Franz Josef is a glacier in New Zealand’s South Island, on the west coast. The glacier is named Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere in the Maori language. The glacier is about 12 kilometres in length, but receding very rapidly. Glaciers in general advance and retreat in cycles, but there are some estimates that the glacier will lose almost 40% of its mass by the year 2100.
The glacier is one of the top tourist attractions on the west coast and receives a quarter of a million visitors yearly. Most people prefer to drive from the nearby Franz Josef township or rent a bike and make the journey to see the edge of the glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier tours
The glacier is an amazing sight to behold and quite a few people choose to explore the region by helicopter. The nearby township is practically filled tour companies who offer to take the tourists up on the glacier itself to have a short walk. The terminal face is unstable these days and the helicopters land much further on the glacier in order to be safe.
It is possible to go and have a walk on top of the glacier, but this is strictly limited to tours organized by reputable companies. The only way to reach the top of the glacier safely is by helicopter these days. You will be accompanied by an experienced guide who is there to make sure everything happens within safe limits. The glacier changes daily and tourists generally do not have the experience to notice warning signs if there are any.
Glacier Valley Walk
For those who are on a budget and prefer to explore the Franz Josef glacier in a DIY style, there is a perfectly good option of doing a valley walk by yourself. The walk starts from the Franz Josef car park and takes about an hour to reach the edge of the glacier. The walk is marked clearly and it is important not to venture outside the area. The valley has frequent landslides, falling rocks and avalanches which can be very dangerous and even fatal. The glacier is always on the move and you should not be fooled by the seemingly calm surroundings.
You can also rent a bicycle from the nearby Franz Josef township to save you from the walk to reach the car park. The road is very easy to ride on with clear markings and should not take longer than 30-40 minutes in total.
The actual valley walk follows the Waiho river which starts from the melting waters of the glacier. You will often see huge chunks of ice flowing down the river, but you should not go an try to pick them up. The current in the river is strong and could easily pull you downstream. Needless to say, the water is freezing cold, so the chances of survival would be quite slim.
Throughout the day you will notice how the river changes as the sun is melting more ice. It should be noted that sometimes the river surges when a big mass of water and ice gets released and this could be potentially very dangerous. Follow the marked path and observe the signs along the way to keep safe.
Hikes around Franz Josef
There are several hikes around the Franz Josef glacier. The walks range from 20 minute short hops to a full day 8-hour return climb. Here are the most popular walks. If you are planning to go for the Robers Point or Alex Knob tracks, make sure you visit the Department of Conservation visitor centre in town for up to date information. Do not underestimate the suggested timing and be prepared adequately.
Glacier Valley Walk – 1hr 20min return. Follows the Waiho River bed to the glacier terminal.
Sentinel Rock Walk – 20 min return. An easy climb for spectacular views of the glacier.
Douglas Walk – 1-hour return. Five minutes bushwalk to Peters Pool for reflective views of the glacier and continues through the forest to exit 500 metres down the road from the start point.
Roberts Point Track – 5 hours return. Climbs via a rocky track and swing bridges to a high viewpoint above the glacier.
Alex Knob Track – 8 hours return. Climb up to sub-alpine terrain with views of the glacier, mountains and coastline.
Facts about Franz Josef
- Starts as an alpine glacier at 3500 meters and comes down to a temperate rainforest valley at 300 meters.
- Lowest elevation terminus of any alpine glacier in the world.
- Named after the Austrian emperor Franz Josef I by an explorer named Julius von Haast in 1865.
- The glacier was advancing until 2008 but then started retreating rapidly and lost about 800 meters in total.
- Very active and sensitive glacier which make it an interesting subject to climate warming researchers.
- The Maori name for Franz Josef is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere which is roughly translated as The tears of Hinehukatere which relates to a local legend.
- The glacier and the area around is recognized as a World Heritage Site by Unesco
- Franz Josef marks the beginning of the Waiho river