Fox and Franz Josef: The Glacier Duo of New Zealand
Known as the “Te Moeka o Tuawe” and “Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere” in the New Zealand indigenous Māori language, the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, are some of the largest and most accessible glaciers in the world.
Located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast region of the South Island of New Zealand and nestled amongst the lush greenery of a rainforest, rather than on the high rocks of a mountain peak, this glacier duo is one of the most unique in the world.
Originating in the Southern Alps, the Fox Glacier falls over 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) over its 13 kilometers (8.1 mile) length, and ends near the coast in the rainforest temperature. Together with a slightly smaller Franz Josef, located only 23 km (14 miles) north east, they create the most awe-inspiring glacier country in this part of the world.
But wait, what’s really a glacier?
If you think of a glacier and imagine a huge pile of snow and ice, you are pretty much right! However, the formation and the magnitude of its existence is much more fascinating than that.
Shaped over hundreds of years, glacier formation begins with snow accumulation on the highest and coldest elevation. As snow accumulates, it gains in mass and overtime turns to ice. The increasing volume and weight of the ice in turn, begins to deform the ice putting a downward pressure and forcing the ice formation to flow downhill. What makes them unique is their ability to move, essentially acting as a slow and unbelievable massive moving rivers of ice. Some of them can be thousands of meters (thousands of feet) long and deep. Can you imagine that? Standing on the sheet of ice that reaches hundred meters below?
Due to their sheer size and constant movement, the glaciers transform over time offering mesmerizing, nature-inspired icy creations. However, because of that, they can become quite dangerous to visit. As they move down the slope, the holes form within the ice mass, lessening the strength of the structure above and requiring lots of attention when hiking.
The origins of glaciers go back all the way to Ice Age with progressive disappearance overtime. Currently, they take up about 10 percent of the world’s total land area, with most located in Polar Regions like Antarctica, Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and Patagonia.
Thus, having an opportunity to visit a glacier that offers warm and sunny climate at its terminal face (the ending of the glacier) such as Fox and Franz Josef in New Zealand are a rare treat!
How to get to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in New Zealand
The best way to visit this majestic site is to fly directly to either Christchurch or Queenstown on the Southern Island of New Zealand. From there, either rent a car or book a tour bus to the glaciers.
Fox and Franz Josef are located around 5-6 hr drive from Christchurch and 4-5 hr drive from Queenstown. Both routes are very simple, with pretty much one main road leading to the glacier. Both are also very scenic, with route from Christchurch leading through the famous Arthur’s Pass.
Which One Is Better?
I visited only the Fox Glacier, but based on my numerous conversations with the tour guides and hikers who visited both, you simply cannot go wrong with either. The Fox and Franz Josef are located within 30 min drive from each other and both of them are absolutely stunning.
The Fox Glacier is slightly larger and slower moving, thus, it’s a bit more predictable. During my visit in January, the helicopter tours to Franz Josef were not operating due to weather conditions but the Fox was still accessible. Thus, you may have a higher chance making the tour. The Fox Glacier tours are also a bit cheaper.
On the other hand, the Franz Josef Glacier hikes are bit longer giving you more time to hike the glacier and most of them include a complimentary access to the Glacier Hot Pools. Further, the Franz Josef township includes more accommodations and more restaurants, so it may be a little bit more convenient for stay. However, the tours may not be operating as often as the ones to the Fox Glacier.
The best time to visit?
In general, you could potentially visit the glaciers any time of the year but the warmest months offer the most variety from sunny weather in town and icy scenery in the mountains. The months from October to April feature the warmest weather, with January being the warmest month. Unfortunately, the warm season is also a rainy season, so bring your rain coat. Fortunately, the rain clears up quite quickly giving way to a beautiful sunshine. From all the warm months, February tends to be the driest.
Where to stay?
The Fox and Franz Josef are located within 30 min drive from each other with State Highway 6 connecting the two, so you can plan to stay in the vicinity of one, and make a day trip to visit the other.
At the bottom of each, is a small town or a township that servers mostly visitors, although the Fox Glacier township also services the local farming community. Each town has few hotels and private accommodations, as well as, few restaurants, grocery store and many tour companies offering glacier heli hikes and area tours.
During my visit it appeared that Franz Josef had a few more hotels and restaurants as compared to the Fox township, but overall both of them are quite similar. The Fox, on the other hand, was located next to famous Lake Matheson. We stayed in the Fox Glacier township, which offered less pricey accommodations, but you cannot go wrong staying in neither.
How long to stay?
One to two days would be perfectly fine to visit at least one glacier, however, it is very important to note that depending on weather conditions (which are completely unpredictable) some or all tours can be cancelled. Thus, if you are set on actually hiking and touching the glacier, you may want to book your tour the 1st day and reserve additional one or two more days, to ensure that if any cancellation occurs, you have plenty of time cushion and can re-book it for the following day.
How to visit Glacier?
Glacier Viewing Points
Both, the Fox and Franz Josef offer opportunity for viewing the terminus side (the ending part of the glacier) for people at all levels of ability. Once you are in the area, simply follow the walking tracks up to the viewing points to get close up view of the glaciers. The walks are not strenuous, however, even though you will have a great view of the glaciers, you will not be able to touch them or climb them. Due to concern for safety, as ice and rock collapses have caused fatalities, the only way to touch the glacier is to book the guided hike with a tour company as outlined below.
Glacier Hiking: Arrival by Foot
Between the two glaciers, only the Fox Glacier is accessible by foot. It is not as steep and can be accessed along the river valley floor with a local tour company. Included in the tour will be all your equipment from specialized shoes (cramps), that will prevent you from sliding on the ice, to waterproof clothing.
Unfortunately, the Franz Josef is accessible only by helicopter.
Glacier Hiking: Arrival by Helicopter
Both, the Fox and Franz Josef Glacier are accessible by helicopter, which could double the adventure. Our heli ride was spectacular with breathtaking bird’s-eye views of the mountains and the glacier. It was an unforgettable experience.
How to prepare?
The great think about booking an actual glacier hike with a tour company is that you really don’t need to do any preparation upfront. All the waterproof clothing to include jackets, pants, warm hiking socks, specialized hiking shoes and crampons (the spiky shoe bottoms), as well as hiking poles are provided for you. All you need is a camera to capture the memories and a great attitude.
The good news is that the glacier hikes are not really strenuous. If you are in an average physical shape, you will be fine. On my tour there were people with kids, as well as, in advanced age and everyone was comfortable during the hike. For those that love adventure, there are few more strenuous paths once on the hike, like squeezing in between icy crevices. However, those are completely optional and you don’t have climb them. You can just observe how others do it, if you are not comfortable yourself.