Best Things to Do in Franz Josef | Glacier Country, New Zealand
Hike to viewpoints of glaciers, see the rarest Kiwi, soar over Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier in a helicopter, capture Mount Tasman’s reflection in Lake Matheson, go heli-hiking or ice climbing, and relax in a hot tub…these are all things you can do in and around Franz Josef, New Zealand.
Glacier Country is an area on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It runs from Ōkārito and Whataroa in the north to Fox Glacier in the south. This is a land of lush rainforests, glacier capped mountains, and rugged coastlines.
New Zealand is filled with beautiful landscapes and this is one of the best.
In this guide we cover the best things to do in Glacier Country and Franz Josef, with tips to help you have the best experience in this extraordinary place.
Table of Contents
Interesting Facts about Glacier Country
Glacier Country is the name given to the area on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Popular places to visit in Glacier Country include:
- Franz Josef/Waiau
- Franz Josef Glacier
- Fox Glacier
- Westland Tai Poutini National Park
- Lake Matheson
- Lake Mapourika
The Tasman Sea sits to the west. The Southern Alps sit to the east and Mount Cook and Mount Tasman sit within this mountain range. Taking a helicopter flight for a view of these mighty mountains is one of the best things to do in Glacier Country.
The west coast of the South Island is one of the wettest areas of New Zealand. Franz Josef Glacier gets between 5 and 6 meters of precipitation per year, making it one of the rainiest spots in New Zealand. Less rain falls down by the coast, but with 200 days of rain each year in Franz Josef, there is a good chance that you will have some wet weather during your visit.
The driest time to visit Glacier Country and the west coast is the summer (January through March). Rainfall chances increase in the fall and peak in the winter, with October being the rainiest month of the year.
Since this area gets so much rainfall, the mountains and valleys are blanketed with a rainforest, which is called the Westland temperate forest. Many native birds call this region home, including the Rowi kiwi, the rarest kiwi in New Zealand.
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are two very small towns in Glacier Country. These two towns are host to a number of restaurants and hotels, making these towns the best places to stay in Glacier Country.
Franz Josef | Things to do in Franz Josef
Views along the drive between Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
Best Time to Visit Glacier Country
The best time to visit Glacier Country is during the summer months (January, February, and March) when the weather is the warmest and driest. The average high temperature in summer is 20°C (68°F).
In April, rain chances increase and continue to rise all the way until October, the wettest month of the year in this part of New Zealand. In fall, the average high temperature is 15°C (60°F) and in winter, the average high is 13°C (55°F). Snowfall along the coast and at lower altitudes is rare during the winter months.
Our visit was in mid-April and we spent two days here. The area got a lot of rain just before our visit and we were extremely lucky to have mostly clear skies.
Lake Matheson | Things to do in Franz Josef
Best Things to Do in Glacier Country
1. Take a Helicopter Flight to See Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
If you do one thing in Glacier Country, it should be a helicopter flight to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Helicopter flights can be expensive, but the views you get of the glaciers, Mount Tasman, and Mount Cook are priceless and very well could be one of the highlights of your trip to New Zealand.
Snow landing on a helicopter flight from Franz Josef | Things to do in Franz Josef
Mount Cook and Mount Tasman | Things to do in Franz Josef
The views of the snow-capped mountains and the glaciers are breathtaking. The first time we did something like this was in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and it left us speechless. There is no comparison between viewing the glaciers from land and from the sky.
In Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, there are several companies offering helicopter flights.
Options range from 20-minute flights where you get just a quick view of the glaciers to longer flights that include one or two glacier landings. The shorter the flight, the cheaper the price.
We took the Ultimate Discovery flight with Glacier Country Helicopters, which is a 45-minute flight over the Franz Josef, Fox, and Tasman Glaciers plus a snow landing. Originally, we had planned to do their longest tour, called the Mt. Cook Supreme, but weather conditions in the mountains limited us to a slightly shorter flight.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience. You can read about it more in our Guide to Glacier Country Helicopter Flights, plus get more information on how to pick a helicopter company and the tour that is best for you.
2. Go Heli-Hiking
Heli-hiking adds another layer of adventure to a helicopter flight.
On a heli-hiking tour, you are flown into the mountains and are led on a multi-hour hiking tour with an experienced guide.
Most tours last about 4 hours total, with 2 hours of this time hiking on a glacier. During the hike, you will wear crampons, which are usually provided by the tour company. No prior experience is necessary, just a sense of adventure.
We did not go glacier hiking in Franz Josef but have done it in multiple places around the world and it is a lot of fun. It’s also a great activity if you are traveling with older kids or teenagers (most kids 10 and older can go heli-hiking but this depends on the company).
This highly rated tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides includes a 2.5 hour glacier hike on Franz Josef Glacier.
This tour with The Helicopter West Line Coast also gets near perfect reviews and features a 2 hour glacier hike on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier | Things to do in Franz Josef
3. Go Sky Diving
For the ultimate adrenaline rush, how about sky diving in view of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers?
On this sky diving tour with INFLITE Mt Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters, take your pick from a 13,000 foot, 16,500 foot, or 20,000 foot sky dive.
4. The Franz Josef Glacier Walk
This is a short, easy, relatively quick walk to a viewpoint of the Franz Josef Glacier. On this walk, you have the option to add on the short spur trail to Sentinel Rock.
Franz Josef Glacier Walk to the Forest Walk Viewpoint Stats
Distance: 1.6 km (1 mile) out-and-back
Total Ascent: Flat
Time: 30 minutes
Trailhead: Franz Josef Glacier Car Park
Sentinel Rock Spur Trail Stats
Distance: 0.6 km (0.4 miles) out-and-back
Time: 20 minutes
The Franz Josef Glacier Walk is a flat and easy track to follow. At the Forest Walk Viewpoint you will emerge from the rainforest and at this viewpoint you will be overlooking the moraine, the Franz Josef Glacier, and surrounding mountains. There is also a nice waterfall on the mountainside next to the viewpoint.
It is important to know that you are still fairly far away from the Franz Josef Glacier, but it is still a picturesque view.
Forest Walk Viewpoint | Things to do in Franz Josef
Franz Josef Glacier Walk
In the past, the Franz Josef Glacier Walk continued beyond this point and along the valley floor, but changes in the flow of the Waiho River have washed away that portion of the track. Hopefully they are able to reopen it in the future.
On the return walk, just before reaching the car park, consider taking the spur trail to Sentinel Rock. It is a short steady climb up to another viewpoint over the moraine, Franz Josef Glacier, and surrounding mountains.
Sentinel Rock Viewpoint | Things to do in Franz Josef
A closer view of Franz Josef Glacier
Did You Know? The Maori name for the Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata-a-Hinehukatere, which means the tears of Hinehukatere. Legend has it that Hinehukatere was hiking in the mountains with her lover, Wawe. He fell to his death, breaking Hinehukatere’s heart. The tears that she cried froze, creating the glacier.
5. Catch the Reflection of Mount Tasman in Peters Pool
Peters Pool is a very scenic tree lined lake with a beautiful mountain backdrop. On a clear, calm day, you can get a spectacular reflection of the mountains in the lake. This is a must see for anyone visiting the area since it is such a short and easy walk.
Distance: 1.1 km (0.7 miles) out-and-back
Total Ascent: Flat
Time: 30 to 45 minutes
Trailhead: Franz Josef Glacier Car Park
Peters Pool | Things to do in Franz Josef
The easiest way to reach Peters Pool is from the trailhead located at the Franz Josef Glacier Car Park at the very end of Franz Joseph Glacier Road (as labeled on Google Maps). From this car park it is a short hike along an easy to follow, well maintained track through the rainforest.
The track continues beyond Peters Pool and connects to the Robert’s Point Track and the Alex Knob Trail. But there is no need to follow the track beyond Peters Pool unless you plan to do one or both of those hikes.
Note that Google Maps does not show the trail between the Franz Josef Glacier Car Park and Peters Pool, but we can confirm that the track does exist.
6. See the Rarest Kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Centre
The West Coast Wildlife Centre is one of the best places in New Zealand to see a kiwi. And not just any kiwi…the Rowi kiwi, which is the rarest kiwi of them all.
During our visit in April 2023, we were told that there are only 500 Rowi kiwis in the wild. Human encroachment, loss of habitat, and predators are threatening the populations of kiwis throughout New Zealand. The West Coast Wildlife Centre works as a hatchery, raising young kiwis until they are old enough to survive on their own in the wild. Of the 500 Rowi kiwis in New Zealand, it is estimated that this wildlife center hatched and raised about half of them.
In a dimly lit room, you can see several Rowi kiwis. The kiwis are more active in the morning and at 10 am, we had no problems spotting the two kiwis in the wildlife centre. Photos of the kiwis are not allowed.
Also on display at the West Coast Wildlife Centre are tuataras, which are New Zealand’s largest reptile. They are the last surviving members of the order Sphenodontia, which dates back 200 million years ago, to the time of the dinosaurs.
If you want to learn more about the kiwi and Tuatara, you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Wildlife Center. Visits here last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on your interests and whether or not you take a tour of the facility.
Get prices, hours, and more information on the official website.
7. Hike Roberts Point Track
This hike was high on our to do list but the trail was closed during our visit while the area was being sprayed with poison to eliminate the population of rats and possums.
This hike is 11 to 12.3 km out-and-back and takes about 5 hours. Along the trail, hikers will pass Hende’s Hut, cross a rope suspension bridge, and get fantastic views of the Franz Josef Glacier.
This hike starts at the parking lot for the Alex Knob Trail on Franz Josef Glacier Road. Learn more here.
8. Take a Quad Bike Tour
Great to do on a rainy or sunny day, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours offers single and double quad bike tours through the rainforests and riverbeds near Franz Josef. The bikes can carry between one and three people and children as young as 5 can ride on the 3 seater buggy.
Learn more here.
9. Fox Glacier South Side Walk & Moraine Walk
These two hikes share the same trail, so we are including them together.
The Fox Glacier South Side Walk is along a wide, gravel track through a dense rainforest that has several views of the Fox Glacier. It’s not the most thrilling trail and the views of the Fox Glacier are better from Fox Glacier Lookout (mentioned next) than what you get from this walking trail.
Fox Glacier South Side Walk | Things to do in Franz Josef
The view of Fox Glacier from the South Side Walk
In our opinion, your time is better spent walking around Lake Matheson or on the Franz Josef Glacier Trail, rather than doing the Fox Glacier South Side Walk.
However, leading off of the Fox Glacier South Side Walk is a very short spur trail called the Moraine Walk. The Moraine Walk is awesome!!
This narrow track weaves its way through the rainforest. Moss-covered fallen trees, New Zealand ferns, and the sounds of birds make it look and sound like you are walking through a different land. This walk is just about having views of the forest, so you won’t see the Fox Glacier, although there are a few signs marking the terminus of the glacier several hundred years ago.
Moraine Walk | Things to do in Franz Josef
For the best experience, just walk out and back to the Moraine Walk, for a total distance of 5 km that takes 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Parking for these walks is at the parking area for the Fox Glacier South Side Walk on New Zealand State Highway 6.
Trail sign for the South Side Walk and Moraine Walk
10. Fox Glacier Lookout
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to get a great view of the Fox Glacier is from the Fox Glacier Lookout. In fact, we thought the view from this spot was better than from along the Fox Glacier Walk.
The Fox Glacier Lookout is located near Lake Matheson, on Gillespies Beach Road. It is an 8-minute drive from Lake Matheson and a 7-minute drive from the town of Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier Lookout | Things to do in Franz Josef
11. Go on a Stroll around Lake Matheson
This is one of the most beautiful walks in Glacier Country. Not only are you treated to views of Mount Tasman and Lake Matheson, but the walk through the temperate rainforest is a wonderful experience.
Distance: 4.4 km (2.75 miles) loop
Time: 1.5 to 2 hours
This easy, mostly flat walking trail forms a loop around Lake Matheson. It’s good in either direction, just make sure you stop at the viewpoints along the walk. We walked around Lake Matheson in a clockwise direction.
In a clockwise direction, the Jetty Viewpoint is the place that you get a view of Mount Tasman from across the lake. Here is the view.
Jetty viewpoint | Things to do in Franz Josef
As you walk along the west side of the lake, take your time, take photos of the rainforest, and listen for native birds.
Trail around Lake Matheson | Things to do in Franz Josef
Another view of the trail | Things to do in Franz Josef
At the far end of the lake, it’s a stair climb up to the View of Views for a sweeping view across Lake Matheson to Mount Tasman.
View of Views | Things to do in Franz Josef
As you continue around the lake, take the very short detour out to Reflection Island for this view. In order to capture the reflection of Mount Tasman in the lake, you need perfectly calm water. Even the slightest breeze creates ripples on the lake (as do the geese floating on the lake during our visit).
Reflection Island view | Things to do in Franz Josef
Views at the end of the loop.
Once back at the car park, there is a small café and gift shop. The food is fantastic. We both ate the Ramen Chicken Bowl while sitting on the deck, enjoying the view of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook.
12. Hike to Alex Knob
This tough hike is the longest on this list. But your reward is a stunning view of the Franz Josef Glacier.
The hike to Alex Knob is 17.2 km out-and-back and takes 8 hours. It is for experienced hikers only, since it features a big climb and is a rather strenuous hike.
This trail takes you to two viewpoints, Rata Viewpoint and Christmas Viewpoint, both of which offer views of the Franz Josef Glacier. The trail ends at Alex Knob where the best views of the glacier and Glacier Country await.
It is best to do this hike in the morning, when the mountains are free of clouds.
Learn more about the Alex Knob hike here.
13. Lake Mapourika
Lake Mapourika is the largest lake in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. It sits just to the north of the town of Franz Josef.
Lake Mapourika | Things to do in Franz Josef
This lake is a popular fishing destination. Trout can be caught year round and salmon can be caught from October 1 to March 31.
Another popular thing to do on Lake Mapourika is to go kayaking or take a boat tour of the lake.
This 3-hour kayak tour includes your transportation from Franz Josef. With a guide, you kayak around the lake and into the heart of the Okarito Kiwi Bird Sanctuary.
With a little less time and energy, you can take a 2-hour eco-cruise of Lake Mapourika. On this cruise, you also get to visit the Kiwi sanctuary and transportation is included from Franz Josef.
14. Tatare Tunnels Walk
The Tatare Tunnels Walk starts in the town of Franz Josef. It is a 3.6 km return hike that takes about an hour and 20 minutes.
There are two reasons to hike the Tatare Tunnels Walk. From the far end of the tunnels, you have the opportunity to see glowworms. And those who love the idea of hiking through tunnels rave about this hike.
This hike starts off on a 4×4 trail, has views of the Tatare Gorge, and then goes through a series of old water tunnels.
On this hike, there is a good chance that you will get wet feet. Most people who share their hiking reports say that some of the tunnels have ankle deep water. You’ll also need to bring a flashlight, as the tunnels can be very dark.
Learn more about the Tatare Tunnels here.
15. Waiho Hot Pools
After a day spent heli-hiking, tramping, and photographing the glaciers, what better way to unwind than in a hot pool.
At Waiho Hot Pools, you can relax in a private, wood-fired hot tub in the rainforest. Each hot tub can hold up to four adults. Children are not allowed past 5:30 pm.
Learn more and make your reservation on the official website.
Things to Do in Glacier Country: On a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers. You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
How Many Days Do You Need in Glacier Country/Franz Josef?
At a minimum, plan on spending two days in Glacier Country. This gives you one day for the hikes and viewpoints around the Fox Glacier, one day for the hikes around the Franz Josef glacier, and time for a helicopter flight.
Even more time is better, since this area gets so much rainfall. Another day or two will give you some contingency time, just in case you get rain or the mountains are clouded in. Helicopter flights will not run if the weather is poor (rain or wind can shut down flights) so it’s best to have at least two days in the area, just in case you can’t fly on your first day here.
Moraine Walk | Things to do in Franz Josef
Helpful Tips for Visiting Glacier Country
To check the weather, we used the website Metservice.com. You can get weather reports for towns and cities as well as rural areas. Throughout our five weeks in New Zealand, the weather reports were very accurate. For this area, check the weather forecast for Franz Josef. If you plan to take a helicopter flight, also check the forecast for Mount Cook, since the weather can be dramatically different here even though it is just a short distance away. If you take a helicopter flight, it is beneficial to know what the weather will also be at Aoraki/Mount Cook.
If it is raining, the best things to do are the Quad Bike Tour, the Tatare Tunnels Walk, and visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre.
Bring insect repellent because mosquitoes are present (at least during our visit in April).
Some trails can close for restoration or for wildlife control. During our visit, several hiking trails were closed in Glacier Country, as poisonous pellets were being dropped by helicopter over some areas in Glacier Country (to wipe out the populations of rats, stoats, and possums). Signs were posted at the trailheads and unfortunately we did not know which trails were closed until we got to the trailheads. From what we learned, this does not occur all year. I found this information on the DOC (after our visit) which covers the 1080 poison and where it is planned to be used.
Viewpoint of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook at the start of the Lake Matheson trail.
How to Get to Glacier Country/Franz Josef
The best way to get to Glacier Country is by car. The closest airports are in Hokitika, Christchurch, and Queenstown.
Here are driving distances from nearby destinations:
- Hokitika: 135 km, 1.75 hours
- Christchurch: 380 km, 5 hours
- Queenstown: 350 km, 5 hours
- Aoraki/Mount Cook: 480 km, 6 hours
- Wanaka: 285 km, 4 hours
- Nelson: 455 km, 6 hours
- Blenheim: 500 km, 6.5 hours
The drive along the west coast of the South Island is gorgeous. It is full of twists and turns with coastal views and long stretches where you drive through the rainforest.
If you are coming from the south (Queenstown and Wanaka), on the drive, notable places to visit include the Lake Hawea Lookout, the Lake Wanaka Lookout, the Blue Pools (a 3 km, 1 hour walking trail to brilliantly blue pools), Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and Maori Beach.
If you are coming from the north, in Hokitika don’t miss the Hokitika Gorge (a 2 km loop that takes about 45 minutes for views of a beautiful gorge, swimming spot, and several suspension bridges) and the West Coast Tree Top Walk. North of Hokitika are the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. And north of Punakaiki, the road weaves along the coastline, with lots of viewpoints of the rugged coastline and sea stacks.
West coast of the South Island between Franz Josef and Pancake Rocks
Where to Stay in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
The Rainforest Deluxe is a gorgeous property that offers several types of treehouses. These range from one to two bedroom lodges that have a small kitchen and living area. Check out the two-bedroom spa treehouse, where you have your own private hot tub on the deck.
If you are traveling on a budget, the Glow Worm Accommodation is a highly rated property that offers double rooms, family rooms, and single beds in dormitory style rooms. It gets fabulous reviews on Booking.com.
We stayed at the Te Waonui Forest Retreat and had a great experience. In fact, it was one of the best places we stayed on our most recent trip to New Zealand. Our room had a view of the rainforest. The hotel was clean, quiet, and the WiFi worked well. Each night we had dinner at the hotel restaurant which was fantastic.
The Rainforest Retreat is another highly rated property. This is a great option for all types of travelers, with beds in dormitory style rooms to budget family rooms and even the Gecko Cottage, which has 5 bedrooms and can accommodate up to 12 people.
The Rainforest Motel is a great pick for families, with studio style rooms and two-bedroom apartments.
The Church at Fox is a unique property where you can stay in a church. You will stay in the entire church, which can accommodate two people and includes a kitchen, living area, and washing machine.
Ropatinis Homestay B&B gets superb reviews. Take your pick from double, triple, and a quadruple room. From this property, you get views of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps.
Tours of Glacier Country
Go on a helicopter flight, take a quad bike tour, or go sky diving. Here are some of the best tours of Glacier Country.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Franz Josef worth visiting?
For outdoor enthusiasts, Franz Josef and Glacier Country are not to be missed. With hiking trails for all ability levels, wildlife conservation centers, and the opportunity to soar over the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers (and go heli-hiking), this is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and thrilling areas to visit. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here with the helicopter tour being the highlight.
What can you do in Franz Joseph on a rainy day?
If it is raining, the best things to do in Franz Josef are the Quad Bike Tour, the Tatare Tunnels Walk, and a visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre.
Which is better, Franz Joseph or Aoraki/Mt. Cook?
Aoraki/Mount Cook is quicker and easier to get to, since it is just a 2.5 hour drive from Wanaka and a 4 hour from Christchurch (to get to Franz Josef, it is a 5-hour drive from Christchurch and a 4 hour drive from Wanaka). At Aoraki/Mount Cook, there are several beautiful walks to do, especially the Hooker Valley Track, and on a clear day you get one of the best views of Mt. Cook from this trail.
Franz Josef and Glacier Country has a more remote feel. The temperate rainforests here are amazing to see, plus you get views of the rugged coastline of the west coast.
For most travelers, it’s easier to put Aoraki/Mount Cook into your itinerary, because of its location. But if you like the idea of visiting a more remote area of New Zealand, with dramatic coastal scenery and some of the best walks through rainforests that we have experienced in New Zealand, add Franz Josef onto your itinerary.
If you have any questions about the best things to do in Franz Josef or Glacier Country, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to New Zealand
SOUTH ISLAND: On the South Island of New Zealand, visit Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, hike the Hooker Valley Track, visit Akaroa and Banks Peninsula, go on a helicopter flight to see Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers from the sky, and learn about the best things to do in Queenstown.
NORTH ISLAND: Top experiences on the North Island include the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (one of the best day hikes in the world), spending a day or two in Auckland, visiting Waiheke Island on a day trip from Auckland, touring Hobbiton, a visit to Taupō, and seeing the glowworms and blackwater rafting in the Waitomo Caves.
HIKES IN NEW ZEALAND: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often labeled as the best day hike in the world. The Hooker Valley Track offers awesome views of Mt. Cook, Roy’s Peak is a gorgeous hike in Wanaka, and Abel Tasman National Park also makes a great spot to go hiking. The Routeburn Track is another fantastic hike and can be done as a big day hike or multi-day trek.
NEW ZEALAND ROAD TRIP: With 3 weeks in New Zealand, visit the highlights on a road trip to the North Island and South Island. If you have less time, you can shorten this itinerary by spending 2 weeks on the South Island.
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY: For more information about the camera gear we carry, check out our Travel Photography Gear Guide. And tips and tricks for taking great photos in our article How to Take Better Photos while Traveling.
Read all of our articles about New Zealand in our New Zealand Travel Guide.
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