Franz Josef Glacier

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Franz Josef Glacier

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Review of "Franz Josef Glacier"

published 13/05/2015 | anwar
Member since : 30/04/2003
Reviews : 730
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Pro fantastic scenery, glaciers!
Cons its expensive
Is it worth visiting?
Transport links
Family Friendly

"Amazing nature!"

Franz Josef Glacier from the valley walk

Franz Josef Glacier from the valley walk

At the end of last year I took my young son on a 5 week trip to New Zealand. Before we left we spent time planning what we wanted to do and see in the short time we had. Near the top of our list was a visit to the Glaciers on the west coast of the South Island. We wanted to visit both Franz Josef and the smaller Fox Glacier and decided to stay in the larger township of Franz Josef as reviews seemed to favour this Glacier for having the best scenery.

Getting there.

Getting to the West coast is not easy, but for me that is part of its attraction! I prebooked a hire car before we left as this was the cheapest option as far as I could see. I wanted to have the freedom to go where we pleased without having to rely of public transport. We decided to travel via Hamner springs where we spent time visiting the thermal pools (see my review for more details). From Hamner we drove over the attractive Lewis pass to Hokitika via Greymouth. We stayed a night in Hokitika to break up the 6 hour journey. It took about 3 hours to drive from Hokitika to Franz Josef. Although we had torrential rain for much of the drive the little we could see of the scenery was truly stunning!

Alternatively you could drive via the better known and equally scenic Arthur’s pass. Both these passes can become blocked by ice and snow in the winter months so check before setting off!

It is possible to travel using public transport with the tranz alpine train running from Christchurch or Queenstown to Greymouth .From Greymouth there is a bus service to Franz Josef. There are airports at both Christchurch and Queenstown.

Is it worth the effort?

Franz Josef has the feel of a small holiday village with lots of tourists from all over the world staying in a small area. The town has several accommodation options, cafes, a small supermarket and several gift shops. It is also the starting point for organised trips onto the Glacier.

Obviously the main draw is getting up close and personal to the magnificent Glaciers. If you have a car I suggest you first drive south, crossing the one way bridge over the Waiho River to the car park at the start of the Glacier track. The car park is free and when we visited there were plenty of spaces. If you don’t have a car then there is a shuttle bus that runs to the track.

The track is well maintained and should be suitable for anyone of moderate fitness. It takes about an hour to get to the viewing area at the top. The walk passes lots of waterfalls, with great photo opportunities.
The track ends at a viewing platform with a safety barrier. There are several information boards telling you about the geology of the area, in addition to its Maori importance. There are also warning notices telling you not to try to cross the barrier to get onto the glacier. There have been several deaths when people have ignored the warnings as the ice can be very unstable.

The glacier really is an awesome sight from the top and appears to have a blue tinge. It looks like a giant tongue snaking down from the mountain. I was surprised to learn that at this point the glacier is only 300 metres above sea level.

Getting onto the glacier.

Having spoken to a friend I have been told that 10 years ago it was possible to get onto the glacier without having to result to a helicopter. However today it has shrunk to such an extent that you now need to take a helicopter up; if anyone doubts the effects of global warming they are here to be seen!

To get onto the glacier you will need to book a tour with an experienced guide. We booked with Franz Josef glacier guides before leaving home as the tours are very popular and get booked up in advance. Franz Josef glacier guides has a large office in the centre of the town. All trips are weather dependant and as a helicopter ride is involved, tours can be cancelled due to high winds and rain. We were really lucky as the weather was awful when we arrived and all tours had been cancelled. However our early morning tour went ahead although all tours later that day were also cancelled. There are several tours available from the basic ice explorer to an adult only ice climb. We opted for the ice explorer. The company also run guided valley walks and helicopter rides without any walking involved!

The ice explorer tour costs $325( about £154) for an adult and $295 per child. All necessary kit is provided and groups are small. The tour starts with a short helicopter ride onto the glacier. Once on the glacier you follow your guide. We were given the opportunity to use a pick ace to create ice steps, walked through ice tunnels and climbed ice walls. In total we spent about 3 hours on the glacier. We were paid a visit by a kia ( a New Zealand parrot) known for their intelligence and ability to steal food!

Overall I would highly recommend this tour as I think it was well worth the high cost. The tour price also includes entry to the local hot pools.

Glacier hot pools.

These are situated about 10 minutes walk from the town centre and are open every day until 10pm.There are 3 main pools situated in a rain forest setting. The pools range in temperature from 36-40 degrees and are perfect to ease the aches and pains after a day on the ice. As I have indicated we had *free* entry as part of our Glacier tour, otherwise the cost is $26 for an adult and $22 for a child. ..

This is a small complex and the changing rooms could do with a bit of updating! However we spent a relaxing hour in the pools before heading back to our motel to bed.

Away from the ice.

There are numerous walking trails in the area, including several excellent options from Fox glacier about a 20 minute drive away. However if the weather is awful; and it often is, then you could always head to the excellent small wildlife centre.

West coast wildlife centre.

Situated just a few minutes walk from the main street and well signposted the wildlife centre is well worth a visit. Its main attraction is the breeding programme it runs for the Rowi; the world rarest kiwi. The Rowi are viewed via a semi dark walkway along their enclosure. At first we couldn't spot any but as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom we were able to watch several birds pecking for food. The conservation programmes aim is to get the birds to an age where they have a decent chance of survival in the wild on a predator free Island. Left to their own devises only about 20% of chicks survive to adulthood. This number is greatly increased with the help of the programme.

The centre also has an excellent glacier model with lots of easy to understand information about how the glaciers were formed. The story of the West coast covers the history of the area and includes a small life size gold rush town.

The centre is open every day and costs $35 per adult and $20 per child. There are also backstage tickets on offer at $55 per adult and $35 per child. The backstage tickets include a visit to the incubation and rearing facility and talk by a ranger. Chicks can be viewed from October until March.

We really enjoyed our visit to the centre and felt the cost was justified as the money goes to help with the breeding programme.

A different perspective…

Getting out on the water gives you a different perspective of the stunning scenery. We decided to take a guided kayak tour with Glacier country kayaks situated opposite the hot pools. This is a small and very friendly company offering tours on the nearby Mapourika Lake. The tour lasted for about 4 hours and included transport to the Lake and all equipment. We kayaked to a Kiwi sanctuary on the opposite side of the lake and although there were no Kiwi to be seen, it was a really enjoyable experience. The cost of the tour is $115 per adult and $65 per child. although I did manage to get a discount- just ask!

Accommodation matters…

There are quite a few options in Franz Josef including hostels. We opted to stay in the Aspen court motel about a 5 minute walk from the town centre. The motel had good reviews and so I was very disappointed by the less than friendly welcome from the owner.

We booked a 1 bedroom unit and although it was all very new and comfortable, it lacked character. The unit consisted of 2 queen sized beds and kitchenette. The kitchenette area was well equipped with hob, microwave and fridge. However the sign warning that we would be charged a full night’s rate if we dared to cook anything with a strong odour (including garlic, fish and curry) made us nervous!

The bathroom was also very new and spotlessly clean complete with spa bath and shower.

The unit had its own parking place and there were outside Bbq for guests use. However we felt unwelcome and this spoiled our stay. We paid $185 per night and I would not choose to stay here again.


There is a small supermarket in the town although its very expensive. I suggest if you are self catering you stop in Greymouth and stock up as its much cheaper.

There are several cafes in town including a lovely bakery about 5 minutes walk away from the town centre just past the petrol station. It’s tucked down a small lane and could easily be missed. However it serves great coffee and home made cakes and is reasonable priced.

Overall we really enjoyed our visit to Franz Josef and feel privileged to have seen the Glaciers before they disappear for ever.

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Comments on this review

  • elfbwillow published 27/01/2017
    Escellent review
  • pinotprincess published 30/12/2016
    another E for your collection x
  • justarube published 20/08/2016
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Product Information : Franz Josef Glacier

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Listed on Ciao since: 03/06/2006