Located on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island are the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers – probably the most famous of the country’s many glaciers. In this handy guide, we’ll explain all about how to spend a couple of days exploring these incredible natural landscapes – including enjoying heli-hiking on the glacier itself, and our thoughts on the popular question of whether to visit Franz Josef or Fox Glacier.
Affectionately known as ‘Glacier Country’, this region of New Zealand is one not to miss – the glaciers themselves are pretty incredible, but so are the stunning alpine landscapes, lakes, lush rainforests and impressive coastlines. We drove down to this area from Hokitika, around a 2.5 hour coastal drive along the glacier highway until we reached the little town of Franz Josef. The drive itself was incredible, so if you’re road tripping make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to pull over (safely!) and take pictures on your journey to the glaciers.
Hike Franz Josef Glacier – Easy Trails
Having done some prior research around the prices and experiences of heli-hiking, which we knew we wanted to do, we had decided to heli-hike Fox Glacier and simply enjoy some walks around Franz Josef Glacier. If you’re heading from North to South, you’ll reach Franz Josef first, a small town which pretty much exists to support local tourism to the glacier itself.
Franz Josef glacier is 12km long and descends from the Southern Alps down to almost sea level, through rain forest landscapes and mountains. Its Maori name is Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (‘The tears of Hine Hukatere’), and is named for the legend in which Wawe, the inexperienced climber and lover of Hukatere, was swept to his death by an avalanche in the mountains. The tears shed by Hukatere following the death of her love flowed down the mountain and resulted in the formation of the glacier.
We enjoyed a couple of hikes around Franz Josef Glacier – the first being the Franz Josef Glacier Walk, which takes you up close to the glacier itself past some impressive waterfalls and mountain scenery. It’s an easy walk, mostly flat with a couple of short steep slopes as you get closer to the end of the trail, and takes around 1.5 hours return. After this, we took the Douglas Walk, which is just an hour return but passes through a lake with great reflections of the glacier on a clear day and winds its way through pretty woodland and forest landscapes.
End your day exploring with a trip to ‘The Landing’ – a cosy pub in the centre of town which serves up amazing mulled wine, the perfect drink for glacier country!
It is possible to heli hike Franz Josef, but from what we understood the prices are similar and when it comes to deciding whether to heli hike Franz Josef or Fox Glacier most people say that the experience is more unique and off the beaten track on Fox, which appealed to us.
Heli – Hiking Fox Glacier – Expensive but Awesome
Now, this is one of our all time trip highlights, and although it’s expensive, it’s 100% worth it for such an awesome experience. We paid $425 / £240 each for a four hour heli hiking experience. It’s by far the most expensive single trip we’ve taken on our round the world trip so far, and it’s honestly some of the best money we’ve spent. We chose to heli hike Fox Glacier as it’s a little cheaper than Franz Josef and the tour routes are decided on the day based on conditions, as opposed to following a single track, meaning you have the chance to see a range of different glacier features depending on the route of the day. These are the sorts of things you’ll need to consider when choosing between Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, or if you’re made of money I’d recommend trying both!
The day starts with a safety briefing, providing that the guides have judged the weather to provide safe enough conditions for the tour to go ahead, where you’re kitted out with your walking boots and any other gear you need. We took our own rucksacks and waterproofs but you can borrow these if you need to. Once you’ve got your gear it’s time to head to the heli pad to catch a ride up to the glacier. This was AMAZING! Seriously, even just the helicopter ride was worth the money – as you fly through the mountains, past waterfalls and over rivers to land James Bond style on Fox glacier. As you look down to find your landing spot it seems like it would be impossible to perch a helicopter anywhere on the ice, but sure enough, your helicopter lands between a couple of strategically placed rocks that somehow signal the presence of a helipad.
Climbing out of the helicopter, you’re given your crampons – essential gear for ice hiking, and are taught how to walk with them on so you can grip onto the ice. Hint: It involves a lot of stamping! The hike itself lasts around 3 hours, as your guide uses a pick axe to carve out a fresh path for you to explore. Expect to see intricate archways, caves of blue ice and icy rivers making their way down across Fox glacier – all surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery. The hiking itself isn’t too strenuous – and it’s inspired us to visit somewhere like Denali in Alaska where we can try some more challenging ice hiking, but it’s really fun and you have plenty of opportunities to admire the scenery and take awesome pictures. We had all ages in our group – from a 7 year old to a 68 year old, so it’s definitely suitable for travellers of all ages.
Once your hiking on Fox Glacier is done, it’s time for another helicopter ride back to Fox village. Those helicopters kick up ice chips at great speeds so the group must huddle together on the ground as it lands back on the glacier, ready for your ride back home.
Overall, when it comes to selecting between Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, we’d recommend considering things like price, location, weather conditions and forecasts, whether you want a simpler or a more challenging experience and of course, reading lots of reviews to help you make your mind up.
Exploring Lake Matheson – Mount Cook Reflections
Once you’ve finished hiking Fox Glacier, you’re a short hop away from the famous Lake Matheson. Our final trip in Glacier country was to this amazing spot – just a 5 minute drive from our campsite in the centre of Fox. It’s renowned for providing exceptionally beautiful reflections of Mount Cook in its surface if you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear, still day.
We had great luck in terms of weather. The mountain ranges were clearly visible and the sun was shining, but unfortunately the water was a little too choppy to get the best reflections. It was still worth a visit though, and it’s a pleasant hour’s hike around the lake, with plenty of view points along the way. Even without the famous reflection, the alpine landscapes are stunning.
After an amazing couple of days exploring Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, we continued on our South Island driving itinerary, ready for our next stop in Wanaka!