All about Franz Josef Glacier

One of the twin glaciers on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Franz Josef Glacier is the more northern of the two. Most people coming to New Zealand have to make the tough choice, the old Fox Glacier vs Franz Josef Glacier conundrum. Like choosing between your two favourite pairs of jeans, it’s hard to pick one over the other, but we choose to spend the majority of our time in Franz Josef. Why? There’s just a little bit more going on in town, the valley walk to the glacier is a more open and offers more expansive views and it’s closer to our one of our favourite spots on the whole west coast, Okarito. Just like cousin Fox, ‘Franz’ as the locals call it, is surrounded by rainforest and not far from the ocean either, so you can tick off the glacier, rainforest and beach in the same day around here too!

That's why three of our small groups take in Franz Josef Glacier:

Kakapo 23 day tour
Kaka 19 day tour
Kea 9 day tour

Here’s our take on everything you need to know about Franz Josef glacier for your New Zealand trip. How to get there, some itinerary suggestions, activities, attractions and things to do plus a handy tip or two from our years visiting Franz Josef on our own Kiwi holidays.

Where is Franz Josef Glacier?

Franz Josef Glacier location map and image

Our favourites in and around Franz Josef Glacier

As with its twin to the south, Franz Josef is one of the best places in the world to get close to a glacier. Take the half day walk up the main glacial valley for great views of the terminal face, jump on a helihike or try ice climbing with a guide.  To get off the beaten track just a little, the short climb to Sentinel Rock will be well worth the effort, if you’re really keen then a full day hike to either Alex Knob or Roberts Point will guarantee the views and no crowds! If there’s one spot on the whole coast we love, then it’s Okarito, just down the road from Franz Josef. This is one of the main reasons we like to take our time in Glacier Country, to get out kayaking on the lagoon and take a long walk on the windswept beach. Yep, another pretty typical Kiwi day - glacier, rainforest, kayak on the tidal lagoon, walk on the deserted beach, we could even say you’ll probably see one of our rare White Herons too, but that would sound like we’re bragging so we’ll save that as a surprise till you’re here!

Three travellers posing for a photo in front of their helicopter on Franz Josef Glacier - NZ Glacier Tours

How to fit Franz Josef into your New Zealand itinerary

We mean what we say when we tell people not to rush through the coast, we reckon you should spend at least 3 nights and take your time to poke your nose into all the little nooks and crannies that make the coast so special.  Queenstown to Franz Josef is a long way in a single day and you’d be forced to drive past a lot of really cool spots, so we reckon Wanaka is the place to start your journey from.  Do your homework (or just follow your guide) and find all the best stops in the ‘World Heritage Highway’ from Wanaka to Haast, then mosey up the coast, we reckon Ship Creek and Curly Tree Whitebait are compulsory stops - say gidday to TK and Mo from us when you try your whitebait patty!

Suggested itinerary for Franz Josef Glacier from Queenstown / Wanaka

We always stay the night in Wanaka before heading to the coast, Queenstown to Franz in a day means you’ll miss out on a lot. So…head off early and take plenty of stops on the Heritage Highway to Haast, take a break here before heading north, first stop Curly Tree for your whitebait, then Ship Creek for a walk on the beach or through the stunning Kahikatea forest, Knight’s Point has a pretty cool view too. In Fox head out to Lake Matheson to walk the loop track and grab some sunset photos of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman reflecting perfectly in the water. If you’re continuing on to Franz Josef then do it justice and spend a couple of nights, that gives you a full day for valley walks, glacier hikes, helicopter flights plus Okarito lagoon, for a kayak or wildlife cruise on the lagoon and a walk on the beach.  After Glacier Country we always head up to Punakaiki for another night on the coast, the tropical feel to the forest and towering limestone cliffs give it a real contrast to Glacier Country that you’ll love.

How to get to Franz Josef Glacier

Domestic Flights - The nearest airport is Hokitika, the 140 km (90 mile) drive will take at least 2 hours (slow we know, the roads are narrow and you might have to give way to a herd of sheep!). You can fly to Hokitika from pretty much anywhere in New Zealand, but all fights come via Christchurch.

By Train - You can’t go by train all the way, but the TranzAlpine runs from Christchurch to Greymouth, you can travel by road from there. There’s only one train a day, leaving Christchurch at 08.15 am and arriving into Greymouth at 12.45 pm. From here it’s about 2.5 hours to cover the 180km (110 miles).

From Christchurch to Franz Josef: Not really recommended in one day as you’ll miss too much. The distance by road is 385 km (240 miles) and a quick search on Google will tell you it takes 5 hours, but we’ve driven this road hundreds of times and know it takes longer, and that’s without stops. You’d miss out on things like walking in Arthur’s Pass or checking out the greenstone carvers and the beach in Hokitika if you’re in a rush. Our pick - overnight in Punakaiki before heading down to the glaciers. 

From Queenstown to Franz Josef: This is a journey a lot of people make, but another one we don’t not one we like to do ourselves. Why? On hilly and windy roads, the 350 km (220 miles) will take 5 hours, with minimal stops only. If you’re coming to New Zealand for your ‘Dream Trip’ and may be only going to make this journey once in your life why not take your time and enjoy it, it’s pretty amazing country!

From Wanaka to Franz Josef: Travelling from Wanaka, rather than Queenstown, gives you much more time to travel safely and really enjoy the ‘Heritage Highway’. When we make this trip, we’re in no rush and take most of the day to cover the 290 km (180 miles) because we know everyone loves all the photo opportunities and short walks on the way. What are our favourites? The lookouts on Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, there are so many stops in Mt Aspiring National Park, but we like the Fantail Falls, Blue Pools and Thunder Creek, the Gates of Haast are pretty impressive too. Once you hit the coast Ship Creek is a must, keep your eye out for our little Hectors dolphins in the surf just off the beach. If you’re in no rush you can check out Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson on your way through to Franz Josef,  you won’t be sorry you took the slow road.

From Abel Tasman / Nelson to Franz Josef: If we were showing mates around NZ and this was on our route, we’d travel from Nelson to Paparoa National Park, spend 2 nights there, before heading down to Glacier Country.  Technically you could do it in one day, but you’d miss so much of the countryside so what’s the point? The distance is 480 kilometers (300 miles), don’t even think about it!

Franz Josef Glacier at sunset, photo from Okarito lagoon with kayaker in foreground - NZ Glacier Tours

Our favourite things to do in and around Franz Josef Glacier

Top of this list is seeing the glacier, and you’ve got heaps of choice from self guided valley walks, guided glacier hell-hikes to full on ice-climbing. Allow half a day for the valley walk, follow your nose to the end of the glacier access road and you’ll find the track, it’s well graded and gets you right out in the middle of the valley and just a few hundred metres away from the ice. There’s no walk on access to the glacier any more, so to get on the ice you have to go on a guided tour, with access by helicopter. There’s a range of guided glacier walks, half and full day glacier hiking and ice climbing. Several of these tours include the Hot Pools in town afterwards too!

To get off the beaten track a little, try the Sentinel Rock Walk, or for a some slightly tougher hiking for experienced hikers there’s the Alex Knob and the Roberts Point tracks. These are both challenging full day hikes guaranteed to get you away from the crowds.

When we visit Franz Josef, we always make the short trip to Okarito, off the main road about 30 km (19 miles) from Franz Josef village. It’s a tiny settlement of about 30 people on a huge tidal lagoon, the breeding ground of our very rare White Heron and the perfect spot for a gentle kayak or lagoon cruise. There’s a great track up to the Okarito Trig, a short climb to awesome views up and down the coast, the Southern Alps and the Glaciers are right there too. Stretch your legs on the deserted beach then grab a coffee from our mates Baz and Gemma at the kayak base. You could spend the whole day out here and would love every minute of it. A soak in the hot pools in the evening after your day out will rest your weary bod and ensure a great night’s sleep!

Walkers in the Franz Josef Glacier Valley

Weather in Franz Josef Glacier

We’re in Glacier Country and just a few miles from the ocean, so you will get the full smorgasbord of conditions here. There are a few wet weather options in Franz Josef like the hot pools, alpine cinema and the wildlife centre. If the weather’s not playing ball we make sure we’ve got a good book and spend some time chilling out in our rainforest retreat listening to the rain on the roof!

Franz Josef Glacier Average Temperature:

• Summer, December - February. High: 77F, 25C Low: 54F, 12C.

• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.

• Winter, June - August. High:.57F, 15C  Low: 41F, 5C.

• Spring, September - November. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.

Something you can’t do anywhere but Franz Josef

How’s this for a day you’ll never forget - Helicopter flight over the Southern Alps and glacier hiking in the morning, check out the rare wildlife kayaking Okarito lagoon in the afternoon, walk on the deserted beach then grab an espresso and sit back in the comfy chairs and say gidday to the locals to wind down. Head back into Franz Josef village for dinner and a soak in a private hot pool to top off your perfect day.  We can’t think of anywhere else in the world you can do all this in a single day, this is what people on our trips tell us they love every time we visit Franz!

Something you don’t know about Franz Josef

The glacier is named after Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, the name was given by the German explorer Julius von Haast, the first European to visit the west coast from the southern lakes. A slightly more Kiwi fact - the beach at Okarito, near Franz Josef, was where the author Keri Hulme lived for decades, including when she wrote her Booker Prize winning novel, the Bone People. The book talks about an unnamed windswept west coast beach and the main character is an artist living by herself in this remote location - fair bet that a lot of ideas came to Keri during the many hours she spent walking this very beach!

Visiting Franz Josef with MoaTrek

We love taking our time on the coast and glacier country so we can see all these spots we’ve known and loved on our own Kiwi holidays since we were kids. Over the years plenty of people have told us they love the peace and quiet at Okarito and of course the amazing views at the glacier, which is exactly what we do when we’re here. The thermal pools are pretty new, and who wouldn’t love a hot soak after an amazing day out? We’ve even got a little treat for dinner, we love the Blue Ice Cafe, fantastic food and great people we have become friends over the years. By the time we visit Franz Josef, we’re getting near the end of our tour so everyone really savours these last few days in this wonderful little corner of New Zealand.

Photo with friends, Franz Josef Glacier lookout - NZ Glacier Tours

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