Lush rainforest and snow-capped alps
Located on the wild West Coast of New Zealand resides a small town known for being just a few short steps away from a world-renowned glacier. Franz Josef glacier, sitting in the incredible Westland Tai Poutini National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is quite a site to see! Head to Franz Josef town to be surrounded by lush rainforest and breath in the crisp, clean air of this natural paradise.
Head along for a scenic drive to access Franz Josef from the North or South. This remote town is just over 2 hours away from Greymouth and 5 hours from Queenstown. The journey will be part of the experience as there will be many photo opportunities along the way as you discover the stunning scenery around every corner.
Explore Franz Josef
Visiting Franz Josef is an unforgettable experience of natural wonder. From hiking to eateries, helicopter rides to meeting the rare and unique alpine parrot—New Zealand's kea bird.
If you're interested in exploring the lush rainforest and discovering history's past stories, then head to the Tatare Tunnels Walk to explore the old tunnel and see the glowworms. Or perhaps you want to catch a glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier itself. With multiple viewing angles, there will be something for every fitness level.
For an up-close encounter with the glacier, we highly recommend taking to the skies to join the magical experience of a scenic helicopter flight to with this natural wonder.
The Landing Restaurant: Known for its contemporary New Zealand cuisine, The Landing offers a selection of dishes that focus on local and seasonal ingredients.
Snake Bite Brewery: A unique fusion of Asian and New Zealand flavors, this casual eatery and brewery serves craft beers, local wines, and inventive small plates.
Blue Ice Restaurant: Offering Italian and contemporary New Zealand dishes, Blue Ice is popular for its pizzas and the view of the surrounding mountains.
Alice May: A local favorite, Alice May serves classic Kiwi dishes in a cosy, rustic setting.
King Tiger Eastern Eating House & Bar: Here you can find a variety of Asian dishes including Indian, Thai, and Chinese cuisine.
Franz Josef Glacier is a unique and rapidly-moving glacier. It's unusual in that it descends from the Southern Alps into a temperate rainforest close to the sea. The glacier, which is around 12 km long, has been retreating over the years due to global warming but still provides a spectacular sight. Visitors can explore the glacier through various means such as guided hikes and helicopter tours, though access may vary due to changing conditions. It's part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site, a biodiverse region recognised for its natural value.
Waiho Hot Tubs provides an unforgettable experience that intimately connects visitors to the region's rich cultural heritage and stunning natural surroundings. The site takes its name from the Waiho River, a vibrant waterway flowing from the Franz Josef Glacier to the Tasman Sea.
The river, whose name loosely translates to 'smoky waters,' carries a poignant legend. It is said to have been formed from the frozen tears of Hinehukatere, a woman from ancient times who watched her beloved, Wawe, tragically fall to his death while mountain climbing. Her tears were frozen into what is now known as the Franz Josef Glacier, or in Māori, Kā Roimata-a-Hinehukatere, meaning 'the tears of Hinehukatere.' The Waiho Hot Tubs offer a unique opportunity to immerse in these legendary waters, providing a profound connection to the incredible landscape and its people.
Discover Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier by taking to the skies aboard a helicopter ride that offers panoramic views of the glacier and surrounding landscape. On landing in the glacier's upper sections, embark on a guided hike, exploring the intricate crevasses, ice caves, and seracs up close with the help of expert guides.
The scenic flights, without the hiking portion, offer an aerial view of the pristine white glacier, the rugged Southern Alps, and the lush rainforests, creating a diverse spectacle of New Zealand's dramatic landscapes. Please note that these activities are weather-dependent, and availability may vary based on current conditions.
Ranging from short walks to full-day hikes, these trails cater to a variety of fitness levels. Learn more about Franz Josef Walks.
Franz Josef is a small town with a variety of dining options that cater to different tastes, offering local New Zealand fare as well as international cuisine. While the specific establishments and their offerings can change over time, as of my knowledge cutoff in 2021, some notable restaurants in the area included:
Remember, it's always a good idea to check the current status of these establishments and their operating hours before planning your visit.
Franz Josef is home to one of nature's most stunning displays, glow-worms. These bioluminescent creatures can be found in the damp, dark environments of caves and forest undergrowth, and they light up to attract their prey into a sticky snare.
The Tatare Tunnels Walk is a popular place to see bioluminescent glow-worms. This track takes you through old water tunnels from the region's gold-mining days. Armed with a torch, you can navigate through the darkened tunnels and witness the glow-worms illuminating the way with their soft, bluish-green light. It's a sight that feels like looking at a starry sky, but underground.
History of Franz Josef
In the late 19th century, von Haast, a German geologist and naturalist, embarked on extensive explorations throughout New Zealand, leaving an indelible mark on the country's geography. His notable contribution to the discovery and naming of the Franz Josef Glacier led to the subsequent christening of the town.
During his exploratory endeavours, von Haast encountered the awe-inspiring glacier descending from the Southern Alps. In a gesture of admiration and respect, he chose to name the glacier after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, who was a patron of scientific exploration and had ennobled von Haast himself. This honorary naming not only paid tribute to the emperor, but also immortalised the glacier's magnificence.
In the late 19th century, the discovery of gold in Franz Josef sparked a rush of prospectors from around the world. The town emerged as a settlement supporting the mining activities in the area, attracting Europeans, Chinese, and Māori miners. Though relatively short-lived, the gold rush brought rapid growth and economic prosperity to the region, leaving a lasting impact on Franz Josef's development.
Conservation efforts in Franz Josef, New Zealand, have successfully regenerated kiwi populations. Through predator control measures, habitat restoration, and public awareness campaigns, the decline of these iconic birds has been reversed. Today, Franz Josef is a thriving sanctuary where kiwis are protected and can thrive in their natural habitat.
The Franz Josef Glacier has a rich geological history that spans thousands of years. It was formed as a result of the gradual accumulation of snowfall in the Southern Alps, which compressed into ice over time. As the ice moved down the valley, it carved and shaped the landscape, creating the magnificent glacier we see today.
However, in recent decades, the Franz Josef Glacier, like many glaciers around the world, has experienced significant environmental changes due to climate change. Rising temperatures have led to accelerated melting and retreat of the glacier. This melting has altered the size and shape of the glacier, as well as the surrounding landscape.
The environmental melting of the Franz Josef Glacier has sparked concerns about its long-term survival. Efforts have been made to monitor and study the glacier's changes, as well as raise awareness about the impact of climate change on glaciers and the need for sustainable practices.
The melting of the Franz Josef Glacier serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to address climate change and its effects on our natural environment. It highlights the importance of preserving and protecting these fragile ecosystems for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
Franz Josef vs Fox Glacier
If you're planning your West Coast adventure and find yourself wondering, "Should I visit Franz Josef or Fox Glacier?", you're not alone! We've pulled together some of the top questions about Fox Glacier to help you plan your journey.
- Duration: Approximately 1 hour (return).
- Difficulty: Easy.
- Details: This well-formed path will lead you to a viewpoint near the glacier's terminal face. Though you won't get close to the ice, the view is fantastic. Learn More.
- Duration: 1.5 hours (return).
- Difficulty: Easy.
- Details: Lake Matheson is renowned for its reflective waters, offering mirror-like views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The walk winds through lush forests and offers several viewpoints. Learn More.
- Duration: 3-4 hours.
- Difficulty: Moderate.
- Details: Starting near the Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park, this track ascends through rainforest to a viewpoint overlooking the glacier. Learn More.
- Duration: About 40 minutes (return).
- Difficulty: Easy.
- Details: This short track takes you through a changing landscape of glacier-carved terrain. Learn More.
- Duration: 8 hours (return).
- Difficulty: Challenging.
- Details: Not for the faint-hearted, this steep climb promises panoramic views from the summit, spanning from the Tasman Sea to Aoraki/Mount Cook. This track is not maintained and requires good navigation skills. Learn More.
- Duration: Varies.
- Difficulty: Varies.
- Details: While not a traditional hike, several tour operators offer helicopter flights to the glacier, followed by guided ice hikes. This offers an opportunity to walk on the glacier itself.
Iconic neighbours on New Zealand's West Coast, both destinations offer an incredible and unique experience just 30 minutes apart.
While both glaciers survive in temperate rainforests, Fox Glacier is slightly longer, juxtaposing ice with lush forest landscapes, and boasts attractions like the reflective Lake Matheson. Meanwhile, the faster-moving Franz Josef Glacier frequently changes its appearance with dynamic icefalls and has an added allure with relaxation spots like the Glacier Hot Pools.
Both glaciers offer similar activities, from valley walks to heli-hikes, but always prioritise guided tours for ice ventures. Franz Josef town is slightly larger than Fox Glacier, presenting a broader array of amenities. Ultimately, each glacier has its unique charm, and if time permits, exploring both can offer a comprehensive appreciation of the region's beauty.
Hotels and Motels: Fox Glacier has a handful of hotels and motels, ranging from budget to mid-range. Many of these places offer stunning views of the surrounding landscapes and modern amenities.
Bed and Breakfasts: For those who prefer a more intimate and homely experience, there are several bed and breakfast establishments. These often provide a personal touch and can offer insights into local attractions.
Lodges: There are a few upscale lodges around Fox Glacier that offer luxurious rooms and services, often set amidst beautiful scenic backdrops.
Holiday Parks and Campgrounds: For budget travellers and those looking to get close to nature, there are holiday parks that offer camper van and tent sites, as well as basic cabins. They typically provide shared kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Backpackers' Hostels: These are ideal for solo travellers or those on a tight budget. They offer dormitory-style rooms, shared facilities, and a communal kitchen, fostering a sense of community among travellers.
Self-contained Units: These are popular among families and groups. They offer more privacy and facilities like a private kitchen, allowing guests to prepare their meals.
Fox Glacier Valley Walk:
Lake Matheson Walk:
Chancellor Shelf Walk:
Mount Fox Route:
1. Fox Glacier Valley Walk Viewpoint:
This is the endpoint of the Fox Glacier Valley Walk. While you won't get very close to the glacier's terminal face, you'll have a direct line of sight to it, providing a panoramic view of the glacier and its surroundings.
2. Lake Matheson:
While primarily known for its reflective qualities, Lake Matheson has several viewing points along its circular track. The most famous is the "Reflection Island" lookout, which offers stunning mirror-like views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on a calm day.
3. Sentinel Rock:
A short walk that leads to an elevated viewpoint providing a broader perspective of the Fox Glacier, especially the lower parts. It's a quick detour from the Fox Glacier Valley Walk.
4. Chancellor Shelf:
After a moderate hike, you're rewarded with a viewpoint that gives an overview of the glacier and its meandering path through the valley below.
5. Mount Fox:
For those who embark on this challenging route, the summit offers panoramic views not just of the Fox Glacier, but of the wider Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.
6. Gillespies Beach:
Located about 20 minutes' drive from Fox Glacier township, Gillespies Beach offers sea views with the dramatic backdrop of the Southern Alps. On a clear day, you might even spot the glacier from afar.
7. Peak Viewpoint:
This is a relatively short walk, starting from a parking area on the road to Fox Glacier. It provides another perspective of the glacier from a slightly elevated position.
Fox Glacier Heli Hikes and tours provide an unparalleled opportunity to get up close and personal with one of New Zealand’s most iconic glaciers. These tours combine the thrill of helicopter rides with guided ice hikes, offering an immersive glacier experience.
The adventure typically begins with a helicopter ride from the Fox Glacier township, giving aerial views of the glacier's vast neve and icefalls. After landing on a safe spot on the glacier, you are led on a guided hike across the ice, exploring the unique features of the glacier, such as crevasses, ice caves, and arches.
The duration can vary depending on the package chosen. There are shorter experiences that last about twenty minutes in total (including flight and ice time) and longer ones that can provide more extensive exploration opportunities.
Due to the popularity of these tours, it's advisable to book in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons.
Weather plays a significant role in whether a tour can proceed. Glacial weather is unpredictable, and tours may be postponed or cancelled if conditions are deemed unsafe.
Heli-Hikes and Tours: Heli-hikes are a fantastic way to experience the glacier up close. Helicopter flights give you aerial views of the glacier, while guided hikes let you explore its unique features.
Fox Glacier Valley Walk: This is a relatively easy walk that offers views of the glacier's terminal face. It's suitable for most fitness levels and provides interpretative panels detailing the glacier's history and movement.
Lake Matheson: Renowned for its mirror-like reflections of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, a walk around this lake is both relaxing and visually rewarding. Visit early morning or late afternoon for the best reflections.
Gillespies Beach: A short drive from the Fox Glacier township, this beach offers panoramic views of the Tasman Sea and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. There's also a miners' tunnel from the gold mining days to explore.
Mount Fox: For the more adventurous, this challenging track offers panoramic views from the summit, encompassing the Southern Alps, the glacier, and the sea.
Glacier Scenic Flights: If you'd rather not hike but still want a bird's-eye view, scenic flights (with no landing) are available to show you Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, and even Aoraki/Mount Cook on longer flights.
Ice Climbing: For those looking for an adrenaline rush, some tour operators offer ice climbing on the glacier. No previous experience is usually required, as they'll teach you the basics.
Wildlife Tours: Take a tour focused on spotting some of New Zealand's native wildlife, including the elusive kiwi bird. Night tours offer the best chance to see nocturnal creatures.
There are several restaurants in Fox Glacier that offer a variety of cuisines, from European to Asian, and from steakhouse to pizza. Here are some of the best restaurants in Fox Glacier that you might want to try:
Matheson Cafe: This café is located near the stunning Lake Matheson, which reflects the views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. It offers a range of dishes, from breakfast and lunch to cakes and snacks.
Betsey Jane Eatery & Bar: This steakhouse and seafood restaurant is located on Cook Flat Road, and offers various dishes, from burgers and salads to ribs and fish. The restaurant also has a bar with live music and sports on TV.
Cook Saddle Café & Saloon: This bar and pub is located on State Highway 6, and offers a great spot for a beer and a bite. The menu includes pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, nachos, and more. The cafe also has a saloon with pool tables, dart boards, and karaoke.
Café Neve: This café is located on Main Road, and offers quick bites and pizzas. The café has a modern and bright decor, and serves breakfast, lunch, coffee, and cakes.
Fox glacier glow-worms are an incredible natural phenomenon that can be seen in the dark forest near the town centre. Glow-worms are the larvae of a fungus gnat that produce a bioluminescent light to attract and trap their prey. They live in moist and shady places, such as under rocks, logs, or banks of streams. They create sticky threads that hang down from their bodies, which glow with a blue-green light.
The glow-worms can be seen on the Minnehaha Walk, a short, and easy loop track that follows a small stream through the rainforest. The walk is about 1.2 km long and takes about 20 minutes to complete. The best time to see the glow-worms is at night, when they are most active and bright. You will need a light to find your way, but make sure to turn it off when you reach the glow-worm area, as they are sensitive to light. You will be amazed by the sight of thousands of tiny stars shining in the dark forest. The glow-worms are free to see and are a unique and unforgettable experience.
West Coast Train
Travelling to the West Coast by train couldn't be easier or more beautiful than aboard the TranzAlpine.
Weaving through the peaks of the Southern Alps, the TranzAlpine Christchurch to Greymouth train ranks among the best scenic train journeys in the world.
From Greymouth, you can simply rent a car or campervan and explore Franz Josef and the West Coast at your leisure. Alternatively, you can book one of our short breaks or tours and let us take care of everything for you.
Getting to Franz Josef by train
Travel aboard the world-famous TranzAlpine train to Franz Josef with our South Island rail tours and short breaks.
Explore the West Coast
From idyllic lakes to geological wonders, discover why New Zealand's West Coast is such a spectacular place to visit: