Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the West Coast of South Island are the two biggest of the 140 New Zealand glaciers – and the ones that are most easily accessible.
Normally you can only get to glaciers on guided tours and scenic helicopter rides, but Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are different. Since the lower end of these two glaciers lies in a rainforest you only need to take a short walk to reach to them.
As a part of our New Zealand road trip we spent a day walking to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, along valleys formed by glaciers, surrounded by amazing mountains.
I will show you Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and what you need for a short glacier walk. I will also show you what there is to see in Franz Josef Glacier village.
Walkers returning from Franz Joseph Glacier, New Zealand
This is one of the posts (post number 3) in my series of posts on our South Island round trip. You can find all posts on the New Zealand category page.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park that borders the highest peaks of New Zealand. The highest peak is Aoraki Mount Cook, 3754 m which also is the highest peak in New Zealand. In addition there are dozens of other peaks over 3000 m.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are large bodies of ice that move slowly downhill taking moraine with them. Glaciers look bluish, not white. The blue colour comes from snow in the ice.
Normally glaciers only survive in areas of permanent snow but Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers descend all the way down to a rainforest at an altitudeof only 250 m.
Glaciers tend to move, all the time. At times when there’s a lot of snow glaciers advance and when the ice melts they retreat.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the Map
The map shows the location of Franz Josef village on the South Island of New Zealand. Fox Glacier is 30 km south. You can see the white glaciers on the map.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are accessible from the West Coast only. In my other post I’m telling about a West Coast road trip and the roads that link West Coast with the rest of South Island.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand South Island
Here you can see the Franz Josef glacier. It is massive, 12 km long. As you can see it descends from the top of the Southern Alps to the rainforest zone at only 250 m.
How to Get to Franz Josef Glacier
Walking route from Franz Joseph Village to Glacier car park. To see the glacier’s location zoom out the map.
To get to Franz Josef Glacier you can either walk or drive from Franz Josef Glacier Village. The distance from the village to the glacier car park is 5 km and from the car park you need to walk something like 4 km.
Road to Franz Josef Glacier, River Waiho bridge
You first follow the main State Highway 6 and drive over Waiho River along a narrow old bridge – a very typical New Zealand bridge. After the bridge turn left and follow the Glacier Access Road to the car park.
From the car park it’s a 45 minute walk to Franz Josef Glacier, first along a rainforest path and then up the stony Waiho River valley.
The track is full of stones and moraine from the glacier so you need good shoes and be prepared that your shoes might get wet. But we didn’t get wet, it was a sunny autumn day and the river was not flooding at all.
Here you can see walkers in the valley and the terminal face of the glacier. You can walk up to where the glacier begins, not on the glacier itself.
Walking to Franz Josef Glacier
Mountain waterfalls carry ice melt water to Waiho River
Walker photographing stones on the way to Franz Josef Glacier
Waiho River: clear glacier water
Strong-coloured stones from Franz Josef Glacier
Red and green moss on covering rocks in Waiho River valley.
At the Glacier
Since Franz Josef Glacier is retreating the ground closer to it has a lot of moraine from the glacier which makes it a bit hard to walk, at least downwards. Moraine moves under your feet and is slippery.
The area where you are allowed to walk is marked and for safety reasons you are not allowed walk all the way to where the snow begins.
One more photo of the Franz Josef glacier before heading back to the valley.
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand South Island
Ice from Franz Josef Glacier
Rocks in Waiho river valley
Walking from Franz Josef Glacier
Now we had walked to Franz Josef Glacier and our next task was to walk to the nearby Fox Glacier.
This is Aoraki Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, and the huge Fox Glacier below it.
Fox Glacier is still bigger than Franz Josef Glacier, it is 13 km long and the largest glacier in the Westland / Tai Poutini National Park. It is also faster moving than Franz Josef Glacier. How can Fox Glacier be so big in this climate? Since it’s fed by four other alpine glaciers.
Anyway, Fox Glacier is equally easy to reach on foot as Franz Josef Glacier.
From Franz Josef to Fox Glacier
State Highway 6 views, Franz Josef to Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier is just half an hour’s drive from Franz Josef Glacier Village. So you can see both glaciers in one day which is good if you touring New Zealand and only have a limited time for the West Coast.
Fox Glacier too has an alpine village with the same name and the distance from the village to the glacier is short, only 6 km.
Walking to Fox Glacier
From the car park it’s said to be a 30 minute walk to the glacier one way, but reserve more time. Even if the walk is shorter than the Franz Josef Glacier walk, it’s more demanding.
To keep your feet dry you need steady waterproof shoes. Or you can take off your shoes like you can see I did. But I can tell you the river water is ice cold.
At some points it may be a bit hard to choose on which stones to walk.
But the Alpine views, they are great all the way. Look at these stones! And look at these two hikers, they really found a scenic place by the river!
Fox Glacier and where the river begins
Fox Glacier: thick blue ice covered with sand and soil
One more look on Fox Glacier before walking back
Glacier lake water can be either grey or blue water, depending on what kind of particles the water contains. This is just one of the small glacier lakes, the one next to Fox Glacier car park.
In addition to the glaciers there’s more to see around them and maybe you want to stay the night. The centre of the glacier area is the village of Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier Village
The village of Franz Josef Glacier probably is the best place to stay if you want to explore the glaciers. The village has some small hotels, hostels and holiday parks for overnight stay as well as a selection of restaurants and small shops where you can buy what you need.
The photo above shows the main street and below you can see a car park. Campervans are maybe the most popular way of exploring New Zealand. It simply is the perfect way.
This is one of the village shops. Franz Josef Village is an Alpine village but the style is different than in the Alps in Europe. Maori building style and Maori traditions are respected here, but there are other typical New Zealand features as well, the kiwis.
Traditional Maori building style, Franz Josef Glacier
West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre
Franz Josef Clacier Village has a kiwi house where you have a chance to meet New Zealand’s rarest kiwi, the rowi. The only place where rowi kiwis are found is the Okarito Forest near Franz Josef. There are less than 400 rowis left in the area and their life is endangered.
The West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre has rowi kiwis in a purpose-built indoor walkthrough area that reminds of their natural bush surroundings. Kiwis are night animals but their rhythm has been turned to European time so they are awake at daytime and you can observe them in lamplight in the dark hall.
Read more about rowis and the West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre.
Franz Josef Rainforest Holiday Park
Since we like many others were touring New Zealand in a campervan we stayed at the Franz Josef Rainforest Holiday Park. Even if the name said this is a rainforest park the place surprised us. A narrow road twisted and turned through the rainforest so we got lost a few times in the forest.
The camp sites and cottages were far away, deep in the rainforest. Such a lovely place, and birdsong and keas in addition! If you prefer hotel accommodation they also have a rainforest retreat with rooms and suites.
If you are interested, here’s the link: Franz Josef Rainforest Retreat
View from our campervan in the Rainforest Holiday Park, Franz Josef Glacier
Driving in a deep rainforest.
Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
And it got even better: there were hot pools right across the road.
Since New Zealand is located in a zone with a lot of geothermal activity there are natural hot pools all around the country. Geothermal activity in the earth makes warm water bubble up and form hot springs. Many of them are in forests and others in villages and cities. There are lots of natural pools and others have been built to bathing complexes.
The Glacier Hot Pools is a beautiful small bathing complex surrounded by lush rainforest and birdsong so we took our swimsuits and spent an evening in hot waters, in blue, purple and green light surrounded by steam rising from the pools. There’s no better way to relax after a glacier day than soaking in a New Zealand hot pool!
You can see more photos on the website of the Glacier Hot Pools.
Glacier Hot Pools, Franz Josef Glacier
New Zealand rainforest from a hot pool
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are on the isolated West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in the real countryside.
I have made a separate West Coast post that shows you the driving itinerary down along West Coast, from Punakaiki to Haast.
Driving on South Island West Coast
More on New Zealand Travel
This was post number 3 on our New Zealand South Island round trip. You will find all other posts on my New Zealand category page: