The Guide to Backpacking Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Located on the wild West Coast of the South Island, Glacier Country remains almost untouched. Approximately 140 glaciers flow from the Southern Alps, but only the huge Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier reach all the way down to the lower rainforest for our enjoyment! Exploring one of these glaciers is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as the glaciers are retreating. Some glacier activities you could do 10 years ago no longer exist! So get on the glaciers while you still can.
Backpacking Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers is well worth it, especially if you have the luxury of staying around the area for a while. In fact, it’s almost encouraged when bad weather days cancel helicopter flights to the glacier. In the meantime, get on some stunning lakes on kayaking tours, go skydiving over the stunning scenery of the Southern Alps, relax in hot pools, visit mirror lakes and more!
For inspiration on tackling the glaciers, check out: 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers and 10 Facts You Did Not Know About New Zealand’s Glaciers.
Things You Can’t Miss in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
- Climb on the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier
- Get sensational West Coast views on the best walks in the Franz Josef area
- Walk to some stunning locations around Fox Glacier and bathe in a natural hot pool
- See the West Coast wildlife in Okarito
- Be happy that you are in a World Heritage Area.
For more details on the above experiences, as well as more items to add to the bucket list, check out the 20 Best Things to Do in Franz Josef.
Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area
The district of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, also known as Glacier Country, is included in one UNESCO’s World Heritage Areas, meaning the land has huge international significance. Other locations around the world classed as a World Heritage Area include the Pyramids of Giza and the Amazon Rainforest – just to help you put this title into perspective.
As well as natural importance, the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area is historically important as it experienced a gold mining era. Find out more about what a UNESCO World Heritage area is here.
How to Experience the Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier doesn’t just refer to the glacier itself, but the town too. With that in mind, there are many ways to experience the glacier and its surrounding landscapes when backpacking in Franz Josef.
Franz Josef Heli-Hike
New Zealand’s busiest glacier! The only way to get a guided walk on the Franz Josef Glacier is to go by helicopter. This will mean digging into your pockets for the big bucks, but as a hugely acclaimed activity for its uniqueness, many would say it is definitely worth it. Get amongst it all by climbing on top and inside the glacier With Franz Josef Glacier Guides and The Helicopter Line – more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and KKday. After your icy hike, entry to the Franz Josef village hot pools is free so you can warm up in a native bush environment.
If you want another perspective of the glacier with a dose of adrenaline, you can skydive over it – a certainly stunning landscape to do a skydive. One of New Zealand’s highest tandem skydives is in Franz Josef with Skydive Franz & Fox Glacier. Learn more about the skydive, as well as compare it to others around the country, using the 11 Best Places to Tandem Skydive in New Zealand.
Kayaking on Lake Mapourika
Looking to get on the water? The kayaking on Lake Mapourika with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours, north of Franz Josef, is stunning! The mirror-like water is perfect for taking those travel selfies. Oh yeah, and the Southern Alps view and the peaceful rainforests are good too. Find out more about the kayak tours on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook.
See more things to do in the area in the 20 Epic Things to Do in Franz Josef and 10 Things to Do in Franz Josef on a Rainy Day.
The Best Walks Around Franz Josef Glacier
There are ways of seeing the Franz Josef Glacier without going over your backpacker budget. And, that’s by getting off your butt and walking! Although there is a guided valley hike, which covers the glacier-formed valley Franz Josef has left behind, you can take the walks unguided.
As the glacier is 5km from Franz Josef township, you will either need a car or walk the Te Ara a Waiau Walkway/Cycleway which takes one hour to walk one way. Carry on your walk on one of the 10 tracks around the glacier. However, be sure to check if the track you plan to take is open, as the environment is ever-changing.
Franz Josef Walking Tracks
- The Tatare Tunnels – This 1-hour track walks you through history in the old gold mining tunnels. For more gold mining remains, take a 1h30min detour on the Callery Gorge Walk. Remember to take a torch!
- Lake Wombat Track – For utter peace and tranquillity, take the Lake Wombat Track through a rimu forest to a quiet lake.
- Sentinel Rock Walk – For you lazy people out there looking for a Franz Josef Glacier view, take the 20min walk from the end of the Glacier Access Road.
- Alex Knob Track – In total contrast to the previous walk, take the steep 8-hour return to one of the most mind-blowing views of the glacier! The track starts about 2km from the township. Take the Glacier Access Road.
See more recommendations in the 10 Best Walks in Franz Josef.
How to Experience the Fox Glacier
Named after Sir William Fox, Prime Minister of New Zealand in the late 1800s, Fox Glacier is the longest glacier on the West Coast. It is not as well known as Franz Josef, but it is an off-the-beaten-track location backpackers are often pleased they made the time to visit!
Heli-Hike on the Fox Glacier
The glacier activities on offer are very similar to Franz Josef, except the ice climb here is bigger, just so you know… You are more likely to experience ice caves here too do to the funnel-like shape of the valley. Heli-hikes are available with Fox Glacier Guiding, which you can find out more about on Klook.
Get closer to Fox Glacier and the alpine environment of the Southern Alps with a scenic flight from Fox Glacier town. Flights with The Helicopter Line West Coast (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) and Glacier Helicopters (on Viator and Tripadvisor) allow you to see both the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier along with a snow landing above the ice falls. Flights last approximately 30 minutes.
For more ways to see the glaciers, check out 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers, as well as more experiences in the Fox Glacier township in the 7 Best Things to Do in Fox Glacier.
The Best Walks Around Fox Glacier
Like Franz Josef, there are walking trails nearby Fox Glacier that are ideal for backpackers.
- Fox Glacier South Side Walkway/Cycleway – The 2-hour return sees remnants of the glacier through glacier moraines and new forest growing atop of them. There are two lookouts to the Fox Glacier.
- Copland Track – For an epic hiking adventure, take the 2-day hike to the most scenic natural hot pools in New Zealand: the Welcome Flat Hot Pools. We recommend going in summer to walk past beautiful flowers.
- Lake Matheson – See one of the most reflective lakes in New Zealand with views of Aoraki Mt Cook reflecting in the water. The loop takes 1h40min to complete (see below for more details).
Whatever walk you decide to do, ask at the local i-SITE for track updates, as these can change due to climate and changing environment. See more walks in the 9 Best Walks in Fox Glacier.
It’s impossible for this lake not to look good in a photograph, that’s why the 14,000-year-old Lake Matheson is worth a visit while backpacking in Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. The famous reflective lake has the reflections of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook, and Mt Tasman.
The easy track from the car park is wheelchair friendly up to the jetty for lake viewing, but not easily accessible after this point. The jetty walk is an easy 40 minutes return, or you can do the entire lake look in around 1h30mins.
The whole lake walk takes just an hour. Try and spot some of the lake’s native eels.
Glacier Country Wildlife
Wildlife around Franz Josef and Fox Glacier usually consists of a kea parrot here and there. These highly entertaining alpine parrots are infamous for pecking the rubber seals off cars.
Visit New Zealand’s only kotuku (white heron) nesting site. Either try your luck at spotting the rare bird while walking one of the walking trails or join Okarito Eco Boat Tours or Okarito Kayaks for a tour of the lagoon. Okarito is a 30-minute drive from Franz Josef.
West Coast Wildlife Centre
Alternatively, there is the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef where you can see a kiwi before it is released into the wild. Find out more about the West Coast Wildlife Centre on Viator and Tripadvisor.
More About Backpacking in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
That’s it for our guide to backpacking in Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, but definitely not the end of our backpacking advice! Check out the links below for more Franz Josef tips and ideas:
- West Coast – Guide for Backpackers
- The Travel Guide to Franz Josef on a Budget
- 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Franz Josef
Finally, get your backpacking tips from the 30 Tips for Backpacking in New Zealand and find more South Island attractions in the 31 Best Free Things to Do on the South Island.