In Destinations

Not for the faint-hearted: The hike to Franz Josef glacier

So, last week I had the opportunity to visit the Franz Josef glacier on New Zealand’s South Island. If you know anything about Franz Josef then you may have heard of the world famous heli-hikes which fly you up in a helicopter to the top of the glacier and then from there you have the chance to spend a couple of hours exploring the ice on a guided tour. The attraction is pretty darn cool. However, the heli-hike tour is the only way you can have access to the glacier as over the last couple of decades it has shrunk to such a size that to attempt to reach it on foot would be nothing short of dangerous.

But it wasn’t always the case!

The Franz Josef glacier used to be a great monster of an ice river which plunged down the mountain to the valley below. However, since the 1880s, it has seen a phase of retreat which has caused it to crawl nearly three quarters of the way up the mountain. This dramatic change can, as always, be attributed to global warming.

All is not lost for the glacier

Amazingly, despite the global warming threat, the glacier has managed to stabilise itself through a cycle of retreat and advance. What it loses in the warmer seasons, it makes up for during the colder ones. The Franz Josef glacier will never be as big as it once was but it sure isn’t planning to go anywhere just yet. This valiant display of survival is undoubtedly a very fragile one and serves as a warning of the damage that could be done if global warming is left unchecked.

To heli-hike or not to heli-hike

If you have a spare bit of cash then doing a heli-hike on the glacier is definitely worth it. Those who did it loved every minute of the experience. But if you’re a bit of a broke backpacker like me, and heli-hikes are a wee bit out of your price range (they’re about $459!) then fear not, you can still see the glacier completely for free! You won’t quite get the same experience of walking on the ice, and it’s a good idea to be prepared for an endurance test, but it’s worth it.

There are two walks you can do depending on the time and weather. The easiest one is an hour and a half and takes you to the base of the glacier. The only downside is that the glacier is still very far away but at least you get a glimpse of the attraction in the distance.

The other walk is a five hour round trip and it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you’re looking for a challenge then you get your money’s worth. Just remember to start the walk early enough in the day to allow enough daylight hours, wear sturdy footwear, make sure that the weather is good before you set off, and never go alone. Once you’ve ticked all these boxes, you’re good to go!

The walk (or should I say, the climb)

There were plenty of ominous bridges to keep you on your toes…

So, being the determined gal that I am, I decided to attempt the five hour walk. It was a beautiful sunny day and I had a team of girls with me who were just as eager to see this glacier. So we set off bright and early with a packed lunch and a confident step, blissfully unaware of the challenge ahead. The walk wasn’t too difficult to begin with, and was just like any other mountain trek. It was only when we reached a sign warning us of the dangers this route could pose that we started to get a little disconcerted. Before long, it was easy to see why. The hike became more of a climb as the path gave way to steep mossy rocks you had to scramble up on hands and knees.

Tree roots became ladders, and every so often we would come across a tiny narrow bridge which would creak ominously over the river below. As the path became an upward climb, it became very apparent that a certain level of fitness was required. A level of fitness, despite all my best efforts pre-travelling, I did not have. There was an embarrassing amount of red-faced wheezing going on for my part, and speed was not really something I could bring myself to achieve. The others faired much better and were racing ahead like trio of healthy mountain goats.

We weren’t the only ones on the trail and it was comforting to bump into a French couple on the way up who assured us that we did not have much further to go and the view was well worth the struggle.

At last, the spectacular Franz Josef glacier

At last, the glacier came into view

After what seemed like an eternity of rock scrambles and root grabbing, we eventually made it to the viewing platform at the end of the trail. At last we laid eyes on the Franz Josef glacier. Peaking out from the side of the mountain, it emerged like a white frosting on the rocky surface. The bright white ran into colours of deep blue and black on its bumpy surface. The only noise was the sound of the helicopters flying overhead as they made the most of the good weather. Although a shadow of its former glory, the Franz Josef glacier was still a formidable size, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better view to eat my packed lunch to.

The weather can turn quickly up in the mountains (which is why this particular route can be dangerous) and soon clouds began to turn a disconcerting shade of grey so we bid a hasty, albeit slippy retreat back down the way we came before the rain hit too heavily. The way down was just as difficult but that sense of achievement when we made it back to the hostel made it a challenge worth completing.

If you ever find yourself on New Zealand’s South Island then be sure to swing by Franz Josef to see the glacier even if it is to do a walk or observe the stunning surrounding scenery.


Thanks for reading,

F x


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