Walkway along riverbed to Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand.

Visiting Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier (Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere) is one of the most popular glaciers in New Zealand for the simple fact that it’s one of the biggest, steepest, and fastest, and the easiest to access.

However, visiting still has its challenges as this dynamic environment is hazard prone, especially by flooding and landslide. Torrential rains in 2019 washed out parts of the access road and walkway to Franz Josef Glacier. It also washed out the access road to nearby Fox Glacier. A not-so-subtle reminder of the powerful forces at work here.

That said, it’s still definitely worth visiting. However, road and access conditions need to be verified beforehand.

Walkway along riverbed to Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

About Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier sits on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a 7.5 mile (12 km) long glacier, stopping about 12 miles (19 km) from the Tasman Sea. The peak sits 9,842’ (3,000 m) above sea level. 

The glacier was formed by the accumulation of snow dumped by westerly winds. Over time, this accumulated snow became compacted and started pushing down the mountain, picking up rocks and debris along the way.

Franz Josef Is One of the Steepest & Fastest

Franz Josef is one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand. Because it’s steeper, it’s glacial ice moves faster.

How fast? Although it’s always changing, it’s been noted to move as fast as 13’ (4 m) per day. This is much faster than the average valley glacier, which is about 20” to 3’ (50 cm to 1 m) per day. 

Glacial Caves & Crevasses on Franz Josef

Because the glacial ice on Franz Josef moves fast, it’s more likely to have stunning features like ice caves and crevasses. And because it’s dynamic, these features can change daily.

Glacial caves are a unique phenomenon that occur when water flows through the glacier and melts out a passageway.

In addition to glacial caves, as weather eats away at the glacial ice, sometimes it creates cracks, or crevasses. Sometimes up to 200’ (60 m)!

Both are beautiful to explore, but can also be dangerous.

Ice Cave on Franz Josef | Jeremy Sham

Glacial caves can be unstable. And sometimes they’re invisible, especially when filled with fresh snow. Because of this (as well as many other reasons) it’s very important to only walk on a glacier with an experienced guide.

Franz Josef Glacier Is Dynamic

Franz Josef Glacier is dynamic. It’s been advancing and retreating over the centuries. Advancing when the snowfall is higher than the snowmelt, and retreating when there is more snow melting than snowfall. 

The most recent cyclical advancement phase ended in 2008, when due to global warming, it started a rapid retreat.

In addition to this, the area around the glacier is also dynamic as it’s hazard prone. Because of the high mountains and westerly weather system, it receives a lot of rainfall, making it susceptible to floods and landslides.

Furthermore, as the glacier retreats, more sediment flows down the mountain, raising the level of the Waiho River bed below, making the area even more prone to flooding.

Based on average warming trends, scientists provide a sobering projection that by 2,100, Franz Josef will lose 38% of its mass and retreat about 3 miles (5 km). A very disheartening statistic!

Why Glacier Ice Appears Blue

The ice on glaciers is created by the accumulation of snow, and it’s continuous freezing and thawing cycle. Eventually, the accumulated weight pushes out all the air bubbles in the snow, creating glacial ice.  

When light hits the ice, the long wavelengths of light (red light) are absorbed by the glacial ice, while the short wavelengths (blue light) are transmitted and scattered, creating the blue appearance.

Blue Ice on Franz Joseph | Greg Hewgill

The farther the light travels through the ice, the more blue it appears.

Why Glacial (and Nearby) Lakes Are So Brilliant

As the glacier moves, it pulverizes the rocks and minerals beneath it, kind of like sandpaper, making what’s called “rock flour”. As the glacier ice melts, this rock flour trickles down to nearby lakes where it becomes suspended in the water. 

Like above, when sunlight reflects off this rock flour, the long wavelength light absorbs the red hues and short wavelength light scatters the blues. 

This is why glacial lakes, and so many lakes in New Zealand, are such brilliant colors, like, Lake Whakatipu and Lake Tekapo.

Lake Tekapo New Zealand

Maori Legend of Franz Josef Glacier

The Maori name of Franz Josef is Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere, which means ‘The tears of Hine Hukatere’. Legend states that Hine Hukatere was hiking here with her lover, Wawe, when he was swept away by an avalanche and killed.

The many tears she cried over his loss flowed down the mountain and turned to ice, creating the glacier.

Visiting Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

Franz Josef glacier is located about 3 miles (5 km) from the town of Franz Josef, New Zealand. There are several ways to access, or view, the glacier.

Although historically tourists used to be able hike up the side of Franz Josef, as of 2012 this is no longer an option, due to surface instability.

The only options today are viewpoints in the area, taking a helicopter to the top, or a scenic flight. Unfortunately, the latter two actually contribute to the demise of Franz Josef through global warming.

Franz Josef Glacier Walk

Franz Josef Glacier Walk takes you through the forest and along the riverbed too a viewpoint to see the glacier. It’s an easy 3.3 mile (5.4 km), 1.5 hour, out and back walk.

Barriers are in place for the closest, safest, view point. This may be 100’s of feet, or up to a mile, depending upon area conditions. As the surface is unstable, it’s not wise to bypass these barriers, as people have died doing so.

Even if you can’t get as close to the glacier as you want, this is still an easy and beautiful walk.

Alex Knob Track

Alex Knob Track is a challenging 4 hour climb to a viewpoint of Franz Josef. This track, however, is for experts only. 10.7 miles (17.2 km), 8 hours with return.

Canavans Knob Walk

Canavans Knob Walk is a short climb for lovely views of Franz Josef and the surrounding area. 2 – 4 miles (3.2 – 6.3 km), 1 hour to 1 hour, 40 minutes with return.

Douglas Walk

Douglas Walk is short easy walk though the forest, going past Peter’s Pool where Franz Josef is reflected in the water. 2.5 miles (3.9 km), 1 hour with return.

Peter’s Pool

Peter’s Pool Walk is the direction track to Peter’s Pool. 0.7 miles (1.1 km), 25 minutes with return.

Reflection of Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand in Peter’s Pool.
Peter’s Pool

Robert’s Point Track

Robert’s Point Track is an advanced climb up for great views of the glacier. 6.8 – 7.6 miles (11 – 12.3 km), 5 hours, 20 minutes with return.

Sentinel Rock Walk

Sentinel Rock Walk is an easy climb with views of Franz Josef. 0.5 miles (900 m), 20 minutes with return.

Heli Hikes & Scenic Flights

Unfortunately the only way to get really close to Franz Josef today is to take a helicopter up and do a guided hike, or take a scenic flight overhead.

Although I’m sure this is stunning, I chose not to as the carbon emissions to get there contribute to global warming, one of the reasons Franz Josef is under such distress.

That said, it’s still a popular option. You can find more information here.

Summary

I highly recommend visiting Franz Josef Glacier. You simply can’t walk this area without feeling insignificant in the presence of such powerful forces of nature.

It’s amazing to be ‘wowed’ by the beauty of our world. And I was completely awed by its raw, rugged, majesty.

Although I was only at Franz Josef Glacier for one night on my way to Abel Tasman before a flight out after my month long stay in New Zealand, I’m so glad I got to see this beautiful glacier.

For other amazing adventures in New Zealand, see my posts on hiking the Routeburn Track, Tongariro, Abel Tasman Coastal Track, and Cape Brett Walkway.

Sky rainbow above Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

If you’re planning to visit the South Island, you can’t miss stunning Queenstown, Milford Sound, Wānaka, or the wineries of Marlborough.

And for a great overview of them all, check out my New Zealand Travel Guide, where you’ll learn more about the top destinations, how to get around, when to visit, safety tips, and more.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

2 Comments

  • cyndi

    When I was in New Zealand my daughter and I did a hike on the glacier and it was amazing. The pools of water on the glacier is the most aqua color I have ever seen. I found it interesting how much the glacier has melted. Beautiful pictures Julie!

    • juliedecocker@yahoo.com

      Cyndi, I bet is was fun to hike on the glacier….and yes, it is scary how much it has melted. I loved the old photos of people from years gone by hiking it.

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