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.
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 other words, 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?
So, New Zealand consists of two main islands: the North Island and the 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 NZ 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.
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 too.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Winter is also a great time to enjoy Franz Josef’s hot springs. The hot springs are located just outside the village and are also known as the Glacier Pools.
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 really 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!
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 our 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 top waterfalls – the stunning Trident Creek Falls.
You can also do this hike as part of a guided tour with a local family. This is a really cool way to learn about the history and culture of the area, as well as get an up-close look at the glacier.
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 $41 NZD for children aged 4-15.
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.
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.
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. On this Franz Josef Glacier helicopter tour, you’ll get unparalleled views of not only the Franz Josef Glacier but also the neighboring 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.
Prices start at $397 NZD per person and this tour has a maximum group size of 6.
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 Franz Josef helicopter hike tour includes a guide, the flight, and all of the necessary equipment. The helicopter ride takes around 30 minutes each way, and the glacier hike lasts for two hours. It costs $603 NZD per passenger.
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 from the ice. Trust me, you’ll remember it forever.
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!
The former starts at $429 NZD per person while the 20,000 feet dive costs $599 NZD.
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.
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.
One thing to 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.
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.
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.
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 happiness. 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!
There are also a few great holiday home rentals and Airbnbs to choose from in Franz Josef town.
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 that weigh less than 15 kilograms (33lbs) 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 30kg (66lbs). 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-ever experiences in New Zealand. It’s absolutely stunning and feels like a real 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 a totally unforgettable experience and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best tours in New Zealand.
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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.