We answer all your questions about the Franz Josef Glacier

May 16

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The glaciers of the South Island of New Zealand are some of the most accessible in the world. On the West Coast of the South Island, glaciers were huge ice sheets extend as far as the sea during the last ice age.

Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, and nearby Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe, are world famous, icy items on the bucket lists of visitors from both Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas.


Why is Franz Josef Glacier famous?

Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere is a temperate maritime glacier in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast.

It has a combination of characteristics that make it a stand out, even in the exceptional world of glaciers, making it an icon of New Zealand tourism, right up there with Milford Sound and the Tongariro Crossing.

As well as being one of the steepest glaciers in new Zealand, it moves quickly (the main ice fall has been clocked at up to four metres per day – most glaciers top out at one metre per day, and even that would be consider fast). This means the incredible array of crevasses, ice tunnels and seracs, as well as the terminal face itself, are changing all the time.

And because its terminal face sits at such a low altitude, it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.

Is Fox or Franz Josef Glacier better?

They are both pretty good. Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand, reaching from high in the Southern Alps down into the rainforest of Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

The less visited Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe is equally spectacular, and is West Coast’s longest glacier to boot.

How long is Franz Josef Glacier?

Franz Josef Glacier is 10.5 kilometres long and is, in places, up to 300 metres thick. It is currently retreating, and has become about 800 metres shorter over the past eight years.

Fox Glacier is slightly longer, at 13 kilometres long. It also moves even faster than Franz Joseph Glacier.

Can you walk to Franz Josef Glacier?

In the South Island’s glacier country, the alpine glaciers that are some of the easiest to see in the world, especially their dramatic terminal faces. Yep, it’s ice ice baby, and once you’re on the coast, it’s just a short drive and an easy walk away.

The Franz Joseph walking trail

To get a good look at the glacier, take the short Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk to the viewing area looking over the glacier valley.

The 1.7 kilometre return walking trail through beautiful West Coast rainforest takes about 30 minutes from the glacier car park, which is about five kilometres from the Franz Josef township.

You’ll see waterfalls, mountains and get a good look at the upper glacier, as well as the Waiho River and the landscape the ice has left behind as it retreats.

Stay off the ice!

But (!) you can’t walk right up to the glacier, and don’t try to. The safety barriers are there for a reason – the glacier is volatile. Don’t die for the sake of the Gram.

Is the Franz Josef Glacier walk safe?

The glacier walk is rated “easy” by the Department of Conservation, but always check the weather and track conditions before going hiking anywhere in New Zealand, especially on the West Coast, where conditions can be extreme and change quickly.

The track and access road can be closed due to flooding, rockfall or landslides.

Before heading out, it’s a good idea for tourists to stop in at the Westland Tai Poutini National Park Visitor Centre and i-SITE in Franz Josef/ Waiau or the Fox Glacier Office in Fox Glacier / Weheka.

Can you see Franz Josef Glacier without a tour?

You can take the self-guided walk to the viewing area. But if you want feet to touch ice, you need to go with one of operators that run guided tours to Franz Josef Glacier. The only safe way to get up yourself onto the glacier is to fly, in the company of experienced guides.

You can experience the glacier up close, and test your crampon game, on a heli hike tour. You can also check the glaciers out from above on a scenic helicopter flight, or turn up the adrenaline up to 11 and try ski diving. Skydive Franz Josef Glacier offers New Zealand’s highest skydive, at 20,000 feet.

How tall is Franz Josef Glacier?

The Franz Josef Glacier descends from a height of 3000 metres above sea level down to 500 metres, making it one of the steepest glaciers in Aotearoa New Zealand.

How old is the Franz Josef Glacier?

The Franz Josef Glacier is about 7000 years old.

How do I get to Franz Josef Glacier village on the West Coast?

Located on the West Coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island / Te Waipounamu, Franz Josef Glacier village is on State Highway 6. It’s a one hour, 45-minute drive south from Hokitika (the nearest airport) and three hours, 45 minutes from Wanaka.

It’s about a 20-minute drove between Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph.

Is the Franz Josef Glacier melting?

Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere is retreating. It has lost more that 1.5 kilometres of its length since 2008.

The overall retreat since the late 1880s has been three kilometres, although there was a period of advance between 1983 and 1999. Glaciers like Franz Josef are strongly affected by snowfall – a high accumulation of snow can lead to an advance, while a high rate of melting will lead to retreating.

A mega melt?

In 2021, a French study found that the glaciers in Aotearoa New Zealand are now melting at a rate seven times faster than 20 years ago. The Franz Josef Glacier is the shortest it has ever been since records began.

Sadly, it’s one of the place scientists are studying the effects of climate change up close and in real time.

What is the best time to visit Franz Josef township and glacier?

It’s pretty chilly in winter (think lows of 5 degrees Celsius, and highs of 15), but some say this is the most spectacular time to visit Franz Josef Glacier, and the cold months have the bonus of being less busy from a tourism point of view. The ice moves less in winter, meaning cool features like caves stay around longer.

Summer is peak season, with up to a million tourists visiting glacier country from November through March. But if you take a guided hike, there’s definitely something about hiking on ice in a tee shirt, which you can only do in summer.

What is the meaning of the name for Franz Josef Glacier?

There are two names for the glacier: Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere and Franz Josef.

A love story

Franz Josef Glacier’s Māori name means Kā Roimata a Hine Hukatere, or the frozen tears of Hine Hukatere. Hine Hukatere persuaded her lover, Wawe, to come climbing in the with her. An avalanche hit when they were high in the mountains, and Wawe was swept to his death. Hine Hukatere’s tears flowed so much, they formed a river, which was frozen by the gods.

A moment in history

The less romantic name “Franz Josef” was given to the glacier by the explorer and geologist Julius von Haast, who named it for the Austrian emperor. The 1914 assassination of his nephew (and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne) Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist led to the outbreak of World War I. Yes, the band is named after him.

This article is even better in print.

1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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