Franz Josef glacier on the South Island’s west coast is about 12 km long. Once, it reached the Tasman sea; today, it finishes about 19 km from the ocean.
Franz Josef Glacier
It’s more than 10’000 years ago that the glacier reached the ocean. It’s not so long ago however, when the viewing point, that can be reached with a 45 minute-walk from the parking lot, was right next to the glacier. Today, you need binoculars to get a close view of the ice. If the glacier keeps retreating at the same rate, in a few years it will probably be difficult to see it.
Walking to the glacier from the viewing point is dangerous; several people have died from falling ice in recent years when they tried to get close to the glacier, ignoring signs and barriers. So in order to bring people to the ice, lots of companies in and around Franz Josef town offer scenic flights over the glacier and/or ice landings.
The experience may be fantastic but for those walking to the viewpoint, the constant noise of helicopters and small planes overhead (especially on clear days) can be quite annoying. Plus, doesn’t flying contribute to global warming and therefore the rapid melting of glaciers?
A view of the glacier
At the beginning of the trail, a short detour leads to the top of a hill from where you have great views over the valley formed by the glacier. Signs explain what kind of vegetation grows after how many years after the ice has retreated. Pictures show the extent of the ice over the years; the glacier is retreating at an alarming speed.
On the way to the viewpoint, you pass some nice waterfalls and a beautiful stream with moss-covered stones. The last part of the track is only debris left by the glacier; nothing has been able to grow there yet.
The glacier itself is far away but with binoculars (or a good zoom lens, of course) you can see the ice and its amazing formations up close.
23 kilometers from Franz Josef town is Fox Glacier village. The road to the glacier viewpoint was closed due to landslides at the time of our visit so we only went to Lake Matheson.
A walking trail leads around the peaceful lake. From the viewpoint at the end of the lake you have – well, you could have – the picture perfect view of New Zealand’s highest mountains reflected in the lake’s surface, framed by trees on both sides. That’s the dream, the perfect day, the money shot. In reality, however, you’re in a country where it’s almost always windy and the lake’s surface almost never calm. The view was nice nevertheless.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of mountains and have seen bigger glaciers than Franz Josef glacier, a visit to Franz and Fox towns is still very worthwhile. Franz Josef may look like a mountain town but it’s not – it’s only 300 meters above sea level and the sea is just a 20 minute drive away. So pack a torch and a jacket (that constant wind…) and go watch the sunset at Okarito beach! You may even spot a Kiwi..! (No, we didn’t.)
Another good reason to visit Fox and Franz Josef glaciers is to driver over Haast Pass. Not for the pass itself (it’s not even a real pass, at least not by Swiss standards), but for the whole journey between Fox town and Wanaka.
The scenery is stunning, no matter the weather (except for fog probably). Huge rivers and flood plains cut through the landscape, the snow-capped mountains covered in impenetrable and wild forest towering on both sides of the road.
Walking trails along the route lead to waterfalls, through enchanted forests, and to incredibly blue pools of water.
Once on the other side of the pass, the forest disappears and gives way to a more arid, alpine landscape that is just as beautiful as the dense forest.
The road then winds its way along Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. Blue waters between the dark mountains, the lakes lined with wild roses and lupines in full bloom.
I’ve read and heard lots about this route and how amazing it is but it’s even more beautiful than words can describe it; you have to do the journey yourself. It was definitely the most beautiful route we drove in all New Zealand. And that’s something, because the country has lots of stunning scenery!