Lisa Jansen visits Glacier Country on the South Island’s west coast and discovers more than just the glaciers – although they are a highlight.
Glacier Country is the name given to the area surrounding Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, about halfway between Haast and Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island. It’s where the Alps meet the ocean.
Driving along SH6 in this part of the country provides an opportunity to take in stunning ocean views on one side and lush green hills and the dominant Southern Alps on the other. There are calm lakes, wild west coast beaches, seemingly endless rainforest and, of course, the glaciers that give the area and its two main towns their names.
There is something very special about seeing the glaciers. Visitors often report feeling surprised when the white glaciers suddenly pop up in a landscape otherwise dominated by green – especially in summer. You know it’s coming, yet it never stops to be impressive and breathtaking when they are suddenly in sight. However, beautiful as they are, it’s also bittersweet. Those who have visited before and remember what the glaciers looked like even just a few years ago, will know they are changing – and fast. Whether it’s due to the regular climate cycles or it’s a man-made problem, there is no denying the glaciers are disappearing.
While a variety of measures are being taken to slow down the steady decline, it seems unlikely that the process will stop any time soon. No-one knows how much longer we will be able to admire the glaciers, but it seems almost certain that future generations will have to rely on photos, videos and stories to experience Fox and Franz Josef Glacier. In other words, this is a part of New Zealand that’s definitely worth visiting sooner rather than later – and there is much more to it than just the glaciers, too.
Up close and personal with the glaciers
Visitors to the glaciers have several options, depending on your own timescale, budget and physical ability. However, the only way to get onto the actual glaciers themselves is via a helicopter tour. They are available for both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, with tour operators in both villages. The tours fly groups onto the glacier, where you are able to go for a guided walk on the spectacular ice. Tour operators offer different options, varying in length, required physical ability and cost. If you’re unsure which is best for you, have a chat with the tour operators or the visitor information centres in either town, who will be more than happy to make recommendations.
A helicopter tour onto one of these unique and beautiful glaciers is a truly unforgettable experience. Not only do you get to stand on the actual glacier, but you also get the opportunity to take in the stunning views from the helicopter. The friendly guides will happily share their vast knowledge of the area and the glaciers, so take advantage of that if you can.
A Walker’s Paradise
If helicopters are not for you, fear not: Fox and Franz Josef are among the most accessible glaciers in the world, and there are several viewpoints that you can get to without leaving the ground. The views might not be quite as stunning as from the helicopter or while standing on the glacier itself, but they are an excellent (and free) alternative. To access the glaciers on foot, there are several options.
Fox Glacier South Side walkway (moderate)
The 6.4km (return) Fox Glacier South Side walkway follows the south side of the Fox River and offers several viewpoints along the way. You can cycle a section of this track. However, you will have to leave the bike at the old car park and walk to the last viewpoint. While the trail is well maintained, it is rated as moderate and covers about 200m of elevation, so a moderate level of fitness is required.
Fox Glacier Track (moderate)
Another option at Fox Glacier is driving up Fox Glacier Road on the north side of the river to the car park, and walking to a lookout from there. The track is only 3.4km return but steep in parts, so be prepared to get your heart rate up!
Franz Josef Glacier Trail (easy)
Those with less time, less stamina or simply less passion for walking will find excellent options at Franz Josef Glacier. From the car park at the end of Franz Josef Glacier Access Road, the mostly flat, 2km (return) track takes you to a lookout with views of the glacier. If you want a little more, add the 20min detour up Sentential Rock for more beautiful glacier views.
Robert’s Point Track (hard)
If you want to get as close to the Franz Josef Glacier as possible without getting into a helicopter, The Robert’s Point Track is the way to go. However, this track is rated as hard for a reason. While the 10km distance and 500m elevation gain might not be much compared to some other tracks, the trail is technical, steep and slippery – and gets harder the further you go. You will be climbing over rocks and roots, following narrow steps along the steep rocks, pulling yourself up steep sections and sliding down on your bump at times. With the right gear and skill level Robert’s Point Track makes for a fantastic adventure, but without those, it can quickly become a dangerous undertaking. Having said that, there are efforts underway to upgrade the track, so it might be more accessible soon.
These are just four of the over 30 walking tracks in glacier country. Whether you are looking for a short stroll or a multi-day hike, you will find it in this part of the country. Have a look on the AllTrails app, the DOC website or talk to the team at the visitor centres to find the right track for you.
Soak in the small-town vibe
Nearby, the townships offer plenty of opportunities to refresh, recharge and relax. Franz Joseph Glacier and Fox Glacier are both idyllic small destinations; however, thanks to the world-famous glaciers and the number of visitors they attract (especially when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic), both towns offer visitors several options when it comes to restaurants, cafés and places to stay. Both have petrol stations, and Franz Josef, the larger of the two townships, also has a well-stocked Four Square supermarket and a public dump station.
Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre
Franz Josef is also the home of the West Coast Wildlife Centre, the largest kiwi captive rearing facilities in the South Island, which is helping bring the critically endangered rowi and Haast tokoeka kiwi back from extinction. There are only about 500 rowi kiwi and 400 Haast Tokoeka kiwi left, and the work the centre is doing is critical to keeping the populations alive. Visit the centre to see live young rowi kiwi in the natural bush walkthrough and discover Tuatara, a highly endangered reptile, on your own time or join a VIP tour for a behind the scenes look at the hatching and incubation programme.
Admire the perfect reflections at Lake Matheson
Near Fox Glacier, nature has combined all its best ingredients at the idyllic Lake Matheson, another must-see attraction in this remarkable part of New Zealand. The usually statue-still lake is famous for its brilliant reflections of the surrounding mountains, making it an unmissable photo opportunity. The lake’s excellent reflecting properties are due to the dark brown colour of the water – the result of organic matter leached naturally from the humus of the forest floor. The reflections are usually best right around sunrise and sunset.
The Jetty viewpoint is an easy 20 min (one way) walk from the car park. From there, you can return the way you came or continue on and complete the full loop around the lake (60-90 minutes).
Lake Matheson is a short drive from Fox Glacier township. If you’re feeling sporty, you can easily walk or cycle to Lake Matheson thanks to a separate track that runs alongside the road. However you get there, on a clear day, make sure you stop and turn around a couple of times to take in the stunning views of Mt Cook (don’t rely on it still being a clear day on your way back, the weather changes fast in this part of New Zealand!). Once there, do the walk and then reward yourself with breakfast, lunch or just a snack at the excellent café right by the start of the walking track.
Visit Fox Glacier Lookout and Gillespie Beach
On your way to Lake Matheson, you will see signs for a viewpoint. This is well worth visiting. If you continue west on Cook Flat Road, instead of turning right to Lake Matheson, and then turn right onto Gillespie Beach Road, you will get to Fox Glacier Lookout (shortly after the road turns gravel). On a clear day, the views of Fox Glacier and Mt Cook are stunning!
If you have time and feel like exploring a bit further afield, continue on Gillespie Beach Road until you get to the coast. Be aware, though, that the road past the lookout is gravel and winds its way up and then down the hill. In other words, it might not be the best idea for big rigs. Gillespie Beach is your typical remote and rugged west coast beach. Turn right when you get to the settlement and follow the road to the end to get to the small DOC campsite and the start of several walking tracks, ranging from short 10 minute strolls to three-hour hikes.
Where to Stay
There is no shortage of places to stay in Glacier Country. Both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier have multiple campgrounds, and there is also an NZMCA Park in Franz Josef and the small DOC camp at Gillespie Beach. Unfortunately, there are currently no freedom camping spots in the area. However, some of the campgrounds have been offering great deals.
Fox and Franz Josef are among the most accessible glaciers in the world. Unlike most glaciers, including the other 3,000+ in New Zealand, that are high up in mountain ranges and harsh geography, Fox and Franz Josef Glacier terminate only 12km and 19km respectively from the coast.
Fox Glacier is about 12km long, making it New Zealand’s third-longest (only Tasman Glacier and Murchison Glacier are larger). It plummets about 2,600m from the top of the Southern Alps to a few 100m above sea level.
Franz Josef Glacier is the fourth largest in New Zealand at about 10.5km in length and descends from 3,000 metres to about 240 metres above sea level. Franz Josef is the steeper of the two, which means there are more dramatic formations on its surface, and you are more likely to see the famous blue ice.