Adventure on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier

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It’s not every day that the average person has the opportunity to frolic around on a slab of ice that’s thousands of years old.

So when I decided I was going to visit the West Coast on my most recent trip to New Zealand, I knew that it was finally time for me to tackle glacier trekking.

Hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier

There are two main glaciers that call New Zealand’s Westland National Park home — the 12-kilometer Franz Josef Glacier, and the 13-kilometer Fox Glacier about half an hour away. Each is in close proximity to a small town that caters to the thousands of tourists who come to see the glaciers each year, and each offers visitors the opportunity to get out on the ice.

I decided to make climbing the Franz Josef Glacier my quest.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Each year, more than 250,000 tourists visit Franz Josef to see and explore the town’s famous glacier — sometimes more than 2,000 per day. While anyone can hike across the glacial valley to the foot of Franz, those wishing to actually feel the ice under their feet are required to have a guide. You can’t go wrong with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, who offer everything from easy half-day hikes to helihikes to ice climbing adventures.

(Note: These days doing a helihike is the only way to get up on Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.)

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Since I was only going to have one night in Franz Josef, I booked an afternoon, half-day glacier hike that would coincide with the time my MagicBus was due into town. We were greeted by sideways rain upon our arrival into Franz Josef, and I was not the only one on my bus seriously considering canceling my hike.

But rain shouldn’t dissuade you from a glacier trek. Rain is extremely common in this part of New Zealand, since Westland National Park is designated a temperate rainforest. Roughly 2 out of 3 days will be wet, and, here, the annual rainfall is measured in meters.

On a rainy (and/or cold) day, the crew over at Franz Josef Glacier Guides will hook you up with great gear aimed at keeping you warm and dry. On the day I went, all 17 people in my group were issued the following:

  • Raincoat
  • Waterproof over-trousers
  • Wool socks
  • Boots
  • Crampons in a fanny-pack-like bag
  • Hat
  • Wool gloves

After gearing up and signing “I won’t blame you if I die” forms at the office in town, the group was herded onto a minibus and driven roughly 10 minutes to the head of the valley that the Franz Josef Glacier sits in.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

The Franz Josef Glacier at one point (like, maybe 10,000 years ago) reached all the way from the Southern Alps to the sea. Now, however, it sits quite a few kilometers inland about 300 meters above sea level, and getting to it means a 45-minute hike across the glacial valley. This part of the hike is open to anyone willing to brave the elements.

The elements at the beginning of our hike were pretty brutal — heavy, cold rain pelting down on us and making it impossible to use anything but waterproof cameras. Which was a shame, because the heavy rain meant that the valley walls were covered in waterfalls. Hundreds of waterfalls of all shapes and sizes.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

We eventually reached the far side of the valley, where flimsy yellow ropes mark the border between where it’s safe for ordinary tourists to go and where you need a guide to venture. From here, the face of Franz Josef was clearly visible, and we were all itching to get closer.

Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

We divided up into two groups at this point with separate guides — a “fast” group and a “less fast” group. Since I’m probably the most out-of-shape person on the planet, I stuck with the slower-paced group. It actually turned out well, because it meant I had slightly more time to stop and take photos.

Both groups soon began the toughest part of the trek — a steep climb up a glacial moraine. At the top of this big pile of rocks, we stopped to attach our crampons (metal spikes) to our boots. As we were learning the art of attaching these metal contraptions, the clouds began to lift and the rain let up. Before long, we were able to look all the way down the valley.

Franz Josef Glacier

And, above us, Franz was showing his colors.

It’s safe to say that, at this point, we were all glad we hadn’t skipped the trip.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

We spent the next couple of hours following our guide all over the face of the glacier. We climbed up and down ice staircases, peeked into ice caves, saw plenty of waterfalls, and learned all about ice and how it is ever-changing and moving.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

Hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier

And, since the sun never quite poked through the clouds to make the top layer of the glacier crunchy, the ice under our feet was about 20 different shades of whites and blues; glassy and beautiful.

Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

Our guide — a young-ish kiwi guy — was very knowledgeable, and also very considerate when it came to the pace he set for us across the ice. He carried an ice pick with him at all times, and always was at the front of the column, chipping away at the ice here and there to give us all better footing. He hadn’t been on the ice for a week or so, and he was also pointing out features that were new to him as we went along — a new cave that was forming here, a new set of carved steps over there (the guides come out every morning to assess the trekking routes, carving new ones if necessary).

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

It was pretty amazing to realize that we were not only hiking on a big chunk of ice that has been around in some form for thousands of years, but that this chunk of ice has the ability to change from day to day.

It made me feel very, very small.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

By this time, we had climbed a good distance up the face of the glacier, and it was finally time to turn back around. I had to remind myself over and over to pay attention to where I was planting my feet, because my eyes kept being drawn to the vast expanse of ice and the valley lying below us.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

It started raining again as we made our way back down into the valley, but at that point I don’t think any of us cared any longer. We had conquered Franz Josef, and we had the photos and memories to prove it.

Out of all the things I’ve ever done in New Zealand (and I’ve done a lot!), this ranks up there as one of my favorites.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast, New Zealand

If you’re thinking about booking a glacier trekking tour in Franz Josef, here are some other things you should know:

  • The Franz Josef Glacier is the more challenging of the West Coast’s two glaciers. It’s steeper than the Fox Glacier, so be aware that parts of this hike can be physically strenuous. While most of the hike is easy, parts of it are very steep. Not to mention you’re on ice.
  • It may rain. Even if the day starts out clear and sunny, it could change abruptly. Wear layers, just in case.
  • Bring a dry bag. You probably don’t want to risk any expensive camera gear out on the ice. Any you do bring should definitely be kept in a dry bag. I brought along a waterproof HD video camera that also takes HD still images. It was perfect for the wet conditions, and took some great photos and video footage. I also had my regular camera with me, but was constantly paranoid about it getting wet.
  • No jeans on the glacier. They’re very strict about this rule, and WILL make you change out of any denim that you may be wearing.
  • Bags must have 2 shoulder straps. If you want to bring any water, snacks or photographic gear with you, be sure to pack it in a backpack that has 2 shoulder straps. (I just took a drawstring bag.)
  • Report any medical conditions truthfully. Just because you have high blood pressure or a heart problem doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to climb the glacier. It just means that, if you’re cleared to go, the guides will know to keep an eye on you.
  • Consider wearing your own boots. Even though you will be provided with socks and boots, if you have a pair of hiking boots you really love, you can wear your own. Even though the crampons may not be a perfect fit for you if you wear your own boots, at least you know you'll be comfortable. I had trouble finding boots that fit me properly, and ended up with blisters on the backs of my heels.
  • Lastly, expect adventure! Since the glacier is constantly changing, that means that the guided hikes are, too. No two hikes will be exactly the same, so look forward to surprises and a solid dose of adventure.

**NOTE** — The glacier tour I did is sadly no longer available. Due to how dangerous the terminal face of the glacier can be, the only way to get onto the ice today is to book a heli-hiking tour. (Updated 2014)

Franz Josef Glacier Trekking from DangerousBiz on Vimeo.

Have you ever been glacier trekking, either in New Zealand or elsewhere? If so, what was your experience like? If not, is it something you’d ever want to do?



Disclosure: I received a 50 percent discount on my glacier hike from Franz Josef Glacier Guides. As always, though, opinions are 100% my own.


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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37 Comments on “Adventure on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier

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  1. Awesome pictures! When I hiked the glacier around this time last year, it was really cold but didn’t rain (I’m so grateful for that!). I found it impressive how, from time to time, we saw a piece of the glacier crushing down into pieces.

      Lucky you, getting no rain! Though, the rain didn’t really bother me too much; the experience itself was just so great.

      We didn’t get to see any calving (when chunks of ice fall off the glacier), but the colors and everything were still amazing!

    Yep, excellent pictures. This was one of my favorite activities I did while in NZ and, thankfully, I had great weather. Also, how cool is it to say you’ve hiked up a glacier?

      I know, right? I feel like doing something like this definitely gives you bragging rights, and a really cool story.

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you like the photos.

    This experience is cool. NZ is one of my next two trips (hopefully!) and your blog is an awesome resource for me. Keep helping me out with all these great posts!

      Yay New Zealand! Stay tuned, because there’s plenty more NZ content to come!

    Every article I read on the Franz Josef Glacier makes me want to go there – your post is no exception! Brilliant photos!!

      The glacier had been on my “next time” list for New Zealand for years, so I had built up the experience a lot in my mind. And you know what? It totally lived up to expectations! Glad you liked the post and the photos. Thanks for reading!

    I don’t know if I’d use the term “frolic” when mentioning glacier hiking. More like, hold on for dear life and hope you don’t fall onto you ass!

    Loved glacier hiking, so happy you finally got to do it! I didn’t know that Franz is steeper then Fox! So glad I did Fox now:-).

    Did you drink the glacier water? Our guide carved us a “fountain” and I found the water to be the best I have ever tasted! I made sure I had a full bottle before I left the glacier!

      Haha, there were certainly some moments where I felt likely to slip and fall, but there still could have been some frolicking! Haha.

      I’m really glad I finally got to do glacier hiking, too! It was so much fun. But no, we didn’t get to drink any glacial water… wish we had, though!

    We did both Fox and Franz in NZ and loved both experiences…so surreal and so much fun! =) Great tips

      I remember reading your post comparing the two glaciers – I bookmarked it before my own glacier hike! It really was a great experience. Thanks for reading!

    NZ is seriously awesome, great post about it and love the photos

      Thanks for the kind words, Iain! I’m not sure I’ll ever love anywhere else the way I love NZ… and you know what? I’m totally okay with that!

    I love what blue color of the ice. I did heli-hike at Fox glacier.

      Did you? How did you like Fox? I’ve heard good things about both glaciers, so my guess is that you really can’t go wrong.

    awesome!! I would so fall a million times hiking on that I just know it! haha
    gorgeous photos
    I’ve been to Christchurch and the North Iceland but I’ve never made it to the glaciers! I need to go back! 🙂

      Haha, we did have a couple of people fall. But it wasn’t too bad. As long as you dug in your crampons forcefully enough, you were fine!

      And yes, you definitely need to go back! This was my frist time on NZ’s West Coast, and I really regret not visiting it sooner. The glacier hike was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

    I didn’t know you could go up Franz Joseph! When I was there three years ago we could only go to the base. I only remember seeing tours for Fox Glacier. Awesome adventure you had! I can’t wait to go back!

      Yes, you can absolutely hike on Franz Josef! You just have to hire a glacier guide. Without a guide, you can only go as far as the base.

      It’s an awesome adventure, though, and I highly recommend it!

    I am so excited to do this. We are doing our Glacier trip in October and cannot wait.

      You will love it! My only bit of advice would be to not get scared off if it’s raining. I promise that, even in a downpour, hiking on a glacier is amazing!

    I loved Franz Josef Glacier. I actually think it might have been my favorite tour in NZ. You described it perfectly and the photos are wonderful!

      I really really loved it, too. It’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done in NZ — and that’s saying something! Glad to hear you had a great time, too!

    […] it didn’t matter — because we were about to hike on a glacier! Going out in the elements that day ended up being one of the best travel decisions I’ve […]

    What an informative and helpful blog! Love all your photos, makes me want to hop on a plane tomorrow!!

    Will be in NZ in December 2015 and after seeing your photos will defiantly be adding this to the list of must do’s! Please tell me what tour you did with Glacier Guides? Was it the helicopter drop off and walk or the Glacier valley walk?

      Hey Hayely! I actually should probably update this post – not long after I did this glacier hike, they stopped leading hikes where you climb up the face of the glacier (the glaciers are receding too quickly, and it’s too dangerous). So now I think the only option is a heli-hike if you actually want to get ON the glacier. More expensive, but it would definitely be worth it!

    […] so many different landscapes and climates. There are deserts near snow-covered volcanoes, and glaciers that descend down through temperate rainforests. Crossing from one side of the Southern Alps to the […]

    […] the rain-drenched West Coast, the Canterbury Plains, amazingly accessible glaciers like Fox and Franz Josef, the tallest mountain in New Zealand (Mount Cook), the Southern Scenic Route along the coast, the […]

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