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Franz Josef Glacier

Where is the Franz Josef Glacier?

The Franz Josef Glacier is located in South Westland, on the West Coast of New Zealand at 43.5 degrees south, equivalent in latitude to the south of France. It’s an unusual place to find a glacier! There are no glaciers that extend down to sea level in France, so why does it happen here?

One of Only 3 Glaciers in a Rainforest

Descending to just 250m (820ft) above sea level, Franz Josef Glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world that descend into a temperate rainforest zone, the others being Fox Glacier (just south of Franz Josef Glacier) and the Perito Merino Glacier in Argentina (that we visit on our Condor trip). Franz Josef Glacier is steeper and faster moving than Fox Glacier, but like many glaciers worldwide, it is also retreating. The glacier is still rocketing down the valley, but the melting at the front, or terminal face, is faster than the ice is descending. Let’s figure out how all this works…

Literally running through Franz Josef is the Alpine Fault, which is the join where two tectonic plates collide - you can read more about it on our Geology of New Zealand page. The plate on the east side of the join (the Pacific Plate) is being pushed up and past the plate on the west side (the Indo-Australian plate) and this movement is what has formed the Southern Alps. In fact, the Southern Alps are still growing, at about 5mm a year! Being one of the youngest and fastest-growing mountain chains in the world, the result has been the creation of dramatically steep mountains as high as 3,700m (12,300ft), within 40km (25 miles) of the coast.


Why the Glacier Hasn’t Melted, Yet?

Now, have you ever heard of the ‘Roaring Forties’? These are a system of winds and weather patterns that circle the bottom part of the globe continuously, and relentlessly – they pretty much have nothing in their way, except Patagonia, a few hungry albatrosses and… the Southern Alps. When the moist ‘Roaring Forties’ wind hits the Alps, it gets forced upward very quickly and then dumps enormous amounts of moisture in the form of rain down low, or snow up top. On average, the upper Franz Josef Glacier gets almost 14m (45ft) of snow every year! The upper catchment area, or nevé, of the Franz Josef Glacier is about 20km2, so it’s a pretty big area for snow to accumulate. Eventually, that snow gets buried by more snow and then compacts and turns to ice, and because the valley is so narrow and steep and has an enormous amount of ice in the nevé, the glacier begins to flow under its own weight (imagine squeezing a tube of toothpaste, the tube being the valley walls and the paste being the glacier).

The other factor that contributes to the glacier being able to make it to almost sea level without melting is, again, rainfall. Because there is so much rainfall, water is constantly on, under and around the lower part of the glacier. This acts as a kind of lubricant, enabling the glacier to accelerate to great speeds (for a glacier!). So, the glacier is descending down the valley faster than it can melt. The rate of flow varies depending how high you are on the glacier - up top where there is greater pressure, it can reach speeds of 1m (about 3ft) per day, while down the bottom where the pressure is less, it “crawls” along at 30cm (1ft) a day.

We’ve had little snow over recent winters and the catchment area has not been “topped up” very quickly, thus the weight and pressure up top has reduced, which, in turn, slows down the movement of the ice below. The melting, however, continues at a pretty steady rate, so the glacier goes into a retreat - the melt rate is faster than the flow rate. All make sense? Good, because there’ll be a quiz during one of our trips… just kidding… maybe ;)

Hardy West Coasters

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself “with 6m (20ft) of rain a year, Franz Josef township, might be, well, a bit ‘drizzly.’” Indeed it can be, and the locals have a love-hate relationship with the rain, because without it, they wouldn’t have a glacier or beautiful rainforest right in their backyard. There are, however, a lot of other positives, like gushing waterfalls, glacier views, a unique guiding-history and, of course, the glacier is just “a stone’s throw” away from the town. It has bred a hardy bunch of people who look past the elements and have a real passion for the environment they live in.  So, when on one of our trips, cruise up to a local “West Coaster” in Franz (as it is affectionately known) and ask them about the weather – it’s sure to break the “ice”… and you might also find out what “liquid sunshine” is.

Franz heli hike ice cave

See the unique Franz Josef Glacier on the following New Zealand tours:


Trip Reviews

  •   4.38 out of 5 (from 1211 reviews)

    An Outstanding Time!

    The north island deserves more notice than it gets in the press. A different world than the south island, well worth any time you can give it.
    Lissa Jackson Review Image
    – Tennessee, United States
    Kauri, April 2017
  •   4.44 out of 5 (from 908 reviews)


    Great hiking, awesome scenery, terrific guides, delicious food and more than comfy accommodations !
    Cal Hoppe Review Image
    – Arizona, United States
    Manuka, April 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    Rimu Was Extraordinary

    We have been dreaming of visiting New Zealand for a long time, we wanted to see and explore all the best sites in an active way, but doing this on our own would have been overwhelming! Active Adventures was the complete answer. They took us to the best places, sites and beautiful landscapes that we could only have dreamed about. Our group was small which allowed us all to bond, our guides Astrid and Steve could not have been better - fun, knowledgeable, organized and excellent cooks. I got the sense they really enjoyed what they do! I would strongly recommend this tour - a trip of a lifetime that words can’t describe - we will never forget it.
    Colleen Clark Review Image
    – Ontario, Canada
    Rimu, February 2018
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    Trip of a Lifetime!

    I am still basking in the glow from this remarkable trip! I admit that I was a bit nervous at first as I was the oldest person in our group and not as fit (for hiking) as some in the group, so I worried about 'keeping up' on the hikes - especially the steeper climbs. Ben and Lauren were very reassuring and encouraging and I felt that I was able to 'hold my own'. In fact, while the hiking was probably the most challenging I've done in at least 7 years, it was the most rewarding/exhilarating part for me. I loved our group - a very positive, health-conscious and fun group of people from all walks of life. It was also wonderful that we were only 12 people - it helped to create a much more intimate and personal atmosphere. I felt we bonded together well - again, thanks to Ben and Lauren's great skills with ice-breaking, fun games, and ability to set and maintain a positive atmosphere from the beginning.
    From the moment we set off from the airport to the emotional farewells back at the airport at the end of the trip, this was a top notch adventure. Our transportation was comfortable, our accommodations were always different and unique and very comfortable - I loved that they weren't all in your standard hotel and that some of them were really off the beaten track. The food was amazing - from the snack basket in the van, loaded fresh every day with fruit and other snacks, to the amazing meals that Lauren and Ben created and the breakfasts and dinners that we had at various restaurants - there was a lot of variety, special dietary considerations were accounted for and there was lots of it!
    I did the kayak option and it was outstanding. The B&B and our hosts were wonderful (the hot tub at the end of the day was most appealing!) and our kayak guide, Nick was terrific - very accommodating, skilled and he made it all very interesting and fun!
    I cannot say enough about our incredible guides - Ben and Lauren - they truly moved the bar for me from a great trip to one that will go down in history for me as the trip of a lifetime. They were so knowledgeable about the island - I loved listening to the legends/folklore and learning more about the vegetation, birds, etc. Ben was a terrific driver - I always felt safe. Lauren was terrific with her cooking and meal presentations - meals looked fantastic and tasted even better! Both Ben and Lauren added those special touches from decorating the bus for the Christmas season, organizing our Secret Santa, making a fantastic Christmas morning breakfast, complete with Christmas crackers and special hats, managing extra logistics like re-booking the paragliding for us, setting up the helicopter tour, taking the time and effort to help reconnect people with items they had left behind either in our accommodations or on a hike/kayak. They even had the perfect music for when we went through the Homer Tunnel and down into Milford Sound - the combination of the music and the scenery was so moving it had several of us in tears! They really ensured that they got to know each person and took a genuine interest in each person. Their positive energy and enthusiasm was infectious. They took kindness and customer service to a new level! The scenery was breathtaking everywhere we went. It would be hard for me to say what the favourite part was or favourite view as the South Island is simply spectacular. I felt that the trip was organized in such a way that I really got a good feel and appreciation for the South Island. Truly New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places (both 'inside and out') that I have ever visited (and I've visited over 20 other countries around the world). I really loved the more laid-back way of life and the local people we met were so welcoming and kind. I would love to come back again and see the North Island but also re-visit the South Island!
    I highly recommend this trip and have already suggested it to a number of my friends. It really was transformational for me on so many levels! My heartfelt thanks to Ben and Lauren and everyone at Active Adventures!
    Sue Hazell Review Image
    – Ontario, Canada
    Rimu, January 2018
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    What an adventure!

    Great adventure with wonderful guides Alex and Tia!
    Stephanie Eskuri Review Image
    – Michigan, United States
    Rimu, January 2017



Why travel with Active Adventures?

Above all, we aim to be amazing hosts. We're proud of our kiwi roots, and our professional, warm and relaxed style of running trips around the world is unforgettable.

We're VERY picky about who we select to work in our team, and we have people from all over the world lining up to guide our trips. So we get to hire the absolute BEST in the business.

As soon as you get off the plane, we've got all the details of your vacation covered – top notch meals, comfortable transport & accommodation, amazing guides and INCREDIBLE service.

Whether you’re new to adventure travel, or you’ve never travelled in a group before, you’ll find yourself arriving home positively different from when you left.

With our small groups (no more than 14), you'll get to know our team, your fellow travellers, and have the flexibility and freedom to do as much (or as little!) as you like.

It's all about getting there under your own steam – on foot, in a sea kayak, or by bike. What better way is there to experience mind blowing scenery? If it's your first time, no worries – our expert guides have got you covered.

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