New Zealand is home to two of the world’s three unique glacier valleys which descend into lush rainforests; Fox and Franz Josef. These can be found only an hour's drive apart on the West Coast of the South Island. Although special glaciers are not unique to this area of New Zealand. In addition to the West Coast Glaciers, there are many alpine glaciers throughout the Southern Alps and most are visible all year round!
Taking time to visit New Zealand’s glaciers should be a very important inclusion of any holiday experience as they may not be around forever.
Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park is home to New Zealand’s highest peak as well as the Tasman Glacier. The Tasman Glacier’s history goes back 2 million years to the Pleistocene ice age; as it has advanced and retreated over millennia, it has left a number of moraines and deposits in its tracks, also carving out the basin that is now Lake Pukaki.
Today, the glacier is roughly 27km long and 600 metres deep in its centre. You can see the glacier by walking the Hooker Valley track, one of the most popular walking tracks in the park, given its relatively short distance (10km) and breathtaking views. Snaking through the Hooker Valley and along the Hooker River, you will make your way to the end of the river which terminates at the glacier lake. On a clear day, you’ll see brilliant blue ice formations of the Tasman, views of Mt Cook towering above and potentially, icebergs in the lake as well. The track takes roughly 3 hours return. For an even more engaging experience, consider heading out with one of the highly knowledgeable guides, from whom you will learn all about the geological features, flora and fauna, and significance of the region.
For an even more unique experience, consider doing the Glacier Explorers Tour departing from the Hermitage Hotel (available September to May). It is one of only 3 tours in the world where you can travel by boat on a terminal lake and get up close to icebergs more than 500 years old. Very few glaciers terminate in lakes, and even fewer of those are accessible!
Due to how long it would take to reach the glaciers on foot and safety concerns surrounding icefall, the only way to hike on any of these glaciers, exploring the beautiful blue ice and ice formations, is to take a helicopter flight and do what is called a heli-hike.
Heli-hikes tours are available from multiple South Island bases with the most popular being from Fox, Franz Josef or Mt Cook Village to Tasman Glacier. You will be provided with crampons and any other equipment required, and after taking a scenic flight, you will be dropped off with your professional mountain guide to explore icefalls and the stunning glaciers for approximately 2 hours on the ice. You’ll have countless opportunities to take photos and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Of course, if a helicopter flight is not your cup of tea, you could also take a fixed-wing plane for a fantastic birds-eye view or you can get some fantastic glacier views from walking tracks like the Hooker Valley track described above or the Aspiring Track to Rob Roy Glacier (close to Wanaka) - two of our favourites!
Rob Roy Glacier track in Mt Aspiring National Park sometimes gets overlooked by visitors to Wanaka as they all flock to Roy’s Peak for their big day out. This track takes you through the stunning native bush as you gradually climb towards a valley flanked by mountains on every side, with cascading waterfalls and the magnificent glacier commanding your attention. It looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park if Jurassic Park had glaciers, snow and ice!
Eco Wanaka does a fantastic guided day tour, taking you from town through the Matukituki Valley, where you will cross a swing bridge and begin your walk (roughly 2 hours of tramping). When you reach your destination, you can enjoy a delicious and well-earned picnic lunch in one of the most scenic spots in the country!
Perhaps the most famous glaciers of all in New Zealand are Fox and Franz Josef. Part of what makes these glaciers - and the region in general - so special, is their proximity to rainforest and coast. Franz Josef descends from 2500 metres above sea level at its head to roughly 300 meters in just over 11km. Because of this, it is able to exist where many other glaciers would have already melted and allows it to share its valley floor with a temperate rainforest.
Fox Glacier is the West Coast’s longest glacier and has a more gradual incline. Some of our tours give you the opportunity to join a heli-hike at Fox Glacier, with New Zealand’s most experienced and oldest glacier guiding company. Speak to us about adding this experience, or any other heli-hike to your itinerary!
Should you be interested in seeing the glacier from above but are not keen on walking on the glacier, there are also scenic helicopter flight-only options, which differ from a fixed-wing flight and can truly make an impression; snow-landings in the Southern Alp Mountains are a great way to get a sense of the enormity of New Zealand’s mountain and glacier highlights.
We completely understand you may not be sure which option is right for you and as your New Zealand specialists, we’re here to help you find the right option! Get in touch and we can help discuss these further and add your preference to your customised New Zealand itinerary.