Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

Last Updated: 28th September, 2023

Nestled in the heart of the rugged Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is the incredible Sealy Tarns Track. This challenging day-hike, jokingly referred to as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, climbs 2,200 steps up into the rugged alpine mountain range, and offers some of the most breathtaking views over the Hooker Valley below. In this article, I cover all you need to know before hiking the Sealy Tarns Track, including the best time to go, how to get there, and what to expect on the trail!

the Sealy Tarns viewpoint, Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

An Overview to Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track

The Sealy Tarns Track is one of the most popular (and challenging) day-hiking trails in Mt Cook National Park, in the Canterbury region of the South Island. This is a relatively short-but-steep track into the rugged mountain ranges, and offers some of the most incredible views over the surrounding alpine landscape, including the iconic Aoraki/ Mt Cook! The tail begins near the Mt Cook Village, and ascends a series of switchbacks until it reaches the beautiful Sealy Tarns.

What is a Tarn?

A tarn is a small mountain lake or pool found in alpine environments. They are usually filled with incredibly clear (and cold!) water from melting snow and rainfall, and have been carved out by glaciers!

Sealy Tarns Track Stats

  • Track Distance: 5.8km / 3.6 miles
  • Walking Time: 3-4 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 600 meters
  • Number of Steps: 2,200 steps!
  • Terrain: Well-maintained gravel track and lots of stairs!
  • Difficulty: Intermediate, with a good level of fitness required

Sealy Tarns Track Map

Sealy Tarns Track Elevation

The Sealy Tarns Viewpoint sits at an elevation of 1,296m, and the track itself has an elevation gain of around 600 meters. The trail starts off relatively flat for the first 1km as it makes its way through alpine tussock to the foothills of Mount Sealy, before beginning the steep ascent up the the Sealy Tarns. This ascent mostly consists of steps, making it (slightly) easier to climb!

Walking down the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

How hard is the Sealy Tarns Track?

The Sealy Tarns Track is a moderately difficult half-day hike in the Mt Cook National Park, and an awesome challenge for beginner hikers with a good level of fitness!

The Sealy Tarns Track is steep, and once you start climbing the Sealy Ridge then there is almost no flat track to give your burning thighs a break! The trail itself is technically very easy, with a well-maintained gravel path and steps, and so the walk is suitable for anyone who can climb uphill for an hour or so.

Tip: If you like the idea of hiking the Sealy Tarns Track but are not sure if you’re up for the climb, you can test yourself on the stunning Red Tarns Track! This trail is about half the elevation, but offers one of the best views over the valley and Aoraki Mt Cook!

Getting to the Start of the Hike

By Car

The Sealy Tarns Track begins at the White Horse Hill Carpark in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. This is only a short 5-minute (3.1km) drive from the Mt Cook National Park Visitors Center. Follow Mt Cook Road out of the Village, before turning left down Hooker Valley Road. This will take you directly to the carpark!

driving towards mt cook national park

Walking from Mt Cook Village

If you aren’t able to drive to the White Horse Hill carpark, or would like to add a little extra to your hike, then there is a lovely short walk that heads from the Mt Cook Village to the carpark through sub-alpine tussock and scrub. This track takes around 30-minutes one way, so add around an hour return to your walking time.

There is a number of other hikes that begin from the White Horse Hill campground, with one of the most popular ones being the Hooker Valley Track! This beautiful half-day hike travels into the Hooker Valley and to the stunning glacier lake at the base of Aoraki Mt Cook, and is an easier option if you are looking for a less-challenging walk.

What is the Best Time to Hike the Sealy Tarns Track?

The Sealy Tarns Track is a hike that is able to be walked year-round, however it can be a very different experience whether you are hiking it during the summer or winter months! It is also best on a clear day, so you can enjoy the incredible views over the valley from the Sealy Tarns Viewpoint.

view over the valley in mt cook national park

Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track in the Summer

  • Weather: Summer in New Zealand spans from December to February, and is typically the warmest time of the year! The weather in Mt Cook National Park can be beautiful and hot, with temperatures getting up to 25°C.
  • Trail Conditions: The trail is likely to be less challanging and less slippery during summer. Most of the snow and ice at lower elevations has melted, making it easier to navigate. However, higher sections of the track might still have lingering snow!
  • Daylight Hours: Summer days a a lot longer, meaning there are more daylight hours to spend exploring the national park!
  • Crowds: Summer is peak tourist season in New Zealand, and so this popular track can get quite crowded!

Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track in the Winter

  • Weather: Winter in New Zealand spans from June to August. If you are looking at hiking during winter, be prepared for extremely cold temperatures with daytime highs ranging from 0°C to 10°C or even lower, with the temperature dropping into the negatives overnight.
  • Trail Conditions: Hiking in winter can be significantly more challenging due to the presence of snow and ice, especially in the upper sections of the trail. Proper winter hiking gear and experience in snowy conditions are essential.
  • Daylight Hours: The days are shorter in winter, so plan your hike accordingly to ensure you have enough daylight for your trek.

You can check in at the Visitors Center for the most recent forecast before beginning your hike, or, if you’re in the area for a couple of days, they can advise you on the best time to do the Sealy Tarns hike!

We hiked the Sealy Tarns Track in January, the peak of summer! It was beautiful and green, and the sun was oh-so-hot! However, as we got further up the track and arrived at the tarns, there was suddenly snow and ice on the path – a good reminder of how quick the environment can change in the mountains, and how you should be prepared for all kinds of weather, no matter the season!

What to Expect when Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track

Beginning from White Horse Hill Campground

We started the Sealy Tarns Track at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few minutes drive from the village. This campground has a huge parking area and a couple of useful amenities, including a lovely clean toilet block, and treated drinking water! It’s an awesome idea to fill up on water here before heading out, as this is the only source along the trail.

beginning of the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand, at the white horse hill campground

The path begins, sharing the first section with the Kea Point Walkway (another awesome walk in in the area!). The track is a nice wide gravel path, that is relatively flat as it travels through the alpine tussock and wildflowers that cover the landscape. Ahead of you are incredible views over Mt Sefton and the beginning of Mount Sealy – where you’ll be walking up!

alpine flowers on the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

It’s a really well signposted track, and after 750m you will reach a junction with the Kea Point Walkway. Follow the path around to the left, and now you are on the official Sealy Tarns Track! The gravel path continues, and begins a gentle uphill climb into the bush.

Kea Point track and Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

Time for some Steps!

Soon, you pass a bench which marks the beginning of the infamous Sealy Tarn steps! Take a minute to have a sip of water and a snack, before you start climbing the challenging 2,200 steps to reach the top. I’m not going to sugar coat this for you – the rest of this walk is almost entirely uphill, and your thighs will be burning! The steps are well-maintained but can be pretty steep in places, and we definitely had to have lots of rest stops along the way.

stairs on the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

The great thing about the steps, however, is that you gain elevation quickly, which is a good motivator! The scenery changes constantly as you climb, with views stretching out over the Mueller Glacier Lake and along the Valley.

As you climb higher and higher, the more beautiful and vast the views will be – a great excuse to take your time and take lots of breaks along the way. One of my favourite stops was when we turned around and realised that we could see all the way over the moraine ridge and to the famous Hooker Lake!

view of hooker valley and hooker lake from Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

Reaching the Sealy Tarns Viewpoint

After a kilometer or so of climbing up and up these never-ending (it seems!) stairs, the path starts to slowly flatten out. Soon, the stairs give way to some flat track, and you can breath a sigh of relief as you are nearly at the tarns!

The track follows the ridge, and arrives at the beautiful mountain lake. If your lucky and it’s a calm day, you will get some incredible reflections of the surrounding mountains in the lakes glassy surface!

sealy tarns and viewpoint at the top of the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

The scenery from the Sealy Tarns Viewpoint is just incredible, and it was worth every thigh-burning step to get to experience those views! There are a couple of benches along the lookout point, so its the perfect place to relax and have a much-deserved snack while taking in the magnificent sights.

Heading Back Down

The hike back down the track to White Horse Hill Campground is a lot faster than the ascent, and the best part is you can enjoy the views the whole time! It took us around 45-minutes at a pretty steady pace, and we felt so elated the whole trip back!

view down the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

Continue the Hike to Mueller Hut

Sealy Tarns is the halfway point for the incredible Mueller Hut Track! This challenging track winds further and further up into the craggy ridges of Mt Sealy until you reach Mueller Hut. This track can be completed as a whole day hike, or (more commonly) you can book an overnight stay in the hut, before heading back down the next day.

muller hut, continuing on from the Sealy Tarns Track, New Zealand

Additional Tips for Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track

Check the Weather!

The weather in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park can change very rapidly, turning from bright sunshine and blue skies to a cloudy and freezing in a flash. This is an alpine environment, and so strong winds, snowfall, and rapid temperature changes can occur at any time. Its important to be prepared for any weather, and check in at the Mt Cook National Park Visitor Center before starting off!

Packing List for the Sealy Tarns Track

This is a challenging half-day walk up into the mountains in Mt Cook National Park, and so its important to be prepared. Here is a basic guide to what to bring while hiking the Sealy Tarns Track:


  • A Backpack
  • A drink bottle – at least 1 litre!
  • Lots of Snacks – high energy ones like nut bars are fantastic!
  • A fully-charged mobile phone
  • Sunscreen (because that sun can be strong!)


  • Wear comfortable hiking gear – a top and pants
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • A sun hat and a beanie
  • A long-sleeved warm top as an extra layer
  • A wind and water-proof jacket

What to wear for Hiking the Sealy Tarns Track

No matter whether you are hiking in summer or winter, its vital to bring layers! We did the walk in the middle of summer, on a beautiful and sunny day. It was incredibly hot, and I was sweating like crazy wearing a t-shirt. However, as we neared the top of the hike, the temperature dropped rapidly, and I found myself scrambling to put on warm clothing and a beanie!

What Shoes should you Wear?

If you are just hiking up to the Sealy Tarns Viewpoint, the path is excellent and very well-maintained, and during summer you could easily walk it in trainers. However, if you are deciding to walk the path in the winter months (or after a bit of rain) it is best to wear proper hiking shoes, as the path can get a bit more slippery. You may even need traction devices if the path is icy – it’s best to ask at the Visitors Center if you are unsure.

Thank you for reading my post on hiking the Sealy Tarns Track. It is an awesome (if challenging) hike, and one of my favourite things to do in the Mt Cook National Park!

If you are looking for other awesome walks to do around Mt Cook National Park, then why not check out my post on hiking the Hooker Valley Track! This track begins in the same spot as the Sealy Tarns, and heads into the stunning Hooker Valley. This walk is a lot easier, and gives you some incredible views along the way!

Alternatively, if you are keen to explore more of the surrounding Mackenzie Basin and the nearby towns, then check out my posts on the nearby Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo! Each of these areas are awesome to visit, and have a number of cool things to do and see when you’re there!

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