Franz Josef or Fox Glacier? Which one to choose? Our plans for visiting the Westland National Park were (as usual!) very ambitious… Of course, we had to visit both 🙂 New Zealand glaciers are one of the country’s greatest attractions, next to a kiwi bird and spectacular fjords. Even, if your time is limited and you have to pick only one glacier, you still can’t miss this place.
Glaciers in New Zealand
The Westland National Park is located between the highest peaks of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. Except for the extraordinary proximity of the sea, the Southern Alps, in principle, are not very different from their siblings in the northern hemisphere. They are located at similar latitude (but “upside down”;), there are glaciers, which shaped a truly dramatic landscape, you can even ski here, just like in the Alps! Although the Tasman Glacier (23.5 km) is the longest one, Franz Josef and Fox are the most popular ones. They are one of the most easily accessible glaciers in the world. But which one is more picturesque? Franz Josef or Fox Glacier?
Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is 12 km long and terminates only 19 km from the Tasman Sea. We decided to see it from a slightly different perspective… from the above and really close. Yes, yes – we chose a helicopter flight with a glacier landing! 🙂 I sincerely admit that this is our number 1 New Zealand attraction! The flight itself takes only about 40 minutes, but the views… jaw-dropping!
While in the sky, you can see why New Zealand glaciers are so unusual. The mountains are surrounded by the green fields with hundreds of sheep, but also by the rainforest with ferns, the turquoise sea, and here suddenly… you just see a great mass of snow. During the flight, you can take a closer look at the deep blue cracks on the glacier and ice tunnels. A bit scary though! If you have more time, think about a flight accompanied by a guided tour through the glacier; you will explore ice caves and icefalls. You really feel the power of nature here… The Franz Josef Glacier seen from the bird’s eye left me speechless!
If you have seen old photos where people were walking freely on the glacier… These days are gone. Nowadays there is no option to go alone on the glacier – you may choose a guided tour or a helicopter flight. However, you can walk alone to the lookout point, where you can see the glacier from the distance. When we visited this place, a walk to the viewpoint took about 2h both ways, but this may vary. The Department of Conservation checks the Franz Josef Glacier Valley every morning and decides on the route changes. It may happen that at the lookout point, you’ll see the glacier from a very long distance… Ah, it’s global warming which makes it retreat.
Just a 20-minute drive from the Franz Josef Glacier, you will come across the second attraction, the Fox Glacier. About a kilometer longer than its neighbor (13 km), glacier terminates at an altitude of only 300 m, basically in the tropical forest. The walk to the view point took us about an hour both ways, it was located much closer to the terminal face of the glacier than at the Franz Josef, but it changes constantly. It is certainly a bit more “wild” and less crowded than Franz Josef Glacier, we went for a walk before sunset and we were almost alone on the trail. Only us, mountains and one mighty glacier.
Walking the glacial valley is a bit unreal experience. You are surrounded by the high walls, waterfalls, solid rocks, rainforest… In some places, you mustn’t stop on the trail because of the falling rocks danger. The glacier itself seems to be a bit “dirty,” but when the sun is shining, it lights up in blue and turquoise. The forces of nature are so powerful…
We stopped for a moment at the famous Lake Matheson, where you can admire the mirror reflection of Mount Cook. As you see, the wind disturbed our experience a bit… However, we found another perfect “mirror lake” nearby – look at Lake Mapourika (15 minutes from the Franz Josef Glacier)!
Lake Matheson is a remnant of Fox’s glory. The retreating glacier left quite a big hole in the ground, which filled up with water. You may be surprised, but the lake is actually far away from the present glacier’s terminal face. On the other hand, during the glacial period, Fox stretched beyond present coastline… Glaciers are “living” creatures, for example, in 2006, the glacier “advanced” about one meter per week. Since 2009, like Franz Josef, Fox Glacier has entered a phase of significant retreat, most likely caused by global warming.
So, finally, Franz Josef or Fox Glacier?
If you really have to know the answer… try to do both but in a different way. Decide on a heli flight to the one, and visit the second one “on foot”. If you are really short on time and have to decide, Franz Josef or Fox Glacier:, do the heli flight to Franz Josef or take a walk to Fox – it’s less crowded than the first one and we had an impression that it offers more spectacular views. But really, see both 😉
How much time do you need? One day – glaciers are very close to each other, only 20 minutes drive
How to get there? Regardless if you want to visit Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, you will drive the State Highway 6, glaciers are located near Franz Josef or Fox Glacier villages (surprisingly ;).
Where to stay? Unfortunately, there aren’t many accommodation options in these 2 villages (in Franz Josef Glacier it looks a bit better though). If you want to stay there, you have to book rooms few months in advance. Larger towns such as Hokitika and Haast are about 2 hours away. At Franz Josef Glacier we recommend Franz Josef Oasis – great value for money and near the heliport. If you choose Haast, we recommend you Haast River Top 10 Holiday Park, one of the network camps.
Fee: Enjoying views from the ground – for free! The prices for a helicopter flight don’t vary much between companies, the price depends primarily on the route you fly and additional attractions (eg. guided tours on through the glacier). We flew with Glacier Helicopters and really enjoyed our experience. There were four people in the helicopter, but after the landing, we changed places so that everyone has the opportunity to see everything from the front seat 😉
Franz Josef or Fox Glacier – which would you choose? For more our adventures in New Zealand, click here!
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