 19 peaks soaring over 3,000 m, including Aoraki/Mt Cook – the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3,724 m.

To add to its grandeur, the national park also lies within New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve, enabling sensational stargazing and astrophotography opportunities for visitors.

Mt Cook National Park is a formidable and majestic landscape, with 40% of its surface covered by glaciers – including the Tasman Glacier, the largest in New Zealand –  and the remainder filled with permanent snow fields, milky-blue alpine lakes and deeply carved valleys.

Tasman Glacier Lookout in Mt Cook National Park

Quick Tips For First-Time Visitors

  • Do your groceries before arriving in Mt Cook; there are no shops in the village and only a few restaurants to choose from
  • Check the road conditions on the NZ Transport Agency website before driving into Mt Cook National Park – especially during winter
  • There is good phone reception within the village and at White Horse Hill Campground
  • The Hermitage’s Sir Edmund Hillary Cafe and Bar is a great place to catch up on a bit of work and charge electronics; they have loads of power points and 10GB of free wifi per day
  • Allow an extra day for bad weather
  • Pack warm and waterproof clothes no matter the season; it’s an alpine region that can see all kinds of weather conditions any time of year
  • Immerse yourself in the many incredible hiking trails in Mt Cook

How To Get To Mt Cook National Park

There is only one road leading into Mt Cook National Park, which provides access to the park’s southeastern corner. This is where you’ll find Mt Cook Village and the bulk of easily accessible hikes in Mt Cook.

Mount Cook Rd branches off State Highway 8 (Tekapo-Twizel Rd) and follows the western length of the alluring Lake Pukaki. Its vivid turquoise waters, backed by the colossal snow-capped peaks of Aoraki and the surrounding Southern Alps, provide a breathtaking scenic drive that is arguably part of the best road trip in New Zealand.

Mt Cook Village provides the ultimate base for exploring the national park and is located just past Lake Pukaki at the end of Mount Cook Rd, 4 hrs west of Christchurch and 3 hrs 10 minutes northeast of Queenstown.

Dramatic Landscape of the Mt Cook National Park with a rainbow

By Car

The drive to Mt Cook Village is navigationally easy, thanks to the many signposts directing you to Mt Cook National Park. You’ll simply turn off State Highway 8 (Tekapo-Twizel Rd) onto Mount Cook Rd and follow it to its end at Mt Cook Village. The turn-off is located 11 km north of Twizel and 49 km southwest of Lake Tekapo.

For the most part, the drive from either Christchurch or Queenstown is easy-going. That said, you will travel through winding alpine passes from both directions that can require a little extra time – mainly due to the multiple stops you’ll take to gawk at the incredible views.

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Road Trip in New Zealand driving in Mt Cook Nation Park

New Zealand, The Road Tripping Capital Of The South!

The absolute best place to road trip in the Southern Hemisphere is New Zealand, the land of giant glaciers and vibrant lakes. And for the best deals on campervans, you can’t beat Jucy!

Note: In winter, the alpine passes and Mount Cook Rd are subject to snow and ice. You may be required to carry snow chains, and sometimes, some passes can close. Check the road conditions before travelling on the NZ Transport Agency website.

By Public Transport

It is possible to use public transport to reach Mt Cook Village. However, it’s not entirely straightforward and can cost more than renting a car. Furthermore, it’s time-consuming and the services are seriously limited outside of the summer season.

That said, to reach Mt Cook using public transport, you’ll first catch the InterCity Christchurch – Queenstown bus and hop off at either Lake Tekapo or Twizel. From either of these towns, you can jump on the Cook Connection shuttle that will deliver you to Mt Cook Village.

However, the Cook Connection shuttle service only runs in the summer season, typically from the start of November to the end of April. Outside of this season, your options are limited to trying your luck at hitch-hiking or joining a Cheeky Kiwi Travel tour that offers one-way tours from Christchurch or Queenstown.

Best Way To Explore Mt Cook National Park

All the walking tracks and most activities in Mt Cook National Park begin from Mt Cook Village or within a 20-minute radius. This makes exploring the park a breeze no matter if you have your own transport, join a tour or rent a bike.

Walking across the second swing bridge on the Hooker Valley Track in Mt Cook

Mt Cook Tours

Mt Cook is one of the most popular natural destinations in the South Island, competing for first place with the likes of Milford Sound and Abel Tasman. As a result, you’ll have no trouble finding plenty of tour options for Mt Cook.

Popular Mt Cook tours range from day walking tours to bucket list experiences that allow you to get close and personal with the Tasman Glacier. Below, we’ve listed the best day walking tours to explore the captivating landscapes of Mt Cook National Park, and later in this post, we’ll spill the beans on the top bucket list experiences available in this stunning destination.

Tour Group admiring the monument on the Hooker Valley Track in New Zealand

Car/Campervan Hire Options

Personally, we prefer to explore destinations by our own means so that we can truly immerse ourselves in the landscape without a rigid schedule. Therefore, our top recommendation for visiting Mt Cook National Park is to hire a car or campervan and stay within the park.

For the best deals on car hire, check out Rental Cars. They help you compare the major rental companies to find the best price for your trip.

If you’re looking for a campervan, we suggest going with the highly popular Jucy Rentals for the best value for money and their wide range of options. We couldn’t even begin to tell you how many Jucy campervans we spotted on our month-long trip around New Zealand’s South Island – an excellent sign that they’re reliable and reputable!

Bike Hire In Mt Cook

Whether you’ve arrived by public transport or would rather leave your camp set up, renting a bike is the best way to travel between the various walking trails in Mt Cook. 

The Hermitage Hotel provides a bike hire service from their Activities Desk within the hotel. Bike hires include a helmet and can be booked for either a full or half day. There is no need to pre-book your bike, simply visit the Activities Desk once you arrive in Mt Cook Village.

When To Visit Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

Mt Cook Glowing orange in the afternoon sun at sunset

You have the pleasure of visiting Mt Cook National Park year-round, and each season provides a uniquely incredible experience. But as with most things in life, each season has pros and cons, which we’ll briefly outline below.

Summer (December – February)

Summer is the busiest time to visit Mt Cook, and the hotels within the village often book out well in advance. However, you’ll receive the calmest weather with long sunny days and alpine herb fields covered in the world’s largest buttercup – the Mt Cook lily.

The snowline retreats to just cover the tallest peaks, accentuating the monstrous glaciers throughout the park and allowing the easiest conditions for the alpine walking trails. This is also the best time to witness icebergs floating in Hooker and Tasman Lakes.

Autumn (March – May)

As the temperatures begin to drop, the crowds thin considerably and allow for a much more peaceful experience in Mt Cook. That said, with shorter days and a higher chance of wild weather, you may not be able to fit as much in a day as you would like.

During Autumn, you’ll also have a good chance of finding icebergs on the alpine lakes and could even be lucky enough to experience snow at Mueller Hut.

Icebergs floating in the Tasman Lake at the river mouth

Winter (June – August)

Mt Cook National Park transforms into a brilliant wonderland in Winter. The alpine lakes freeze over and the snowline drops almost to the valley floor – often covering the entire landscape after a significant snowstorm.

But, of course, this time of year comes with some complications. First of all, it’s cold and you’ll need to be prepared for hiking in the snow, even on the valley walks. The alpine trails increase in difficulty, often requiring crampons, ice axes, and a good level of avalanche awareness.

In saying that, the landscape is so incredibly beautiful in Winter that even if you simply visit to walk the easy valley trails and admire the formidable mountains from your cosy accommodation, it will be well worth it.

Spring (September – November)

As the snow begins to melt in early Spring, the avalanche danger for Mueller Hut and other alpine tracks can still be quite high. However, once the risk decreases, this can be one of the best times to experience the exposed alpine hikes, as the weather will be slightly cooler than the height of summer.

The crowds start to return in late spring as the wildflowers begin to bloom and the icebergs splinter from the giant glaciers once more.

Hooker Valley and Mt Cook Village on a beautiful clear day

How Many Days Do You Need In Mt Cook?

You can explore some of the highlights of Mt Cook National Park on a day trip from either Christchurch or Queenstown; however, to gain the best experience, we suggest spending at least 2-3 days in Mt Cook – more if you have the freedom of time.

We spent six days in Mt Cook National Park on our last visit, and even after walking almost every trail, we’re dying to finish off the last few hikes we missed and revisit the ones we loved most.

If possible, it’s ideal to add an extra day or two on top of your planned itinerary in the event of bad weather – which occurs often. Plenty of places nearby are worth visiting with your extra time – our favourite being Lake Tekapo.

Red Tarns Mt Cook National Park, a great sunset walk in Mt Cook New Zealand

Where To Stay Near Mt Cook

Mt Cook Village is undoubtedly the best place to stay to experience the magic of Mt Cook National Park. However, with only a few accommodation options, you’ll need to book well in advance if you plan to visit in the summer.

The best alternative to staying in Mt Cook is Lake Tekapo, located 1 hr 10 mins southeast of the village. Here you’ll find a host of accommodation options nestled around the stunning turquoise lake.

For more information on the best places to stay near Mt Cook and which location is right for you, check out our guide to the top Mt Cook accommodation options for all budgets.

Mt Cook National Park from the Red Tarns Track

Camping In Mt Cook National Park

White Horse Hill Campground is located at the base of the Sealy Range and provides direct access to the Mueller Hut Route and Hooker Valley Track. This is the only option for camping within Mt Cook National Park and costs $15 per person per night – or basically free if you pre-purchase a DOC Campsite Pass. 

The campsite is equipped with toilet blocks, a large undercover shelter with untreated water and spacious sites with incredible views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains.

For the best value for money, we suggest purchasing a DOC Campsite Pass if you plan to spend more than eight nights camping in any DOC campsite throughout your time in New Zealand.

White Horse Hill Campsite in Mt Cook National Park

Freedom Camping Near Mt Cook

The closest freedom camping for self-contained campervans is at Lake Pukaki, 45 minutes south of Mt Cook Village. To find the best campsites, we recommend downloading the Rankers Camping NZ app, which provides tons of information on all the possible campsites within New Zealand.

Best Photography Locations In Mt Cook

Mt Cook National Park is a photographer’s paradise. We can guarantee you’ll fall in love with the landscape from the moment you begin driving alongside Lake Pukaki toward the dominating mountains of the Southern Alps. You’re spoilt for choice on spots to photograph the iconic Aoraki/Mt Cook, but to help narrow your options, here are our top five locations for sunrise and sunset.

Sealy Tarns overlooking Hooker Lake and Aoraki/Mt Cook
Tasman Glacier on a moody sunrise in New Zealand

Best Sunrise Locations To Photograph Mt Cook

  • Tasman Lake – Follow the signs from the Tasman Glacier car park to the Tasman River and hop over the boulders to arrive at the river mouth of Tasman Lake. Here, you’re often treated to mirror-like reflections of the Tasman Glacier, with icebergs framing the foreground.
  • Sealy Tarns – Walk the 2,200 steps to Sealy Tarns lookout, where you have unobstructed views of Aoraki as the soft morning light filters perfectly across the mountain range and hits the snowy peaks.

Best Sunset Locations To Photograph Mt Cook

  • Mt Olliver – This one requires an overnight stay at Mueller Hut and a quick climb up Mt Olliver, which towers behind the hut. The golden light filters through the Hooker Valley from this composition, lighting up Aoraki majestically.
  • Red Tarns – A steep 2 km walk will lead you to the Red Tarns, which have the perfect view north towards Mt Cook and Mt Sefton. At sunset, the lingering light on the peaks reflects beautifully in the tarns.
  • Hooker Lake – Walk the easy 5 km to Hooker Lake via the Hooker Valley track to enjoy the vibrant colours of sunset illuminating the snowy peak of Mt Cook. The glacial lake often has icebergs floating on it, providing an alluring foreground for your shot.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Mount Cook Worth Visiting?

Mt Cook is one of the most iconic national parks in New Zealand and home to the largest glacier and the tallest mountain in the country. The national park hosts a wealth of walking trails and bucket-list activities, making it a top destination for adventurous travellers.

Even if you’re simply a nature lover, the moment you begin the drive along Lake Pukaki into the depths of the glacially carved landscape, it will become clear that Mt Cook National Park is definitely worth visiting for everyone.

How Much Does It Cost To Go To Mount Cook National Park?

Mt Cook National Park is absolutely free to explore! With no national park or walking fees, you can visit for the day without spending a cent. However, if you want to stay at Mueller Hut, there is a fee of NZD $45 per person for the backcountry hut.

To learn how to stay at Mueller Hut for free, check out our ultimate guide to hiking the Mueller Hut Route.

Hooker River flowing fast during autumn in Mt Cook National Park

How Long Is The Drive From Wanaka To Mount Cook?

The scenic drive from Wanaka to Mt Cook is 206 km and takes roughly 2 hrs 30 minutes. However, we recommend allowing at least 4 – 5 hours for this drive so you can enjoy the many scenic stops along the way. Our top recommended stops along the drive are the Omarama Clay Cliffs and Peters Lookout.

What Town Is Closest To Mt Cook NZ?

Twizel is the closest town to Mt Cook National Park, located 65 km and approximately 45 minutes south of Mt Cook Village. You will find a well-stocked supermarket and other essentials such as a pharmacy, fuel stations and a medical centre here. 

Does Mount Cook Have Snow In Summer?

The towering peaks surrounding Hooker Valley and Mt Cook Village are home to permanent snowfields and glaciers. While it generally doesn’t snow below the highest summits in summer, it’s not uncommon to witness a surprise snowstorm through these warmer months.

View point on the saddle on the Mueller Hut Route overlooking Aoraki

Is Mount Cook a Dark Sky Reserve?

Mt Cook National Park is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Thanks to controls on outdoor lighting in the region, the sky comes alive after dark with one of the most incredible displays of stars you’ve ever witnessed. This is one of the reasons why Mt Cook is such a popular place for photographers.

Does It Snow In Mount Cook Village?

In winter, Mt Cook Village often transforms into a white wonderland. While it doesn’t generally stick around for long, it’s a magical time to experience the forest walks that weave through the foothills flanking the village.

Things To Do In Mt Cook National Park

Tramping and walking are the main things to do in Mt Cook National Park, where you’ll find a myriad of trails crisscrossing the breathtaking alpine region that cater to all levels. Arguably, you’ll find some of the best hikes in New Zealand within this easily accessible park.

But that’s certainly not all there is to do…

Mt Cook National Park is an adventurer’s playground where you can indulge in several bucket-list activities in one of the most jaw-dropping landscapes we’ve witnessed. 

And let’s not forget the photographers among us; you’ll be in heaven capturing the formidable Southern Alps and practising your astrophotography in this Dark Sky Reserve.

Mt Cook Helicopter Tours

Image sourced from Get Your Guide
Helicopter landing on the snow on Mt Cook on a Mount Cook Heli Tour

If there were just one place we could pick to splurge on a helicopter or ski plane tour, it would be in Mt Cook National Park! You’ll not only fly by New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but you can also choose to step onto the country’s largest glacier and may even have the opportunity to squeeze into an ice cave!

There are countless options for scenic flights in Mt Cook, which mostly leave from Mt Cook Airport (aka Mt Cook Aerodrome) located 5 minutes south of Mt Cook Village. If you choose the 50-minute scenic flight, try to snag the latest possible time to enjoy the first signs of sunset touching the snowy peaks.

Heli-Ski Mt Cook

If you’re an intermediate to advanced snowboarder or skier, there is no better winter adventure than heli-skiing in the mighty Mt Cook National Park! While there’s no denying this is a very pricey experience, it’s one that you’ll likely never forget.

Skiing through soft powder on a HeliSki Tour in Mt Cook National Park
Image sourced from Heliski.co.nz

Several companies offer heli-skiing in Mt Cook, providing similar packages for basically the same prices. That said, Harris Mountains Heli-Ski is the most popular, while Mt Cook Tasman Glacier Heli-Skiing is the only operator with permission to ski on the Tasman Glacier.

Note: If you choose to book the Tasman Glacier Heli-Ski, we suggest calling them to lock in your tour, as their website booking system is a touch confusing.

Ski The Tasman

For those that strictly ski blue runs, there’s an adventure on the Tasman Glacier for you as well. Ski The Tasman is an incredible day out suited to intermediate skiers and allows you to explore ice caves and admire the unique ice formations on two cruisy 8-10 km runs accessed by a ski plane.

Note: Unfortunately, this tour isn’t suitable for snowboarders as it requires a little traversing, and some sections aren’t steep enough to keep momentum.

Stargaze In The Dark Sky Reserve

Starry night above Mt Cook

Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is part of New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserve – the largest in the world – which allows sensational stargazing opportunities due to the outdoor lighting controls. You can simply wander outside after dark and look up to experience a star-studded sky, or for an even better experience, join a tour with The Hermitage to learn from astronomy guides and gaze at the stars through high-powered telescopes.

Skydive In Mt Cook

New Zealand is well known for its epic skydiving in Queenstown, but we have to argue that skydiving over Aoraki would be our choice without question. The unique landscape of giant glaciers, ice-blue lakes and monstrous snow-capped peaks will make you forget you’ve even jumped out of a plane!

Skydive Mt Cook offers jumps from a height of either 10,000, 13,000 or 15,000ft for this unforgettable experience, taking off from Pukaki Airport in Twizel, 45 minutes south of Mt Cook Village.

Paddle Tasman Lake On A Glacier Kayak Tour

Mt Cook Glacier Sea Kayaking Tour Group
Happy Tour Group on the Glacier Sea Kayaking experience in Mt Cook

If you’re searching for the best eco-tour that will get you as close to the magnificent icebergs as possible, you can’t beat the Mt Cook Glacier Sea-Kayaking tours. 

Southern Alps Guiding offers two kayak tours in Mt Cook that explore either Tasman Lake or Mueller Lake during the summer season (beginning mid-October). Tasman Lake is the most popular option, where you’ll paddle past enormous icebergs, feeling dwarfed by those and the colossal mountains encompassing the proglacial lake.

On the Tasman Lake Kayak tour, only a little previous kayaking experience is required, and you’ll be guided by highly experienced guides that love to share their knowledge of the glacial landscape and its inhabitants.

Explore The Icebergs On A Boat Tour

Mt Cook Glacial Explorers Tour
Image sourced from Hermitage Hotel Glacial Explorer’s Tour

If kayaking doesn’t sound quite so appealing, perhaps a boat tour will be more your style. This is an excellent alternative to kayaking the Tasman Lake and provides just as incredible interactions with the icebergs without the need to fuel your own adventure – plus, it’s over $100 cheaper!

Glacier Explorers is an hour-long boat tour run by the Hermitage Hotel that takes off from the banks of Tasman Lake and weaves in and out of icebergs towards the Tasman Glacier terminal. You might be lucky enough to witness icebergs tearing away and crashing into the lake as you float as close as possible to the glacier.

Wander Along The Many Mt Cook Walking Trails

Hiking on the Sealy Tarns Track in Mt Cook National Park

And last but not least, you can spend countless hours wandering the many walking tracks that weave throughout the world-famous Mt Cook National Park. This is by far the most popular thing to do in Mt Cook, and the best part is it’s free!

There are few other destinations in New Zealand where you have access to 15 or more trails ranging from beginner-friendly to hard-core that all begin from the same place. Not to mention, the landscape you’re walking through never ceases to leave you breathless, no matter which track you choose.

We’ve listed our top three hikes in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park below, but if you’re searching for a more detailed guide on the various trails, check out our guide to the best hikes in Mt Cook next. 

Hooker Valley Track

Distance: 10.7 km return
Time: 2.5 – 3.5 hrs
Grade: Grade 2
Elevation Gain: 200 m

Swing Bridge on the Hooker Valley Track with light gleaming down Hooker Valley

The Hooker Valley Track is arguably the most popular walk in Mt Cook, and as soon as you step onto the trail, you’ll realise why. The wide gravel track follows the path of the Hooker River as it meanders through the deep glacially carved valley, crossing the ice-blue river via three photogenic swing bridges before arriving at Hooker Lake.

Lying at the base of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Hooker Lake is often speckled with icebergs broken free from the retreating glacier at the lake’s northeastern end.

Spanning 5 km one-way with a gentle elevation gain, this well-maintained path is suitable for most people and offers an unforgettable experience. But it is worth noting that this track tends to be crowded, so we recommend visiting early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

However, if your primary purpose is to photograph the stunning Hooker Lake in the best lighting conditions, sunset is the ideal time when the snow-capped peaks beautifully reflect the light.

Mueller Hut Route

Distance: 9.6 km return
Time: 6 – 8 hrs (usually completed in two days)
Grade: Grade 3 (grade 4 in winter conditions or when icy or wet)
Elevation Gain: 1,055 m

Traversing the saddle towards Mueller Hut and Mt Olliver on the Mueller Hut Hike

The Mueller Hut Route is by far the most talked about trail in Mt Cook, and for good reason. The route requires some decent challenges in the form of rock scrambles and a gruelling 1,055 m ascent, but all your hard work is rewarded ten times over with impossibly beautiful vistas of Aoraki, Mt Sefton and the surrounding Southern Alps throughout the entire trail.

Mueller Hut is an excellent option for intermediate hikers looking for their first overnight adventure. The hut has gas stoves and mattresses, allowing you to lighten your backpack load. However, it is essential to note that staying in the hut costs NZD $45 per person. Alternatively, you can choose to camp nearby for NZD $15 and use the facilities, or opt for a “wilderness” camp 200 meters away from the hut and utilise only the toilet for free.

To find the most up-to-date pricing and make a booking for Mueller Hut, visit the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.

Red Tarns Track

Distance: 3.7 km return
Time: 2 hrs
Grade: Grade 3
Elevation Gain: 325 m

Sunset at the Red Tarns in Mount Cook National Park

If you’re looking to escape the crowds while still being blown away by the never-ending beauty of Mt Cook National Park, the Red Tarns track is a great alternative. Located at the southern end of Mt Cook village, the track is a steep but short climb consisting predominantly of man-made stairs. The zigzagging trail ascends the spine of Mt Sebastopol and leads to a collection of tarns named after the red pond weed that grows on the bottom.

On calm days, the tarns provide stunning reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton, making it a popular spot for photographers. If you visit at sunrise or sunset, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of vibrant pink skies against the majestic white peaks of Aoraki.

The walk takes approximately 1 to 1.5 hours one-way, and if you’re comfortable walking with a flashlight, experiencing the sunrise or sunset at the tarns is our best recommendation.

Final Thoughts

We hope you have found our ultimate guide to Mt Cook National Park informative and helpful for planning your visit. It’s genuinely one of the most magical destinations we have explored, and if you have the time, we highly recommend spending at least 3 – 4 days here.

If you plan to visit during the summer season, don’t forget to book your accommodation and tours well in advance to avoid missing out. Or if you’re keen on a winter adventure, remember to check the status on the roads before departing and check in with the visitor centre to learn about the current trail conditions and avalanche warnings.

Please feel free to drop any additional questions we haven’t answered in the comments below or reach out to us via Instagram at @_trackslesstravelled.

Happy Adventuring 🙂