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Last Updated on 23/12/2020

Franz Josef Glacier is located on New Zealand’s South Island. It’s one of the country’s most famous natural spectacles, drawing in visitors eager to see this slow-moving ice river. There are many ways to enjoy Franz Josef Glacier. The popular heli-hike flies you up in a helicopter before taking you on a guided tour on the ice. However, If you prefer something a little more budget-friendly then I recommend that you hike to Franz Josef Glacier. 

It’s worth noting that you won’t be able to walk on top of the glacier if you choose to hike to it. Over the last couple of decades, it has shrunk to a size that is too dangerous to reach on foot. Still, the hikes bring you in viewing distance of the glacier and they are absolutely spectacular. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the hike to Franz Josef Glacier: 

Franz Josef Glacier and global warming 

hike to dranz josed glacier

Franz Josef Glacier used to be a great monster of an ice river that plunged slowly down the mountain to the valley below. However, since the 1880s, it hit a phase of retreat which saw it crawl nearly three-quarters of the way back up the mountain. This dramatic change is, of course, a direct result of global warming. 

Amazingly, despite the rising temperatures, the glacier has managed to stabilise itself by going through cycles of retreat and advance. What it loses in the warmer seasons it makes up for during the colder ones. Franz Josef Glacier will never be as big as it once was but it’s good to know that it won’t disappear quite yet. Nevertheless, this valiant display of survival is undoubtedly a very fragile one and it serves as a warning of the damage that could be done if global warming is left unchecked. 

The best ways to see Franz Josef Glacier 

bridge on roberts point track

Franz Josef Glacier heli-hike 

What: A helicopter takes you up to the top of the glacier and you’re treated to a guided tour of its otherworldly crevasses. 

Price: The activity is not cheap as it comes to about $459 New Zealand Dollars. 

Why: Franz Josef Glacier perhaps owes its worldwide fame to the heli-hike tours that operate there. Arguably a pretty pricey activity, it still offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All the gear you need is included in the price and the activity runs in both the summer and winter seasons. However, unpredictable weather including snowfall and heavy clouds can result in the activity being cancelled. It’s advisable that you check the website for the day you hope to do it before you set your heart on it.

How to Book: Visit the website here to book your trip. 

Franz Josef walks 

If the Franz Josef Glacier hike is a bit out of your price range then fear not because there are a number of free walks you can do that can get you fairly close to the glacier itself. Here are just some of the ones you can do: 

Sentinel Rock Walk 

Length: 900 metres return 

Duration: 20 minutes return 

Difficulty: Easy 

Start: 5km from Franz Josef township. Head south on the Glacier Access Road and take a left after crossing the Waiho River Bridge. 

Why: This walk is an easy option for those who want a quick taster of the glacier’s surrounding scenery. It’s a short climb that allows you access to stunning views of the Waiho River, the glacier valley and Franz Josef Glacier in the distance. 

Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk 

Length: 2.50km return

Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes return 

Difficulty: Easy 

Start: 5km from Franz Josef township. Head south on the Glacier Access Road and take a left after crossing the Waiho River Bridge. 

Why: If you want to hike for a bit longer then this one is a good option. Stay on the trail and behind the barriers and you will be rewarded with stunning views of the Franz Josef terminal face and Trident Falls. 

Alex Knob Track 

Length: 10km to 20km 

Duration: 8 hours return

Difficulty: Hard

Start: 3km from Franz Josef township. Head south on the Glacier Access Road and take a left after crossing the Waiho River Bridge. Look out for the signpost on the right side of the road before the car park. 

Why: The Alex Knob Track is a full day hike to make sure you head off early to give yourself plenty of daylight hours to complete it. This hike to Franz Josef Glacier starts off fairly gently as you follow the path through the bush. You will then be hit by a steep incline that takes you to the top of Alex Knob. It will be worth it though as the views are spectacular. 

Robert’s Point Track 

Length: 5 hours return

Duration: 11km return 

Difficulty: Hard

Start: 5km from Franz Josef township. Head south on the Glacier Access Road and take a left after crossing the Waiho River Bridge. 

Why: Similar to Alex Knob, the track takes you on a fairly gentle walk through the bush before it pushes upwards on a steep incline. There are many interesting bridges along the way and the viewing point facing the glacier is well worth the effort in the end. You can find out more about Robert’s Point Track below. 

A quick word of advice before you go

You don’t need to be an experienced hiker by any stretch to tackle the Robert’s Point Track but it is advisable that you have at least a medium level of fitness. Check that the weather is clear for the day before you set off, make sure you have strong and sturdy footwear and don’t go alone. Also, make sure you stay on the path and don’t stray too close to the river. 

Robert’s Point Track: What to Expect

bridge on roberts point track

It was a beautiful sunny day when I began my hike to Franz Josef Glacier along Robert’s Point Track. I was travelling solo in New Zealand at the time but I had also joined the Kiwi Experience. So, during my hike, I was with a group of girls who were just as eager as me to see the glacier in a more budget-friendly way. 

Find out more about the Kiwi Experience and how it works here. 

We set off bright and early with a packed lunch, blissfully unaware of the challenges that lay ahead. The walk wasn’t too difficult to begin with. It was a gentle meander through woodland with the occasional glimpse of the glacier valley. It was only when we reached a sign warning us of the potential dangers this route could pose that we started to get a little disconcerted. Before long, it was easy to see why. The hike to Franz Josef Glacier 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 almost like ladders and every now and again we would come across a tiny narrow bridge that creaked ominously over the river below. Steep steps would lead you down a track that clung to the edge of a cliff face (don’t worry, you’re securely caged in) and the occasional emergency snow shelter dotted the route. 

As the path became an upward climb it was clear that a certain level of fitness was required. A level of fitness, despite all my best efforts pre-trip, 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 fared much better and were racing ahead like a trio of healthy mountain goats.

We weren’t the only ones on the trail and it was a relief 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 effort. 

The unbeatable view of Franz Josef Glacier

hike to franz josef glacier - view

After what felt like an eternity of rock scrambles and root grabbing we eventually made it to the viewing platform at the end of the trail. We laid eyes on Franz Josef Glacier at last and what we got to see made the hike well worth the effort. 

Peeking out from the side of the mountain, the glacier emerged like white frosting on the rocky surface. The bright white ran into colours of deep blue and black on its bumpy surface. The only noise we could hear was the sound of the helicopters flying overhead as the heli-hike crew made the most of the good weather. Although perhaps a shadow of its former glory, 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 one of the reasons why this particular route can be dangerous). Soon the 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 came. 

The way down was just as difficult as you had to navigate the steep track over rocks and tree roots. Still, we were light on our feet with our growing sense of achievement and excitement at seeing the glacier. Robert’s Point Track was a challenge but I would do it again in a heartbeat just for the view of Franz Josef Glacier –  but maybe try to get a bit fitter beforehand… 

Franz Josef Glacier weather 

hike to franz josef glacier - lake view

As with any glacier hike in New Zealand, it’s important to heed the weather forecast because it can make all the difference between a fun adventure and a perilous one. The average temperature is about 11℃ and it gets cooler the higher up you go. Be aware of snowfall in the winter, and low hanging clouds can cause poor visibility. 

New Zealand is notorious for its fast-changing weather so stay alert and check the forecasts regularly so you’re not caught out halfway up. 

What hiking gear do you need? 

Layering up is key to your hike to the Franz Josef Glacier. Temperatures may be cool but you do work up quite a sweat as you clamber up those rocks. Waterproofs and sturdy walking boots are also essential for this trip. Check out this packing list below and feel free to pin or print it out. 

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Where to stay in Franz Josef 

Franz Josef is a township at the base of the glacier. Although small, it draws in a lot of visitors so there’s plenty of accommodation to choose from. In particular, Rainforest Retreat offers a beautiful retreat to relax in during your visit. Here you can stay in luxury treehouses, lodges and huts. Other Franz Josef accommodation includes Glow Worm Accommodation which offers free use of its spa pool. 

Looking for more top things to do in New Zealand? Check out my complete solo travel guide. 

If you enjoyed reading about my hike to the Franz Josef Glacier, please feel free to pin it for later, share it or drop me a comment below!

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