The suns gentle rays warm the quaint town of Fran Josef, New Zealand, but a subtle breeze brings a sneaky chill to the air. The town itself is filled with mountaineering and adventure fanatics, backpackers and your typical tourists. A couple of busy cafes sit alongside the main road filled with people swapping tales of their heli-hike or scenic chopper ride over the great Franz Josef Glacier.
Just above the town, the glacier looms in the distance, the white ice standing out boldly from the charcoal grey peaks surrounding it. Just meters away lush, green rain forest reaches toward the sky from the valleys below.
To see the glacier is simple. Depending on the daily conditions, a quick hike can get you just hundreds of meters away. The Department of Conservation constantly monitors the massive and ever changing glacier and moves the viewing platform to correspond with the danger of ice or rock slides/collapse. A car park at the base of the trail is easy to reach – it’s a simple 5k drive from the township of Franz Josef. For those without a vehicle, a pedestrian pathway follows the road. From the parking lot the hike averages and hour and half there and back and meanders through the valley alongside the glaciers raging waters. It’s not difficult; most anyone should be able to reach the end point without much of a problem.
Bring sturdy shoes as you will be trekking through river beds laden with loose stones. The pathway follows a swift-moving, smoky-colored river fed by glacial melting. The frigid water released by the glacier cuts into the dusty, grey peaks surrounding the ice causing the outflow to be a cloudy, grey color as it sweeps particles of the mountainside downriver.
Several hikes originate near the base of the Franz Josef Glacier including the difficult Alex Knob 8 hour return hike. The hikes, even the much shorter ones, offer stunning views of the glacier, but none actually allows access onto the glacier. At one time, guided tours led tourists onto the ice by walking up the mountainside; however, the face of the glacier collapsed years ago. Now, the only way onto the ice is to pay for a guided trip that includes helicopter ride to the middle of the Franz Jospef Glacier.
There is only one company operating combined flights and walking tours of the glacier. Tour packages with Franz Josef Glacier Guides start at $299.00 nzd per person for a 5-10 minute chopper ride and several hours exploring the ice while learning how the glacier regenerates. There are two other options for longer tours with the same company, which run $399.00 nzd per person and up. If you’re not absolutely enthralled with walking through the blue caverns and cliffs of the glacier, you can simply hire one of many scenic flight companies to fly you above the glacier for a better look without touching down. Such flights, however, cost approximately $120.00 nzd for a ten minute scenic tour.
Whether you circle the glacier from the sky, strap on crampons and traverse the surface or simply stand in awe of the glacier’s powerful forces from the free viewing point below, the glacier is impressive and a must see on a tour of New Zealand’s South Island.