See what to expect when you travel on a New Zealand vacation and visit the glaciers of the West Coast.
No New Zealand vacation to the South Island is complete without two or three days exploring the West Coast. Stretching roughly from Abel Tasman National Park in the north, to Otago and Fjordland in the south, this is one of the world’s most impressive drives. Easily reached from New Zealand travel hubs like Christchurch, Queenstown, or even Wellington on the North Island, the Coast includes many South Island highlights including Haast Pass and the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
However, two big attractions stand out, making their impossibly slow crawl down to the mountains to the rocky coastline. They are Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, New Zealand’s most famous rivers of ice. Both are jaw-droppingly beautiful, both have picturesque valley walks that take you up to their faces, and both are serviced by nearby townships offering accommodation and tours. Because they do offer a similar experience, many New Zealand tours will only stop at one, and it’s easy to confuse the two if you don’t know New Zealand. There are, however some key differences to help your planning.
- Fox Glacier is located approximately 20 kilometres southwest of Franz Josef. So if you have a car and aren’t planning on a helicopter tour, ice walk, or ice climb, it’s easy to visit the faces of both glaciers in one day. The lookout over the Fox Glacier face is approximately 30 minutes walk along the valley from the nearest carpark, while the equivalent Franz Josef walk takes almost an hour. Devote a good half-day to any tour that takes you to see the ice proper. You’ll want some relaxation time afterward. Some advanced trips take all day. Many Franz Josef tours include tickets to the Glacier Hot Pools, which are fed from the glacier itself and are a great way to relax those tired muscles.
- Prices don’t vary a lot between the two glaciers, and both offer similar styles of trips. A helicopter flight with an ice walk, an ice-climbing experience, or a valley walk. Valley walks offer a taste of the glacier at a much cheaper rate, and are popular with families bringing children. Just keep in mind, they don’t reach the highlights you can access by air. Different tours have different age restrictions, so check with your agent or tour company, when booking your New Zealand vacation, if you’re unsure.
- The differences between Franz Josef and Fox become clearer once you’re up on the ice. Tours on Franz Josef follow a designated track that is pre-cut, well-established, and quite accessible to hikers with all levels of experience. Tours here tend to be a little bit more hands-on, and the tour groups are a bit larger. As for what you’ll see, Franz Josef is the steeper of the two glaciers, and features some amazing blue ice caves.
- Fox is the larger of the two, stretching an extra kilometre, though it isn’t as steep. It also isn’t quite as geared towards tourists. Tours on Fox Glacier are safe and expertly guided, but the route varies with the conditions of the day, and the guide’s judgement. This means Fox Glacier can present some beautiful surprises, even though it’s the less popular glacier to visit. It’s also the only glacier boasting views of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.
- The townships of Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are also quite different, though both have only about 300-400 residents, swelling to support tourism in the region. Franz Josef is the much more developed of the two, with more accommodation options, and a wider range of restaurants. This isn’t surprising, since Franz Josef gets up to 2700 visitors a day during peak season, compared to around 1000 at Fox. Franz Josef is also home to the West Coast Wildlife Centre, which is dedicated to hatching and rearing the world’s rarest two species of kiwi. Since kiwis are extremely difficult to find in the wild, this is a major draw for visitors wanting to see New Zealand’s national bird. Fox Glacier’s secondary attraction is Lake Matheson, known for its astonishingly clear reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman when conditions are right.
In short, those looking for more accommodation and restaurant options on their New Zealand vacation, and a well established infrastructure for visitors, will probably prefer Franz Josef, while those focused just on the natural sights, or looking to go off the beaten path will probably enjoy Fox. Both Glaciers are astonishing natural attractions that showcase just how dynamic the West Coast is. The only wrong decision is to skip them altogether.
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