Glaciers in New Zealand? We need to go! That’s what we thought when we first started planning our road trip. If you’re thinking alike, New Zealand’s Glacier Country is clearly a must-do on any visit to the South Island and its West coast.
Home to two of the most famous glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox, Glacier Country is an area of outstanding beauty. The glaciers descend from the peaks of the Southern Alps through rainforest and end almost at sea level. Besides its beauty, these glaciers are very popular because they are easily accessible. And it’s not only about glaciers, there are some nice lakes and countless walking and hiking trails.
Discovering Glacier Country
Prior to this trip, we had never seen a glacier, let alone set foot on one! So, we were obviously excited to be heading there. Our goal was clear, we wanted to try and see both glaciers and choose one to do a guided hike, as well as exploring the surrounding area.
To have time for this, we based ourselves for two nights in the small town of Franz Josef, which is very close to Franz Josef glacier and only a 25 min drive away from Fox town and glacier.
At the time and after looking into the best glacier to do the hike, we decided to go for Fox glacier due to the cost of the activity. Franz Josef glacier required a helicopter ride further up the glacier in order to do the hike, which made the cost go up considerably. Nowadays, it seems the same is happening with Fox glacier.
This area gets a good amount of rain and clouds. During our stay it barely rained, but it was mostly cloudy with some mist. It gets cold up in the glacier, so dress appropriately!
Franz Josef Glacier
On the first day, since we had planned to do the glacier hike at Fox glacier, we drove to Franz Josef glacier car park and did two short hikes starting from there.
The first and main one is in the glacier valley. This is the recommended hike to see the Franz Josef’s terminal face from a very close distance. It’s about 5 km return, mostly through rocky terrain alongside the Waiho river.
The landscape is very inspiring! We were lucky to be pretty much by ourselves and take it all in.
Once we got closer to the glacier, we could finally see its power. Very impressive. Massive chunks of ice slowly moving alongside the mountain edges. We had finally seen a glacier!
There’s a barrier to control how close people can get. Don’t pass it as it’s quite dangerous!
A quick fact: Franz Josef glacier is 12 km long. And we could only spot a tiny bit of it.
Turning back, we could see the wide open valley and the river fed by the glacier.
Our second hike was a shorter one. Again starting from the car park, we headed towards Peter’s pool, which perfectly and beautifully reflects the mountain background, even on a not so bright day.
We kept going a while longer until we reached the swing bridge over Waiho river. We crossed back and forth and returned to the car.
On the next day, we woke up early and drove to Fox town, where our guided glacier hike with Fox Guides would start. They provide the equipment you need, boots, socks, crampons, ice axe and even a waterproof jacket.
After a short bus ride to the glacier car park, we embarked on a 45-minute hilly hike up to where the ice starts. The guide explained all about how glaciers work and the safety procedures before we could actually start walking on ice.
Seeing the glacier and even better, being ON the glacier, was a really cool experience (pun intended!).
We walked around on a man-made ice path that had steps and even a small cave. Unfortunately, the time on ice wasn’t that long but we had time to “pose” for a photo with a nice and big ice block behind us.
After a somewhat cold experience, we went back to Franz Josef town and straight into a hot pool for an hour of relaxation! It seems that there are hot pools everywhere in New Zealand, and we surely tried quite a few.
The best way to end the highlights of New Zealand’s Glacier Country is to talk a bit about lakes. We ran into so many spectacular lakes in New Zealand and this part of the country was no exception.
Lake Mapourika is North of Franz Josef and its dark water and perfect reflections are great for photos. To get this view, no walking is necessary as you can park right there.
Lake Matheson is a quick drive away from Fox glacier town. It requires a short walk to reach the lake from the car park and cafe area. Speaking about yet another reflecting lake, this one is totally worth visiting. On a clear day, Mount Cook can be seen from here. We only had this view..!
Visiting the glaciers is very popular these days and most people will only stay one night and then continue their journey. We felt that after making such a long drive around the west coast this area would require at least two nights, and we’re very glad we did it!
Have you been to New Zealand’s Glacier Country? What about on a glacier?