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The Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand, and it’s not difficult to see why. The glacier is an amazing natural wonder, surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery.
Visiting the glacier is precisely the kind of awe-inspiring experience that people travel to New Zealand for. It truly is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and a visit here is unforgettable.
However, there are a few things that visitors should keep in mind when planning a trip to the Franz Josef Glacier. I mean, it is a glacier after all – it’s not like your typical day at the beach.
There are lots of hiking routes and tours available – including multi-day guided tours. It can all feel a little overwhelming! So this guide is here to break it all down for you and help you make the most of your trip.
With that in mind, here are 10 things that you should know before visiting the Franz Josef Glacier.
Don’t have time to read the full article? Franz Josef Glacier is an impressively beautiful part of New Zealand’s landscape! The best way to explore Franz Josef Glacier is to take this heli-hike so you can see it from an aerial view, land on top, and then spend hours trekking on the glacier. It’s simply incredible!
1. About Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) long, and it’s a temperate maritime glacier. In regular terms, this means that it’s characterized by a relatively high rate of flow.
In even simpler terms, it’s a really big hunk of ice that’s constantly moving – pretty cool, huh?
The glacier descends from the Southern Alps mountain range, all the way down to just 300 meters (984 feet) above sea level. This makes it one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand, which is pretty impressive considering that the country is home to 2,900 of them!
The Story of the Franz Josef Glacier
Like any good glacier, there’s a legend behind the Franz Josef Glacier.
According to Maori folklore, a princess called Hine Hukatere loved to climb in the mountains. Her lover, Tuawe, often accompanied her even though he was not as adept at mountaineering as she was.
One day, while they were climbing, an avalanche swept Tuawe away and he was killed. Hine Hukatere cried so hard that her tears flowed down the mountain. Rangi, the Sky Father, felt sorry for the princess and froze her tears to form the glacier in memory of Tuawe.
When a German geologist happened upon the glacier in 1865, he named it after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. However, in 1998 the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act officially changed the name of the glacier to the Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere out of respect for its Maori heritage.
2. Where is Franz Josef Glacier located?
New Zealand consists of two main islands: the North Island and the South Island. The Franz Josef Glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which is on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
Franz Josef Village, also known as Waiau, is the closest settlement to the glacier. The village has a population of about 500 people, but it’s a popular stop for tourists, who flock there in droves. In fact, Franz Josef usually welcomes over a million tourists per year!
It’s a great base for exploring the area with tons of exciting things to do in Franz Josef itself! Glaciers aside, you can visit some of the best New Zealand hot springs, go hiking, and explore the wildlife center.
The Franz Josef Glacier is close to another important glacier: Fox Glacier. The latter is also easily accessible (as glaciers go) and many travelers opt to visit them both when in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are known as “twin glaciers” because of their close proximity and similar composition.
Related Read: If you’re planning to road trip across NZ, check out all our tips on renting a vehicle and recommendations for campervan rentals in Christchurch, Auckland, and Queenstown to get you started!
3. Do you need a guide to visit Franz Josef Glacier?
Anyone can walk up to the Franz Josef Glacier without a guide, but you can only go to the base. There are several routes you can take, which we’ll get more into in a moment.
The Franz Josef Glacier walk is the closest you can get to this natural wonder without a tour, and it’s also the easiest option! Pretty much everyone does this walk, whether or not they also take a helicopter or heli-hike tour.
The Franz Josef Glacier walk is one of the best hikes on the South Island as it takes you to a beautiful viewpoint (pictured above) where you’ll get an amazing view of the glacier. It is a 1.7-kilometer (about 1 mile) return hike that takes 30 minutes. It is an easy route and a great way to experience the glacier for any fitness level or age.
You won’t be able to actually walk on the glacier itself though – to do that, you’ll need to go on a guided tour. To be perfectly honest, you won’t get the full Franz Josef Glacier experience without actually going onto the glacier, so we do recommend booking a tour.
On a guided tour of the Franz Josef Glacier, you will get to take a helicopter flight to land on top of the thousands of years old glacier, then spend a few hours exploring it! Not only will you get to walk on the glacier, but you’ll also learn all about its fascinating history and geology from your experienced and knowledgeable guide, so it really takes the experience to the next level.
Keep in mind that these tours are extremely popular (because they are awesome!), so you will want to reserve your spot well in advance! Read below to see all of the tour options and book it before you take off on your trip.
4. When is the best time to visit Franz Josef?
Winter in New Zealand is widely considered the best time to visit the Franz Josef Glacier.
The weather is pretty stable at this time of year, as Franz Josef doesn’t experience the harsh temperatures that some other areas of New Zealand do during the winter. This means that there’s less chance of your heli-hiking tour being canceled due to bad weather.
There’s also less movement on the glacier during the winter, which means you will be able to see more ice formations and crevasses. Plus, there are fewer crowds around, which gives the place a truly magical feel. It really is a winter wonderland!
The temperature in the pools ranges from 36-40°C (97-104°F), so you can find the Goldilocks pool that’s just right for you! And if you want to pamper yourself, there are massages available, too. This is a great winter activity – somehow, hot pools just don’t feel the same in the summer! Plus, it’s a great way to relax your sore muscles after all that hiking or skiing in New Zealand!
However, visiting during the summer does have the advantage of warmer weather, which can make your glacier experience more pleasant. Just be aware that the Franz Josef Glacier is more crowded during the summer months.
Ideally, winter is the best time to go. But the glacier is open all year round and if you have the chance to visit, you should take it, regardless of the season!
Related Read: Check out my guide to the best time to visit New Zealand for more helpful info as you plan when to take your trip here.
5. What are the best ways to see Franz Josef Glacier?
There are multiple Franz Josef Glacier tours, hikes, and walks that you can take to explore this natural wonder.
Franz Josef Valley Walk
The walk takes you to a beautiful viewpoint where you’ll get a great view of the glacier – although honestly, it doesn’t compare to the view you’ll get on a helicopter or heli-hike tour (but more on that later). You’ll also see one of New Zealand’s best waterfalls – the stunning Trident Creek Falls.
You can also do this hike as part of a guided tour, which is a fantastic way to learn about the history and culture of the area. Over your 2-3 hour tour, you’ll explore the Franz Josef Valley as you make your way to get an up-close look at the glacier! I think that the knowledge and in-depth information you get from you guide make this tour totally worth it!
Walking poles are provided should you need them, and the tour includes pickup from any hotel in the Franz Josef township, so it’s super convenient if you haven’t got your own wheels. The tour costs $82 NZD for adults and can be booked in advance here!
Roberts Point Track
If you’re keen on a more challenging hike, the Roberts Point Track won’t disappoint. This is a super adventurous walk involving swing bridges (and yes, some of them do feel pretty rickety), waterfalls, and scramble sections.
This hike is 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) return and will take over 5 hours to complete. It has pretty grueling terrain, so only seasoned hikers should take this track! It gives some incredible views of the valley below and Franz Josef Glacier.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s definitely worth it for the views when you reach the lookout point.
For the ultimate Franz Josef Glacier views, the Alex Knob hike is a moderate trail.
There’s not much scrambling involved but a few parts of the trail can feel a little steep, so you need to be reasonably fit to take it on. There are lots of viewpoints along the way and when you reach the top you’ll be able to enjoy extraordinary views of the glacier.
While it is longer than Roberts Point Track, Alex Knob has a much more forgiving terrain and is doable for most hikers. At 17 kilometers (10.5 miles), this is a long trail, so set aside the whole day for this one!
Sentinel Rock Walk
This is an easy route that branches off of the popular Franz Josef Glacier Walk Track. The Sentinel Rock Walk is 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) in total and pretty flat the whole way. Best of all, the views are stunning. It’s relatively little effort for an awesome reward!
For something truly spectacular, a scenic flight over the glacier is a must-do. I’ve taken a few scenic flights throughout my travels, and while short, I find them to be 100% worth the cost- they are that scenic!
On this Franz Josef Glacier helicopter tour, you’ll get unparalleled views of not only the Franz Josef Glacier but also its twin, Fox Glacier. You’ll also enjoy interesting commentary from your pilot as you soar through the skies. Best of all, you’ll even land on the glacier so that you can appreciate its beauty up close. This 30-minute flight actually feels much longer than that, as time seems to slow down in the sky!
Prices start at $434 NZD per person and this tour has a maximum group size of 6. You can book this scenic flight in advance here!
Heli Hike tour
A heli-hike tour combines the best of both worlds – a scenic helicopter tour with a guided hike on the glacier. You’ll get to explore Franz Josef Glacier in all its glory with the help of a professional guide.
This is actually my top choice for exploring Franz Josef Glacier because it gives you enough time to really explore its majesty!
This Franz Josef helicopter hike tour departs from Franz Josef Village and takes a scenic flight around the area, then lands on top of the glacier itself. The guide will then lead you on a two-hour trek, fully equipped with ice axes and crampons. Glaciers are constantly moving and changing, so I am thankful for a skilled guide who knows how to read the glaciers and can keep us safe along the way! They also do an excellent job at teaching about the fascinating geology and glaciology.
This 3-hour tour includes a guide, the flight, and all of the necessary equipment. It costs $709 NZD per passenger and needs to be booked in advance, as this is an incredibly popular experience!
This was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in New Zealand, and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Franz Josef Glacier. You get to appreciate its natural beauty from the sky and up close to the ice. Trust me, you’ll remember it forever!
You NEED to book this experience well in advance (a few weeks in summer) as it sells out. If your booking gets rejected because you booked a few days out, check out this 30-minute scenic flight with a snow landing. It’s a great second option because so many people reach out upset that the glacier trekking is fully booked.
For the truly adventurous among us, a skydiving tour is the ultimate way to experience the Franz Josef Glacier. In fact, Franz Josef is one of the best places to go skydiving in all of New Zealand!
You’ll enjoy incredible views of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers as you plummet from the sky. This is a real adrenaline-fuelled experience that’s not for the faint-hearted! Not only do you get a thrilling experience, but you’ll also get to enjoy a scenic flight above the glaciers and New Zealand’s tallest Mountain, Mount Cook.
Both options include round-trip transportation between Franz Josef Village and the airport, as well as tea and coffee, your guide, and all of the necessary safety equipment. I recommend booking these in advance as they are in high demand!
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
6. Is there parking at the Franz Josef Valley Walk trailhead?
The Franz Josef Valley Walk is the main hike that covers pretty much all visitors to the glacier. It’s easy and takes you as close to the glacier as you can get without a guided tour.
Since it’s so popular, there’s a big parking lot at the start of the trail, which is only a 5-minute drive from the township.
Important note: The main parking lot closes at 10 pm every night and you’re not allowed to leave your car here overnight. Camping is not permitted, either! Look here to find up-to-date information on where you are allowed to freedom camp near Franz Josef Glacier.
7. Which is better, Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier?
Okay, so both are pretty great but personally, I would definitely opt for the Franz Josef Glacier.
Why, I hear you ask?
Well, the Fox Glacier is not to be sniffed at, but the Franz Josef Glacier is far steeper. This means that the ice moves faster and its natural icy features are much more dramatic and impressive.
However, the two glaciers are pretty close together which means that you may as well do both when you’re in the area!
If you take a Franz Josef Glacier helicopter tour, you’ll enjoy amazing views of both glaciers and even have the chance to land on the Fox Glacier. Which is still incredibly stunning and slightly less popular than Franz Josef, so you get fewer crowds!
And if you’re doing the famous West Coast road trip on New Zealand’s South Island, then both glaciers are common stops along the way. You can even pop into the cute town of Fox Glacier to grab a bite to eat and check out some of the epic trails around here.
In short, both glaciers are worth visiting. However, if you do have to choose just one, I think Franz Josef is much more impressive.
8. Where are the best places to stay in Franz Josef town?
The small town of Franz Josef is a really beautiful place to stay and it’s essential to stay here to take on a few of the cool glacier experiences I’ve mentioned.
Despite being small, there are lots of lively restaurants, bars, and other attractions in town along with a huge range of accommodations to choose from in Franz Josef.
For budget travelers, Glow Worm Accommodation is a great choice. It’s located within walking distance of everything and offers dorm and private rooms at really affordable prices. I stayed here on my first-ever trip down the West Coast and had a social night with other travelers.
For those with a slightly larger budget, the Aspen Court Franz Josef is a good mid-range option with outstanding reviews. The hotel is located on the outskirts of town but is only a short walk from the best restaurants and bars. They also have apartments and studios, so it’s perfect for those who like to prepare their own meals or those traveling in a group.
If you’re a luxury traveler, the Te Waonui Forest Retreat is pure bliss. The entire retreat is surrounded by lush forest and from your balcony, you’ll be able to hear the sound of nature. Rooms are also large and well decorated. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beautiful west coast – if you can afford the hefty price tag that is!
Related Read: Franz Josef is a great destination while driving across NZ! Take a road trip from Queenstown to Franz Josef, spend a few nights, and then head north driving from Franz Josef to Punakaiki.
9. Is a visit to Franz Josef Glacier suitable for children?
On the whole, yes! Although, of course, age requirements change depending on the activities you want to partake in.
The Franz Josef Glacier Walk is super easy and therefore suitable for children. Other walks, like Alex Knob and Roberts Point, are more difficult and probably not appropriate for younger kids, but older children and teenagers may be able to handle them.
As for skydiving tours, the minimum age limit for tandem skydiving is 7 years old, so it’s really at your own discretion whether or not you feel comfortable allowing your child to participate in this activity.
Passengers of any age are welcome on helicopter tours, although children who weigh less than 15 kilograms (33 lbs) must sit on an adult’s lap. Anyone under the age of 15 qualifies for a discounted child’s ticket but must be accompanied by an adult.
For Franz Josef Glacier helicopter and hiking tours, there’s a minimum age limit of 8 years old and a minimum weight limit of 30 kilograms (66 lbs). This is because you need to be able to walk for at least two hours and carry a daypack. A moderate fitness level is also required for these tours.
So, all in all, Franz Josef is a great place for families to visit and there are plenty of activities that both adults and children can enjoy together.
10. Is Franz Josef Glacier worth visiting?
Absolutely – in fact, it’s one of my favorite experiences in New Zealand. It’s stunning and is a truly unique adventure!
Of all the Franz Josef Glacier tours available, I highly recommend doing this heli-hike. You truly get the best of both worlds with this tour – incredible views as you soar over the glacier, as well as a chance to actually hike it yourself. It’s an unforgettable experience and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best tours in New Zealand.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
Seeing the Franz Josef Glacier is one of those bucket-list activities that deserves a spot on your New Zealand itinerary. It was actually one of the first hikes I ever did on the South Island and it’s still among my favorites. I hope you enjoy the amazing views and take lots of photos to remember your time here!
For more guides to New Zealand and helpful tips, take a look around my blog. I’ve done plenty of road trips across the country and explored lots of destinations to help you plan your own epic trip to this amazing country.