The Franz Josef Glacier walk is nowadays a 1.7 kilometre return track through native forest taking you to a viewing area from where you can get a glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier. I said nowadays, because the Franz Josef Glacier Trail used to be a longer walk. However, the Waiho river has cut off access to the Franz Josef Glacier valley during a heavy flood. So unfortunately it is not possible anymore to go further on foot through the valley. This means you can’t get up close to the terminal face of the glacier as you might see on pictures circulating the internet.
Nevertheless, the Franz Josef Glacier walk is a very easy walk which is family friendly and a great way to get a glimpse of the glacier on a clear day. But if you’re going on a cloudy day, you will have a hard time spotting Franz Josef Glacier. Find in this complete guide everything you need to know about this walk and learn more about this natural phenomenon.
How to get to Franz Josef Glacier walk
The trailhead for Franz Josef Glacier walk is at Glacier car park which is the same parking as for Roberts Point Track. It’s only a 10 minute drive from Franz Josef Township following the State Highway 6 towards the Franz Josef Glacier Access Road. The parking lot is very spacious with public toilets. From here the Franz Josef Glacier walk trailhead is clearly marked and well-signed.
Franz Josef Glacier walk key facts
Before we dive into the details about the Franz Josef Glacier walk, let’s first have a look at the key facts of the trail so you’re well prepared!
Franz Josef Glacier walk distance and duration: The 1.7 km return track can be completed in 30 minutes depending on how long you spend at the viewing area.
Franz Josef Glacier walk difficulty and incline: With only very, very little incline the Franz Josef Glacier walk is an easy walk and can be considered as the easiest Franz Josef walk.
Best time to do the Franz Josef Glacier walk
The most important thing you want to keep in mind when doing the Franz Josef Glacier walk is that you’ll need clear skies to see the glacier. The best chance of a clear skies in Franz Josef is early in the morning, so try to go as early as possible! If you’re only for 1 or 2 days in Franz Josef and it’s mostly cloudy then you can still do the hike to get a taste of what you can expect. However, keep in mind that the glacier might be covered in clouds. Especially nowadays since the glacier is much more retreated, the terminal face is very hard to see from the forest viewpoint.
What to expect along the Franz Josef Glacier walk
The Franz Josef Glacier walk starts on a flat and wide gravel path through beautiful native forest. Surrounded by mountains and lush bush and trees, it is a stunning short walk taking you to the forest viewpoint.
Just a few hundred meters into the track there is a junction where you can go to Sentinel Rock when turning left and the forest walk viewpoint is to your right.
From the forest viewpoint you can get a glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier. But because you are still a kilometre away from the terminal face and the glacier has retreated a lot over the last couple of years, the feeling of being close does not really come to fruition.
At the forest viewpoint are some benches to relax and information panels where you can learn about glaciology and the history of the area.
You can see where the previous glacier valley walk continued which is now fenced. Due to a heavy flood the river has cut off access to the Franz Josef Glacier valley. So it is not possible to go further on foot through to the terminal face of the glacier anymore.
Unfortunately it’s not possible anymore to see the glacier from the valley floor as showed on this picture
Sentinel Rock viewpoint
To add a little bit extra to the short Franz Josef Glacier walk you can also go to Sentinel Rock from where you will get a slightly different perspective of the valley. This glacier is still very hard to see from this point, but the valley views are beautiful. You can also easily spot birds here and you’ll find some more information panels.
Final thoughts about the Franz Josef Glacier walk
To be very honest, the Franz Josef Glacier walk felt fairly underwhelming for us. The glacier is very hard to see from this distance. And besides that, it’s also very alarming to see that the glacier has shrunk so much in the last couple of years!
If you have the time and your fitness level is good, I highly recommend doing either Roberts Point Track (11.8 kilometer), or Alex Knob Track (17 kilometer) to get a much better view of Franz Josef Glacier.
About Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is one of New Zealand’s glaciers which is located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast. Being a remnant of the last ice age, Franz Josef Glacier is considered a unique natural wonder, attracting thousands of visitors every year. The glacier is named after the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef I and is one of two major glaciers in the region (the other being the Fox Glacier).
Franz Josef Glacier stretches for about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the Southern Alps down to the rainforest of Westland National Park and is one of three glaciers in the world this close to the coastline. Perhaps this is also the reason why the glacier is rapidly changing and is even considered being one of the most fastest changing glaciers in the world! That’s bad news, and makes a visit to Franz Josef Glacier even more special, as the view of the glacier might be gone in 10 – 20 years from now.
Over the past century, the glacier has been retreating at an average rate of around 40 meters (130 feet) per year, although this rate has accelerated in recent years. You can view the glacier from various vantage points, including helicopter tours, guided glacier heli hikes, and viewpoints on nearby hiking trails such as the Roberts Point Track and Alex Knob Track.
Franz Josef Glacier is a rapidly changing environment, constantly changing due to natural processes. Melting and calving of ice, as well as the effects of climate change and other environmental factors affect the glacier and make its future uncertain. Therefore, if you have the opportunity, seeing Franz Josef Glacier from up might become unique and not possible anymore later in our lifetime…
How to get around in New Zealand
To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a car, campervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand.
Car rental New Zealand
Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we personally recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for these kind of roads.
We rented for 6 weeks a Mitsubishi ASX model and were super happy with this car! The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies and terms and conditions. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick up date.
Campervan rental in New Zealand
Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a roadtrip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will you give you a true feeling of freedom and connects you with nature.
We personally recommend to book your campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they have a wide range of Stationwagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 road side assistance & long term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream roadtrip!
Where to stay in Franz Josef town
Franz Josef is a small but charming town with a range of accommodation options, restaurants, and shops. It has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere and is a great base for exploring the surrounding area. You can then easily visit Franz Josef Glacier, the Glacier Hot Pools and many more attractions near Franz Josef. Here are the best places to stay in Franz Josef.
We have stayed here ourselves and absolutely loved the self contained chalets. It felt like a ‘home away from home’ with everything you need. A fully equipped kitchen to cook your own meals, comfortable bed, table with chairs for dining, comfortable couch, private parking and a shared laundry. Highly recommended!
Set amongst lush native bush in Franz Josef town is the Rainforest Retreat located. With a range of different accommodations from luxury tree huts to backpackers rooms the Rainforest Retreat has something for every budget. There are 5 bedroom holiday homes and one bedroom cottages. There is also the option to choose for a private hot tub with some tree houses or rooms with bunkbeds. With an on site spa, sauna and restaurant, there is nothing you will miss in this beautiful accommodation.
Centrally located in Franz Josef Village, the Scenic Hotel offers spacious and modern furnished rooms and suites with en suite bathroom. Some rooms have a balcony. You can enjoy breakfast and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant which serves modern New Zealand cuisine and quality wines.
Best tours on the South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is full of adventure, stunning scenery and fun experiences to be made. There are few experiences which are an absolute must when you’re traveling New Zealand’s South Island. Below a summary of the best tours you can book.
An absolute unforgettable experience in New Zealand is a helicopter flight to Franz Josef Glacier including a snow landing. Fly above the ice falls, snowfields, and crevasses before you land in a glacial snowfield. A must do in Franz Josef and absolute once in a lifetime experience!
Depart during a morning cruise on a smaller boat that travels outside of peak hours. This will give you prime viewing and more time on the water than other tours. You will listen to the informative commentary from the passionate skippers of Southern Discoveries and enjoy a provided picnic lunch. If you want to, you can include a kayak excursion and paddle Harrison Cove in a small-group. Limited to 8 people you will have a very intimate experience to really take in the immense scale of the bluffs and explore Milford Sound in a unique way.
The lesser known and quieter version of Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound. During this full-day tour you will journey across the clear waters of Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife while taking in the scenery. If you’re lucky you might see fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and crested and little blue penguins. You naturalist guide will tell you everything and point out interesting sights.
A Milford Sound scenic flight is the perfect way to see the impressive landscape of Fiordland NP from the air. Depart from Milford Airport and track west along Milford Sound. Climb alongside Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak for some great views of the fiords and its towering peaks. After the 20 minute helicopter flight you will return to Milford base.
Another way to see Fiordland National Park from above is when you booked the scenic fly-cruise-fly tour from Queenstown. You will get a round trip flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound followed by a boat cruise in Milford Sound. Take in the spectacular views of the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps, remote valleys and waterfalls. During the flight you will have an amazing aerial view of Lake Quill and Sutherland Falls as can be seen on the picture below. This experience will take your breath away and is a must do if your budget allows it. Without a doubt some of the most scenic flights in New Zealand.
More New Zealand travel guides
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the Franz Josef Glacier walk. Make sure to put this walk on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!
There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides and read more!