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Glacier Country – Guide for Backpackers

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Explore the ice!

Located on the wild West Coast of the South Island, the Glacier Country remains almost untouched. Approximately 140 glaciers flow from the Southern Alps, but only the huge Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier reach all the way down to the lower rainforest for our enjoyment! Exploring one of these glaciers is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as the glaciers are ever changing. Some glacier activities you could do three years ago no longer exist! So get on the glaciers while you still can.

The Glacier Country is well worth sticking around for a bit – it’s almost encouraged when bad weather days cancel helicopter flights to the glacier. Get on some stunning lakes on kayaking tours, go skydiving over the stunning scenery of the Southern Alps, relax in hot pools, visit mirror lakes and more!

For inspiration on tackling the glaciers, check out: 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers and 10 Facts You Did Not Know About New Zealand’s Glaciers.

Things you can’t miss in the Glacier Country

  • Just be happy that you are in a World Heritage Area.
  • Climb on the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier!
  • Get sensational West Coast views on the best walks in the Franz Josef area.
  • Walk to some stunning locations around Fox Glacier and bathe in a natural hot pool.
  • See the West Coast wildlife.
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Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area

The Glacier Country is included in one UNESCO’s World Heritage Areas, meaning the land has huge international significance. As well as natural importance, the area is historically important as it experienced a gold mining era.

Find out more about the wider West Coast region here: West Coast – Guide for Backpackers.

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Franz Josef Glacier

New Zealand’s busiest glacier! The only way to get a guided walk on the Franz Josef Glacier is to go by helicopter. This will mean digging into your pockets for the big bucks, but as a hugely acclaimed activity for its uniqueness, many would say it is definitely worth it. Get amongst it all by climbing on top and inside the glacier. After your icy hike, entry to the Franz Josef village hot pools is free with your glacier hike so you can warm up in a native bush environment.

If you want another perspective of the glacier with a dose of adrenaline, you can skydive over the glacier – a certainly stunning landscape to do a skydive. New Zealand’s highest tandem skydive is in Franz Josef with Skydive Franz. Also, you can take a horse trek through rainforest and see the glacier out into the distance.

Looking to get on the water? The kayaking on Lake Mapourika, north of Franz Josef, is stunning! The mirror like water is perfect for taking those travel selfies. Oh yeah, and the Southern Alps view and the peaceful rainforests are good too.

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Best walks around Franz Josef Glacier

There’s ways of seeing the Franz Josef Glacier without going over budget. And, that’s by getting off your butt and walking! Although there is a guided valley hike, which covers the glacier-formed valley Franz Josef has left behind, you can take the walks unguided.

As the glacier is 5km from Franz Josef township, you will either need a car or use the shuttle bus service.

The walk from the glacier car park takes 45 minutes. Carry on your walk on one of the 10 tracks around the glacier. However, be sure to check if the track you plan to take is open, as the environment is ever changing.

Here are our favourite tracks:

  • The Tatare Tunnels – This 1 hour track walks you through history in the old gold mining tunnels. For more gold mining remains, take a 1h30min detour on the Callery Gorge Walk. Remember to take a torch!
  • Wombat Track – For utter peace and tranquility, take the Wombat Track through a rimu forest to a quiet Wombat Lake.
  • Sentinel Rock Walk – For you lazy people out there looking for a Franz Josef Glacier view, take the 20min walk from the end of the Glacier Access Road.
  • Alex Knob – In total contrast to the previous walk, take the steep 8 hour return to one of the most mind blowing views of the glacier! The track starts about 2km from the township. Take the Glacier Access Road.

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Fox Glacier

Named after Sir William Fox, Prime Minister of New Zealand in the late 1800s, Fox Glacier is the longest glacier on the West Coast. It is not as well known as Franz Josef, but it is an off-the-beaten-track location backpackers are often pleased they made the detour to visit!

The glacier activities on offer are very similar to Franz Josef, except the ice climb here is bigger, just so you know… Make sure to check and compare activity providers for the time given on the ice. Also, like Franz Josef, you can take in the glacier view while hurtling through the sky on a skydive.

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Best Walks around Fox glacier

  • Te Moeka O Tuawe Valley Walk – A walk just as interesting as its name! The 1 hour return sees remnants of the glacier through dead ice and chunks of the glacier left behind.
  • Copland Track – For an epic hiking adventure, take the 2 day hike to the most scenic natural hot pools in New Zealand: the Welcome Flat Hot Pools. We recommend going in summer to walk past beautiful flowers.

Whatever walk you decide to do, ask at the i-SITE for track updates, as these can change due to climate and changing environment.

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Lake Matheson

It’s impossible for this lake not to look good on a photograph, that’s why this 14,000-year-old lake is worth a visit while in the Glacier Country. The famous reflective lake has the reflections of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook, and Mt Tasman.

The easy track from the car park is wheelchair friendly up to the jetty for lake viewing, but not easily accessible after this point. The jetty walk is an easy 40-minutes return, or you can do the entire lake look in around 1h30mins.

The whole lake walk takes just an hour. Try and spot some of the lake’s native eels.

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Glacier Country Wildlife

Glacier Country wildlife usually consists of a kea parrot here and there. These highly entertaining alpine parrots are infamous for pecking the rubber seals off cars.

Visit New Zealand’s only kotuku (white heron) nesting site. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a trek to get there – 2.5 hour minibus, 20min jet boat and 40min walk – but it’s certainly a unique experience. You can only see the kotuku while on a guided tour accredited by the Department of Conservation (DoC).

You can also go on guided kiwi tours to see kiwis in their natural environment, with Okarito Kiwi Tours. Okarito is a 30min drive from Franz Josef. Alternatively, there is the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef where you can see a kiwi before it is released into the wild.

If you have extra time in the Glacier Country…

Don’t miss kayaking on Okaritoa Lagoon! This is the best way to see the all-natural coastal wetland and all the wildlife and plant life that comes with it. It’s awesome because:

  • Enjoy 3240ha of open water.
  • More than 70 species of bird recorded in the area.
  • You can also delve deep into the rainforest to get a taste of New Zealand before the great migration of Europeans.

You can also explore the greater West Coast region. Get ideas from: West Coast – Guide for Backpackers.

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