An Ode to the Hooker Valley Track: The Best Hike I've Ever Been On

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THE HOOKER VALLEY TRACK

When I dreamed about going to New Zealand, I dreamed of Milford Sound. That was the pinnacle of what I thought New Zealand had to offer, and I intentionally placed as the very last thing we would do on our trip. I mean, it’s called the eighth wonder of the world, how could something top that!?

No offense to Milford Sound, but our experience with Mt. Cook National Park, specifically the Hooker Valley Track, was the most memorable part of our trip to New Zealand.

FAKE SCENERY

To understand why this hike is so special, you have to understand a little more about what makes New Zealand so special. Individually, the pieces of nature that make New Zealand are beautiful, but it’s the way in which they are particularly combined in New Zealand that makes the country so special. Lots of places have incredible lakes, or really tall mountains, or uniquely colored scenery. In New Zealand, you can experience just about every combination of nature you can dream of. Driving through the country forces you to encounter views that seem fake. You’re driving along a lake and the color looks like someone went on Photoshop and turned up the saturation just a little too high. You look into the mountains and see a glacier while you are walking through a rainforest. The whole thing just feels like our Creator got a little cocky with what He was putting together.

LAKE PUKAKI

Lake Pukaki could be alternately titled “The Gatorade Lake”

Lake Pukaki could be alternately titled “The Gatorade Lake”

Driving to Mt. Cook National Park means you drive by Lake Pukaki. To drive by Lake Pukaki is to have the experience of your eyes deceiving you. As we drove along highway 8, an electric blue river jumps out at you even before you’ve seen the lake. It goes by so quickly that it feels like your brain made it up, but then you reach Lake Pukaki and you realize that, yes, the lake really is that color. It looks like someone emptied the lake and filled it with Gatorade. Off in the distance you get your first glimpse of Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. We spent awhile skipping rocks into the pond so that we could fully take in the lake. Braver souls than I were swimming in the freezing cold water, and their heads stood out in the contrast of the still blue lake.

The drive along Lake Pukaki to Mt. Cook National Park was one of my favorite drives I’ve ever taken. Mt. Cook looms in the distance as you wind your way through empty roads with mountains in every direction. As a photographer, I felt obligated to jump out at every scenic pull off (much to the casual annoyance of my friends) and I never got tired of enjoying the scenery.

THE HIKE

The best part about hiking in New Zealand is also one of the more interesting things about Mt. Cook to me. Mt. Cook seems enormous to the naked eye. It looks as big as any mountain I’ve seen. Officially, it’s only 12,218 feet tall, which would make it barely notable within any mountain range in Colorado. That height comes almost straight out of sea level though, which means that as you hike in New Zealand you’re never experiencing the oxygen deficit that hiking at elevation causes. Don’t get me wrong, I had no thoughts of trying to summit Mt. Cook. But, the elevation makes all hiking in New Zealand incredibly pleasant.

The other thing that’s so great about Hooker Valley that is also true about a lot of New Zealand hikes is that the effort to view ratio works out in the hiker’s favor. There are a lot of places on earth with incredible sights, but so many of those are locked behind day long hikes and stuck in high elevations in foreboding mountain ranges. Hooker Valley was a three hour hike with hardly any elevation change that was beautiful the entire time. I’m a late in life hiking convert, and my guiding philosophy is that I want whatever I see at the end to exceed the journey to get there. Let me tell you, the Hooker Valley journey was beautiful even without Mt. Cook and a glacial lake at the end.

 

HOOKER VALLEY WAS A THREE HOUR HIKE WITH HARDLY ANY ELEVATION CHANGE THAT WAS BEAUTIFUL THE ENTIRE TIME.


My favorite time to hike is towards the end of the day, and that’s for two reasons:

  1. YOU CAN’T BEAT EVENING LIGHT.

    Taking pictures in the middle of the day is incredibly difficult, and when the sun is high in the sky the mountains can look hazy and distant. Once that sun starts to get low on the horizon and get covered by clouds or the mountain peaks, it feels like the light changes in a valley every 10 minutes.

  2. YOU CAN ESCAPE THE CROWDS

    Most tourists start the hike early in the day because they are worried about losing light, so the trail gets real quiet and you can experience nature in more solitude.

 
Hooker Valley at 4:30pm.

Hooker Valley at 4:30pm.

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I convinced my friends to start the hike at 4:30pm, and I was nervous that even that was too early. We started hiking with the wind whipping through the valley and the sun creating a haze on the mountains. By the time we got to the first suspension bridge we were holding on to our hats and fighting the wind to take steps forward.

I’ve never seen a country that uses suspension bridges and boardwalks on hikes like New Zealand does. Every hike we did had a well kept trail and a gorgeous suspension bridge spanning a river. Hooker Valley had three, and every time we got to one I got excited to get across it.

When you first come around the bend and see Mt. Cook framed by the valley, the view is breathtaking. This hike had a hallmark of all my favorite hikes: you can see the destination the entire time. So many hikes leave you staring at your feet or the trees waiting for a break in the foliage for a view of the destination. I was able to spend the entire hike with my eyes locked on Mt. Cook. If I wasn’t looking there, I was looking at the waterfalls coming down the mountain to the left. I also spent most of the hike trying to figure out how there was a perpetual cloud rolling down the mountain that was always moving and yet never formed more clouds or dissipated. Nature is incredible, and it all points me back to the Creator.

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THE CREATOR

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but only recently have I started to have an appreciation for God’s role as Creator. I’ve read Genesis 1 and was taught as a kid that God created the world, but that reality comes to a head when I’m in nature. God created all of this out of nothing. All of our greatest human works of art are inspired by something, based off a model or adding to and reinventing some pre-existing thing. In nature, the uncreated Creator builds a world for no other reason than His Glory, with no other inspiration than Himself. When you look out at the world and see beauty, you are seeing the face of God.

I look at myself as a landscape photographer, but when I’m taking pictures of nature I’m a portrait photographer too. I get the privilege of capturing who God is as he expresses his divine nature in mountains and lakes and trees and rivers. He is in all of those things, and as I watched the golden light change in Hooker Valley, I felt the presence of my Creator.

 

IN NATURE, THE UNCREATED CREATOR BUILDS A WORLD FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN HIS GLORY.


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LIGHT

We rounded the last bend of the hike and finally got our view of the lake at the base of the mountain. Again, it felt fake. There was a waterfall feeding water from the glacier into the lake. There were giant pieces of glacier ice sitting in the lake even at the height of the summer. That ice washes up to the shore and you can pick it up and hold it. My one regret from this hike is that I didn’t grab my water and take a drink from the glacier water. I’m sure it would’ve tasted incredible.

As we sat and appreciated the view, I realized the sun was just about to go behind the mountains. The hardest part about being a landscape photographer is patience. Everybody wants to just roll up to a scenic view in the middle of the day and take a great picture, but all the best photographers I know are willing to wait for the perfect shot. I figured it might take 15 or 20 minutes for the sun to go behind the peaks, so I waited. It was worth it. The light changed and the valley lit up like it hadn’t yet, and I felt the rush of the presence of my Creator as I enjoyed the mountains He made for His glory.

That change in light made the hike back even better than the hike there. We got to see every view we had just seen, but it looked totally different. I kept sneaking looks back at Mt. Cook, telling myself, “This one will be my last picture”. It was never true, and that mountain was always beautiful.

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My favorite moment from the hike came from one of those looks back. I spent the vast majority of the hike stopping, taking a picture, and then sprinting back up to catch up with my friends. I ran what felt like a mile trying to catch up after these photo stops. I would’ve run 5 more miles if it meant I got to see more of this valley.

I happened to look back at one of the ridges, and I see the light slowly moving across it. I stop for a second and take a picture, not really thinking much about it. Just a little bit later, I stopped to take another picture and the light was gone. The ridge was dark.

For that moment, God lit up the ridge just for me, and I couldn’t help but worship Him for it.

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FOR THAT MOMENT, GOD LIT UP THE RIDGE JUST FOR ME, AND I COULDN’T HELP BUT WORSHIP HIM FOR IT.


COMMUNITY

Getting to share this hike with some of my wife and I’s closest friends thousands of miles away from our ordinary home of Kansas City made these moments so special. We got to walk and talk and worship together. The girls got to enjoy time in nature, and my friend Tim and I got to climb on some rocks as the light went behind the peaks. If it’s true that God created nature for His glory and our pleasure, it’s also true that he created humans to live in community with other humans. Sharing our lives in the presence of other humans multiplies the joy that we experience doing anything. Hooker Valley was special because the light and the mountains and lakes were there, but New Zealand was special because our friends were there with us.

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SHARING OUR LIVES IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHER PEOPLE MULTIPLIES OUR JOY.


SUNSET

One of the best part about doing a hike late in the evening is the drive back. The drive there was special, but getting to see the same scenery colored by pink clouds and fading light changed the entire experience on the way back. Here are a few pictures from the drive.


THE BEST HIKE.

To quote a famous poet, Andy Bernard:

“I WISH THERE WAS A WAY TO KNOW YOU’RE IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS BEFORE YOU’VE ACTUALLY LEFT THEM.”

This was just one of those days where I knew it was special while I was in it, and it was such a gift to have experienced it. I love God more because I did this hike, and it was my favorite hike I have ever done.

Cory ThomasonComment