Red Tarns Track, Mount Cook: The Ultimate Guide 

Last Updated on June 18, 2022 by ashleighsatlas

Trying to decide if you should do the Red Tarns Track in Mount Cook?

I’d never heard of the Red Tarns Track, until I was planning a trip to Mt Cook. One of my friends recommended it to me, and as someone who loves trying and reviewing everything, I added it to my Mt Cook bucket list

Wondering if I thought Red Tarns is worth doing? 

Keep reading for my Ultimate Guide to the Red Tarns Track:

  • FAQ + top tips
  • Honest Red Tarns Track review
  • How to get there
  • Best Mt Cook Accommodation 
  • Best things to do nearby 

RELATED: Ultimate Mt Cook Travel Guide, 7 Best Mount Cook Walks, 9 Best Things to Do In Mt Cook

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FAQ + TOP TIPS 

Distance: 4.8km (the DOC website is wrong)

Time: 1.5 to 2 hours 

Round track or one way: Round trip via same track   

Elevation gain: 300m

Difficulty: Easy/medium 

How long is the Red Tarns Track?

The Red Tarns Track in Mount Cook is 4.8km return. (The DOC website is wrong and says it’s 300m. They obviously meant to say 300m elevation). 

DOC says it’s two hours return. I found it was much quicker than this. It took me 45 minutes up and 30 minutes down. (But I did skip the first section of the walk. Read the HOW TO GET THERE section below for directions on how I did this). 

You will also want to allow time to enjoy the views and take photos at the top. 

How difficult is the Red Tarns Track Mount Cook? 

The Red Tarns Track is easy/medium difficulty. There are a lot of steps and it’s uphill (or downhill) the whole time. There aren’t really any flat sections. It’s easier than Sealy Tarns though, which is about double the elevation. 

It was easier than I was expecting. If you have reasonable fitness, you will be fine. 

If you’re not very fit or experienced with walking, you may find it a bit challenging. If you’re looking for something less hilly, I recommend the Hooker Valley Track and the Tasman Glacier Walk (you should do these anyway). 

When is the best time to do the Red Tarns Track in Mount Cook?

You can do the Red Tarns Track in Mount Cook any time of the year. I recommend going in Summer or Autumn, so you don’t miss out on the other best walks in Mt Cook that you can’t do in Winter (like the Sealy Tarns and Ball Hut Route to Tasman Glacier).

But my friends went in Winter at sunset and their photos of the Red Tarns Track look amazing. It was much snowier (and prettier!) than when I went in May when there wasn’t much snow on the mountains. 

If you want good photos, I recommend avoiding the middle of the day and going for sunrise or sunset. I went during the middle of the day and the light was very harsh.

Best places to take photos on Red Tarns Track?

There are beautiful views the whole way up the track, but these are my two favourite viewpoints:

1. Red Tarns reflections: Once you get to the summit, you will see a sign for the Red Tarns. There is a very short loop track, which goes around the tarn (alpine lake). There are lovely views from the picnic bench where you can get photos of Mt Cook reflecting in the tarn.

2. Views of Mt Cook and village: There are nice views of Mt Cook and the village at the summit where the information sign is, but I prefer the views just off the loop track. When you are walking to the tarns, you will see a well-worn path that goes to a little clearing. This spot has beautiful views overlooking Mt Cook village and Mt Cook. The views are basically the same as the main spot with the information sign, but there is more space if you want a photo with you in it. 

Red Tarns v Sealy Tarns?

I much preferred Sealy Tarns over Red Tarns. Sealy Tarns has incredible views of Mt Cook and the glacier lakes. It’s one of my favourite walks in Mt Cook that you shouldn’t miss. 

Red Tarns still has pretty views, but they’re not as incredible as Sealy Tarns. If you have time, I’d recommend doing both. But if you can only choose one, I’d definitely choose Sealy Tarns.  

Can you take dogs on the Red Tarns Track? 

No, you can’t take dogs on the Red Tarns Track. 

RED TARNS TRACK REVIEW: IS IT WORTH DOING? 

Honestly, I thought the Red Tarns Track was overrated. 

When I first get to the tarns, my first impression was: is that it? It’s just a puddle. When you walk around the corner to the other side of the tarn, you will see a beautiful reflection of Mt Cook on the lake. It was beautiful, but probably not as beautiful as I expected. 

It’s quite a different perspective to any of the other walks in Mt Cook. You are further away from the mountains, and you’re looking down on the Mt Cook Village and the whole valley, with the mountains far away in the background. 

Overall, it’s a nice walk, but there are better walks in Mt Cook. If you have spare time I would do it, but if you have limited time I wouldn’t prioritise it (do Sealy Tarns, Hooker Valley Track and the Ball Hut Walk instead). 

HOW TO GET TO RED TARNS TRACK?  

The Red Tarns Track officially starts at the Mt Cook Village Public Shelter on Bowen Drive in Mt Cook Village (marked on the map above). There is a small carpark which is free. 

The first part of the Red Tarns Track is quite boring and just goes through the bush next to the village. 

I decided to skip this bit (I was also very tired after three days of walks in Mt Cook), and found another unofficial carpark that was closer to the swing bridge where the Red Tarns Track properly starts.

It was a small carpark on Kitchener Rd, which I’ve marked on the map above. I’ve also marked (in yellow) the shortcut from the carpark to the swing bridge, which just follows along the river on a well-formed track.

If you want to add on an extra loop, you can do the Governors Bush Track which starts at the main carpark (Mt Cook Village Public Shelter) and joins back up with the Red Tarns Track. I didn’t do this because I thought it looked quite boring, just going through standard New Zealand bush. 

There is no public transport to Mt Cook, so the best way to get there is driving. The nearest airports are Queenstown and Christchurch. If you need a rental car I recommend using rentalcars.com. I find it overwhelming trying to compare all the rental car companies, and rentalcars.com does it all for you in one place. 

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MOUNT COOK ACCOMMODATION 

I recommend staying in the Mt Cook Village. The accommodation is very expensive and there are only a few options, but it’s worth it. 

The weather in Mt Cook is very changeable, so it’s worth staying in the village so you can see when there is a break in the weather (and have somewhere to hang out when you’re waiting for the clouds to leave). There are also beautiful views of Mt Cook from the village. 

There are also a few beautiful luxury boutique hotels with amazing views of Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook. Just be aware they are about a 40-minute drive from Mt Cook Village. 

You could also stay in Twizel or Lake Tekapo. Personally I don’t love Twizel (it’s a fairly uncharming small town), but Lake Tekapo is one of my favourite places in New Zealand

Looking for the best places to stay in Mt Cook?

  • Hermitage HotelThe Hermitage Hotel is the best and most luxurious place to stay in the Mt Cook Village, and also has incredible food. 
  • Aoraki Court MotelI stayed here on my last trip, because the room had a spa bath and I wanted cooking facilities. It was a lovely modern apartment, and I would definitely recommend it and stay again. It’s in the Mt Cook Village.
  • Mt Cook Lakeside RetreatBeautiful luxury boutique hotel on Lake Pukaki. 
  • Lakestone Lodge TekapoAnother beautiful luxury boutique hotel on Lake Pukaki. 

BEST THINGS TO DO NEARBY? 

Looking for other things to do in Mt Cook? Read my guides to find the best things to add to your bucket list:

Planning a trip to other places in the South Island? Read my Ultimate Destination Guides for: 

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