Franz Josef Glacier Scenic Flight
As the helicopter settled to a stop, rotor blades still spinning, I jumped down and sank up to my knees in soft fluffy snow. In front of me the mountain sloped sharply away. Ice creased into deep crevasses as it slid slowly down the mountain to the Waiho River around twelve kilometres below. The weak winter sun acted like a photographer’s soft focus lens, hiding the old glacier’s wrinkles and flaws. Wispy clouds washed out the blue of the sky, under which a few knobbly rocky ridges had managed to wriggle free of their snowy winter overcoat. The pilot called me back. “Do you want a closer look?”
The helicopter hugged the valley sides as we descended. One false move and we’d be smashed to pieces on the rocky moraine of the Franz Josef glacier. We were so close we could almost touch it. Fortunately, the pilot had been doing this run for thirty years and the emotion I felt when we touched down at the helipad was exhilaration rather than relief.
Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier offers one of New Zealand’s most easily accessible natural attractions. Located midway along the west coast of South Island, the glacier itself is only a few kilometres outside Franz Josef town in which a number of tour operators are located. If the helicopter ride is outside your budget, then the Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk might be a better option. The track begins a few kilometres out of town; it is walkable, though most people prefer to get a bus or taxi to the trailhead.
The walk begins via a forested trail before following the Waiho riverbed towards the glacier. I found the walk to be relatively level though in places a short scramble up rocky scree is necessary. In a few places, the path cuts through more unstable slopes; rockslides are possible but risk areas are clearly signed. It’s important not to underestimate the danger the glacier represents; some ice falls have been the size of a camper van and the warnings are there for a reason. Notice boards at the trailhead car park give weather and glacier information, and are updated daily.
The track stops short of the snout of the Franz Josef glacier. Ice falls are common as the glacier reaches the warmer temperatures of the valley. Visitors are required to hold back, therefore, and watch from a safe distance. The view is well worth the ninety minute hike. Heading back to the trailhead, it’s worth taking a short detour to the small kettle lake known as Peter’s Pool. It’s hard to believe after the walk you’ve just done that the glacier once extended as far as this, but this lake was formed when a lump of ice from the glacier broke off and melted. Alternatively, take the steeper trail to Sentinel Rock, a roche moutonnée offering a clear view of the glacier.
The hike is suitable for all ages and fitness levels but if you’re up for something more challenging, it is possible to hike on the glacier itself with an experienced guide. Helicopters lift you up onto the ice from where, suitably kitted out, you begin your climb. Crampons attached, these hikes give you the opportunity to get right into the heart of the Franz Josef Glacier, into ice tunnels and caves and amongst some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand. The guides ensure you’re safe, leaving you free to concentrate on enjoying the experience.
Glacier Hot Pools
Back in town, with aching muscles for sure, there’s only one place to head: the glacier hot pools. Three pools with temperatures ranging from 36 to 40°C are beautifully landscaped, tree ferns and boulders framing the clean and spacious pools. Lockers are provided but hang onto the door whilst you retrieve your belongings or else, like me, you’ll be trotting off to reception to tell a member of staff you’ve locked yourself out. But before you go, luxuriate in the warm water, lie back, relax and plan your next hike.
If you’re planning to see the Franz Josef Glacier this season, book your accommodations soon as hotels get filled up fast.