– Did you know New Zealand’s South Island has over 3000 glaciers? Franz Josef Glacier is one offering many outdoor activities.
Spectacularly picturesque Franz Josef has 3 glaciers in view surrounding the New Zealand town in Glacier County. Franz Josef is filled with natural attractions. ‘Never lose an opportunity of seeing something beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.’
The friendly town of Franz Josef provides access to many activities in, on and around the Franz Josef Glacier. What an exhilarating experience to explore this magnificent World Heritage Area.
In my previous article, I told you about activities off the glacier. In this article, get a picture of the glacier and adventures on Franz Josef Glacier– from active to passive.
Franz Josef is on the west coast of New Zealand where there are mountains, coastline, and ocean. These natural factors influence the weather so the area gets 12-13 feet of rain yearly, which is why there is so much snow on the mountains creating opportunities for activities on the glacier.
On the Franz Josef Glacier
Heli adventures on Franz Josef Glacier
We were invited guests by Fox and Franz Heliservice. This is a totally independent and honest review based on my own experience.
Wow, we were flying above the Franz Josef Glacier, thanks to Fox and Franz Heliservices. How cool to feel like you are on top of the world or on another planet, but really just above a glacier! People come to Franz Josef Glacier for this experience. It’s an amazing feeling, and we are glad that Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices runs such a smooth and safety conscious operation to safely transport visitors to the glaciers.
Bill Patterson, our pilot, slowly flew us up the Franz Josef Glacier so we could have a close look at it; we flew to approximately 5800 feet. As we flew up the valley toward the ice fields, the scale of the sheer rock faces was awesome, and you need to experience it to comprehend it. Bill pointed out the mountain climber hut, which was so small that it was hard to see, and that gave us a reference point to understand the sheer mass of the glacier and surrounding mountains.
Unfortunately, we had a white sky day, but as we approached the glacier, it’s easy to see how blue the glacier is inside, as well as seeing the hundreds of cracks and crevasses that are formed as it moves. The crevasses are as much as 50 – 100 meters deep. A glacier is snow compressed into solid ice that flows downhill with gravity. The Franz Josef Glacier is 10 km long and terminates in a temperate rainforest – very unusual. From 2700 meters above sea level, Franz Josef Glacier extends down to 240 meters above sea level; it is considered the steepest and fastest flowing commercially guided glacier – flowing up to 10 times faster than most glaciers. Due to warmer weather, the face of this glacier is currently retreating about 100 meters per year; however, it was expanding in 2008.
Bill shares the facts about the Franz Josef Glacier, it’s formation, its flow, how it changes, how it influences the flora and fauna, and the rock movement or gravel flow caused by the glacier melt. He talks about on the huts on top, and hiking information. Bill started his commentary with current, historic, and scientific facts about the glacier, its geology, and the weather that affects it. For example, the Franz Josef Glacier is one of only 3 glaciers in the world that terminate in a temperate rainforest. Due to its proximity adjacent to the Tasman Sea on the west coast, its mountain topography and westerly winds, cause it to receive 100 meters (over 300 feet!) of snow yearly. Now we know why there are glaciers here! The Franz Josef Glacier is 1 of 300 in this part of New Zealand.
On the snow field, I tried to get a snow ball, but the snow is frozen hard, even though it feels like snow. I finally broke a small piece lose and got Tom with it, only after he threw one at me first. He was not happy that I hit him with it. Unusual for me.
There were 4 of us plus the pilot in one of Fox and Franz Heliservices’ smaller choppers. Tom and I started out in the front seat with a full on view as we climbed the face of the glacier. On the return, we switched with the other couple so we all had different views.
The flight starts by signing in, filling out forms and getting weighed. If you are from the US ladies, don’t worry about the weight; it seems low since it is in kilograms, not pounds. Taking every passengers’ weight is a safety measure. Know that the staff at Fox and Franz Heliservices take your safety very seriously!
The next order of business is a safety briefing. They have several young guys working there who give the safety briefings, and escort you to the helipad, to make sure you are safely entering the helicopter while it is running, seat you and help you belt in. The pilot takes over and has everyone don the headsets to hear him and flight control activities.
The helipad itself was worth taking a look at the mountains from the public picnic table, even if you choose not to fly.
It’s important to note that the glacier heli experience is weather dependent. Since there is so much moisture in the Franz Josef area, the glaciers are often obscured by clouds. Fox and Franz Heliservices is extremely conscientious in that they will not fly in poor visibility conditions. They will not take your money when views of the glacier are obscured by clouds. While it can be disappointing to miss seeing the glacier, it would be much more aggravating to pay for the service and not see the glacier at all. Be confident that Fox and Franz Heliservices are diligent about offering great service to their customers.
Fox and Franz Heliservices operate 15-16 planes out of 6 locations for mountain and glacier access (helicopters are the only way to access the mountains in many of the areas.) The helicopters accommodate 5-6 people. Eleven pilots fly the planes where needed. We met a couple of them; they are all knowledgeable, and concerned about your experience and safety. Fox and Franz Heliservices have a base in Franz Josef, and can be reached at www.scenic-flights.co.nz
They provide services in Whataroa, Hotikika, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Makarora, and Haast Pass – accessing Mt Cook, Mount Aspiring Fox or Franz Glaciers, and likely others that I am not aware of. Talk to them to learn more.
Fox and Franz Heliservices are very professional. They take care of all their guests. The staff did not know we were invited guests, so we were treated like any other customer. I would recommend Fox and Franz Heliservices if considering a helicopter experience on the South Island of New Zealand.
Hiking to the Franz Josef Glacier
While we were invited guests by Glacier Valley Eco Tours, this is a totally independent and honest review based on my own experience.
After our flight up onto the glacier we hiked to the glacier on a tour with Cliff, our guide and the owner of Glacier Valley Eco Tours.
What a way to cap off our time at Franz Josef! Hiking to the Franz Josef Glacier through the forest and over the rock fields left by the glacier melt gives a whole new perspective, especially with a guide who worked on the glacier for over 11 years. Cliff freely shares his knowledge of the glacier topography, geology, history, flora and fauna growth at its base and rising up along the rock face where the glacier once stood.
During the tour, Cliff shared his personal experiences watching the glacier retreat and expand over his 11.5 years leading glacier climbs for Franz Josef Guides. An interesting point is how the ice flow scours the rocks and carves the rock walls of the valley. It’s interesting to hear about the glacier from someone who lived the changes and has fun stories to tell.
Cliff studies the flora, fauna and animal life in and around the glacier to expand his own knowledge, and his hiking groups are the lucky recipients of his learning. The forest at the base of the glacier looks prehistoric and very much like the cloud forest where we have hiked in Ecuador. I mentioned this to Cliff and told him that I missed seeing the orchids that we saw in Ecuador. Within 5 minutes Cliff pointed out an area with tiny orchids. I would not have noticed the tiny flowers without our guide pointing them out. We had done 9 prior hikes on our own in the previous 2 weeks, and never once noticed orchids. I do love guided hikes, because guides point out so much more than I notice. Cliff certainly enriched the experience and helps his groups appreciate the surroundings more fully.
While there is a free hiking path where visitors hike on their own part way up to the glacier, it is a busy path filled with tourists. The designated tourist path does not enable tourists to get as close to the glacier as is possible on a guided hike. Guided hikes permit access to the glacier away from the crowds through the forests and fauna. On guided hikes, the guide chooses the path based on athletic ability of the group. We crossed riverbeds over rocks, climbed up river rock hills, crossed streams. Our route was more adventurous terrain than the public track and feasible for active 60-somethings, and 40-somethings who were part of our group. Cliff told me when he has young adventurous kids, he often takes them through the rocks all the way. Cliff’s steady helping hand was much appreciated while making some of the crossings.
Cliff hiked us to what looked like huge rocks that had fallen from the cliffs. However, they were massive hunks of ice sometimes the size of autos. The ice had rolled down from the glacier many years before. Cliff clambered down the rocks to the river bed to bring us frozen cold chunks of glacier ice to hold. The ice was quite clear with bubbles inside.
Cliff is quite safety conscious, and careful about where we stepped and crossed. He is prudent that the group did not leave the chosen path. Much of the ground is unstable due to the glacier flow, and Cliff knows where it is safe to step. The ground looks stable when it is not. We saw plenty of evidence of the instability as many paths were washed out by the previous day’s rain.
There are lots of tours you can take to hike the Glacier. The small group tours that only Glacier Valley Eco Tours run can take you places others with larger groups cannot. You can get closer to the glacier and the natural environment surrounding it with Glacier Valley Eco Tours. There is a wealth of knowledge they share as well! While Cliff was our guide, I hear his other guides are terrific too. Hiking the glacier with a guide made the experience much richer than doing it on our own.
Glacier Valley Eco Tours can be reached at http://www.glaciervalley.co.nz/.
First we saw the Franz Josef Glacier from the water in our experience in town from a distance, and viewed its gorgeous reflections in the water. Then we flew up the glacier, viewed it from the air, and landed on the snowfield above it. We wrapped up our experience with an exhilarating hike to the glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier is accessible from the easy pedestrian path. For a more challenging and informative hike, hire a guide who will blaze a trail that matches your skills.
Don’t miss Glacier Country!
To learn about activities off the glacier, see my last post – ‘Glacier Country Experiences off the Glacier.‘
Or check out The Routeburn Track.