Glacier Hiking in New Zealand - Where is best?

Glacier hiking in New Zealand is right at the top of many people's 'must-do'list. Updated 2015: My tips on the best place in NZ for glacier hiking.

Glacier hiking in New Zealand on your ‘must-do' travel list? Here’s the latest information to help you experience a glacier hike as part of your New Zealand trip.  Gidday, I’m Andrew Wells, I've been leading hiking tours here in New Zealand since 1999, here are my tips on the best spot for you to experience a hiking on a glacier in New Zealand easily and safely.

2015 Updated Information - New Zealand’s glaciers are changing rapidly and in the time since I originally wrote this article things have changed.  Read on for the latest up to date information on where you can visit the glaciers in New Zealand.

Most glaciers are in remote mountain areas far away from the areas we visit in our daily lives, only in a few special places in the world can you easily access glaciers at low altitudes and of course, New Zealand is one of them.  If you enjoy the outdoors and particularly hiking and walking in the mountains then, like me, you will probably have an affinity toward glaciers and find your gaze drawn toward even images of glaciers - reading up for this article I definitely found myself being distracted by images and interesting facts and figures about glaciers.  So assuming you too are drawn to glaciers and would like to take the next step and experience walking on a glacier first hand, here is a quick summary of where I think is the best place for most people to experience glacier hiking in New Zealand.

So what is so special about walking on a river of ice that has patiently carved a valley out of sheer rock over tens of thousands of years?  This is not such an easy question to answer in words, but for those of you who have experienced walking on a glacier, I am sure this is one of your more memorable outdoor experiences.  For those of you who haven't had the glacier hiking experience yet, well now is the time to try.

Glacier Hiking in New Zealand - Where?

There are over 3000 glaciers in New Zealand and all but 20 of these are in the Southern Alps, which offer some excellent opportunities for exploring glaciers for people of all abilities and experiences, from seasoned mountaineers to absolute beginners and everyone in between.  For the purpose of this article we will focus on those of you who would like to experience glacier hiking as part of outdoor travel in New Zealand involving moderate activity in the outdoors. If this is you, then the places you must visit are Glacier Country, on the West Coast of the South Island, or Mount Cook National Park.

2015 Latest Info: At the time of writing this article, normal foot access to both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers is not possible, due to collapses in the terminal face making it unsafe.  So this means unfortunately there is now nowhere in New Zealand where you have easy foot access to a major glacier.

What are my options for Glacier Hiking in 2015?

Heli Hiking!  With a short heli flight you can be on the glacier in just a few minutes from the townships of Fox Glacier, Franz Josef and Mt Cook Village.  There are guiding companies in all three of these spots who offer regular help hiking trips every day the weather allows.  They’ll provide all the equipment you need and of course you’ll be with an experienced glacier guide who has all the training and safety equipment to make your day memorable and safe. 

Which heli hiking is best?

If you’re coming all the way to New Zealand and glacier hiking is something you’re really looking forward to, then I would recommend hiking on the Tasman Glacier, from Mount Cook village.

A couple of reasons why the Tasman is my favourite spot for glacier hiking in New Zealand:

  •     The Tasman Glacier is huge, it’s New Zealand’s longest glacier (29 kilometres / 18 miles), more than twice the length of Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers.  I’ve been up glaciers on both sides of the alps and it’s on the Tasman where the views and surrounds are most awesome.
  •     You’re surrounded by New Zealand’s highest peaks - Mt Cook and of course Mt Tasman are right there, you’re looking right at them on your hike.  It’s true that both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers flow down from the same mountains but due to the topography you don’t have the same views of them.
  •     The flight alone is worth it.  The hell flight up to the Tasman Glacier is around 10 minutes, you get a full view Mt Cook village, the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake and Mount Cook itself, as well as the glacier itself from terminal moraine to the higher ice fields.  Flying into Fox or Franz is fun, but it’s over before it begins.
  •     Less People.  To me and the people I guide, this is very important.  As there’s no more walk up glacier hiking anywhere in New Zealand now, the only way to hike on a glacier is by helicopter so there are more people flying onto the glacier before.  The operations at Fox and Franz are bigger scale and can get very busy at certain times of the year, you’re sharing the glacier with quite a few others and you’ll hear quite a few aircraft while you’re up there too.  To put this in perspective, but last season when I visited the Tasman Glacier the we only ever saw one other group, or we had the place to ourselves.

To sum it up, on our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour’ we’re trying to give our guests the best possible glacier experience, that’s why we recommend hiking on the Tasman during our stay at Mount Cook Village.

Glacier Hiking in New Zealand - Who is it for?

One of the best things about the New Zealand outdoors is that it is readily accessible for everyone, including activities like glacier hiking.  This is what makes New Zealand an outdoor Mecca, not just the wonderful scenery and environment, but that there are tourism operators all over the country whose services make experiences like glacier hiking available to all of us.  The walking itself is very similar to hiking on a normal track or trail, the big difference is that we walk quite slowly and carry a special pole for balance and have crampons attached to our boots - crampons are like small snowshoes with spikes on the bottom to traction on the ice.  You don't need experience in glacier hiking, mountaineering or anything like that, if you are an active person, enjoy walking and are confident on your feet then you will have no problem with guided glacier hiking.  The glacier walking on our trips are always fully guided, there is an expert glacier guide leading the group and plenty of backup just a radio call away if we ever need it.

What is a glacier?

The Chinese and Japanese languages explain what a glacier is perfectly, they use the characters of 'ice' and 'river' to form the word for glacier and that is what it is, a frozen river of ice flowing down a mountainside.  Glaciers always occur in mountainous areas as they require dense ice, provided by falling snow, and a slope for the ice to flow down.  For a glacier to flourish, there must be more snow falling and accumulating than lost through melting and erosion.  High mountain ranges in the face of moist cool air, just like the slopes of New Zealand's Southern Alps, provide the perfect environment for a glacier.  Like all rivers, glaciers flow 'downstream' and as they do this, the movement slowly causes the glacier to crack and deform under their own weight which Inevitably creates crevasses, seracs and other amazing ice features. The force of the slow downward flow will push rock debri to the front and side of the ice creating landforms known as cirques and moraines.  In the last major ice age, which finished around 10.000 years ago, huge glaciers flowed down both sides of New Zealand's Southern Alps carving out valleys which we travel through on our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour' - Milford Sound, Lake Wakatipu and the Waimakariri Valley were all carved by glaciers.

What's unique about New Zealand’s glaciers?

The most unique aspect of glaciers in New Zealand are their accessibility, there aren't many glaciers in the world within walking distance from the nearest town.  For example, the Tasman Glacier begins high in the Southern Alps at an altitude of 3,000m (9,800 ft) and falls around 2,200m (7,200 ft) over it's 29 km (18 mile) journey to a height of only 800m (2,600 ft) above sea level.  The glacier terminal lake is only 8km (5 miles) from Mount Cook Village - it's an easy half day trip to experience the glacier and we are back in town for lunch!  A few other facts about the Tasman - it is part of Te Wahipounamu, Southwest New Zealand World Heritage area and flows down from New Zealand’s second highest mountain, Mount Tasman. The total area of the glacier is 101 square kilometres (39 square miles) and is as much as 4 km (2.5 miles) wide and 600m (2,000 ft) thick. It can take up to 40 years to flow from top to bottom!

Tasman Glacier hiking is the highlight of day 12 of our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour’

By the time we get to Mount Cook on our trip, we’ve seen and done a lot of amazing things, but for those that choose to, glacier hiking is always one of the highlights of the whole trip.  Our ’World Heritage Walking Tour' - is a fully guided ’Trip of a Lifetime' starting and finishing in Christchurch.  We have carefully planned this itinerary to include the best walks in New Zealand, iconic activities you’ll never forget and all the while enjoying all the comforts of home in 4-star accommodation.  Hiking highlights are day walks on the Routeburn, Hollyford and Milford Tracks plus in Arthur's Pass and Mount Cook National Parks.  Your tour includes unforgettable activities such as the TranzAlpine, Nile River glowworm caves, Okarito Lagoon kayak, Lake Wanaka cruise, Queenstown winery, helicopter flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay, Fiordland back country jet boat, guided stargazing in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky reserve and of course the option to help hike on the one and only Tasman Glacier.  There is no camping or staying in huts on this tour, accommodation is at a four star standard and we sample the best local cuisine and wines on route in hand picked restaurants.  For more information please contact us now or get your free ’World Heritage Walking Tour’ brochure now.

by Andrew Wells - New Zealand Trails


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