The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are the two biggest of the 140 existing in New Zealand, but the easiest to reach on foot. I will tell you how to get to these two glaciers and show what they look like.
Normally you can only get to glaciers on guided tours and helicopter rides but Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are different.
As the lower glacier ends of Fox and Franz Josef touch the rainforest now far away from the sea level, you only need to hike a short way to get to see them.
The Franz Joseph Glacier hike in New Zealand
We spent a day walking to these amazing glaciers, along valleys formed by them, with snow-capped mountains rising towards the sky on our both sides.
I will show you the hikes to both glaciers and tell you how to prepare for a short glacier walk. I will also show you the nearby Franz Josef Glacier Village where we stayed the night, in a rainforest.
This is one of the posts (post number 3) in a series about our South Island campervan trip. You will find all posts on the trip on the road trip’s main page New Zealand South Island Road Trip in 11 Days.
Where are Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers?
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located in the amazing Westland Tai Poutini National Park that borders the highest peaks of New Zealand.
The highest peak is Aoraki Mount Cook, 3754 m, which at the same time is the highest peak in the whole country.
In addition to Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini National Park has dozens of other peaks reaching over 3000 m.
Fox Glacier on the South Island of New Zealand
What is a Glacier?
Glaciers are large bodies of ice in the mountains, moving slowly downhill and carrying moraine with them. They are not always white as you might think, many of them rather look blue and grey. A glacier’s blue shade comes from snow inside the ice.
Normally glaciers only survive in areas of permanent snow, but the New Zealand Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers reach to the low altitude of 250 m and touch the rainforest rising up from the sea.
Glaciers are moving a little bit, all the time. When there is a lot of snow, it’s said that 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. Next to the village is the Franz Josef glacier and Fox Glacier is 30 km further south. You can see the white glaciers on the map, zoom in to examine them more in detail.
The two glaciers are accessible from the West Coast only. To read about what else to do on the West Coast and how to get there read the post:
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier on the top of the NZ South Island
Here you can see the massive ice field of Franz Josef Glacier. Or, to be more exact, you can only see the lower part of it. The total lenght of the glacier is about 12 km.
As you can see the glacier stretches from the top of the Southern Alps down to the rainforest.
How to Get to Franz Josef Glacier: the Map
Walking map from Franz Josef Village to Franz Josef Glacier car park.
To see the glacier’s location on the West Coast, zoom out the map.
To get to Franz Josef Glacier you can either walk or drive from the Franz Josef Glacier village. The distance 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 will first follow the main State Highway 6 and cross the Waiho River along an old bridge which is 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 in the rainforest and then up the stony Waiho River valley.
Walking to Franz Josef Glacier
The track is full of stones and moraine from the glacier so you will need good shoes. Be prepared that your shoes might get wet. We had good luck when visiting as we didn’t get wet at all. It was a sunny autumn day and the river was not flooding.
Here you can see walkers in the valley and the terminal face of the glacier. You can walk up to where the glacier begins and look at it at a close distance, but it’s not allowed to walk on the glacier itself.
Walking to Franz Josef Glacier
Mountain waterfalls carry ice melt water to the Waiho River
A happy walker photographing stones on the way to Franz Josef Glacier
The Waiho River has a clear glacier water
Strong-coloured stones from the retreating Franz Josef Glacier
Red and green moss covering rocks in the Waiho River valley
Reaching the Franz Josef Glacier
Moraine-filled slopes below the glacier
As Franz Josef Glacier is retreating, the ground close to it contains a lot of moraine from the glacier. That makes it a bit hard to walk, at least on the way down. Moraine moves under your feet and is wet and slippery.
The area where walking is allowed is marked, and for safety reasons you have to stop before the snow begins:
The Franz Josef Glacier hiking trail in New Zealand Southern Alps
One more look at Franz Josef Glacier and then back into the valley:
Franz Josef Glacier on the New Zealand South Island
Ice from the glacier
Strangely shaped rocks in the river valley
Walking from Franz Josef Glacier
Now we have hiked to Franz Josef Glacier and the next thing to do is to conquer the other glacier
This is Aoraki Mount Cook, the highest peak of New Zealand. Right below it you can see the massive white Fox Glacier:
Aoraki Mount Cook and Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier is 13 km long and in all ways bigger than Franz Josef we just went to. The Fox glacier also moves faster.
In fact Fox is the largest of all glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. How can it keep its huge size in the warming New Zealand climate? Because four other alpine glaciers keep feeding it with ice.
Anyway, Fox Glacier is equally easy to reach on foot as Franz Josef Glacier.
Driving from Franz Josef to Fox Glacier
State Highway 6 links Franz Josef to Fox Glaciers
Fox Glacier is only half an hour’s drive, 30 km, from Franz Josef Glacier Village.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers Driving Map
The map shows the drive between the two glaciers.
Fox Glacier, too, has an alpine village with the same name, and the distance from the village to the glacier is about the same, 6 km.
Walking to Fox Glacier
On the Fox Glacier hike
From the Fox Glacier car park it’s said to be a 30 minute walk to the glacier, one way, but reserve more time. Even when the walk is shorter than to the other glacier, it’s more demanding.
To keep your feet dry you will need steady, waterproof shoes. Or, not having that you can always take off your shoes. That’s what I did. But think about that the glacier water is ice cold.
Shoes off when hiking to Fox Glacier
The moraine-filled Fox Glacier valley
The trail is not among the best we have seen, and at some points it ‘s a bit hard to choose which stones to walk along:
The stony path to Fox Glacier
But Southern Alps of New Zealand, they look great all the way. Look at that rock wall! And look at those two hikers, they really found a scenic spot by the river!
Two Fox Glacier hikers
Reaching the Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier: this is where the glacier river begins
Some photos of the massive glacier. This is how close you can get, you can almost touch the blue snow and ice.
Fox Glacier: thick blue ice covered with sand and soil
One more look at the Fox Glacier before walking back
Water in glacier lakes can be either grey or blue, depending on what kind of particles it contains. This is one of the small Fox glacier lakes, the one next to the car park:
One of Fox Glacier lakes
We are happy to have walked to New Zealand’s biggest glaciers, but there’s more to see around them. To see more we stayed a night in the area. The center of the area is the village of Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier Village
Franz Josef Glacier Village on the New Zealand South Island
The village of Franz Josef Glacier probably is the best place to stay if you want to explore the glaciers, either walking or by plane.
The village has a few small hotels, hostels and holiday parks for overnight stay, and a number of restaurants and small shops where you get what you need.
The photo above shows the main street and below you can see the glacier car park.
As you can see, campervans are a typical way to explore New Zealand. Many tourists rent them at the airport and then drive around the islands.
Campervans at Franz Josef Glacier car park
This is one of the village shops. In a New Zealand alpine village the style is very different from what it’s like in the European Alps. In this part of the world Maori style buildings prevail and old Maori traditions are followed.
Other typical New Zealand features are the kiwis.
Traditional Maori building style in Franz Josef Glacier Village
West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre
In the Franz Josef glacier village you will find a kiwi house where to meet the rarest kiwi of New Zealand, the rowi.
The only place where rare rowi kiwis still exist is the Okarito Forest close to Franz Josef. There are less than 400 rowis left in the region and their life is badly endangered.
West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre
The Franz Josef village Kiwi Wildlife Centre has rowi kiwis in an indoor walk through area that very much reminds of the kiwis’ natural bush surroundings.
As Kiwis are night animals they normally sleep at daytime. Here their clocks has been turned to European time zones. Keeping them active at daytime lets visitors see how they behave.
The hall they live in is dark like the night, and all visitors walk in lamplight.
Here you can read more about the life of rowis and the West Coast Kiwi Wildlife Centre.
Franz Josef Rainforest Holiday Park
Campers in Franz Josef Rainforest Holiday Park
As we, like many others, were touring New Zealand in a campervan, we stayed the nights in holiday parks. In this remote place we chose Franz Josef Rainforest Holiday Park.
Even when the park’s name said it’s a the rainforest, the exceptional setting surprised us.
The camp sites and cottages were scattered arround the deep rainforest, so deep that we had a hard time finding the campsite they gave us. As there only was a super narrow road twisting and turning through the thick forest, we got totally lost but finally found the right place.
Here we are in the deep jungle (the white van on the left):
View from our campervan in a New Zealand rainforest
A narrow road in the deep rainforest
In this nature paradise we woke up with birdsong, and the rainforest also was one of the only places where we met New Zealand keas. If you prefer a hotel room, there is that, too, almost in the rainforest.
More about this stunning hideaway behind the link: Franz Josef Rainforest Retreat
Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
Later in the evening it got even better: we found some hot pools right across the road.
As New Zealand is in a geothermally active area, natural hot pools exist all over the country.
The geothermal activity of the earth makes warm water bubble up and form hot springs.
Many of New Zealand’s natural hot pools are hidden in rainforests, and others exist in villages. Sometimes hot pools are transformed to commercial bathing complexes.
Relaxing in a New Zealand hot pool
The Glacier Hot Pools is a beautiful small bathing complex within a lush rainforest with a lot of birdsong.
Seeing this, we rushed back to the car to get our towels and swimsuits – and spent an evening in the hot steaming waters! In birdsong and blue, purple and green light.
I have to say there’s no better way to relax after a glacier walk than soaking in a New Zealand hot pool!
To read more about the place, check out the website of the Glacier Hot Pools.
The Glacier Hot Pools of the Franz Josef village
New Zealand rainforest seen from a hot pool
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located on the isolated West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, far away in the deep countryside.
Our separate West Coast post shows you more of this wild region and the driving itinerary from Punakaiki to Haast:
Driving on the NZ South Island West Coast
More on New Zealand Travel
This was post number 3 on our New Zealand road trip. You will find the other sections of the trip on the road trip page:
Campervanning on the New Zealand South Island
If you are interested in campervan travel in New Zealand, check out the post New Zealand in Campervan: Christchurch to Greymouth. It will help you rent a campervan and plan your trip.