The Bare Traveller

Embrace the Great Outdoors on a Franz Josef Glacier Walk

We all frequently have dreams about walking on ice or discovering ice tunnels when we think of glaciers. However, I have encountered a very different reality on my trip to the Franz Josef Glacier. Because of human activity, global warming has had its effect on this New Zealand gem. 

Westland Tai Poutini - Franz Josef Glacier

The only way to access the glacier right now is via helicopter because it is so far down in the valley. Prices for only a 20-minute flight start at $280 per person (NZD). 

You think to yourself that the local travel agencies are making a lot of money when you are there and you notice (but more importantly, when you hear) the constant arrivals and departures of helicopters in the valley.

On my first day of exploring the valley, I have decided to explore the glacier and its amazing scenery by trekking. 

In this post, I will share with you my picks for the top walks that rounds Franz Josef Glacier and the most breathtaking glacier viewpoints.

Where is Franz Josef Glacier located?

New Zealand’s South Island’s west coast is the area where Franz Josef glacier is. It sits on the western slope of the Southern Alps and is at the same elevation as Mount Cook National Park.

You must go down the west coast’s SH6 route to the Franz Josef glacier settlement in order to get there.

You may then travel a bit farther into the glacier valley thanks to an access road. But a trek will be required to get close to the glacier.

All the hikes, with the exception of the one to Alex Knob, begin at the parking area located at the end of the glacier access road. 

How far is Franz Josef from other cities of the South Island:

  • Haast: Haast is about 150 km away , 2 h 30 drive away. 
  • Greymouth: Greymouth is 177 kilometres away ; 3 hours drive away.
  • Wanaka: Wanaka is 288 kilometres away, 5 hours drive away. 
  • Christchurch: Christchurch is 390 km away with about six hours drive. 

Franz Josef Glacier best walks

Franz Josef Glacier or Franz Jo as the locals call it, is a gem of the New Zealand’s South Island. I have listed below the best walks you can try when visiting this lovely town. 

1) Walk the Franz Josef Glacier Valley

Hiking through the valley is essential for seeing the Franz Josef glacier. This is the trail that leads up the valley along the river to the glacier’s front. The bulk of visitors are found here since the hike is easy. 

The ultimate point of view changes in response to glacier melting and the hazards that come with it. During my tour, I was 760 metres from the glacier, which is the closest I can get at the time.

Franz Josef Glacier tourist point Franz Josef Glacier tourist point

Nevertheless, I found myself in front of a drab valley filled primarily with rock heaps. Only farther up the valley is the discernible ice. I was left unsatisfied because there isn’t much to be seen in the end.

  • GPS coordinates of the start of Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk: 43°25’20.3″S 170°10’09.4″E
  • Arrival/Departure: Parking lot at the end of the road leading to the Franz Josef glacier valley. 
  • Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes round trip 
  • Length: 5.4 kilometres roundtrip 
  • Difficulty: Easy

If the Franz Josef glacier once touched the sea, things are very different today. Twenty kilometres separate the glacier from the ocean presently. The glacier therefore gave way to a deep valley during its retreat, where the flora gradually reclaimed its rights.

The hike’s rainforest is arguably its most impressive aspect. A few hundred metres away from the glacier, it gradually fills the valley. This wet woodland has tropical country-like characteristics. 

This kind of landscape is unexpected in a glacier valley. The fast growth of plants is probably not linked to the metres of rain that fall on the area each year.

2) Sentinel Rock Hike

According to the official brochure, the Sentinel rock trek provides breathtaking views of the glacier. As much as I can tell you up front, the glacier’s retreat is rather stunning to see. The glacier is only visible near the valley’s terminus. 

Additionally, a screen displays the glacier’s development since 1865. The realisation that the valley’s ice has now totally vanished sends chills down the spine!

Knowing that the majority of the rivers in New Zealand originate from glaciers, we can only speculate as to what may transpire if they completely vanish. 

Franz Josef Glacier walk - paved road

Consider that when you look at the images, the rock that the viewpoint is perched on was only beginning to emerge from the ice in 1865. The glacier has receded 4 kilometres since 1909, and vegetation have progressively taken over the region.

Additionally, based on the flora, it is feasible to determine how long ago the glacier was here. Consequently, a thick rain forest has already taken over the area 100 years after the departure. This extremely quick growth is made possible by the west coast’s extremely wet climate. 

This viewpoint is intriguing because it allows you to observe firsthand the significance of the glacier’s retreat and learn more about how vegetation will grow once the glacier has receded.

  • Location: Sentinel rock’s beginning is located at these GPS coordinates: 43°25’20.3′′S 170°10’09.4′′E
  • Arrival/Departure: Parking lot at the end of the road leading to the Franz Josef glacier valley. 
  • Duration: 20 minutes round trip. 
  • Length: 900 metres round trip. 
  • Difficulty: Easy.

3) Hike to Peter’s Pool

Visitors who typically just take the journey from the valley towards the glacier avoid Peter’s pool, a short stroll in the centre of the rain forest. However, this route leads to a little kettle lake (from the English “cauldron”) that provides one of the region’s most breathtaking views. 

This kind of lake is a hole formed by glacial deposits that, like in this instance, can fill with water as the glacier retreats. 

The setting is breathtaking with the mountains reflecting in the lake during excellent weather, which is uncommon on the West Coast. My favourite view of the valley is this one.

The name Peter Lake honours a little child who camped here in the early 1900s. The glacier then lagged behind by a few metres. We no longer even notice it now. The only thing we can do is think about the earth we’ll be leaving for future generations. 

  • GPS coordinates for leaving Peter’s pool are: 43°25’20.3′′S 170°10’09.4′′E
  • Arrival/Departure: Parking lot at the end of the road leading to the Franz Josef glacier valley. 
  • Duration: 30 minutes round trip. 
  • Length: 1.1 kilometres roundtrip. 
  • Difficulty: Easy.

4) Hike to Robert’s Point

Not everyone should attempt the Roberts Point walk. You should, on the one hand, not be afraid of heights because you will need to cross a number of pretty stunning suspension bridges. The trail does, however, have some slick and muddy spots.

Franz Josef Glacier river

But this hike’s diversity and the breathtaking view from the top of the Franz Josef Glacier make it, in my opinion, a must-do in the valley.

  • GPS coordinates for the Roberts Point takeoff are: 43°25’20.3′′S 170°10’09.4′′E
  • Departure/Arrival: Leave from the parking lot at the end of the access road to the Franz Josef Glacier Valley. 
  • Duration: 5 hours round journey is required. 
  • Length: 12.5 kilometres roundtrip 
  • Difficulty: Intermediate to difficult (especially some portions at the end).

5) The Alex Knob Hike

Less than 2 kilometres from the parking lot at the end of the road, on the road leading to the glacier, is where the Alex Knob trek begins. Because you spend the most of the ascent in the forest, this hike can get a little boring. 

Only 2 or 3 locations have foliage that is less thick and gives you a glimpse of the valley. But once in the alpine region and at Mount Alex Knob’s summit, the route affords the most breathtaking view of the Franz Josef glacier valley.

It enables you to fully appreciate the glacier’s magnitude, which appears considerably smaller from the valley’s bottom.

  • GPS coordinates for Alex Knob’s departure are: 43°29’43.1′′S 170°02’31.5′′E
  • Arrival/Departure: Park your car in the lot next to the road leading to the Franz Josef glacier valley. 
  • Duration: Round-trip time: 6-7 hours. 
  • Length: 17.2 kilometres roundtrip. 
  • Difficulty: Intermediate.

6) Hike to Wombat Lake

I took a little detour into Lake Wombat as I make my way down from Mount Alex Knob (extension 800 m round trip). In the midst of the rimu forest, I found a tiny serene lake. I never cease to be in awe of this classic New Zealand forest. 

It is a kettle lake, similar to Peter’s pool, and it was created around 9000 years ago when a sizable block of ice that had been left in the centre of glacial debris began to melt. 

Although the Lake is a pleasant pit break on the way to Mount Alex Knob, I wouldn’t make it the primary hiking goal.

  • GPS coordinates for the Lac Wombat hike: 43°29’43.1′′S 170°02’31.5′′E
  • Departure: Leave from the parking lot on the side of the road that leads to the Franz Josef Glacier Valley. 
  • Duration: 1 hour for the round trip (15min round trip from the Alex Knob trail). 
  • Length: 3.8 kilometres roundtrip (800m round trip from the Alex Knob trail). 
  • Difficulty: Easy.

Where to stay around Franz Josef Glacier?

It costs a lot of money to camp near Franz Josef Glacier. Due to the high level of tourism in the area, wild camping is getting harder. A gravel parking spot at the side of the road about ten kilometres south of the Franz Josef Glacier settlement is the final option that will still work in 2022. 

You won’t find it listed as an approved wild camping in mobile apps like Campermate or Rankers Camping NZ. However, as it is not strictly forbidden, wild camping in an autonomous car is permitted there as well.

Additionally, you may confirm that this information is still accurate before heading there ( Look at the wild camping regulations in New Zealand).

Location’s GPS coordinates are: 43°24’26.6′′S 170°05’55.1′′E. 

Bivouacking in the mountains, particularly near the summit of Mount Alex Knob, is an alternative to staying in a tent. The benefit is twofold: you can avoid camping and take in a breathtaking view. 

Additionally, since clouds frequently obscure mountain summits in the summer’s late morning hours, it’s a great strategy to allow oneself extra time to enjoy the scenery.

Final Thoughts

In New Zealand, the Franz Josef Glacier area is worthwhile for a side trip, but do not have high hopes. If you have a good budget, I recommend to joint a Heli-hike to the Glacier, otherwise, hikes alongside the Glacier are good alternatives.   

It is best to arrive with the intention of walking through the park, either from the fantastic vantage point above Peter’s Pool or by trekking. 

The trek from Alex Knob provides the greatest perspective of the glacier valley. While the last viewpoint on the climb from Roberts Point is closer to the glacier and offers greater variation of scenery.

In conclusion, trekking around the Franz Josef Glacier may be a lot of fun. In any event, don’t anticipate being able to relax in quiet there; there will always a helicopter humming in the distance.

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