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The glacier, a 12km long river of ice, sitting on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island, is one of the most visited spots in the country – and for good reason.
Franz Joseph is New Zealand's steepest and fastest moving glacier, travelling about 10 times faster than most of the world's valley glaciers. This activity creates rare ravines, vast crevasses and ice caves which create an amazing and continuously changing landscape.
Formation and history
The glacier sits near the small town of Franz Josef, named after the Franz Josef Glacier – itself named by Julius von Haast in honour of the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef I of Austria. The glacier's terminal face is 5 km from the town, which makes it a major tourist attraction.
The river of ice moves about one inch a year and was formed over millions of years as unyielding snow and rain hammered the region, with the weight of the two forming layers upon layers of ice. The ice creeps down the valley and melts in the forest below. The glacier wall sits at 250m above sea level, surrounded by a lush rain forest.
Walking and touring
Be aware that walking as part of any tour up to the glacier takes a long time, and ends at the first icefall. A lot of tourists organise helicopter tours which drop people between the first and second ice falls, for a guided 1-2 hour walk through the broken ground on the glacier. Within the glacier park are hot pools which are most definitely worth a visit if you are keen on soaking those weary hiking muscles.
The glacial landscape tends to change rapidly, almost daily, but in spite of the fast flow some hikes include passages through ice tunnels that are still considered safe. If you are planning on taking a hike without a guide it is a good idea to speak to an expert before you go so you are aware of any dangers and equipment you may need to take.
The glacier area is one of the main tourist attractions of the West Coast, and with about 250,000 visitors a year there are plenty of guided and unguided walks up to and onto the glacier. Other great attractions in the Franz Josef area include horse treks, glacier kayaking trips, quad bike tours and the Hooker Valley hiking trail.
Tips for visiting Franz Josef Glacier:
Bunk up at the Rainforest Holiday Park which is located in the Franz Josef Glacier village. The units are spread out in the forest with small tracks in between, making it feel like you are staying on the glacier. The park has several grades of rooms and can accommodate large groups.
Ask an expert about any specialised equipment you made need to have if you plan on going onto the glacier. The glacier is temperamental and dangerous so it pays to be well prepared with things like sturdy boots, the right clothing and possibly ice axes and crampons. Take warm and waterproof clothes regardless of the time of the year and waterproof boots.
For breakfast or brunch try Full of Beans, for dinner and a bit of local cuisine try The Landing or Alice Mays.
If stunning natural beauty is something you want to take in on your trip to New Zealand's South Island, you can be sure you'll capture some of the best at Franz Josef.
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