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Situated on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast, Franz Josef is a small township with many things to do, but is most famous as the home of the Franz Josef Glacier and for being a World Heritage Area. Obviously, the main reason to visit here is the eponymous Franz Josef Glacier, located approximately 5 km away from the main town. It was first explored by geologist Julius von Haast in 1865 and immediately named after the Austrian emperor.
Now is definitely the time to visit, as the Franz Josef Glacier has retreated rapidly over the last few years. I (Neil) first visited the Glacier in 2007 and was able to walk onto the Franz Josef Glacier as part of a guided tour. These days you are only able to access the Glacier by helicopter as part of a heli-hike (it is too unsafe to walk up from the bottom).
There is something to suit every budget in Franz Josef. The two main options to explore the glacier are the free walk that goes right to the base of the Franz Josef Glacier, or if you have a bigger budget then the heli-hikes start from $400 NZD. As well as the glacier, there are a range of other natural and man-made options to explore so here are our recommendations on things to do in Franz Josef:
1. Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike
Start your day with a n-‘ice’, exciting adventure! Hiking on a glacier is quite possibly one of the ‘coolest’ things we have ever done in New Zealand (and also the most expensive!), and is also the top thing to do in Franz Josef. Costs aside – this is 100% totally worth doing and one of those ultimate travel bucket list moments.
There are two main companies that run heli-hike tours. We booked our Franz Josef Heli Hike experience with The Helicopter Line for $429 NZD (we found it discounted online on Bookme). The other tour operator is Franz Josef Glacier Guides who are a teeny bit more expensive, however both tour operators seem to share the same clothing, equipment and guides though!
Around 40% of heli hike tours in are cancelled due to the wild weather the New Zealand west coast encounters, but the day we did it was lovely and sunny with bright blue skies (phew!). No prior ice climbing or mountaineering is required for these tours – just a general good level of fitness. There were people of all ages and ability on the same tour as me.
The tour commences at the office in town and starts with a helicopter safety briefing, and allocation of all the gear we need for the hike (waterproof trousers, jacket, socks, boots, bag, walking poles etc).
Just across the road from the office is a field where all the helicopters take off. The journey to the glacier was short (only 5 minutes long), but it was enough time to admire and photograph the breathtaking rainforest and ice landscapes below. As soon as you land, a group of skilled guides greet you and are ready to help fit your crampons onto your hiking boots (a metal plate with spikes to make walking on ice easier!).
The guides then each take a small group of around 7 people for a 2 hour hike around the glacier, explaining interesting information about the geography and ice formations along the way. There are plenty of opportunities to stop and take some epic photos, the best one being when we walked through a huge bright blue ice cave! The guides stay in radio contact with each other throughout so that if one person finds something interesting, they can let the other guides know about it!
Walking around the ice was actually super easy with the help of the crampons on your feet and walking poles to steady your balance – the guides walk ahead of the group and use ice picks to carve out steps and pathways to make everything a little bit easier.
All in all an amazing experience we would recommend you do as part of your New Zealand itinerary. Note: these tours are very very popular so booking online well in advance is highly recommended!
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2. Franz Josef Glacier Walk
The Franz Josef glacier is approx 5km away from town. It is walkable from all the main lodgings in the township, but driving / cycling or hitching a lift is recommended, so you can concentrate your hiking efforts once you reach the car park. Alternatively you can take a return Glacier Shuttle bus for 12.50 NZD from town to the glacier car park. The shuttle can be booked from the Glacier Base Building on Cron Street.
The hike itself is pretty easy and takes around an hour to walk to the bottom of the glacier face from the carpark. As many large tour buses also visit here, you’ll find it busy for the first stretch of the walk (from the carpark, through the bush to the first glacier viewing platform) but numbers quickly tail off once you head down the hill onto the trail that leads to the base of the glacier.
Along the way, you’ll criss-cross over several small foot-bridges as you walk alongside the pulsating Haast river – there are also a couple of waterfalls (not huge) to enjoy. The landscape between the first viewing platform and final viewing platform is quite barren – almost I imagine like walking on an inhospitable planet (any astronauts out there who can confirm this?)
The final viewing point is approx 750 metres below the Glacier (although as mentioned, the distance is increasing all the time due to the fast retreat of the glacier). It is pretty amazing to just sit here for a few minutes, and soak it all up, looking directly ahead at the electric blue glacier.
It can get pretty busy at this end viewing point, but there are lots of rocks you can sit on – also ensure you heed the warning signs and don’t cross over the barrier – tourists have recently died here after deciding to go it alone and do their own unguided adventures here.
There are several tour companies that offer walking tours to this spot from the Glacier, but unless you are really interested in a verbal history or don’t have access to a vehicle (and don’t fancy the 5km walk from town), this is definitely one activity you can do free for yourself – the trail has lots of handy interpretation panels explaining the history and geography of the region.
FURTHER READING – Ultimate New Zealand bucket list – top 50 things to do
3. Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
After your walk or heli-hike, what better way to unwind in town than soaking in a glacier fed hot-pool? Situated in the heart of town and an easy walking distance from all the main hotels and lodges, Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools is nestled amongst native rainforest and there are three main pools (all with fancy names which we won’t bore you with) ranging between 36c and 40c- genuinely, those 4 degrees make all the difference!
As the weather in Franz Josef can change quite quickly (e.g. the main bridge into town was recently washed out by flash flooding), the pools are all partially covered with sail shaped shelters to weather-proof them. There are also lots of spa treatments and services available.
Overall, these are quite nice hot pools, but compared to others in New Zealand e.g. Hanmer and Rotorua, these are more of a ‘might-do’ than a must do. That said, we have always purchased discounted admission by booking our Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pool tickets in advance via the deals website Book Me so that might be your best option. If you book your heli-hike directly with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, then you get free entry to the hot pools.
4. Go kayaking on Lake Mapourika
If you are a fan of kayaking then you cannot miss the chance to take in stunning views of the Southern Alps and the epic glaciers on the waters of Lake Mapourika.
The lake is located a short 10 minute drive north of Franz Josef town, and the tour operator Franz Josef Wilderness Tours offers a range of different kayaking adventures including one heading out at sunset, plus a ‘Kayak & Walk’ experience where you get to explore the south westland’s oldest untouched Jurassic age rainforest.
5. Visit Lake Matheson
Located a half hour drive south of Franz Josef town is this small glacial lake, famous for its reflections of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook in its still waters (no boating / kayaking / canoeing is allowed).
The walk from the car park to the lake is 15 minutes long, and from there you can do a loop of the lake which will take you 1 hour 30 minutes to walk (dawn and dusk are the best times to enjoy the reflections in the lake). There is also a cafe by the lake serving breakfast and lunch (plus dinner in summer).
6. Skydive over Franz Josef glacier!
A skydive should totally be on your New Zealand bucket list and there is no better destination than Franz Josef where you can enjoy epic views over dramatic mountains and glaciers, plus stunning temperate rainforest.
Check out this skydive experience on GetYourGuide where you can choose from 13,000ft, 16,500ft or 20,000ft falls!
7. Scenic flight
If you don’t fancy a hiking experience on the glacier then check out the range of scenic flights available to soak up some incredible west coast views. Glacier Country run both helicopter and fixed wing aircraft sightseeing tours. Some include a snow landing to allow you to get some epic photos!
Check out this helicopter trip on GetYourGuide which takes you over both glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox!
8. Visit Fox Glacier
Nearby Fox Glacier also offers heli-hike experiences but is often overlooked in favour of the more popular Franz Josef Glacier. I think the reason for this is because Franz Josef has a reputation for having more photogenic blue ice caves. However Fox Glacier does have the advantage of being the only glacier boasting views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
Check out this Fox Glacier 3-Hour Hike with Scenic Helicopter Transfer on GetYourGuide >
9. West Coast Wildlife Centre
This indoor attraction in the centre of Franz Josef town is a great thing to do in Franz Josef on a rainy day, and is an interactive experience where you can learn all about New Zealand’s native birds and other animals.
It is also home of the official breeding programme for the world’s rarest kiwi called the Rowi and the Haast Kiwi (you might be able to spot a kiwi during the day inside their nocturnal house). This is a paid for attraction and you can find prices and book online on their website – advance booking is recommended due to the limited numbers of tickets on sale per day.
There is also an excellent gift shop and small cafe onsite.
10. Quad biking
Adrenaline junkies will love this activity! Explore the lush and dense rainforest scenery by quad bike as you drive off-road along ancient pathways carved by glaciers!
Tour guides will provide you with the appropriate wet weather gear and gumboots, and will give you a lesson on how to drive the vehicles beforehand.
Check out this quad biking tour on GetYourGuide >
11. Explore Franz Josef town
As you’d expect, Franz Josef township itself is quite small and the whole village area containing all the shops, bars and restaurants can be easily covered on foot in a few minutes.
The main strip (fittingly called ‘Main Road’) offers several bars and dining options. We ate and drank at The Landings once – pretty good fare with a nice Monteiths beer happy hour. The busiest establishments along this road seemed to be Full of Beans and the SnakeBite Brewery and Cafe. This is also where you’ll find the Four Square supermarket (the only proper supermarket in town).
There are a few gift stores too, the best of which can be found at Wild Kiwi Wildlife Centre. On the edge of town, towards the glacier, the Our Lady of the Alps Catholic Church is worth a visit and must be one of the smallest places of worship in the whole of New Zealand.
Where to stay in Franz Josef
We stayed in a private room at Franz Josef Montrose hostel on two separate occasions and would totally recommend them. The bedrooms are comfy, there is great WIFI, free breakfast and they have a large kitchen/tv area which is perfect to chill out in during one of Franz Josef’s many rainy days. The room we stayed in is located in a separate building to the dorm rooms (which looked a bit rundown in our opinion so we would only recommend booking the private rooms).
Other highly rated accommodation options include:
BUDGET – Rainforest Retreat dorm room
Highly rated dorm rooms set amongst lush native bush with free hot tub, free Scandinavian Sauna, free GHD hair straighteners (lol) and a pizza restaurant (guests get a $5 discount on the ‘all you can eat pizza’ and a free beer).
MID RANGE: Aspen Court Franz Josef
Centrally located motel just a minute walk from the hot pools. Rooms include a kitchenette and some have a spa bath.
LUXURY: Rainforest Retreat tree lodge
Stylish studio tree huts set amongst lush native bush with large en suite bathrooms with a rain shower and underfloor heating. Hotel facilities include an onsite spas and sauna.
LUXURY: Te Waonui Forest Retreat
Five-star eco-retreat experience nestle in rainforest with onsite bar and restaurant.
CAMPERVAN – Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park
Popular holiday park with BBQ Area, Free WiFi (100mb per day), TV/Recreation Room, Laundry, Communal Kitchen and Bathroom, Spa and Sauna.
How to get to Franz Josef
The two best ways to reach Franz Josef are either by car or by Intercity coach (you can take the Intercity from Queenstown, Wanaka, Fox Glacier, Greymouth, Hokitika and Nelson).
We stopped in Franz Josef for 2 nights as part of a south island road trip – we drove up the west coast from Wanaka, and then carried on to Greymouth afterwards (to visit the Monteiths Brewery).
Another route option is to take the famous TranzAlpine railway from Christchurch to Greymouth (one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys), and then take an Intercity coach or hire a car from there to reach Franz Josef.
The driving times from the nearest airports are:
Hokitika Airport to Franz Josef driving time – 1 hour 40 minutes (the only direct flights to Hokitika are from Christchurch with Air New Zealand)
Christchurch Airport to Franz Josef driving time – 5 hours
Queenstown Airport to Franz Josef driving time – 5 hours
Nelson Airport to Franz Josef driving time – 6 hours
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