The 12 kilometre Franz Josef Glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on New Zealand’s West Coast. The glacier descends from the breathtaking mountains of the Southern Alps to the coastal, temperate rainforest of Westland’s National Park, making it one of the most unique and dynamic ecosystems in the world. Franz Josef Glacier is also one of the fastest moving and steepest glaciers on the planet (It is the fastest moving glacier in New Zealand). In fact, the glacier can move up to 4 metres per day. In recent years, the glacier has been retreating, losing about 800 metres of length. Although glaciers advance and retreat as part of their natural cycles, unfortunately, the ice is now melting faster and it is changing the landscape of Franz Josef Glacier. The glacier valley walls are now precarious and the terminal face of the glacier is unstable. The only safe way to get on the glacier right now is by helicopter rides and guided walks. Still, Franz Josef and the nearby Fox Glacier are among the most publicly accessible glaciers anywhere in the world. Since, I’ve done a few hikes here in Franz Josef, I came up with the list of the best hikes in the area. I’ve seen the glacier from different vantage points (and even got to go on it) and I truly think Franz Josef Glacier is spectacular (I’m sure the photos below will also convince you too!).
Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike
Difficulty: Easy to moderate (guided walk)
Duration: Up to 2 hours ice time
Hiking on a glacier is one of the most incredible and unforgettable experiences I’ll ever have. When you go on a Heli Hike, you get to fly on a helicopter first which will take you on an unbelievable scenic flight high above the mountains and the glacier. Once you land on the glacier, your guide will then lead you through magnificent ice formations and caves. As I walked along the pristine blue and white ice, I couldn’t help but be completely astounded; I couldn’t believe I was actually standing on the glacier that I could only admire from the distance before. The scale of the glacier up close is just so awe-inspiring and humbling.
As mentioned above, the nature of this glacier is constantly changing, so they say no hike on Franz Josef Glacier is the same from one day to the next. Full disclosure, I got to go on this Heli Hike as part of a photoshoot with the Helicopter Line. They offer the Heli Hike trip in partnership with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. Since it was a photoshoot, my experience wasn’t the typical Heli Hike, but it was similar (although, a shorter hike).
2. Alex Knob Track
Duration: 6-8 hours
Besides the Heli Hike, this is my favourite hike in Franz Josef Glacier. This track takes you to the highest point of 1303 metres where the panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Franz Josef Glacier are just breathtaking. It’s so surreal seeing helicopters actually flying below you! There are also various lookouts along the way to the summit. I highly recommend starting your hike as early as possible because clouds typically roll in as the day goes on, obscuring your views in the afternoon. Although the Department of Conservation rates this as an advanced track, I found it easier than the Roberts Point Track (check number 3 below). There are parts where you must climb a few rocks but the general hike up is gradual. As with any long hikes, make sure to bring enough water and snacks to re-energize yourself. I guarantee the view at the summit is well worth the climb!
3. Roberts Point Track
Duration: 4-5 hours
This hike requires a good level of fitness. It is important that you wear good hiking shoes/boots when you do this hike. I actually found this track a bit more challenging than the longer Alex Knob track. The trail is just basically uneven rocks and large tree roots so you really must pay attention and concentrate. At some points, you have to climb up and down slippery boulders and cross shallow streams (I wouldn’t recommend this track after a rainy day). You will also cross a few suspension bridges along the way. At the viewpoint, you’ll find a seating area and a picnic table which are quite convenient while you admire the elevated view of the glacier. The view is definitely well worth the effort. Pay as much attention on your way back, as going down can be more challenging because of the slippery rocks. Again, do not attempt this walk if the conditions are not good or if you’re not a confident hiker.
Bonus: Not far from the parking lot and on the way to the start of Roberts Point track is the reflective Peters Pool.
4. Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
Duration: 1 hour 30 mins return
This is the quintessential Franz Josef Glacier hike. This track takes you to a point close to the terminal face of the glacier. It’s an easy walk throughout and you’ll pass by a waterfall on the way to the viewing area. If you’re short on time, this would be the absolute hike you must do in Franz Josef.
5. Canavans Knob Walk
Duration: 1 hour return
A short and steady climb gives you a delightful view of the mountains and the glaciers. On the way to the top viewpoint is another viewing area which faces south, where you’ll see the farmlands. Since this is a short walk, I’ve done this a few times, usually on a nice sunny afternoon just before sunset.