Franz Josef Glacier
The glacier is open year-round. The best time to visit Franz Josef depends on what you’re looking for. Mild temperatures? Ice highlights? Fewer Crowds? Read on for our detailed ‘WHEN TO GO’ tips below. Tip: Make sure to check our complete season guide below and don't miss (quick navigation):
Special Tip: Planning to visit Milford Sound as well? Check out our detailed guide with many tips: 7 Tips for Milford Sound| A Complete Guide | Link to our article. If you'd like tips about combining Queenstown - Milford Sound and Franz Josef Glacier, read this TripAdvisor Post: How to combine Queenstown - Milford - Franz Josef — TripAdvisor
Seasons | Weather - Busy Times
In general, the weather is highly unpredictable in this region, regardless of the season. Within one day it can change radically. Always bring rain gear, despite a sunny weather forecast. The Franz Josef town experiences more than 5 liters of rain each year and 10-15 meters of snow at the top of the glacier. However, in the winter it’s more stable.
June - July - August | Winter:
Temperatures are low: 5 – 15°C (41-57°F), but the weather is more stable than during other seasons. Winter has the clearest days; everything is clean and pristine. Highlight: The ice moves less in winter, resulting in amazing ice features like crevasses and ice caves which stay much longer. There are significantly fewer tourists, and it’s a lot quieter than in summer months.
September - October - November | Spring:
Temperatures are rising: 9 – 17°C (48-63°F). September is still quiet but also still a cool month with 6-13°C. October gets a little more busy and warmer. November is already peak season which means it gets crowded during the day.
December - January - February | Summer:
Mild daytime temperatures between 12 and 25°C (53-77°F). Great for exploring. However, the weather is very unpredictable and can quickly change from sun to heavy rainfall which can last for hours or a whole day. It’s also the very busy peak season: Starting in November (spring) and lasting until March with up to 2700 tourists each day. Be prepared for crowded tracks and photo spots.
March - April - May | Fall:
Temperatures continue to be pleasant: 9 – 17°C (48-63°F). However, be prepared for rain like in the summer. In March it’s still busy. The heavy crowds start to dissipate during April and thin out even more in May.
Avoiding Tourist Crowds
It’s usually very busy and crowded in high season between November and March with one million visitors each year. Especially if you want to take the popular 45 minutes walk to the glacier (90 minutes round trip). Although there is plenty of parking space, it fills up pretty quick by mid-morning. In peak season it can become quite difficult to find a parking spot after 10 AM. The main track itself gets crowded as well, although it thins out a little as you near the glacier. When parts of the track are closed during or after heavy rainfall, it feels even more crowded. Moreover, the helicopter sightseeing and hiking flights start at 8 AM making a lot of noise. Expect one helicopter each minute during the peak season. To dodge the crowds and avoid the disturbing helicopter noise be there early around 7 AM. You’ll experience a much more peaceful walk to the glacier and enjoy the fascinating sights in solitude. You might also try to go after 6 PM in the summer or after 4 PM in the winter when the crowds dissipated again and heli flights are terminated soon for the day. However, the views sometimes can get worse since when clouds descend later in the day. But still, a late hike, still daylight etc., is a great way to dodge the crowds.
Located in Westland National Park, this is one of New Zealand's most spectacular natural attractions. 12 km long, 7000 years old. It is the steepest and fastest moving glacier in New Zealand up to 4 meters have been recorded. The recommended travel guides and maps for Franz Josef Glacier are (on Amazon): NZ Frenzy South Island New Zealand | Fodor's Essential New Zealand 2019 Edition | New Zealand - National Geographic Adventure Map
To experience Franz Josef Glacier you can hike or take a helicopter tour. We recommend both:
Can you spot the sign? A few steps further is the closest you can get via hiking
The main hike/walk gets you as close as possible to the glacier. It only takes 45 minutes on the most popular track to get to the glacier (about 200m distance). It’s a short hike with fascinating views and starts at the car park. Please keep in mind, that the track is sometimes closed due to ice collapse, flooding or landslides. Check the daily updates (click the PDF document at the top): http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz, It’s not possible to get on the glacier itself via this or any other walk anymore. In the past, it was possible by choosing a guided hike. Since 2012 it's unsafe to walk on the glacier due to a massive loss of ice. Very detailed information and tips about this track: Franz Josef Walk.
Of course, there are other fascinating and longer hikes in the area as well. You can find them in the official brochure: Glacier Region Walks. Besides the main hike to the glacier we recommend two other trails and one guided Franz Josef valley walks:
- Callery Gorge Walk: If you have limited time, then do this easy 1 hr 20 mins return walk. You experience the rainforest in a great way. A detailed guide can be found here: Callery Gorge Walk Details Start: Franz Josef Village - Tartar Tunnels - Cowan St.
- Roberts Point Treck: This is a longer and more strenuous trail, but 100% worth it. It takes you to a stunning view point high above the glacier ice! More details: Roberts Point Track
- 3 Hour Guided Valley Walk: Starting at a meeting point in Franz Josef Village, this guided walk takes you to amazing off-track viewpoints you can't visit alone. Pristine waterfalls, an ancient rainforest track and the Waiho river with excellent knowledgabel guides.
Heli Tours (Landing Only or Heli Hike & Ice Trekking)
With a helicopter tour you have 2 choices: A) Snow landing 'only' and B) Snow landing + ice hiking/trekking included. With snow landing tours you experience breathtaking views and land on the ice. However, you won't hike or walk further. All heli tours start in Franz Josef 'Village'. You may book on the spot, but we don't recommend that. Always book in advance! Read our 10 Must-Know Tips below for more details. Our favorite 'pure' snow landing tour is this one: Franz Josef Helicopter Flight with Snow Landing. If you'd like to see Fox Glacier as well, then consider this one: Franz Josef & Fox Glacier Heli Flight & Snow Landing (both links take you to the large provider GetYourGuide. We use them because of 100% safe booking and great customer service)
The 'pure' helicopter tours are great (choice A), but the most jaw-dropping experience is the heli hike with ice trekking after landing (choice B). This is your only chance to walk on the glacier itself. The helicopter will land on the ice, and you’ll be taking an amazing guided hike up to 3 hours. A once in a lifetime experience: You walk through towering walls of blue ice, relax in ice caves, crawl through blue ice tunnels, and so much more. Check it out here: Thrilling Franz Josef Ice Hike and Helicopter Ride
10 Franz-Josef Glacier Must-Know Tips (Top Tips - Things to Do)
- Heli Tour Booking: Always book in advance and book an early morning slot! The best time slots are in the mornings. Why is that? When a helicopter tour gets cancelled due to rain, you still get a good chance for a later slot on the same day. The morning slots are really popular and there are long queues when you try to book on the spot. Pre-book!! Heli Tours Franz Josef. Another advantage when booking an early slot: If you only spend one night, you can easily do the main hike later in the day.
- Rain Gear: Regardless of the season or months, and even regardless of the weather forecast: Always bring rain gear! While Franz Josef Glacier is fantastic even when it rains, it’s a bummer when it’s clear in the morning and starts raining later without having the right gear. Also, don’t be scared of the rain. It can rain while you visit, but the chance for sunny weather is not that bad.
- Shoes: While the main hike to the glacier is not that difficult, you should wear shoes which are sturdy enough or at least some good sneakers. There are some short but steeper climbs and we saw visitors wearing flip flops, which we don’t recommend at all for this track.
- Toilets: There are toilets at the parking area/trailhead and you should definitely use them before you start your hike. There are no toilets along the trail and ‘wild peeing’ is sort of difficult in the area.
- Parking and Entrance Fee: There is no entrance fee and parking at the car park is also free of charge. Google Maps Route Franz Josef Village <> Franz Josef Car Park Tip: Arrive early at the car park during peak season (see above), as parking space is limited! Also, don’t walk to the trailhead/car park from your hotel! It takes only 10 minutes by car and too long to walk. You may also take a shuttle.
- Stay 2 Nights: Staying one night in a nearby hotel (Hotel Tips), is the absolute minimum. However, we would always stay two nights or even three! Then you can do a heli tour and one hike on one day, and another easy or more strenuous hike - whatever you prefer - the next day. Even if you don’t do a heli tour, it’s so worth it to try other beautiful trails besides the main one. You can also include a visit to Fox Glacier (30 minutes drive). Whatever you do, heli tour, hiking, etc. do yourself a favor and don’t just stay for one night
- Hike Early or Late: If you do an early heli tour (see above), then hike later in the day, when crowds start to thin out. If you don’t go on a helicopter tour or if you stay more than one day (which is highly recommended), then start your first or the longest hike early. For more detailed tips, read our main section above: Avoiding Tourist Crowds
- Without Hiking: If you’re not able to hike, due to health or other conditions or don’t want to, then book a helicopter flight without ice trekking/hiking (view our heli tour section). You experience a breathtaking view after after landing and can take gorgeous photos without any hiking. Extra tip: While not as beautiful as getting close the the glacier via the main hike, you can take great pictures of the glacier from the car park as well. However, you’ll need a long lens.
- The Most Breathtaking Experience: The most jaw-dropping thing you can do at Franz Josef Glacier is definitely a heli ride which includes the 2-3 hours ice-hike after landing. Nowhere else you can walk through towering walls of blue ice, hang out in ice caves, crawl through blue ice tunnels, and more. That’s a once in a lifetime experience! Only very few operators offer this tour. One of the best: Franz Josef Thrilling Ice Trek & Helicopter Ride (safe booking and reliable service via GetYourGuide)
- Locations: If you wonder, where is everything? Quite easy: The car park, where you start the main hike (and other hikes) is close to the Franz Josef Village: Google Maps - Franz Josef Car Park. The nearby Franz Josef ‘Village’ is where all the hotels are located. The heli tours also start here and can be booked on the spot (which we don’t recommend, read tip #1 why): Google Maps - Franz Josef Village
Hot Pools (Special Tip)
If you'd like to relax after a hike in the tranquil surroundings of Franz Josef's lush and ancient looking rainforest, we recommend the three immersing hot pools: Te Runanga o Makaawhio: Te Puna Mahaki (Pool of Calmness), Te Puna Makoha (Pool of Tranquillity), Te Puna Marino (Pool of Serenity). You can book your ticket in advance via GetYourGuide (excellent service and safe booking!): Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools - Single Entry Ticket. However, you may also buy a ticket right there on the spot.
Visiting Fox Glacier
While staying in a hotel in Franz Josef Village you can easily reach Fox Glacier within 30 minutes by car. While Fox Glacier is bigger, we prefer the gorgeous surroundings with intriguing vegetation, waterfalls, and rock formations at Franz Josef, it’s still 100% worth to visit Fox Glacier as well. If you don’t have the time to drive to Fox Glaicer, book a heli tour which covers both glaciers. See our helicopter tour section above.
Franz Josef Nature Facts
- Length: 10.5 km
- Dimension: 35 km²
- Bottom of the Glacier: just 300 m above sea level
- Status: since 2008 retreating already more than 800 m (3 km since the late 1880's)
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are the most sensitive glaciers. Both have a short reaction time to climate change. More useful resources: Glacier Country Tourism Group Franz Josef Glacier