Red Tarns Track | The Most Underrated Walk In Mt Cook

No matter where you are in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, you’re witness to a landscape dominated by rugged snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys coursing with milky-blue braided rivers. Every walk offers something new but one that often slips under the radar is the Red Tarns Track.

Requiring only 2 hours of your time, the Red Tarns Track is a must-do walk in Mt Cook that offers unrivalled panoramas of the dramatic Southern Alps landscape. And on a breathless day, the alluring alpine tarns provide the perfect reflection of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook’s snowy summits.

We almost chose to miss the Red Tarns Track, believing the lack of information on the walk must mean yet another 300 m ascent wouldn’t be worth our time, but we are so glad we persevered as the Red Tarns Track became one of our favourite short walks in New Zealand’s South Island.

The Red Tarns Track is highly underrated and often void of the mass crowds that visit the Hooker Valley Track and Sealy Tarns. But we can guarantee it’s worth your time – especially for a sunrise or sunset mission – and in this post, you’ll find all the information you need to include the Red Tarns Track into your Mt Cook itinerary.

Red Tarns reflection of Mt Cook and surrounding peaks at sunset in Mt Cook National Park

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Everything You Need To Know To About The Red Tarns Track In New Zealand

Quick Statistics For The Red Tarns Track

Distance
3.7 km return

Time
2 hrs

Grade
Grade 2 – 3

Elevation Gain
325 m

Highest Elevation
1,056 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Toilets, shelter with untreated water, car park, walker’s information sign
Along the track: bench seats, information signs

Where Does The Red Tarns Track Start?

The Red Tarns Track can be found within the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, located in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island and home to the country’s tallest mountain – Mt Cook. The trailhead begins at the Mt Cook Village Public Shelter found on Bowen Drive. Aoraki/Mt Cook Village and White Horse Hill Campground nearby are the access point for most of the hikes in Mt Cook National Park.

You’ll find a spacious car park at the Mt Cook Village Public Shelter and due to its lessened popularity compared to the Hooker Valley Track or the Mueller Hut Route, it’s relatively easy to secure a spot year-round. However, if you do find the car park full, you can also park at the visitor centre which is a 5-minute walk from the trailhead.

How To Get To The Red Tarns Trailhead

Red Tarns Track Trailhead

The Red Tarns trailhead, found at the Mt Cook Village Public Shelter, is located on Bowen Drive. The trailhead is approximately 3 hrs 10 minutes northeast of Queenstown and 4 hrs west of Christchurch.

By Bus

InterCity provides a bus service that connects Queenstown and Christchurch, which stops at Twizel or Lake Tekapo. During the summer season, The Cook Connection provides a shuttle service to and from Mt Cook Village from either Lake Tekapo or Twizel.

If you’re travelling to Mt Cook outside of the summer season – which usually runs from November to April – you can jump on a one-way tour with Cheeky Kiwi Travel that departs from either Christchurch or Queenstown and delivers you directly to Mt Cook via some key sightseeing locations.

That said, if you are basing yourself in either Queenstown or Christchurch, the cheapest option is to rent a car for a day or two. You can find incredible deals with Jucy, in fact, some of their campervan options are actually cheaper than their car rentals so you can save money on both transport and accommodation!

By Car

To reach Mt Cook Village from either Queenstown or Christchurch, you’ll turn off State Highway 8 (Tekapo-Twizel Rd) onto Mt Cook Rd and follow it until you arrive at the village. The turn-off is 49 km southwest of Tekapo and 11 km north of Twizel.

Once you arrive at Mt Cook Village, turn left onto Bowen Drive and follow the road as it loops southwest. After approximately 500 m, you’ll find the Mt Cook Village Public Shelter on your left.

Click Here For Directions

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!

Who Is This Hike For?

The Red Tarns Track is a fantastic day walk that provides breathtaking vistas across the monstrous peaks and deep into the sweeping valley of braided rivers and proglacial lakes. The alpine tarns found at the end of the ascent attract many photographers searching for the perfect reflection of Mt Cook.

The short 2-hour walk follows a well-formed trail and requires nothing more than a moderate amount of fitness. This makes the Red Tarns Track a great option for families or walkers that aren’t ready to tackle the bigger ascent to Sealy Tarns.

Plus, the Red Tarns Track is often far less populated compared to the popular Hooker Valley Track and Sealy Tarns Track, making it a desirable choice for those wishing to avoid crowds.

Admiring the view of Mt Cook from the Red Tarns Track Lookout in New Zealand

What To Bring For The Red Tarns Track

The ascent to the Red Tarns takes approximately 1 – 1.5 hrs and therefore, all that’s needed for the walk is a comfortable pair of hiking shoes, a reusable water bottle, a warm layer (our favourite option is a down jacket) and some snacks.

It is important to remember that you are hiking within an alpine region, meaning that the weather can change on a dime and you should prepare for all conditions. In addition to the warm layer we suggest packing, it’s also a great idea to throw in a rain jacket even when the weather looks fine.

Best Time To Walk The Red Tarns Track

The Red Tarns Track can be enjoyed year-round, providing a unique experience depending on the time of year you visit. Due to its relatively low elevation compared to the surrounding summits, it’s often the best option for winter when you’re searching for those easily accessible bird’s eye views of Mt Cook National Park.

Best Time Of Day To Climb The Red Tarns Track

Sunset reflection at Red Tarns in Mt Cook National Park
Sunset lighting up the sky for a beautiful reflection at the Red Tarns

The best time of day to visit the Red Tarns is either sunrise or sunset. Both offer incredible viewing points to watch the first or the last light touching the peak of Mt Cook, which can be beautifully reflected in the alpine tarns on a calm day.

The short track requires an average of 1 – 1.5 hrs hours to reach the Red Tarns, making it a relatively easy sunrise or sunset mission. But don’t forget your headtorch and ensure you’re comfortable walking in the dark before you commit to this mission!

Planning Your Mt Cook National Park Visit?
Here’s a list of our favourite places to stay.

  • Hermitage Hotel – Featuring a wide range of comfortable rooms and suites that offer beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, on-site dining and bar and a central location. The Hermitage is great for those looking for a bit of comfort and luxury during their stay.
  • YHA Hostel – Affordable accommodation in a great location. The YHA Hostel is equipped with a self-catered kitchen, spacious communal areas and comfortable rooms making it perfect for those on tighter budgets. Oh, and did I mention access to the FREE SAUNA!
  • Lake Tekapo – Only planning a day trip to Mt Cook National Park? Then Lake Tekapo is the perfect place to base yourself. With a wide range of cafe’s, bars and restaurants situated on a beautifully picturesque Lake, this quaint town will steal your heart.

The Red Tarns Track Notes

Mt Cook Public Shelter To Black Birch Stream Bridge

Old bridge at the beginning of the Red Tarns Track in New Zealand

On the western fringe of Mt Cook Village, you’ll begin the journey to the Red Tarns on a wide path that leaves from the public shelter and trails south toward Black Birch Stream. This is also the path that completes the Governors Bush circuit, which can be included on your return for some additional forest time.

The trail will guide you over a crest where a sign for the Red Tarns track will lead you to the rocky banks of Black Birch Stream. The glacial blue water tumbles down from the Sealy Range above and after the snow melt or heavy rain, Black Birch Stream becomes more akin to a surging river, flowing rapidly into the braided rivers leading to Lake Pukaki.

Black Birch Stream Bridge To The Stream Crossing

Sun rays beaming on to the Red Tarns Trail as we hiked to the Lookout

A small bridge assists in crossing Black Birch Stream and almost immediately after, you’ll begin the steep climb up the northern slopes of Mt Sebastopol.

Aided predominantly by man-made stairs and well-formed traverses, the climb is relatively easy – albeit steep – and allows you to enjoy the unfolding views below before you’re engulfed in the area’s sole remaining mixed beech and podocarp forest.

After a kilometre and roughly 20 minutes, you’ll arrive at a small stream flowing through the dense fern-filled forest. Strategically placed stepping stones allow you to keep your feet dry – most of the time – as you cross the vividly clear water.

Crossing the small stream on the Red Tarns Hike in Mt Cook National Park

The Stream Crossing To The Viewpoint

Soon after the stream crossing, you’ll emerge from the thick native forest and gain glimpses of Aoraki/Mt Cook across the sweeping valleys. The track continues to traverse the contours and folds of Mt Sebastopol, offering snippets of snowy mountain peaks, until you arrive at the spur leading to the Red Tarns above.

Long, steep stairs lining the cliff side on the Red Tarns Walk

From this point, the track gradient increases and you’ll encounter a few rocky sections scattered among the man-made stairs as you gain elevation. The change in vegetation to small shrubs and rock walls provides almost uninterrupted views of Mount Sefton, Cook and Wakefield’s prominent peaks.

Eventually, after roughly 1.6 km and 40 – 50 minutes, the zigzagging track will lead you to a bench seat and an informational sign, signalling you’ve made it to the Red Tarns Viewpoint.

The Viewpoint To The Red Tarns

Hiking past the Red Tarns Lookout towards the beautiful red weeded tarns

Taking a much-needed break, spend some time relaxing on the bench seat and enjoy the dramatic panorama laid out before you. Along with a bird’s eye view of Mt Cook Village and the multiple milky-blue rivers coursing through the valleys, you’ll have front-row seats to the many streams cascading from the deep gully beneath the Sealy Range on your left.

Once you’ve caught your breath, continue on for 100 m until you arrive at a small loop that will guide you around the Red Tarns.

Exploring The Red Tarns Loop

Red Tarns loop durning sunset with Mt Cook Peak in background

The direction you choose to walk the loop is entirely up to you, however, the quickest way to the tarns is in a clockwise direction. The track will lead you to the edge of the Red Tarns, which is actually just one large tarn divided by spongy grasses, and allows you to follow the water’s edge to another bench seat boasting the best view of the tarns and the distant mountains.

The Red Tarns received its name courtesy of the red pond weed that grows on the bottom, which can sometimes provide a tinge of red to the water. On a still day, the tarn offers mirror-like reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Sefton, making this a popular spot for photographers.

Sunset reflection at Red Tarns in Mt Cook National Park
Sunset lighting up the sky for a beautiful reflection at the Red Tarns

We were told that the Red Tarns are especially picturesque at sunrise when the water reflects the first light illuminating the mountains. However, we visited for sunset and were gifted a brilliant show as soft yellow clouds draped across the horizon and the pastel alpenglow touched the white peaks of Aoraki.

As you wander around the loop, you’ll find information boards with interesting facts about the Red Tarns and the surrounding landscape. And each section of the loop provides a new vantage point to admire the impossibly beautiful landscape and the rugged peaks of Mt Sebastopol above.

Red Tarns Lookout viewpoint, looking over the Mt Cook Valley

McNulty’s Tarns And Mt Sebastopol (Optional)

If you’re looking for a little more excitement and challenge, you can continue onto McNulty’s Tarn and even to Mt Sebastopol if you’re up for a technical scramble. The path to McNulty’s Tarns is nothing more than a faint goat track leading up the small gully to the left of the scree field. The route that continues from McNulty’s Tarns to Mt Sebastopol is unmarked save for a few random rock cairns and requires good navigation and rock scrambling skills.

This additional adventure will take you 450 m higher in elevation and reward you with extensive panoramas of the Tasman and Hooker Valley, including glimpses of the Tasman Glacier in the northeast and Lake Pukaki in the south.

Take a look at Hiking Scenery’s image-filled post to gain more of an understanding of whether this is the challenge for you.

Returning To The Trailhead

Hiking down the Red Tarns Track at Twilight as the sky turned pink over Aoraki

Once you’ve finished exploring the Red Tarns, return to the viewpoint and begin to make your way down to the valley floor below. If your hiking appetite isn’t yet satiated, you can turn left once you cross Black Birch Stream and continue on the Governors Bush track which weaves through a thriving silver beech forest before ending at the public shelter. This will add a kilometre and approximately 15 – 20 minutes to your walk.

The Red Tarns track took us roughly 2 hours to complete and was an incredible location to watch the sunset. If you’re wishing to get away from the droves of walkers that congregate around Sealy Tarn and Hooker Valley, then Red Tarns is a fantastic choice.

Other Important Information For Walking The Red Tarns Track

Leave No Trace

The Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is a destination on many traveller’s bucket lists and the park sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. This is a lot of strain on an already fragile landscape and therefore, we all need to do our bit to ensure we keep the wondrous location protected from unnecessary damage.

It’s as simple as following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles while you’re out on the trails – or anywhere for that matter. This includes staying on the marked trails, using the toilets provided and carrying all your rubbish with you until you find the appropriate bin – including tissues and food scraps!

Where To Stay Near The Red Tarns Track

The Red Tarns track begins right beside Mt Cook Village, where you’ll find plenty of accommodation options to suit a variety of travellers. In addition to the popular Hermitage Hotel and Aoraki Court Motel, you’ll also find the affordable YHA Hostel with a range of room configurations.

The closest towns to the Red Tarns Track are Lake Tekapo, 1 hr 15 minutes southeast, and Twizel, 50 minutes south. There are little more than a few restaurants at Mt Cook Village so if you’d rather stay at a place with more variety and things to do, we suggest choosing Lake Tekapo as it’s a destination worth visiting on its own merits.

Check out our top recommendations on places to stay near Mt Cook.

Camping At Mt Cook

Sunrise over White Horse Hill Campsite in Mt Cook National Park

There is no freedom camping in Mt Cook National Park, with the only option being White Horse Hill Campground. The DOC campground is NZD$15 per person, per night and is equipped with a toilet block, enclosed shelter and water.

For the best value for money, we suggest buying a DOC campsite pass if you’re planning to camp in various locations in New Zealand – especially around Milford Sound and Mt Cook where there are no freedom camping options. The DOC campsite pass is NZD$95 for a month of unlimited use or NZD$195 for a year.

FAQs About The Red Tarns Track

Is The Red Tarns Track Worth It?

The Red Tarns Track is a sensational short walk that provides incomparable views of both the Hooker and the Tasman Valley. With far fewer visitors compared to Mueller Hut and The Hooker Valley Track, this is a fantastic option if you’re searching for a little mountain solitude. 

How Long Is The Red Tarns Track?

The Red Tarns Track is a 3.7 km return walk that takes an average of 2 hours to complete. An optional add-on is McNulty’s Tarns which is an extra 300 m of elevation on a rough untracked trail.

How Many Steps Are In The Red Tarns Walk?

While we didn’t count the steps leading to The Red Tarns, we can guarantee the number is far less than Sealy Tarns’ 2,200 steps! The elevation gain from the valley floor to the Red Tarns is 300 m, which is almost half the amount of Sealy Tarns.

Final Thoughts

We were pleasantly surprised with how much we enjoyed the Red Tarns Track, which almost slipped past our radar due to its lesser-known status. But there is no doubt that the views are impossibly beautiful and the tarns provide the perfect foreground for the iconic mountain peaks on the horizon.

Remember to allow enough time for the steep climb and to enjoy the vistas from the top. If you’re planning to continue on from the Red Tarns to McNulty’s Tarns or Mt Sebastopol, be sure you’re aware of the challenge that awaits and are well-equipped for the climb.

Have you explored the Red Tarns? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below. Or if you have any questions that we haven’t answered in this guide, please feel free to reach out and we’ll do our best to help.

Happy Hiking 🙂