Visiting the Franz Josef Glacier – New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier

Did you know that glaciers abound in New Zealand? Most people don’t know, but New Zealand has 21 large, named glaciers. However, in total, New Zealand has over 3,000 glaciers, most of which are in the Southern Alps of the southern island.

Within these Southern Alps, two glaciers even have towns named after them: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.  These two glaciers are two of the most easily accessible glaciers in the world and many travel the world just to see them.

I recently visited the Franz Josef Glacier within New Zealand’s Westland Tai Poutini National Park. We arrived early, not only to beat the crowds, but also because there is limited parking in the area. In order to reach the trailhead to view the glacier, exit the town of Franz Josef, heading south on Highway 6. After crossing the Waiho River, make the first left onto the Franz Josef Glacier Access Road and drive about 2 miles straight to the parking lot at the dead-end. Upon leaving your vehicle, make sure you leave nothing of value in plain sight.

There are a few trails that start at this location, the most popular being the Sentinel Rock walk and the Franz Josef Forest Walk/Glacier Valley Walk.  My family and I trekked out on the latter hike.

The Forest Walk hike and Glacier Valley Walk are essentially the same hike; the first part of the trail, Forest Walk, has smoother terrain and leads to a nice overlook with the glacier in sight. The Glacier Valley Walk is the second part of the trail and starts where the Forest Walk hike ends. The Glacier Valley Walk is on uneven terrain within the valley floor and takes you to the end of the trail, allowing many views of Franz Josef Glacier.

Near the start of the path, there are several informational signs warning visitors of the risks when hiking near a glacier. In addition to suggesting proper clothing and footwear for hikers, potential dangers like rock falls, flooding, and changing weather are explained. Restrooms are available at the start of the trail.

Considering that the Franz Josef Glacier once extended to nearly the beginning of the trail only 150 years ago, I was amazed by the amount of foliage growth. Vegetation is lush during the first half mile of the trek. This area is temperate rainforest with palm trees, mosses, ferns, tutu plants, and plenty of lichen. Westland Tai Poutini National Park receives a high volume of rainfall, yet experiences moderate temperatures, thus creating a unique environment. There are not many places on earth where you walk through a lush, temperate rainforest to see a glacier!

The hike to the overlook area is easy and well trodden. From this viewpoint, you can see the Franz Josef Glacier’s edge. You are also able to see the lateral and terminal moraines of the glacier, showcasing how large the glacier once was.  This glacier actually begins 9,800 feet in the Southern Alps and falls to nearly 980 feet above sea level. Amazingly, the Franz Josef Glacier is over 7 miles long and around 10,000 years old!

Franz Josef Glacier
From the Forest Walk overlook, the Franz Josef Glacier is seen in the distance.

After leaving the overlook, the trail becomes more rugged and is renamed to the Glacier Valley Walk. Here, you are walking on loose rocks and gravel, right in the side of the valley. Be sure to watch your step as the terrain becomes more uneven here. A few areas will reveal waterfalls to visitors if the volume of rain has been sufficient. The hike is also likely to become a bit windier due to the trail being out of the forest cover and more exposed; be sure to bring sufficient clothing to stay warm.

Expect to cross a few small streams and walk over various sized rocks, but the hiking here is easy and doable for able-bodied children and seniors. There are enough visitors here on a daily basis that the paths are in good condition, considering they are simply packed earth and rock. Just remember that as you keep walking towards the Franz Josef Glacier, you still have to walk back to your car. Sometimes it’s easy to overdo the length of your hike on the way out due to excitement or the thrill of discovery, but don’t forget to turn back before you’re too tired. (Especially important for small children and seniors!)

Franz Josef Glacier
Part of the path of the Glacier Valley Walk, with my oldest daughter checking for cellular service!

Within the valley left by the Franz Josef Glacier, you’ll witness the start of a new forest floor with the mosses, lichen, and small vegetation that is seen growing up around the rocks. There was even a bright orange lichen growing on some rocks that provided some color among the rocks and greenery.

Hopefully, when you visit, you will be able to experience the many waterfalls that can occur, with the water falling from up high in the foothills and mountains. We saw several falls up close during our hike.

Franz Josef Glacier

The immense size of the area that the Franz Josef Glacier left behind is hard to comprehend in photos. Being an avid lover of rocks, I hopped off the path and walked into the area left by the retreating glacier to view the types of rocks in the glacial till. I was in absolute awe at the how large that vast expanse was, an area that was once filled with ice.

Franz Josef Glacier
That’s me walking through the glacial till, the rocks and sediment left behind when the Franz Josef Glacier retreated. 

You may hear helicopters while hiking here, as many local touring companies carry visitors on helicopters to the glacier. Helicopters are the only method of transport for getting onto the glacier. If you’re adventurous, you can even take a three-hour guided hike on the Franz Josef Glacier, where you can walk among towering walls of ice, see blue ice, or check out an ice cave. Some tour operators will even assist you to ice climb the glacier! Click here for more info.

Because my vacationing family and I still had to drive to Queenstown on this day, we had to cut our visit to Franz Josef short. Although it seemed like we were walking for a while to get closer to the glacier, it was still a significant distance away. Realizing that we weren’t going to be able to walk to the end of the trail, we took a few more photos and turned back.

Franz Josef Glacier
The view away from the glacier, capturing the colorful rocks, glacial till, and a steady stream of water that becomes the Waiho River.

Having seen other glaciers in Canada and parts of the US, this was definitely a different type of glacial experience. To be so close to the ocean, and then to walk through a relatively young rainforest before coming upon a glacier, was definitely unique. As my family and I were just passing through the area, we only left a few hours open one morning to explore what we could of the Franz Josef Glacier; however, you could easily spend a couple of days exploring. When you visit, be sure to bring good hiking shoes, appropriate clothes for the weather (it will likely be colder near the glacier!), and a desire for adventure!

For more information on the Franz Josef Glacier, click here.

Happy Travels!



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