Sealy Tarns Track, Mt Cook | Your Ultimate 2024 Guide

Fondly referred to as the ‘stairway to heaven’, the Sealy Tarns Track arguably affords the best bird’s eye view of Aoraki/Mt Cook – New Zealand’s tallest mountain –  compared to any other half-day walk in the national park. And once you’re standing at the tarns, admiring the mirrored reflections of the surrounding peaks dominating the horizon, we have no doubt that you’ll agree!

But to be honest, viewing the mighty 3,724 m peak is just one small part of the incomprehensible landscape you’ll witness once you’ve accomplished the steep ascent up the northern slopes of the Sealy Range.

We recently spent over a week exploring the many hikes in Mt Cook and can honestly say that the Sealy Tarns Track was one of our top 3 favourites – especially since it leads you closer to Mueller Hut, our number 1 recommended hike in the national park.

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the Sealy Tarns Track, including who the hike is suited to, the best time to visit Sealy Tarns and inspiring images that will persuade you that the effort is beyond worth the reward!

Sealy Tarns glowing in beautiful light ovelooking the Hooker Valley and Mt Cook

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What To Know To About Hiking The Sealy Tarns Track In New Zealand

Quick Statistics For The Sealy Tarns Track

Distance
5.8 km return

Time
2 – 4 hrs

Grade
Grade 2 – 3

Elevation Gain
542 m

Highest Elevation
1,312 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 Sealy Tarns Track Start?

Sealy Tarns Track Trailhead in Mt Cook National Park New Zealand

The iconic Sealy Tarns can be found perched on a ledge halfway to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The trailhead begins on the northwestern side of White Horse Hill Campground, 5 minutes north of Mt Cook Village.

You won’t have any trouble finding the right path to begin the Sealy Tarns track as the car park at White Horse Hill Campground is stocked with plenty of signs to help navigate. The campground is also the starting point for the Hooker Valley Track, another iconic must-do hike in Mt Cook that we highly recommend adding to your itinerary.

How To Get To The Sealy Tarns Trailhead

White Horse Hill Campground, where the Sealy Tarns Track begins, is located at the end of Hooker Valley Rd within Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The trailhead is 3 hrs 10 minutes northeast of Queenstown and 4 hrs 15 minutes west of Christchurch.

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By Bus

It’s possible to get from Queenstown or Christchurch to the Sealy Tarns trailhead via public transport through the summer season, however, whether you want to make the mission rather than simply renting a car is up to you!

Taking public transport involves catching a Christchurch to Queenstown InterCity bus and stopping at either Lake Tekapo or Twizel. From either of these towns, you can jump on The Cook Connection shuttle bus – but only during the summer season.

Outside of the summer season, your options are limited to joining a one-way tour with Cheeky Kiwi Travel that departs from either Queenstown or Christchurch and drops you at Mt Cook Village after stopping at some key sightseeing locations along the way.

By Car

Driving to White Horse Hill Campground is quite easy thanks to the multitude of signs directing you to Mt Cook Village. You’ll turn off State Highway 8 (Tekapo-Twizel Rd) onto Mt Cook Rd and follow the winding scenic drive as it hugs the banks of Lake Pukaki. Hooker Valley Rd branches north off Mt Cook Rd right before Mt Cook Village and the campsite can be found at the end of Hooker Valley Rd.

Click Here For Directions

Who Is This Hike For?

Hiking up the Steep Stairs on the Sealy Tarns Track

The Sealy Tarns Track is an easy (albeit steep and strenuous) half-day walk that rewards weary hikers with a breathtaking birds-eye view of the Hooker Valley and Aoraki/Mt Cook – and puts you at eye level with the monstrous hanging glaciers clinging to the sheer slopes of the Southern Alps.

While a good degree of fitness is necessary, Sealy Tarns is a fantastic option for most hiking abilities and offers a great alternative to Mueller Hut if you’re not quite ready for the technical scramble. 

The best part is, you’re afforded unravelling vistas of the dramatic glacial landscape for almost the entire climb. So if you’re feeling tired or the daylight hours are waning, you won’t miss out completely if you have to turn back before reaching the tarns.

What To Pack For The Sealy Tarns Track

Walking along the gravel trail at the beginning of the Sealy Tarns Track

The Sealy Tarns Track is a half-day adventure with an alluring picnic spot at the tarns. While it only takes an average of 3 hours to complete, it’s important to remember that you’re walking in an exposed alpine region where the weather can change on a dime.

Below we’ve included a list of the day hike essentials we recommend for the Sealy Tarns Track.

  • A durable and comfortable day pack – our top recommendation is the women’s Osprey Mira 32 or the men’s Osprey Mantra 34
  • 2 litres of water in reusable water bottles or a water bladder
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Rain Jacket – surprise rain or snow storms are quite common in Mt Cook National Park
  • A warm layer, we suggest a down jacket or a fleece jacket – or both for hiking in bad weather
  • Trail snacks or a picnic lunch to enjoy at the tarns – remember, there are no bins along this walk so be prepared to take all your rubbish (including food scraps) with you
  • Phone for emergencies and a basic first-aid kit
  • Hiking shoes or trail runners for warm and dry weather or waterproof hiking boots for snowy or wet conditions

Best Time To Hike The Sealy Tarns Track

The magic of the Sealy Tarns Track can be enjoyed all year round, showcasing unique wonders in each season. Blossoming wildflowers cover the slopes in late spring and summer whereas autumn provides a higher chance of witnessing snow draping low on the surrounding peaks.

If you want to beat the majority of the crowds, we recommend visiting Sealy Tarns outside of the school holidays and weekends. The quietest time aside from winter is May and September – October.

And while it is generally possible to hike the Sealy Tarns Track in winter and early spring, it does require a little more preparation and skill. Especially if you are required to hike in the snow.

Beautiful view over Aoraki / Mt Cook and Hooker Vally from Sealy Tarns

Hiking The Sealy Tarns Track In Winter

If you’re visiting Sealy Tarns in winter, there is a strong chance you’ll encounter a snowy or icy path as you get closer to the tarns. Furthermore, there is sometimes a risk of avalanches from the ridge above.

Before you begin the hike, check in with the visitor centre for the avalanche warning level and to get up-to-date information on the trail conditions. If there is ice or snow on the trail, it’s advised to wear crampons or microspikes and carry an ice axe. Crampons and ice axes can be rented from Alpine Guides in the village.

If the conditions are too challenging for you to attempt the Sealy Tarns Track, a fantastic alternative is the lesser-known Red Tarns Track. This trail has half the elevation and is a safer option when there are avalanche warnings or too much snow.

Best Time Of Day To Visit Sealy Tarns

Sealy Tarns sunny day reflections

The best time of day for the Sealy Tarns hike is early morning, preferably early enough to catch the sunrise at the tarns if you’re comfortable walking in the dark. This time of day allows you to experience the soft glow filtering through Hooker Valley and touching the peak of Aoraki. During sunrise, you’ll also gain the best lighting conditions for a reflection in Sealy Tarns.

The Sealy Tarns Track Notes

White Horse Hill Campground To The Infamous Staircase

Sealy Tarns Track with glacier in backdrop

Beginning on the western side of White Horse Hill car park, you’ll start your journey to the Sealy Tarns via the Kea Point track. The wide path is well signposted and its easy nature allows you to warm up before the big ascent to come.

After roughly 800 m, you’ll arrive at a track junction where the Kea Point track continues to the right and the Sealy Tarns Track branches off to the left. Veering left, the gravel path slowly begins to steepen as it leads you beneath a canopy of native beech trees for a short 400 m before the notorious staircase begins.

Ascending The 2,200 Steps To Sealy Tarns

Walking up the Sealy Tarns Staircase

A shady bench seat marks the beginning of the 2,200 steps to Sealy Tarns, which begin with a bang and continue in that fashion for an entire kilometre. The misshaped steps will keep you guessing and give you something other than your burning legs to concentrate on as you slowly inch closer to the tarns.

While there’s no denying that this is an arduous ascent, the unravelling vistas of glacial blue lakes and monstrous peaks behind you provide a strong reason for ample breaks to absorb the magnificent landscape.

Sealy Tarns Stairs with Mt Cook Valley and Mt Wakfield

There is nothing overly technical about this trail other than the fact that it is physically challenging. That said, a few sections are quite steep and exposed, but if you stick to the middle of the trail and move slowly past other walkers, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

At the 2.2 km mark, you’re finally afforded respite from the steep ascent as the trail begins to traverse the contours of the mountain for 100 m. One last short ascent remains after you cross a seasonal stream and after 1 – 1.5 hrs, you’ll have finally reached the Sealy Tarns.

Exploring Sealy Tarns

Sealy Tarns beautiful view over the hooker valley

A long picnic table welcomes you at the Sealy Tarns, which could possibly be one of the most scenic lunch spots we have ever experienced. From this vantage point, you’ll be gifted with uninterrupted views of Aoraki standing proudly behind Hooker Lake and the dramatic ridgeline that features The Footstool and Cadogan Peak.

When the weather is calm, the tarns provide the perfect mirrored reflection of the snow-capped peaks – which are best captured from down low on the southern end of the small alpine lake.

If you listen closely, you might even hear the distant roar of an avalanche cascading from the hanging glaciers and ice cliffs that cling to the slopes of Mt Sefton.

We highly recommend allowing plenty of time to enjoy the majestic landscape surrounding Sealy Tarns. And if you’re up for the challenge, you can even consider continuing onto Mueller Hut – Just be sure you have enough daylight left for the return journey.

Returning To The Trailhead

Stairs on the Sealy Tarns Track

Once you’re ready to tear yourself away from this incredible location, you’ll return to the track and begin the long descent down to White Horse Hill Campground. To help with the descent, we suggest taking a set of trekking poles with you as they make a considerable difference on your tired legs.

You can expect to shave off approximately half an hour on the descent, especially as you’re able to admire the view without having to turn around.

We completed the Sealy Tarns Track within 2.5 hrs, including a lengthy amount of time spent taking photos and wandering about the tarns.

Other Important Information For Walking The Sealy Tarns Track

Leave No Trace

Mt Cook National Park is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. This puts a great deal of strain on the fragile landscape so we all need to do our part to ensure we aren’t adding any unnecessary damage.

It’s as easy as following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles, which include staying on the designated trails and packing out what you pack in. There are no toilets or rubbish bins along the Sealy Tarns Track, meaning you’ll need to take all your rubbish with you (including food scraps and tissues) and remember to use the toilet at the campgrounds before your hike.

In addition, please don’t feed the Kea – the one and only alpine parrot – as this causes detrimental damage to their health and behaviour.

Hooker Valley stretching beyond Mt Cook Village and Mt Wakefield

Where To Stay Near The Sealy Tarns Track

While it is possible to complete this hike as a day trip from Christchurch or Queenstown, the Sealy Tarns Track is just one of many incredible walks found in Mt Cook National Park and we recommend spending at least 2 – 3 days here to truly experience the magic.

There are several places to stay within Mt Cook Village but if they’re all booked out, the second best option is Lake Tekapo – which is a worthy destination on its own merits. Take a look at our guide to the best Mt Cook accommodation options for our top suggestions and helpful tips.

Camping At Mt Cook National Park

White Horse Hill Campsite

White Horse Hill Campground is the only option for camping near the Sealy Tarns Track as there is no freedom camping allowed within Mt Cook National Park. This DOC campsite is NZD$15 per person, per night and provides toilet blocks and an enclosed shelter with running water.

We stayed at this campground when we visited Mt Cook and loved it. The sites are tucked into the foothills of the Sealy Range and allow for an incredible view across the sweeping valley.

For the best value for money, we recommend purchasing a DOC Campsite Pass if you plan to camp for more than 8 days during your New Zealand road trip.

FAQs About The Sealy Tarns Track

Is The Sealy Tarns Track Worth It?

While there is no denying that the zigzagging staircase to the tarns is physically challenging, the Sealy Tarns Track is 100% worth it once you’re standing on the ledge overlooking the majestic Hooker Valley, with Aoraki/Mt Cook dominating the distant horizon.

How Long Is The Sealy Tarns Walk?

The return walk to Sealy Tarns is 5.8 km and takes an average of 2 – 4 hours depending on fitness and how many times you stop to gawk at the mind-blowing mountains surrounding you.

The average walker can reach the tarns within 1 – 1.5 hrs but don’t forget to allow enough time to sit and soak in the views at the conveniently placed picnic table beside Sealy Tarns.

How Hard Is Sealy Tarns?

The Sealy Tarns track is quite famous for its 2,200 steps, fondly named the ‘stairway to heaven’. But while the trail demands a good level of fitness, it is a technically easy walk with man-made steps almost the entire way.

Final Thoughts

Mt Wakefield from Sealy Tarns Lookout

From the unimaginably beautiful landscape that continues to unravel the higher you climb to the final view you’re awarded once reaching the top, everything about the Sealy Tarns Track blew us away. Even though the stairs are no joke, we would do this hike again in a heartbeat.

If we’ve successfully persuaded you to do the Sealy Tarns Track, don’t forget that you’re hiking in an alpine environment and the weather can turn sour at the drop of a hat. Remember to pack the essentials, including a rain jacket and extra warm layers, and check in with the visitor centre for trail conditions if you’re visiting in winter.

Have you hiked the Sealy Tarns Track? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below. And as always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions remaining and we’ll do our best to help!

Happy Hiking 🙂