Franz Josef Glacier Ice Explorer
One activity that was very high on our to-do list for the south island of New Zealand was a glacier hike. The two most popular and accessible glaciers in New Zealand are Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both glaciers are located on the west coast of the south island and only a short drive apart from each other. Both glaciers currently require a tour now as they are no longer accessible by foot due to their retreat up the mountain. Franz Josef and Fox Glacier have retreated almost a kilometer each in the last decade, and can now only safely be accessed via helicopter. After doing some research, we decided to book a tour for Franz Josef Glacier, as it was a bit cheaper than Fox Glacier, but still very pricey. We decided to book the Franz Josef Ice Explorer tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, as we wanted to spend as much time on the glacier as possible. Being out of the main tourist season we paid $370NZD each. The Ice Explorer tour would get us a short helicopter flight up to the glacier and then a hike on top of the glacier for around 3 hours.
Franz Josef Town is tiny, so we didn’t have troubles finding Franz Josef Glacier Guides. After checking-in, we were split into groups of 10 people and headed to a small room where we received some gear for the hike. We got waterproof pants, jackets, boots, gloves, and beanies. The weather in the country is generally unpredictable and changes very rapidly, so we had to be prepared for anything. Once everyone was geared up, we headed out on to a short stroll through a small forest to the helipads. We only had to wait for around 10 min until we were set to climb into one of the two helicopters that were bringing people up and down the glacier seemingly non-stop.
This was my first helicopter flight and David’s first since he was a kid, so we were both really excited. The flight was short but nevertheless really cool with amazing views of the glacier valley and Franz Josef Glacier itself. The helicopter landed on the ice and once we climbed out we were greeted by our guide, who quickly explained how to put on our crampons and then helped whoever needed it. After a few minutes we were all set to go. We each got a hiking pole and then started our three hour hike on Franz Josef Glacier.
The tour guides had already made a path on the glacier in the morning, which made it easier to walk on the ice. In steep parts they had cut out steps with their ice axes and our guide kept renewing them as the surface ice on the glacier was melting quite fast. Franz Josef Glacier is a temperate maritime glacier which moves unusually fast and therefore a new path has to be created regularly, at least daily.
We started slowly walking along the narrow path toward the first big icefall of Franz Josef Glacier. A few minutes in we suddenly heard a very loud banging noise, and we looked up to see a huge junk of ice falling from above the icefall to a lower point of the glacier. Where the ice had broken, a giant hole in the glacier was visible. According to our guide the hole had started forming a few years ago and had steadily grown ever since.
We continued our walk and after a short while we came to a very narrow ice cave that we had to squeeze through. Over the course of the three hour hike on Franz Josef Glacier we got to crawl and walk through three different amazing ice caves. We had to slide down to get through one, and would have gotten some pretty wet butts if we didn’t have the provided rain pants on. An hour and a half into the walk we had gotten pretty close to the icefall and got to see really cool ice structures and tons of little caves, before we slowly made our way back to the improvised helipad on the glacier. On our way back we had to climb down some pretty steep steps, but with the crampons on our feet it wasn’t a problem at all.
Just before reaching the helipad we walked through some crevasses, another highlight of the Franz Josef Ice Explorer. When we got to the helipad, we took off our crampons and handed back the walking stick, and then only waited a few minutes before the helicopter came to pick us up. The flight down to Franz Josef village was short, but really nice. The views over the valley were amazing and I wished the flight could last a bit longer.
After the helicopter landed, we walked back to the shop and returned all the gear. Admission to the Franz Josef Hot Springs is included in the price of the tour which was a definite plus. The hot springs aren’t natural and are more of a spa, but we decided to go check them out anyway. They are conveniently located just behind the shop, so we headed there straight away. The three outdoor pools weren’t huge, but in a nice setting, so we enjoyed the 38 degree warm water for a couple of hours before heading back to our car and to a campsite near Fox Glacier, which is only a 30 min drive from Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Ice Explorer Pros
- Two short helicopter flights with amazing views of the glacier and the glacier valley
- Three hours on the glacier itself, while seeing different features of the glacier and a few ice caves if you’re lucky
- The only way to get up on the glacier is with a helicopter
- Entry to the hot pools after
- Well organized
- Very expensive, at $370 in low season
- Likelihood of the trip being cancelled due to bad weather is high outside of summer
- The glacier changes daily, so you might not be able to go through ice caves
- Slow going in some parts, as the guide tried to improve the paths or when we had to wait for the group ahead of us to move along
As we already went up Franz Josef Glacier, we decided to only view Fox Glacier from the valley. The same as Franz Josef, you can only go on to Fox Glacier with a guided tour and a helicopter flight, because it also has retreated too much in the last decade and the lower end is unsafe to walk on. The tours offered to go on the glacier are even pricier than on Franz Josef, possibly because the helicopter flight would be a bit longer.
The glacier valley can be reached by a short drive from Fox Glacier Village, so we headed there after breakfast. From the parking lot, a 30 minute walk leads to a viewpoint of Fox Glacier. The viewpoint is still roughly 400 meters away from the actual glacier, and on rainy days or when the river in the valley is too high, it might not even be possible to get there. The day we went to Fox Glacier the weather was the typical cloudy and some light rain, so unfortunately our view of the glacier wasn’t amazing.
We decided to try a walk nearby with another view of the glacier. After a short walk on the River Walk Lookout walkway, the clouds cleared up a bit and we got to see higher up portion of the glacier from afar. Like any glacier, it looked awesome, it’s just a shame it’s no longer accessible by foot or at least at a lower cost, however people climbing around on glaciers also isn’t ideal for conserving them or slowing their retreat.
We enjoyed the views for a while longer, before heading back to Gillespie’s Beach, where we would be free camping another night before heading south to the Fiordlands.