The Complete Guide to Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier

TripSavvy / Angelina Pilarinos

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Franz Josef / Waiau

Franz Josef / Waiau 7886, New Zealand

One of New Zealand's most popular adventure destinations is Franz Josef Glacier. Located on the western coast of the country's South Island, not far from the town that shares its name, the glacier stretches for more than 7 miles across Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Starting in the remote and rugged peaks of the Southern Alps and descending to the wild and untamed shores of the ocean, the park is one of the best outdoor playgrounds that the South Island has to offer. There, the glacier is just one of many attractions, but it is definitely a "can't-miss" for any outdoor enthusiast.

What Is Franz Josef Glacier

Dubbed Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (the tears of Hine Hukatere) by the local Māori, the glacier was first surveyed by Europeans in 1865. A German explorer by the name of Julius von Haast named it for the emperor of Austria at the time. In the years since, the glacier has waxed and waned in size, in part due to climate change, but also because of the varying amounts of meltwater that is available at its base, which is directly related to the amount of snowfall in the high mountains each year.

Because it changes in size quite regularly, both growing and shirking over time, the glacier is one of the fastest moving ice fields on the planet, shifting an average of 1.6 feet (a half-meter) each and every day. That happens to be incredibly fast for a glacier, and because of this, natural ice caves, crevasses, tunnels, and other unique features tend to form across the region. This has led to Franz Josef Glacier becoming a popular tourist destination amongst trekkers and adventurers looking to go for a hike across the glacier's vast expanse of snow and ice.

Hikers walk along the edge of a crevasse.
Glenn van der Knijff/Getty

Things to Do

The most popular activities involving Franz Josef Glacier include guided hikes and aerial flyovers of the location. Either way, visitors are likely to take an airplane or helicopter flight to take in the sights, as it isn't possible to get directly onto the glacier any other way.

That said, travelers can choose to hike from the parking lot up the glacier valley, which is rocky and moderately challenging, but not overly difficult. The walk takes about 90 minutes round trip and approaches the edge of the glacier itself. This hike doesn't give visitors the chance to walk on the glacial ice, but it does allow them to explore the beautiful landscape in the shadow of the icy wall.

In order to actually stand on the glacier, a helicopter flight is required. Heli-hikes traditionally take trekkers up above the first icefall, giving them the opportunity to get out and walk around on the snow and ice. These trips can be booked over the Internet of course, or onsite in the town of Franz Josef. From there, helicopters can fly both guided and independent hikers alike, safely shuttling them to and from the glacier. If you're going it alone, be sure to bring an ice axe and crampons along for your walk, as both pieces of gear are mandatory. If you're signing up for a guided hike, the outfitter should provide all of the tools that you'll need.

For those who would rather not hike on the glacier, but still want to check it out for themselves, aerial tours are common. Generally lasting two to three hours, the flights are conducted aboard helicopters and airplanes. Those vehicles provide a bird's-eye view of Franz Josef Glacier, and the beautiful landscapes of the national park, from inside a warm and comfortable setting.

Those who are truly adventurous may opt to camp on the glacier overnight. Such an outing can be quite chilly, especially when sleeping directly on the ice. But, it is an adventure unlike any other, with a quiet and peaceful setting that comes with a brilliant night sky overhead.

A hiker stands at the end of an ice cave on Franz Josef Glacier.
Bo Tornvig/Getty

When to Visit Franz Josef Glacier

Thanks to a relatively mild and temperate climate, Franz Josef Glacier is relatively accessible all year long. That said, during the summer months, which run from late December to late March, the crowds on the glacier can get quite large at times. This is especially true on the weekends, when popular hiking routes are filled with travelers and the best tour companies tend to be booked solid.

If you don't happen to mind being outside in the cold, and have the proper gear to keep you warm, the glacier is actually best visited during the winter. That season runs from late June through late September, which is unsurprisingly the absolute quietest time in the region. Not only are the trails empty and the tour operators looking for customers, but the town of Franz Josef can feel somewhat deserted. If you're looking to avoid the crowds and score a better deal on a heli-hike, plan your trip to coincide with the winter season.

Tips for Travelers

  • Hiking on the glacier is generally as safe and easy as hiking on any snow-covered trail. That said, there are times when conditions can be a bit more challenging and wearing crampons may be necessary. Knowing how to maneuver in those traction devices ahead of time may eliminate some awkwardness and allow you to enjoy yourself more.
  • While taking a helicopter out to the glacier is quite the adventure, driving to the parking lot and hiking yourself can save a considerable amount of money. Sure, you won't actually stand on the glacier itself, but you'll still get to enjoy its epic setting.
  • For a quieter, less crowded, experience, start your hike early in the day. If you're on the trail by 7 a.m., you'll get out ahead of the larger crowds and before the helicopter flights begin. Once those flights commence for the day, they usually occur about one per minute, which can be a bit disruptive for anyone hoping for some solitude on the trail.
  • Conversely, if you're staying in Franz Josef for two days, it is possible to find the trail quite empty later in the day. Arrive a couple of hours before sunset to start your walk and you just might be surprised at how few people are actually there.
  • There are quite a few free hiking trails in and around Franz Josef. If you like to hike and are seeking some time to yourself, those other trails are often empty. We recommend the Roberts Point Trek, which is on the challenging side but pays persistent hikers back with a stunning view at the end.
  • If you're taking a heli-tour, be sure to book your reservation well in advance and try to get on one of the early morning flights. That way, if rain cancels the flight, there is still a good chance the weather will improve later in the day, allowing you to still make the trip.
  • Rain is very common in the Franz Josef region, so be sure to bring rain gear no matter which season you visit. That includes rain pants and a jacket.
  • Bring good hiking boots as well. Whether you're hiking to the glacier from the parking lot or catching a lift aboard a helicopter, having the right shoes will make a big difference. Waterproof boots are a must at all times, but having good traction and support are important too.
  • After you're done with a long day of hiking, head over to the Glacier Hot Pools for a relaxing soak in the hot springs. You'll have earned it at that point and you'll be more than ready to warm up some too.
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The Complete Guide to Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand