Franz Josef Glacier. Glacier in New Zealand, Oceania

Franz Josef Glacier

Glacier in New Zealand, Oceania

Franz Josef Glacier Photo ©

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Franz Josef Glacier

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Not just a backdrop for the Lord of the Rings movies (nearby Mount Gunn was a location for Ered Nimrais), Franz Josef Glacier is a 12km long glacier located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park (Wikipedia Article) on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The surrounding area is part of Te Wahipounamu, a World Heritage Site park.


The glacier was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, by the German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865.

The indigenous Maori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, meaning “the tears of Hinehukatere”. According to local legend, Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her, until an avalanche swept Wawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was brokenhearted, and her many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.


The glacier is currently 12km long, terminating 19km from the Tasman Sea. It is fed by a 20 square km snowfield, and exhibits a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat, driven by differences between the volume of meltwater at the foot of the glacier and volume of snowfall feeding the neve.

The glacier advanced rapidly during the Little Ice Age (Wikipedia Article), reaching a maximum in the early eighteenth century. It retreated several kilometers between the 1940s and the 1980s, but then entered an advancing stage in 1984. At times it has advanced at an incredible rate of 70cm per day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers. The glacier is believed to have extended into the sea some 10,000 – 15,000 years ago.

The glacier was still advancing until 2008, but since then it has entered a very rapid phase of retreat. The shrinking process has been attributed to global warming. Scientists expect that the glacier will retreat 5km and lose 38% of its mass by 2100, in a mid-range scenario of warming.

Sentinel Rock and other rock outcrops nearby are hard schist bedrock, which have withstood the massive scraping by the ice as the glacier passed by and over. The French term “roche moutonnee” meaning “rock – sheep” is used to describe these distinctive rounded rocks which were shaped by glaciers.

Where the glacier has dumped a veneer of rubble over the bedrock, plant succession is rapid, from low shrubs of tree daisy (olearia) and tutu, to young rata and kamahi forest, which emerge after 100 years. Where bedrock is bare, succession is much slower. Lichens and mosses cover the rocks, and shrubs begin growing in crevices.

Walking on the Glacier

The glacier area is one of the main tourist attractions of the South Island’s West Coast, receiving around 250,000 visitors each year, and up to 2,700 per day. Guided and unguided walks onto the glacier are possible, however since April 2012 all glacier walks require a helicopter flight past the unstable terminal face. Glacier walks also require some specialized equipment, namely ice axes and crampons that latch onto a sturdy boot.

Many tourists choose to avoid the lengthy walk up to the glacier, by taking a helicopter up to the first and second icefalls. This allows for a guided 1-2 hour walk through the broken ground on top of the glacier.


Aside from glacier walks, the area also has other hiking trails. Just south of the village, a sealed road leads from the highway into the Franz Josef Glacier valley and to a car park. Several small walks start from the Valley Road and the car park, and it is also possible to comfortably cycle from the village to the car park.

The valley walk ends at a lookout about 50m from the main terminal face of the glacier. Since 2012, the terminal face has become too dangerous to approach, so be sure to not cross the safety barriers at the lookout.

An alternative option to view the glacier is via the 8-hour day hike up the 1,303m-high Alex Knob, overlooking the Franz Josef Glacier and valley below. The path up Alex Knob is of a good standard, but is strenuous due to a steep climb of around 1,100m.

Getting There

From Franz Josef township (on State Highway 6), drive south over the Waiho River bridge. Turn left after the bridge onto the Franz Josef Glacier Access Road. This road has an unsealed surface, but is suitable for cars, campervans and buses. Most of the walking tracks are accessed from the carpark at the end of this 4km road.


With a population of just 330 residents, Franz Josef township still has plenty of accommodation options as well as restaurants and shops. Things get busy during high season, so be sure to book ahead. For peace and quiet, try the Glenfern Villas, which come fully equipped for the independent traveling group.

For a budget option, check out Rainforest Backpackers on Cron Street, or Sir Cedrics Chateau Franz Backpackers and Motels.

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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Sep 07, 2015


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