Stepping out of the helicopter onto one of the New Zealand glaciers, I instantly knew this was one of my life’s magical moments. Although the first breath of crisp clean air invigorated me, it was the silence that made it truly unique. That, and the seemingly endless expanse of white against a rich blue sky, interrupted by turquoise glacial ice.
Getting here is half the fun. In total, there are more than 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand, but based on size and accessibility, three stand out. These are Fox, Franz Josef, and the Tasman glacier.
The majority of New Zealand glaciers are near the Main Divide in the Southern Alps in the South Island. The entire region offers some of the most incredible landscapes in the world.
About New Zealand glaciers: Franz Josef, Fox, and Tasman
A glacier is a river of ice that is slowly moving downhill. It’s formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains or near the poles. Both Frans Josef and Fox glaciers flow from the Southern Alps towards the Tasman Sea and can be accessed from the west coast. In contrast, the Tasman Glacier flows towards the Mackenzie Basin; therefore, more often accessed from the east side of Mount Cook.
- New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook (Aoraki in Māori), peaks at 3,754 metres. It’s part of Te Wahipounamu, the UNESCO World Heritage site that covers 26,000 km².
- Te Wahipounamu’s Māori meaning is “the place of greenstone”.
- Both the Tasman and Franz Josef glaciers are located inside Te Wahipounamu park, while Fox glacier is just outside.
- Fox Glacier is fed by four alpine glaciers, overflows into the Fox River, and travels into the lush rainforest, with an ice flow moving in areas at up to 3 metres per day. It is about 13km long and ends only 300 metres from the sea.
- In contrast, Franz Josef Glacier is 12 km long and descends from the Southern Alps ending 19 km from the Tasman Sea. It is one of the few glaciers in New Zealand that is still growing.
- At 23 km long and up to 4 km wide, New Zealand’s largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier, is in the Mount Cook National Park and flows out and east towards the Mackenzie Basin. It contains nearly one-third of New Zealand’s glacial ice. However, in total, there are 72 named glaciers on Mount Cook.
Check out the webcams for Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
Which type of New Zealand glacier viewing is right for you?
There are multiple ways to see the glaciers, with different options appealing to everyone. The main options include:
Guided glacier hikes (Heli-hiking)
A popular option ideal for energetic adventure seekers with a moderate level of fitness, although not open for children under age 8. Heli-hiking begins with a helicopter viewing, followed by a glacial landing, then a 2-hour guided hike through ice caves, arches, or other ancient glacial formations. Note that the provided safety gear can weigh up to 5kgs.
Self-guided walks and hikes
This is the option for budget-conscious visitors or experienced hikers. The hiking options range from shorter walks with glacier views to several day hikes that recommend campers include a personal locator beacon in their gear. Check out these hiking trail options.
Glacier landing and walking on a glacier
Physically, this option is suitable for most people, although the tour description states a moderate level of fitness. Like all helicopter flights, it’s not cheap. This is the option we chose, and we loved it. From the fabulous views during our helicopter ride to the opportunity to walk on the glacier at our leisure, this was an ideal family activity.
Kayaking on a glacial lake
Ideal for energetic people with a moderate level of fitness and comfort around water. Experience the New Zealand glaciers while kayaking on a glass calm glacial lake surrounded by massive mountains.
A no-cost first stop for any visitors, just remember to respect the safety partitions that are in place for a reason. A short stroll from the car park will allow views of the glacier terminus (the lower end) from the ground. While you can touch glacial ice, you are missing out on quite a bit, if this is your entire glacial experience.
We added a helicopter tour of Aoraki/Mount Cook
We initially selected a mid-priced adventure over both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers that included the walk on the glacier. The flyover Mount Cook was only in the highest level package option.
However, we got lucky. The other couple booked at the same timeslot wanted to see Mount Cook, so the four of us were upgraded to the top package. In retrospect, it would have been worth the extra money, especially if you are travelling up the west coast and not visiting Mount Cook any other way.
The views are incredible, although I lost a bit of perspective from the air. As we stared down at the snow-covered peaks and occasional rocky surfaces, it became difficult to comprehend the mountain’s size until the pilot pointed out two cabins. Look closely in the second shot and you should see two cabins at about one-third of the way up this photo.
Before booking a helicopter tour
Some commonly asked questions:
Should I book in advance?
If it is the school holidays or summer, and you don’t want to miss out, I would book ahead. We went in October, during swing season, and were lucky that our schedule was flexible when we arrived without pre-booking a flight. While there were no flights on the day, we were able to find a place to spend the night and fly in the morning. If your schedule is fixed, or you want to be sure not to miss out, we recommend booking your Fox or Franz Josef helicopter tour in advance.
What do I need to bring (is it cold)?
Dress warm and in layers for the snow and cold temperatures. Wear sensible footwear. If you’re bringing younger kids that like to touch the snow, they might want gloves. If you choose the heli-hike, all gear is provided, including glacier boots, socks, ice crampons, and a waterproof jacket and pants.
Is there a weight limit for helicopters?
Most of the tour companies require participants, fully geared up (this includes the safety gear) to weigh under 120 kg.
Specific options for seeing New Zealand glaciers
Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike
This 3-hour experience includes a breathtaking helicopter flight to Franz Joseph, a glacier landing, and approximately 2-hours of guided glacier hiking with an expert guide. All safety gear is provided including boots, crampons, and waterproof outerwear. See reviews and check for discounts
Franz Josef Mountain Scenic Helicopter Flight
Like our tour, this 40-minute adventure offers pilot commentary as it flys over glaciers, towering peaks, and crevasses in the Southern Alps and the Murchison Glacier Valley. Next, fly over Aoraki/Mt Cook. Then, a remote snow landing on Franz Josef glacier is at around 2,100 metres (7,000 feet). Includes optional hotel pick up. Check price and reviews
Helicopter Mt Cook Snow Landing
Similar to the above tour, this 40-minute excursion tours Fox Glacier and Mt Cook from the air, then lands on Mt Tasman. See reviews and check for discounts
Twin Glacier – 30 Minute Helicopter Flight
Perfect for families that want to get in the air and land in the snow. This 30-minute flight over Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers includes a snow landing at the head of either glacier. Discount prices for children and no minimum age. See reviews and check for discounts
Helicopter & Ski Plane Flight + Glacier Landing
They call this the ultimate alpine combo. It does it all in just 45 minutes. You will fly in both a ski plane and helicopter and pass through the Tasman Valley. At the snow landing, you will change aircraft. This is perfect for anyone who wants it all. See reviews and check for discounts
Franz Josef – 3 Hour Kayak Classic
Imagine gliding across a mirror-like lake surrounded by panoramic views of the Southern Alps and its glaciers. This 3-hour guided kayak tour will bring you into the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary and past 900-year old Kahikatea (white pine) trees. See reviews and check for discounts
Where is Franz Josef?
The township of Franz Josef is located along State Hwy 6, between Haast and Hokitika. It is one of many key stops on any South Island west coast itinerary and the starting point for most of the tours above.
Franz Josef accommodations
While there are lots of options, one stands out to us. Once in Franz Josef, stay at the Rainforest Retreat, a top-rated accommodation with options ranging from luxury treehouses to shared backpacker rooms.
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or BookABatch (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Activity discounts: we check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on activities.
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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Wow, this post was very educational for me. I had no idea New Zealand was cold enough for glaciers, leave alone that is home to 3,000 glaciers. Your trip reminded me of the first time we set foot on a glacier in Alaska. That infinity of ice was amazingly beautiful, but very scary at the same time. I’d love to visit these three glaciers in New Zealand, but a guided glacier hike seems very tiring. I’d probably settle just for a short walk. We didn’t dare to take more the a few steps away from the helicopter when we visited the glacier in Alaska. Too many crevices around…
WOW! I’ve always envisioned New Zealand to be hot and it never occurred to me to put glaciers and New Zealand in the same sentence.
Monika Ohson | TravelerInMe
Wow! Wow! Wow! This is an incredible experience and one must have this on their bucket list.
Fantastic photos and like your post says….. an unforgettable trip!!
Lovely post Rhonda & Jeff.
O wow!! I feel so stupid but I never knew New Zealand had glaciers, always thought it was just very green. Now I want to visit New Zealand even sooner. 🙂
This blog made me cold. I’m sorry Rhonda, I’m not ready for winter ready. I want the heat. LOL Have a great day my friend.
You don’t even have to travel at all to see gorgeous sights in your own country! Lovely photos, and rather refreshing after a scorcher of a day with high humidity to boot.
New Zealand has been on my travel bucket list for a while and it’d be awesome to get to check out the glaciers there! I’m definitely interested in the self-guided hikes! *-* Thanks for putting this together!
I must admit that I new nothing about glaciers in New Zealand. This looks amazing. What an experience. Your photos are wonderful.
One of my biggest regrets having visited New Zealand was not going on a helicopter ride or hiking on one of the glaciers. The walk to Fanz Josef glacier is nice and you get to see it quite close – but not close enough! And now is the time to go before it melts! I hope to go back to NZ and see some of the glaciers a little more intimately!!
Flipping ‘eck, this looks amaaaazing! We did visit the Mount Cook, but we didn’t go in one of the helicopters – I really love the idea of going heli-hiking.
If you ever want a cheap version of seeing the glaciers from above – we had a pretty good view from our window when we flew from Queenstown back to Auckland…
This sounds like an absolutely amazing experience! I will hopefully get to see these amazing Glaciers one day! Thank you so much for sharing! : )
Rob + Ann
Wow! Had no idea there were so many glaciers in New Zealand! Hiking on a glacier is something we’d love to do, but when you mentioned kayaking on a glacial lake, you really got our attention! Yes please! Thanks for all of the detail – as always, so helpful. New Zealand just keeps moving up our To Do list – SO much to do!!
Wow, this is incredible. I loved taking a helicopter tour of glaciers and to go hiking here in Canada, but it’s amazing to see it in New Zealand too. I didn’t really think about New Zealand having such prominent glaciers, but I really want to visit here and see this in person
Thank you Rhonda for this post and for your email with detailed information :). I am glad to see that my questions on your post about visiting the South Island inspire you to write this post. I have just pined it :). We have definitely added the Franz Joseph glacier on our list. We are not sure yet about which option we will take to explore it. My favourite one would be to select the Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike.
The glaciers look magestic! You captured some absolutely stunning shots. Thank you for give various tour options, it is always nice to have choices 🙂 NZ has been on our bucket list for ages!! Fingers crossed we get a chance to make it over and see this stunning country first hand.
This is one of my biggest regrets – not doing the he helicopter trip up the glaciers while in New Zealand! Sounds like an awesome adventure!
Such a cool trip to do, especially getting up there by helicopter. I went years ago to the glaciers in the South Island and loved it. Next time I’ll look at helicopter options!
Oh, that’s so cool a helicopter flight and standing on a glacier. We did a snow scooter ride on a glacier in Iceland.
Wow this looks incredible!! Lots of info!
Such fantastic ways to see these glaciers! I saw Franz Josef Glacier but only from a distance as we did a hike up to a viewing point.
I really liked how you offered different ways to enjoy a visit to a glacier. There are options for different fitness levels and budgets. IT must be pretty amazing to be standing on top of a frozen river, come to think about it 🙂
I visted Franz Josef in 2014. I had the heli tour booked but unfortunately on the day it was booked the weather was not great so it had to be cancelled. As I was on a group tour, our days were not flexible so we could not reschedule which sucked 🙁
We did however do the hike which was great! We got to use an axe and break up some of the ice that had fallen which was fun!
Wow, I’ve always thought of New Zealand as being a summer travel destination so this has given me a whole new perspective! So many different ideas for tours too, thanks for setting all this out! Will definitely need to visit the glaciers when I go to New Zealand.
Great shots as always. This is something I would love to do. Hubby used to snow camp the Sierra’s when he was younger. He loved the quiet.
Have a fabulous day, Rhonda. Big hug to you and hello to Jeff. ♥
I love this type of adventure. I’ve been on a couple of glaciers …1 in Alaska and 1 in Canada. So fun and very interesting
L. Diane Wolfe
I’m surprised to hear how short the tallest mountain is, yet it has snow and glaciers. I don’t think I’d be up for a long hike but walking around the glacier would be amazing.
Hi Rhonda – a wonderful variety of trips to take … I’m not happy with the cold – but I’d love an air trip around … and for great thorough information … New Zealand is a great country. All the best – Hilary
Wow! I honestly didn’t know that there were glaciers in New Zealand. This would be so cool to visit! (excuse the pun!) 😛
Wow. I actually had no idea there were glaciers like this in New Zealand. A helicopter tour would be amazing. Thanks for sharing!
This is AMAZING. I can’t even imagine doing something like this. Wow, good for you guys! Truly a once in a lifetime experience. I’m so jealous! I didn’t even know there were glaciers in New Zealand.
Thanks for the information! It looks like an incredible experience!
What an incredible experience! I love Glaciers – I live the Great White North in Northern Canada. The aerial tour must’ve been neat!