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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Short Hike/Tramping to Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

New Zealand abounds with diverse natural features, a paradise for those seeking nature's wonders. You can never go wrong exploring either the North or the South Island, but if you are seeking glaciers, your best bet is to go to the South Island. There are some in the north as well, just not as easy to get to. There are several glaciers that you can visit here, weather permitting. We were lucky to see only one, since weather is very unpredictable in New Zealand. One day it was sunny and warm and the next day it was pouring, windy and cold. When we explored New Zealand, we "played it by ear" as the saying goes.


The glacier area is one of the main attractions on the West Coast of the South Island. The Westland/Taipoutini National Park is known as "Glacier Country." The mountains of the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana in Māori), are among the fastest growing mountains in the world. Their location and height are perfect for glacier formation, especially because this is one of the wettest areas in the world, with enormous amounts of rain and snowfall in the higher elevations. These mountains are revered by the Māori people, the Ngai Tahu tribe, and their ancestors.

The glaciers became popular when European surveyors and explorers spread the word of the attractions on the west coast. Sir William Fox, Prime Minister of New Zealand, visited and made a painting of the Franz Josef Glacier in 1872, and by the 1890's, the area was becoming so popular that the government began giving annual grants to hoteliers for constructing tracks and huts. Charlie Douglas, one of New Zealand’s great explorers, supervised the hotels' construction. The Graham family became the mainstay of early tourism, with two brothers guiding tourists up onto the ice and into the mountains. They contributed to the success of the town of Franz Josef Glacier, which provided accommodations, a post office, a gathering place and a first-aid center.


From the parking lot to the Franz Josef glacier is not that far, about two miles each way, and an easy trail at that. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Not far from the beginning of the trail, you will find waterfalls cascading like ribbons down the side of the granite face of the cliffs. The Trident Creek Falls are one of many waterfalls in the Franz Josef Glacier valley.

Trident Creek Falls


Stop and look around! The glacier is not the only thing interesting in the area. The glaciers, when they retreat, leave behind moraines - debris consisting of rocks and gravel. The moraine at Franz Josef Glacier was formed approximately 12,000 years ago. You will probably notice the boulders on the valley floor, which were carried down by glacial ice. They are covered with lichen and moss, in bright orange or rust and many shades of green.

As the ice receded, lichens and mosses appeared and then grasses and weeds, followed by shrubs and then trees. Lichens are a life-form comprised of part algae and part fungus, both living symbiotically and each contributing to the survival of the other. Lichens produce acids that corrode the rock surface, thus releasing nutrients.

Lichen and mosses on boulders


Franz Josef Glacier was first explored in 1865 by a German explorer and geologist, Julius von Haast, who named it after the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I. The name was officially altered to Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere after the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act of 1998.

The face of the glacier is unfortunately very far above the valley floor. Before the glacier started to recede, it is believed to have extended all the way to the sea, some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Glaciers traditionally had a cyclic behavior of advance and retreat, depending on the conditions up on the snow field. But climate change over recent years has changed that, with retreat happening more rapidly than any intermediate advances. Franz Josef glacier was still advancing in 2008, but since then it has retreated rapidly. Both the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers recede up to 13 feet every day, which is uncommonly rapid compared to others (the Tasman Glacier on the eastern side of the great divide moves at only about two feet a day).

The glacier above

If you are expecting that you will be able to at least touch the glacier, forget it. It is cordoned off, with the barrier line well away from its face. No one is allowed to go beyond the barriers for obvious reasons - the danger of falling rocks and chunks of ice.

Hermann visited this glacier 15 years before, when the face of the glacier was still down on the flat valley floor and visitors could still walk up and almost touch it. Not this time unfortunately. You would have to take a guided ice walk or take a helicopter ride to to see the glacier up close and personal.

We were here in the Spring of 2015, so I wonder if the glacier has retreated even more since then. We weren't able to see the Fox Glacier due to nasty weather the next day, so we have nothing to compare. A little disappointing, but that's how it is in traveling. I always say, expect the unexpected since you never know. Things don't always go exactly as planned.

So, how many photos can you take of a glacier before they all look the same? We found that the moraine and surrounding terrain offered better photo opportunities than the glacier itself.

Interesting stuff to see on the moraine

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