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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.

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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

  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    Rimu is Wonderful - A few tips if you plan to go...

    My husband and I took the Rimu trip in early November 2016 and had a really terrific time. I encourage everyone who is seriously considering the Rimu to go ahead and sign up. That being said, with all of the fun we had, I do wish we had known a few things ahead of time. I include these tips for you, the soon-to-be Rimu traveler, to make your trip more enjoyable. However, I can promise that even if you do none of these things, you will still have a marvelous time:

    1. Guys, if you opt to snorkel with the fur seals be sure to shave your mustache before you leave home. It seems obvious now, but it never occurred to my husband that the mask wouldn’t seal properly to his face with his mustache. Do yourself a favor and shave it off or spend the afternoon dealing with a leaky mask.

    2. I also wish I had known just how intense and challenging the 3-day multi-hike through Nelson Lakes would be. If you’re an office worker and occasional hiker like me, then I encourage you to take this trip but do lots of practice/fitness training in advance. Load up your pack and get on the stair-master or start climbing really steep hills. The hike is gorgeous and worth it, but I can promise you it will be a lot more enjoyable if you’re in good shape for it. Also, there are no showers at the huts and only latrines (port-a-potties) for toilets, so bring baby wipes for exactly the same reason you would use them on a baby (wink wink). And also bring hiking poles! I know it says optional on the gear list, but I really found them to be essential. As for the water bottle – leave that at home and invest in a good water bladder system (a “Camelback” or similar). We found the water bottle to be a hassle to take in and out of the bag (forcing us to stop each time), which made us want to drink less water. The water bladders allow you to keep moving and you’ll find you’re more hydrated.

    3. The sea kayaks (and, honestly, New Zealand in general) are not made for people over 6’ 2” in height (187 cm). Watch your head everywhere you go, and as for the kayaks, it may help to have the taller person sit in the front seat of the kayak instead of the back.

    4. Also, pack enough clothes for a week and then expect to do laundry. Bring some travel-sized laundry soap packets to help save money and make sure you have enough 1$ and 2$ coins for laundry before you get to the hotel (the machines are generally pretty expensive: about $3 for the washer and between $3 - $5 for 30 minutes in the dryer).

    5. Bring good cycling shorts – yes, the ones with the weird-feeling padding on the bum. It will help prevent the dreaded ‘grumpy grundle’.

    6. And finally, a heads-up to my fellow outgoing introverts (yes, we exist): this trip contains long days of social interaction (think 7:15 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.), with few breaks for introspection/solitude. If you need some down time, skip dinner or unfurl all of the emergency blankets and build your own fort at the back of the bus and hang a sign that says, “Stay Out!” (just kidding about that last one).

    A great big thank you to our guides, Rachel and Jordan, who were informative and helpful beyond measure. How they managed to remain cheerful and engaging considering they had to do all of the exertion we clients had to do, plus all of their work on top of it, is beyond me. They are the embodiment of Kiwi hospitality! We are already thinking of coming back for a North Island tour sometime soon.
    Lauren Gerth Review Image
    – Missouri, United States
    Rimu, November 2016
  •   4.60 out of 5 (from 1887 reviews)

    Tui Trip

    As seasoned travelers we know what makes a great trip. Our guides Nick and Mel were over the top with all aspects of the trip. From the minute of our pickup to our improvised departure, through cyclone Gita we never missed a beat. Wouldn’t change a thing. A true trip of a life time.
    Kelly Zeiler Review Image
    – Montana, United States
    Tui, March 2018
  •   4.48 out of 5 (from 297 reviews)

    Weka---- Best day ever--14 days running

    Capable, energetic and enthusiastic guides, great fun, exciting cycling. Exceptional vistas that took our breath away, sparking waterfalls, pristine mountains and streams, Variety of cycling from road to single track with some fun stream crossings. Guides prepared delicious meals with presentation worthy of a top end restaurant. Best Day Ever
    best trip we ever had.
    Ben Thorlakson Review Image
    – Alberta, Canada
    Weka 13-day, January 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    The Most Beautiful Place in the World

    Thank you to Active Adventures for a most spectacular trip. I traveled with my daughter, to celebrate her college graduation, and my brother. The Kiwi people are the friendliest people on the planet. Our guides were extremely helpful, cooked awesome meals, and taught us so much about New Zealand. They took care of everything. All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. The locations for the lodging were probably the best views in all the country. We stayed right in the center of Queenstown, next to a remote area of a lake with views of Mt. Cook, in a small towns next to the ocean. They were all very clean and neat, always with a pot of tea ready, and cookies for a snack. There was always an excess of food. No one ever went hungry. In fact, I don't think I ever ate so much on holiday. The activities were fun and varied, relaxing at times, strenuous on occasion but with awesome views as payback. I am recommending this trip to all my friends, and already planning the next one.
    Terri Donati Review Image
    – Colorado, United States
    Rimu, December 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 4983 reviews)

    Rimu - NZ South Island

    Our Rimu trip with Ken and Elder was truly a trip of a lifetime. The two of them were the perfect pair to lead our adventure -kind, warm, funny, and incredibly encouraging (for those of us who weren't quite sure we'd make it up the mountain!) My husband and I were fortunate to have both of our adult boys join us which made for a very memorable experience. New Zealand's South Island offered some of the most breathtaking landscapes we had ever seen. The hiking, kayaking, and biking was challenging and exhilarating. It was hard to say goodbye to the group who became like family. We have stayed in touch with some, and look forward to our next trip with Active.
    Gigi Altaras Review Image
    – Washington, United States
    Rimu, November 2017

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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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