If you’re thinking of heading down the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand (and why wouldn’t you! It’s beautiful!) Franz Josef must be one of your stops. There are plenty of hikes around the area with some better than others. Below is a list of hikes ranging from the easiest to a bit more challenging.
Glacier Valley Walk
The easiest of walks. Drive to the car park 5 minutes from the Franz Josef township. Most recently it was a 30 minute return walk to a viewpoint. It used to be a 90 minute walk to the base of the glacier but unfortunately the valley is too unstable with a risk of rockfall causing it to be cut short. But if you want to see one of only three glaciers in the world that finishes in a temperate rainforest, this is the easiest hike to see it.
Top tip: You can walk from the town through rainforest if you want a longer hike.
Just a 30 minute drive south is the small township of Fox Glacier and one of the most beautiful views in New Zealand. A 90 minute loop around Lake Matheson will give you a stunning vista of Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman reflecting in the perfectly still lake. There are a few slight hills on the track but there also plenty of opportunity’s to catch your breath and take in the nature around.
Top tip: Go at sunrise or sunset for the best chance of having the lake looking like a mirror.
20 minutes north of Franz Josef is the coastal town of Okarito. A quiet place with a population of less than 100, the lagoon and beach here could easily take up a day. But heading up on the trig walk from the main car park in town will take you across marshland, into rainforest and finally a steep hill to beautiful views of the southern alps. On a good day in summer you’ll be forgiven for forgetting where you are. In one direction is the Tasman Sea, crashing into the beach with Okarito lagoon just behind. Then the lush green rainforest takes over as it rolls across the hills until it reaches the tussock where the snow caps and glaciers of the southern alps takes over. Keep an eye out for Mount Cook and Mount Tasman as well.
Top tip: Check the tide times and return to Okarito along the beach using the 3 mile lagoon track with the potential to see seals and penguins.
Ok stop giggling at the name, this is great to get on. A steep climb on a well marked path gives the best views of the Franz Josef glacier without getting in a helicopter. It’s one of the harder walks in Franz Josef but if it is doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. There are two lookouts on the way up, Christmas Lookout and Rata Lookout to tease you of the views you’ll receive at the summit. At 1303m, it’s one of the highest you can get to without specialist climbing equipment.
Top tip: take a tent and camp overnight at the top. Watching the sunset and sunrise from the summit is a magical experience.
Franz is a great weekend getaway from Christchurch. Check out some more: 6 Best Weekend Trips from Christchurch
Back in Fox Glacier is the toughest hike in glacier country. Known to some locals as “The Bitch” this 6-8 hour return hike will have you scrambling over rocks and round trees as you make your way to the summit. It’s extremely steep and can be very slippery after rain but the views when you reach the top will be worth every drop of sweat. Seeing Fox Glacier snake down the valley with snow capped peaks behind, turning around and looking at the sun reflect off the Tasman Sea and staring into the distance as far as Hokitika to the north and Haast to the south. Just remember to catch your breath because it’s tough scrambling back down.
Top tip: like all of these hikes, check the weather and talk to locals before you go. The last thing you’ll want after slogging away for hours is to stare into the murky grey abyss of clouds.
- Check the weather before you go – the west coast is one of the wettest areas in New Zealand. To make your hike more enjoyable (and safe) ensure you know the weather conditions before you go.
- Take layers – even though you may have checked the weather, it can change quickly on the coast. Take waterproofs and an extra down jacket if you’re hiking into altitude.
- Take extra food and water – it’s nice to have a little picnic at the top whilst you rest before heading back down.
- Let someone know where you are – mountain safety 101. A lot of these hikes don’t have signal, which is great to escape to nature, less great when an emergency happens. Alternatively, invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB)
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.