It's impossible to overstate the awe-inspiring impact of a glacier encounter. And there's no better place for it than New Zealand.
We had a very experienced mountain guide take us into an ice cave... I'd never been in an ice cave before, it was spectacular.James Cameron World-renowned filmmaker
New Zealand glacier country lies on the west coast of the South Island, where the two most accessible glaciers – Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier – are found. It's well worth a stop of a day or two along your South Island route.
There are opportunities to experience the glaciers for people with all levels of ability. You can follow the walking tracks up to the terminus of either glacier for a close up view or hike through the bush to a viewing point. And if actually touching the ice is on your bucket list then a guided tour (with all equipment included) will allow you to get up onto the glacier face itself.
Both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers extend almost to sea level. Fox Glacier is not as steep and is slightly longer. Access is along the river valley floor, or by helicopter to reach the top section of the glacier. In contrast, access to the ice on Franz Josef is by helicopter only. Likewise, heli-hikes are an option at the nearby Tasman Glacier (New Zealand’s longest glacier).
For more information about the region, visit glaciercountry.co.nz.
Many companies offer guided glacier walks – you’ll need at least a couple of hours at the very minimum.
For people with limited time or who would find walks onto the glacier too strenuous, there are gentler guided walks with companies like Glacier Valley that don’t venture out onto the ice. You’ll learn about the glacier’s history, legends about the area and make your way along the valley to the terminal face.
Getting out onto the ice doesn’t require previous experience with glacier hiking or mountaineering. The concept is no different to normal hiking, but glacier hiking trots along at a slower pace, and you’ll have crampons on your boots for traction and a balancing pole. (River crossings can include a short trip in an all terrain vehicle or a raft!)
Whether you have a half day, full day or multiple days, there are varying lengths of tours to fit in with your schedule. The longer the duration, the further up the glacier you can go. How does a day of ice climbing – scaling the upper glacier’s walls – sound? But don’t forget, that also means a more challenging hike.
Heli-hiking is another option, combining a breathtaking scenic flight with a guided tour atop the glacier. By flying in, you’ll be able to access some of the most spectacular parts of the glacier, amid blue ice and towering formations.
For the truly intrepid, you can’t go past a multi-day glacier itinerary with an experienced tour company such as Alpine Recreation.
There are plenty of walking trails around the glaciers if you simply want to take in the majestic views from a distance. Stretch your legs, explore the surrounds and get your camera ready. These are some of the most accessible tracks; refer to the Department of Conservation links below for information on more glacier region tracks, including trails for more advanced hikers.
Fox Glacier Te Moeka o Tuawe Valley Walk
A 2.6km (one hour) return walk from the Fox Glacier carpark at the end of the access road. The views only get better as you make your way up the valley toward the glacier’s terminal face.
Lake Matheson Walk
It’s the most photographed lake in New Zealand – and for good reason. This is the spot from which all the most iconic images of Fox Glacier have been photographed, offering unparalleled mirror views of the glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on a clear day. It’s a short drive – about 5km – from Fox Glacier township. The first section of the walk to the jetty viewpoint takes an hour return; the journey around the lake is an easy 2.6km.
River Walk Track and River Walk Lookout Track
Starting from the car park at the end of the Glacier View road, the fully accessible River Walk Lookout track (just under 1km) winds its way gently downhill through the rainforest to a fantastic viewing point for Fox Glacier.
The River Walk walking track (1.5km return) branches off the lookout track about 200 metres after the carpark and continues downhill, taking in a great view of Fox Glacier enroute. It crosses the Fox River on an historic swing bridge.
Chalet Lookout track
A 3.6km return walk (1.5 hours) that winds through native forest, crosses a mountain stream and culminates in an elevated platform with views of the lower part of Fox Glacier. It’s accessible from the Chalet Lookout car park at the end of Glacier View Road on the south side of the Fox River, or the River Walk Track from the picnic spot halfway up Glacier Access Road on the north bank of the river.
Franz Josef Valley Walk
From the Glacier Access Rd carpark, the Franz Josef valley walk leading to the terminal face is a fairly flat track that takes around an hour return. From the glacier carpark you can also walk to Peters Pool (25 minutes, wheelchair accessible) or Sentinel Rock (20 minutes), which both deliver different and impressive views of Franz Josef glacier.