Hiking

Guide to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier Helicopter Sightseeing and Hikes

This post contains references to products on my Amazon Store site.  I may receive a commission when you purchase these products from my store, though at no additional cost to you.   I hand-pick and recommend only the products that I am either familiar with or comfortable recommending.

There are a lot of amazing adventures to be had on New Zealand’s South Island.  Milford Sound and the Milford Track is something that every traveler should experience, the city of Wanaka is home to quite a few of New Zealand’s most infamous hiking tracks, and the city of Queenstown is known across the globe as the “adventure capital of the world”.  However, none of these adventure locations in New Zealand are quite as unique or as special as the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the west coast of the South Island.

These world-renown glaciers are some of the biggest in the world and also some of the most beautiful.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the glaciers to admire their beauty.  Some visitors choose to admire these goliath ice sheets from their valley viewing points, while others choose to get up in the air in a helicopter to get a bird’s eye view of these remarkable glaciers.  Better yet, some of the bravest of visitors choose to actually land on the glaciers and hike around on these moving sheets of ice.

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No matter how you end up choosing to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on New Zealand’s South Island, the experience will be one that will stick with you for a lifetime.  In this guide, I am going to give you all of the information that you need to plan a trip to see the glaciers that’s right for you.  Among other things, I will outline how to get to the glaciers, where to stay, where the best viewpoints for the glaciers are located, and which excursions are available to book to experience these glaciers first-hand.  With this information in hand, you should have no problem picking the glacier adventure that is just right for you!

About the Franz Josef Glacier

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Originating in the highest reaches of the Southern Alps at over 3,000 meters above sea level, the Franz Josef Glacier traverses thru the lush rainforest of Westland National Park down to just 240 meters, which makes it one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand. Because it is so steep, the Franz Josef Glacier also moves much faster than your average glacier.  This fast movement is responsible for creating the spectacular ice caves, tunnels, seracs, and crevasses that can be found on the glacier and make hiking the glacier such an amazing adventure.

About the Fox Glacier

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Like it’s twin the Franz Josef Glacier, the Fox Glacier originates at over 3,000 meters above sea level high in the Southern Alps and runs down into the rainforests of Westland National Park.  It was named after the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Sir William Fox, who visited the glacier in 1872.  During the high tourism season in the summer months, the glacier sees upwards of 1,000 people daily.  Unfortunately, the Fox Glacier stopped advancing in 2009 and has since been in a retreating phase.  In fact, it is considered one of the fastest melting glaciers in the world.

How to Get There

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The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located roughly 23km apart on the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  They formed in some of the highest peaks of the Southern Alps and are bordered by the Westland National Park that runs along the coastline.  If you are visiting the glaciers from outside of New Zealand, there are two major international airports on the South Island.  If you fly into Queenstown International Airport, you are looking at roughly a 4.5-hour drive to the glaciers while Christchurch International Airport is roughly a 5.5-hour drive from the glaciers.

Before you start planning your trip to New Zealand to see these amazing glaciers, you will want to review the passport, VISA, customs, and immunizations requirements for visiting New Zealand.  To assist you in understanding these requirements, I have linked to my article summarizing them below.

READ MORE:
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New Zealand Passport, VISA, Customs, and Immunization Requirements for Visitors

Getting to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier Map

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Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk and Viewpoint

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If you are visiting the Franz Josef Glacier area and would like to get a closer look at this fantastic glacier, I would consider taking the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk.  This short valley walk is an easy hike up the glacial valley and ends at a viewpoint where you can get a spectacular view of the glacier.  To assist you in understanding where the glacier walk originates and terminates, I have included a map for you to review below.

Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk Map

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Fox Glacier Viewpoints

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Unfortunately for visitors, the Northern Access Road that led to a number of Fox Glacier viewpoints was washed out by a massive landslide this past year and there are no plans to repair the road because of the severity of the damage.  The only remaining viewpoint that is left is far less spectacular than what you can see at Franz Josef Glacier.  It is quite a bit further away from the glacier and your view of the glacier is much more obstructed by trees.  If you are curious about where the Fox Glacier Valley Walk starts and ends, I have included a map below for you to review.

Fox Glacier Valley Walk Map

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Helicopter Sight-Seeing Trips

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If you can afford the cost, a helicopter sightseeing trip over the glaciers is well-worth the money.  The helicopters can give you a bird’s eye view of not only these beautiful glaciers but a view of the spectacular Southern Alps as a whole.  You will be left in absolute awe as the helicopter flies up a glacial valley and approaches one of the glaciers.  You get so close that you can see the bright blue color of the ice caves, tunnels, seracs, and crevasses.

Heli-Hike Excursions

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For those of you who are looking to maximize your adventure at the glaciers, I would suggest looking into a helicopter-hike on either the Franz Josef or Fox Glacier.  It is hard to truly understand the grandeur and beauty of the glaciers until you are walking on top of them.  You will book your tour with a helicopter company that will fly you onto the glaciers where a guide service will be waiting for you.

Your guide will take you on a guided walk around the glacier where you get to put on a set of crampons and crawl thru ice tunnels, climb over ice formations, and maneuver around the many seracs and crevasses on the glacier.  If you are up for the adventure, it is something that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Franz Josef Glacier Tours

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If you are going to be visiting Franz Josef Glacier and you would like to take either a helicopter sightseeing trip or a helicopter hiking adventure, I have included a link to some recommended tours and excursions below.  I have also included a link to the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools as well in case you are interested in soaking in the area’s hot pools after your adventure.

Fox Glacier Tours

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For those of you who will be visiting the Fox Glacier area and would really like to take a helicopter sightseeing or helicopter hiking trip, I have included a link below to some highly-rated excursions for you to review below.

Fox Glacier Helicopter Tour

What to Pack and Wear for Heli-Hike Excursions

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In case you decide to book that helicopter hiking adventure on one of the glaciers, you are going to want to make sure you are prepared for your adventure when you arrive.  To ease your mind and help make sure you are prepared, I have included some packing and dressing guidelines for heli-hike glacier adventures for you to review below.

What Your Guide Service Will Likely Provide For You

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If you are worried about having to pack heavy boots and other winter gear with you for your trip to New Zealand in order to be able to enjoy a glacier helicopter hiking adventure, you will be happy to hear that packing much of that gear will typically be unnecessary.  In addition to providing you with a lift up to the glacier, the helicopter company that you book your heli-hike adventure with will typically also supply you with some glacier hiking gear.  You can typically expect the following pieces of gear to be supplied for you:

  • Waterproof Boots
  • Waterproof Pants
  • Waterproof Jacket
  • Crampons
  • Hiking Poles
  • Hip Bag

No Bags or Backpacks

One piece of gear that I recommend you leave back in your hotel room when you set off for your helicopter hiking adventure is any bag or backpack that you might have with you.  The helicopter companies typically will not allow any personal bags or backpacks on the helicopters as they have a tendency to get caught up and cause safety issues.

What I Would Recommend Packing\Wearing

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While much of the winter hiking gear that you will need for your glacier hike will be supplied for you, there are several pieces of gear that I would recommend bringing with you and wearing for your adventure.  I have included a list of the gear that I recommend below for you to review.

NOTE:  This post contains references to products on my Amazon Store site.  I may receive a commission when you purchase these products from my store, though at no additional cost to you.   I hand-pick and recommend only the products that I am either familiar with or comfortable recommending.

Breathable T-Shirt

If you are going to do a heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier, there is a very real possibility that you will get wet.  If you do get wet, you are going to want to have a moisture-wicking base layer so that you don’t get cold.  You should under no circumstance wear a cotton t-shirt as a base layer.  If you do, and you get wet, you are going to be very cold and uncomfortable.  If you would like to shop for some breathable T-shirts that I recommend, I have included a link for you to review my recommendations below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Base Layer (Top and Bottom)

In addition to a breathable T-shirt, you are also going to want to have a really good base layer as well.  A base layer that is moisture-wicking or is made of wool is the best because the chances are good that you will get wet when you are hiking on Franz Josef Glacier.  Your base layer doesn’t need to be rated for below zero degrees Fahrenheit (unless you are visiting in the winter), but it should be rated down to freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit).  If you would like to review some base layers that I recommend, I have included a link for you below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Fleece or Nano Puff Down Jacket (One Jacket)

It can get quite cold on Franz Josef Glacier as it is at high elevation.  Because temperatures can get chilly, you are going to want to have a warm jacket with you.  I would recommend bringing a lightweight nano puff down jacket or a fleece.  The tour company will likely provide you with a waterproof jacket that you can wear over this for the excursion.  For some of the jackets that I recommend, please refer to the link I included below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Rain Jacket and Rain Pants (One Pair)

Most likely, the tour company that you book your Franz Josef Glacier Heli-hike will supply you with waterproof boots, a waterproof jacket, and waterproof pants.  However, it is always good to bring your own just in case.  Even if they provide waterproof gear, I would recommend wearing yours underneath.  I did and it provided me an extra layer of waterproof comfort.  When choosing waterproof gear, I would strongly recommend bringing a good hardshell (not softshell) rain jacket and pants.  If you aren’t quite sure about what type of rain gear to bring, REI has a great article about backpacking in the rain with some recommendations in it that you can review.  I have included some rain jackets and pants that I really like that are available on Amazon.com for you to browse thru below.
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Hat and Gloves (1 Hat and 1 Pair Gloves)

Hat and Gloves.png When you go hiking on Franz Josef Glacier, you are going to want to make sure your head and hands are warm.  Again, if you get cold on the hike, there really isn’t anywhere to go to get warm.  I would make sure you are prepared with a warm enough hat and gloves or mittens to ensure you are comfortable.  If you are looking for some suggestions on what type of gloves or hat to bring, I have included some of my recommendations below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Wool Socks

 When hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier, there is a very real possibility that your feet will get wet.  If you aren’t prepared with the proper socks, you could become miserable.  For this reason, I highly recommend wearing a pair of wool socks when you visit so that your feet are protected from the cold, even when they are wet.  For some recommendations on socks, please see the link below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

SunGlasses

You are going to want to have sunglasses with you when you hike on the Franz Josef Glacier.  The sun reflecting off the snow and ice of the glacier can be really hard on your eyes and a good pair of sunglasses can really help.  I would make sure the sunglasses fit tight on your face and aren’t prone to falling off as you will be climbing over-and-thru the ice during the hike.  If you would like some recommendations on glasses, I have included a link to some of my recommendations below.
View Recommended Options on Amazon.com

Where to Stay

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If you are going to be spending some time in the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier area, you are going to want to find some accommodations in the area.  There are a number of great hostel and hotel options to choose from in both the towns of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.  If you are looking to book accommodations for your trip, I have included some options at various price-points for you to review below.

Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier Hotels and Hostels Map

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Ivorytowers Backpacker Lodge ($)
YHA Franz Josef Glacier Backpackers ($)
Alpine Glacier Motel ($$)
Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park & Motels ($$)
Rainforest Retreat Franz Josef ($$$)
Bella Vista Motel Fox Glacier ($$$)
Franz Josef Oasis Hotel ($$$$)
Aspen Court Motel Franz Josef ($$$$)
Distinction Fox Glacier Te Weheka Hotel ($$$$$)
Te Waonui Forest Retreat ($$$$$)

Where to Eat

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Franz Josef Glacier Restaurants

The town of Franz Josef is quite lively for its size and there are a number of good restaurant options to choose from in town.  If you are looking for someplace good to eat while in town, I have included a list of great options for you to review below.

Franz Josef Restaurant Recommendations
Restaurant Cuisine Price
Alice May Bar, European, New Zealand $$-$$$
Blue Ice Cafe
New Zealand, International, Veggie $$-$$$
Snake Bite Brewery Bar, Asian, New Zealand $$-$$$
Monsoon Bar & Restaurant Bar, Pizza, International $$-$$$
Full Of Beans
Cafe, Soups, New Zealand $$-$$$
The Landing
American, Bar, New Zealand $$-$$$

Fox Glacier Restaurants

The town of Fox Glacier might not be the biggest town, but it does have quite a few restaurants that serve great food.  If you are in the area and need to find a good place to eat, I have included a list of highly recommended restaurants for you to review below.

Franz Josef Restaurant Recommendations
Restaurant Cuisine Price
Matheson Cafe
European, Deli, Cafe $$-$$$
The Last Kitchen
European, New Zealand, International $$-$$$
Fox Glacier Guiding Cafe Cafe, New Zealand, Veggie $$-$$$
Bigfoot Bar and Restaurant
Bar, Pub, Veggie $$-$$$
Cook Saddle Cafe & Saloon
American, Bar, Pub $$-$$$
Cafe Neve Pizza, Cafe, Veggie $$-$$$

Photography Advice

If you are going to visit either Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, you are going to want to make sure you bring your camera.  You will get pictures that will blow your family and friend’s minds because of their beauty.  If you are looking for some tips on where to take the best photos in the area and how I have included a link to my photography guide for the area below.

READ MORE:
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Photography Planning for Fox Glacier\Arthur’s Pass, South Island

Photo Gallery

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are some of the most beautiful landscapes on New Zealand’s South Island.  You will want to make sure you have your camera ready when you visit.  Below is a gallery of just some of the great photos I was able to take during my visit.

Franz Joseph Glacier Helicopter Hike

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