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Franz Josef Glacier: take a Heli Hike to discover one of the steepest glacier in the world

New Zealand is full of breathtaking landscapes. Heavenly beaches, active volcanoes, azure blue lakes, Fjords and many others. But did you know that New Zealand also has its fair share of glaciers? In fact, New Zealand is home to over 3,000 glaciers! Located on the west coast of the South Island, the two most famous are Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. 

During my 2 weeks road trip in the South Island, I had the opportunity to discover for the first time, up close and personal, a glacier. Being able to touch the ice, drinking water from the small streams of the glacier, climb in ice caves: all this was possible thanks to the Heli Hike on Franz Josef Glacier. This experience was memorable and probably one of my best memories of this road trip. 

So without further ado, here are all the details and tips you need to know to visit Franz Josef Glacier. 

Where is Franz Josef Glacier?

Franz Josef Glacier is located on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. You have to follow the SH6 along the west coast to get to the small village of Franz Josef.

How to get to Franz Josef Glacier?

By car

If you are the lucky owner of a van and are on a road trip in the South Island, you can reach Franz Josef from the north or the south along the west coast. Coming from the north, Franz Josef is 3 hours (177 km) from Greymouth. If you are driving up from Queenstown, it will take you about 5 hours (355 km) to reach Franz Josef. You will pass by Fox Glacier on your way. This glacier is located 30 minutes south of Franz Josef.

By plane

The nearest regional airport is in Hokitika, 1.5 hours from Franz Josef. You can then take a bus or rent a car to reach Franz Josef. 

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When is the best time to visit Franz Josef Glacier?

Franz Josef area is very popular and many travellers like to stop by and give a try at glacier adventure. Especially since the region enjoys fairly mild temperatures in the winter which allows glacier hikes to be open all year round. Unlike the northern hemisphere which suffers from harsh winter conditions which implies the closure of activities during the winter.

Franz Josef Glacier being open all year round, you only have to decide when you want to visit it. However, I can still give you some tips and my opinion on the matter. 

You should know that the tourist season in New Zealand is from November to February, during the summer months. If like me, you like to avoid crowds, prefer to visit Franz Josef glacier out of season. 

I would even say to opt for the winter season, from June to August, because although the temperatures are cooler in winter (between 5 and 15ºC), the weather is generally more reliable and calm. There are more clear days than at other times of the year (mid-season can be very rainy – the west coast and Franz Josef region receive 6-8 meters of rain per year). So, experiencing the Heli-hike on Franz Josef glacier in winter will avoid the risk of cancellation in case of rain. 

And above all, the main advantage of hiking in winter is that you will be able to discover the most spectacular glacier features. During the coldest months, there is less melting on the glacier and therefore less water flowing under this one. Since there is less movement, the narrow crevasses or ice caves stay in place longer, so you may have the chance to explore some of them.

A Heli Hike to discover Franz Josef Glacier

Let’s go back to the heart of the matter: the famous Heli Hike on Franz Josef Glacier that I did last September (2020). 

First of all, you must surely wonder what I mean by Heli Hike. Well, as the name implies, this hike on the glacier is only accessible by helicopter, hence the name Heli Hike. In addition to being a first for me to walk on a glacier, it was also a first for the ride in helicopter 😉 

In short

CompagnyThe Helicopter Line
Duration3 hours
Start8h30 or 11h (check-in 1h before)
Equipments/GearInclude
GuideInclude
DifficultyModerate
Minimum age8 years
Prices:
– Adult
– Child (ages 8-16)

$485
$455

Details of our heli hike

Having chosen the 11 am departure, we had to come in 1-hour earlier to register and test our equipment. We arrived at 10 am at the Helicopter Line office, in the center of Franz Josef village, and we were taken care of by the reception. We have to fill in a form concerning our health and attest that we understand the risks of this activity. They weigh us, take note of our shoe/clothing size and provide us with a bracelet to wear throughout the hike. 

We meet the other participants and the guides. There are around 20 of us, but we will later be separated into 3 groups of 8 per guide. For safety reasons. The guides make a brief presentation before taking us to the back of the office where we will get kitted out. They provide us with waterproof pants/jacket to wear over our clothes; it’s recommended to wear breathable clothing such as hiking or sports pants (no jeans). They also provide adequate shoes, crampons, hiking poles and a small bag to carry our essentials (phone, camera, sunglasses). Gloves and hats can also be provided if needed. 

Once equipped, a member of the team will debrief us on the safety level in the helicopter and on the glacier in case of problems. We are then divided into 3 groups to take the helicopter and for the rest of the trek! Let’s go for the adventure! 

The steepest glacier of New Zealand

Our guide takes us to the helipad where we see the helicopter arrive. Its arrival is rather noisy and windy. A bit of stress mixed with the excitement mixed is felt. The transfer by helicopter to the glacier will take about 15 minutes and allows us to have a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Closer we get to the glacier, more we realize the immensity of it. It is incredible!

After landing on the glacier, our guide explains us that the hike will last 2 hours and shows us how far we will climb. For security reasons, we can’t go everywhere on the glacier. The guides, connoisseurs of this glacier, have traced and checked the path we will take upstream. Moreover, we cannot go up to the top of the glacier due to the numerous collapses and the increasing instability of the glacier. Franz Josef glacier, the most famous glacier of New Zealand and one of the most accessible in the world, is melting due to global warming. Our guide explains us that in the space of 10 years the glacier has retreated of 800 meters. This is also why the glacier is now accessible only by helicopter. 

However, she also explains that the Franz Josef Glacier (Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere from its Maori name) is one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand. It also moves faster than the average glacier, at about 50 cm per day which explains its instability. The good thing is that this creates some really incredible features in the glacier, such as ice caves, tunnels and crevasses, which are constantly changing and evolving, no two days are ever the same. So you will surely have the opportunity to discover new ice caves.

Tunnels, caves, crevasses & waterfalls

Here we go for the exploration. Our guide shows us how to put our crampons, we equip ourselves and begin the hike. We crawl around the glacier, passing by tunnels, observing the waterfall, drinking the water of the streams (very fresh) and exploring the caves. The guide gives us precious information about the glacier, the surroundings, the type of ground we are on, etc. We are lucky that day, because the hike on the glacier will last much more than 2 hours. One of the helicopters needing to go urgently in another place, our guide asks us if we agree to stay 30-45 minutes more on the spot. Of course!

At the end of the hike, we are surprised by a huge thud echoing throughout the valley. I see the guide turn around and look intensely at the glacier. Avalanche ? No, more fear than harm, it was only a collapse. We can see some blocks of ice collapsing along the ‘black hole’, a rocky wall exposed in the center of the glacier. Really impressive to live and proves us once again the speed of this glacier to move.

Franz josef glacier2

We enjoy one last time the breathtaking view on the way back by helicopter. Stars in our eyes, happy to have fulfilled one of our dreams: walking on a glacier and exploring it. 

Doing a heli-hike has a cost. Indeed, we paid $485 per person. But it’s a truly unique experience that we may only live once in our lives. And considering the round trip by helicopter, the guide + the 3 to 4 hours of total activity, the cost seems reasonable. 

However, don’t worry! If you don’t want to do a heli-hike, you can still admire Franz Josef glacier by hiking or from slightly more distant viewpoints. This is what we will see now.

Alternative hikes to observe the glacier 

If you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars to see the Franz Josef Glacier from the front line, there are several other hikes available that will take you to viewpoints where you can see and take pictures of the glacier from a distance.

Franz Josef Glacier walk 

Duration: 1h30 return 
Distance:5.4 km
Difficulty:Easy 

This hike in the valley is the one accessible to most people. Following the river to the front of the glacier, the final viewpoint changes according to the melting of the glacier. The glacier having retreated a lot during the last 20 years, the point of view was formerly much closer.

For the more athletic, two others day hikes will allow you to have a breathtaking view of the glacier: Robert Point Track and Alex Knob Track 

Robert Point Track 

Duration:5h30 return
Distance:11 – 12.3 km
Difficulty:Advanced

This hike, requiring a good level of physical fitness, will take you up to Robert Point where the view of the glacier is spectacular. You will cross several suspension bridges, rivers while following the cliff. What a great view!

Alex Knob Track 

Duration: 8h return
Distance:17.2 km
Difficulty:Advanced

For this last one, it is necessary to count 4 hours to go up to the summit of Alex Knob at 1303 m. It is a rather monotonous hike because you will be mostly in the forest during the ascent. But once there, the panorama on Franz Josef glacier and the valley is grandiose. From the top of this point of view, you can realize the extent of the glacier going down in the valley. 

alex-knob-track

Where to sleep around Franz Josef Glacier ? 

I recommend you to spend the night before your heli-hike on Franz Josef in order to rest well and to be already on the spot for your activity. If you are not in a hurry, you can even stay there for a second night to recover from the hike before going back on the road.

There are many accommodations available depending on your budget: camping, lodges/cabins or even more luxurious hotels. 

Travelling by van during my stay in Franz Josef, I opted for the “Orange Sheep Campervan park”, for only $25 a night and located in the heart of Franz Josef. The campsites are nestled in the middle of a small tropical forest with a view of the snow-capped mountains. A great place to relax before our glacier experience.

Orangesheepcaravanpark

What to do in the area?

Franz Josef is not only about the glacier. Indeed, there are many other things to do in the area: 

  • Take a bath in the hot springs 
  • Skydive over glaciers and mountains
  • Take a scenic flight to see the area from the air 
  • Visit Fox Glacier
  • Kayak on Lake Mapourika
  • Contemplate the sublime reflection of the mountains on Lake Matheson
LakeMatheson

And yes, as you can see, Franz Josef is a small town, but with many exciting activities and beautiful scenery not to be missed on your next trip to New Zealand’s South Island.


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