After spending 8 hours on a bus from Queenstown to Franz Josef, it was time to stretch my legs. Thanks to the early morning departure from Queenstown, I arrived in Franz Josef around 4pm. Since it was Christmas Day, it was one of the longest days of the year, giving me plenty of time to go see Franz Josef Glacier before sunset.
I had looked into getting a bus or taxi to the parking lot where the main hike to Franz Josef Glacier begins, but thanks to the holiday, nothing was running. There is normally a shuttle to cover the 5km distance. I suppose I could have tried hitchhiking since other people were driving to see the glacier, but the walk to the beginning of the trail was only an extra hour each way, and I didn’t mind the exercise after having been on the bus all day. As long as I didn’t dawdle too much, I would make it back to town before it got dark.
After crossing the one-lane bridge across the Waiho River, which drains from the glacier to the Pacific, I began to follow the river south toward the glacier. The path is easy to find, as it is well-marked and paved or packed dirt for the entire walk to the car park.
Even better, large portions of the journey are along a separate trail, so you’re not always walking along the side of a road. The hike & the glacier are part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which is part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The existence of Franz Josef Glacier is remarkable. Rarely can glaciers be found at such low altitudes, especially at these latitudes. While New Zealand is fairly far south, it’s still only at a latitude that is equivalent to the Northern United States or southern France. Currently located just 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the glacier is accessed by following the river for a bit, then passing through a temperate rainforest. Since the rest of the hike has no trees, it’s a source of welcoming shade on a sunny day. When you see trees like these, you don’t usually think of glaciers.
Eventually, I made it to the Franz Josef Glacier Car Park, which is where the real hike to the glacier begins. On my way back through the parking lot, I spotted a unique member of New Zealand’s wildlife, the kea.
Depending on the conditions, you may or may not be able to walk as far as you would like to toward the glacier. The initial parts of the hike are on flat ground, but you can tell that the land has only recently been exposed.
Thanks to the glacier itself & periodic floods, the valley floor is rocky & devoid of plant life. If floods are possible, you will only be able to walk a short way to view the glacier from afar.
Even in the best conditions (which I was fortunate enough to have), it is currently only possible to get to a lookout that is perhaps 100 meters from the glacier. The area is too rocky, narrow, and dangerous to allow anyone to get closer. This takes about an hour and 20 minutes round trip, though if you want to take in the views, relax, and take photos, allow more time than that.
Despite not being allowed to hike past the lookout, it is indeed possible to walk on Franz Josef Glacier. Helicopter tours leaving from the town ferry passengers to and from the glacier all day long. Overall, the existence of these helicopters is, in my opinion, a detraction from the experience. On one hand, the helicopter tours provide jobs for local residents. They also allow visitors to see the glacier up close & experience it in ways that they currently can’t do by hiking.
However, walking along the valley floor, listening only to the rushing Waiho River & the chirping of the local avian residents, the last thing anyone wanting to get close to nature wants to hear is the roar of a helicopter passing overhead. To me, this is a major distraction, and I hate that in order for a handful of people to get the experience they want, they need to make the experience a bit worse for everyone else. There is a sign along the walk explaining the presence of the helicopters that also gives recommended times for quieter visits, but this does nothing to mitigate the noise when you are already there, nor should walking visitors have to modify their schedules for quiet times.
That’s not to say that the hike to and from Franz Josef Glacier isn’t wonderful, it could just be a bit quieter. Overall, it was one of my favorite experiences during my time in New Zealand. The views are simply stunning, especially on yet another clear day.
The mountains of this area were yet another filming location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They featured in the lighting of the beacons in Lord of The Rings: Return of the King.
The last part of the hike to the glacier lookout is the most strenuous part. The ground is rather rocky here, so make sure you wear sturdy boots.
Late afternoon is a good time to visit Franz Josef Glacier during the summer. The valley floor is shaded by the steep canyon walls, but as long as you are there early enough, the glacier itself is still in bright sunlight.
Of course, while this bright sunlight makes for great photos, it brings about an obvious thought: Just what will happen to Franz Josef Glacier & the other nearby glaciers in New Zealand as climate change worsens? Wikipedia has a rundown of how the glacier has advanced & retreated over the years. I was surprised to read that there have been recent periods where the glacier has actually advanced, but in the last few years, these gains were rapidly wiped out. Just a century ago, the hike to the base of the glacier would have been over a mile shorter. Who knows how long it will be a century from now, if the terrain will even be safe beyond the current end of the hike? At the very least, the access & views will grow worse over time as the glacier continues its retreat.
If we don’t do something about our negative impact on the planet, future generations may not even be able to visit Franz Josef Glacier. That would truly be a shame, as it’s a beautiful place. Despite only getting to spend a few hours hiking around Franz Josef before moving on to Nelson the next day, I was glad I got the chance to visit.
Read below for all of my posts about my trip around the Pacific Rim!
AKA Jonathan Sacks. Traveler. Writer. Photographer. 40+ countries & major territories so far, slowly working my way through the rest. Related interests: craft beer, street food, sporting events, frugal travel, credit card bonuses, hiking, visiting non-touristy places. Join me for the journey!