Visiting the West Coast on New Zealand’s South Island is a smorgasbord for the eyes, seldom matched anywhere in the world. It’s an area of amazing wildlife, untamed wilderness and mesmerising natural features shaped by the environment over millions of years. Among those features, are two incredible glaciers known as the West Coast’s ‘twin glaciers’ – Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier.
The West Coast is not known as glacier country for no reason.
On any West Coast road trip, you’ll want to include both these magnificent glaciers in your itinerary as an absolute must. To complement your adventures, we thought we’d throw in a few other suggestions of things to do in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier so you can have a trip that will be the envy of all.
1. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
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First on the list is, of course, the twin glaciers themselves. There are several ways you can experience them (more on this below) but we’ll start with how you can simply observe them, awe-inspiring enough by all accounts.
Franz Josef Glacier can be seen on the Franz Josef Glacier Walk with its car park just a few minutes drive from the Franz Josef township. The glacier hike itself is a 1 hour 30-minute return stroll that takes you past forests, riverbeds and a waterfall before you reach a viewing area, a stone’s throw away from the terminal face of the glacier itself.
The best viewpoints of Fox Glacier can be seen on the Fox Glacier Southside Walkway, again, only a few minutes drive from the Fox Glacier village. This is a slightly longer 2-hour return walk (also a partial cycle trail) that winds through an ancient podocarp rainforest. This gives you a completely different, but equally magical experience.
NOTE: As of 2021, the Franz Josef Glacier Walk has been shortened to a 30-minute walk as the remainder of the walkway has been cut off by the Waiho River. The access to the rest of the track will be reviewed regularly by the Department of Conservation
2. Glacier Hot Pools
While many of the activities on this list showcase natural highlights, there are also a few other attractions that we highly recommend. The Glacier Hot Pools in the Franz Josef township is one of those – the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate the mind and body, especially important given all the walking you’ll be doing.
The Glacier Hot Pools features three soothing pools that range from 36 – 40 degrees centigrade in tranquil rainforest surroundings. Visitors rave about their visits as the perfect tonic after a long day on the trails and laying back in the pools you’ll quickly appreciate why. If you’re after something a little more exclusive and romantic, they also have a few private pools that can be booked too.
Get 10% off entry to Glacier Hot Pools when renting with GO Rentals using your GO Play Card!
3. Gillespies Beach
With over 15,000 km of coastline, New Zealand isn’t short of a few beaches but the ones on the West Coast have their unique character and offerings. Gillespies Beach, 30 minutes drive from the Fox Glacier township, is a fine example of exactly that.
Unlike a traditional swimming beach, Gillespies Beach is one you visit to appreciate nature at its most powerful with the unrelenting Tasman Sea before you. Then, turning your back on the beach, you’ll have views of the majestic Southern Alps. Full of interesting history with its gold mining past, it’s a favoured spot for camping, walking trails and is the place to be at sunset too.
4. Glacier Heli Hiking
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This sounds awesome and we can confirm that it is. Glacier Heli Hiking is the ultimate way to experience both the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier. For those who are still trying to figure it out, Glacier Heli Hiking involves hiking on the glaciers with experienced guides via helicopter. Told you it was awesome!
Franz Josef Glacier Guides offer several great options including a traditional Heli Hike as well as an even more exhilarating Heli Ice Climb. This introduces you to the sport of Ice Climbing in a test that will push you to the limits with a real sense of accomplishment.
At Fox Glacier, Fox Glacier Guiding do a great job with their award-winning Heli Hike experience giving you everything you need to explore the ice caves and arches. They’ll take you on a fantastic path with one of the highlights being the stunning sight of the glacially-fed, Victoria Falls.
For anyone who has always wanted to take a scenic helicopter flight, this is the perfect way to combine two amazing activities into one trip.
Get 10% off experiences with Franz Josef Glacier Guides when renting with GO Rentals using your GO Play Card!
The calm and crystal clear waters of Lake Mapourika make it the perfect place to kayak – an easy entry into our recommendations for things to do. Whether you are a beginner or an expert kayaker, you’ll love the 3-hour kayaking tour run by Franz Josef Wilderness Tours.
Accompanied by a knowledgable guide, you’ll glide effortlessly across these beautiful waters, taking in views of the picturesque Southern Alps. You’ll also paddle deep into the heart of the Okarito Kiwi Bird Sanctuary, a protected area for our country’s precious national bird.
6. Lake Matheson
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Another exquisite lake in the area is Lake Matheson, less than a 5-minute drive from the Fox Glacier township. Lake Matheson is renowned for its mirror views of the Southern Alps, a unique natural feature caused by organic matter leached from the surrounding forest floor.
The effect is particularly breathtaking at dawn and dusk when you’ll no doubt run into budding Instagramers, capturing it at its best. It’s a 40-minute return walk from the car park to the main viewing jetty but there’s also a wonderful 1hour 30-minute loop track which is well worth one’s time too.
From here, you will get a pretty awesome view of Aoraki Mt Cook – New Zealand’s highest mountain that sits at 3,724 metres above sea level. It’s not just Mount Cook that is reflected in the still waters of Lake Matheson. Both of New Zealand’s highest mountains – Mt Cook and Mt Tasman can be seen clearly from the shores of Lake Matheson making this one of the most scenic viewing points in New Zealand.
7. Minnehaha Track
We could’ve included over a dozen spectacular walks in this list but the Minnehaha Track is one we simply couldn’t omit. The reason?… Glowworms!
A short but sweet walk, the Minnehaha walk is an easy 20 minute loop that follows a small stream through lush rainforest, home to these magical native glow worms. As you might expect, you’ll see them much better at night and if you’re travelling kids, they’ll absolutely love them too. If you have a torch, be sure to bring it. Otherwise, a couple of phone lights working together ought to do the trick.
8. Okarito Lagoon
25 minutes drive north of Franz Josef, you’ll find the quiet little gem, Okarito Lagoon. This is officially New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland.
An incredible sanctuary for so many of our native birds, it is also the only breeding ground for one of our rarest – the Kotuku (Eastern Great Egret). Photographically, it’s an absolute paradise especially when you include the sight of the Southern Alps on the horizon. You can take it all in yourself on foot or join an eco tour by boat or a kayak tour for a bit of exercise.
9. Scenic Flights
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You’ll spend a lot of your time on foot on this trip but for the best seat in the house, you’ll want to take to the skies.
Scenic flights, either by plane (see Air Safaris) or helicopter (see Heliservices), are extremely popular in this area and for good reason. The remarkable peaks of the Southern Alps, the magnificence of the twin glaciers, the rugged coastline and pristine lakes are just a handful of the amazing things to be seen. No words can truly describe these sights from the sky. A lifelong experience you’ll never forget.
Get 10% off Air Safaris and Heliservices experiences when renting with GO Rentals using your GO Play Card!
We acknowledge that this one won’t be for everyone. As a matter of fact, some of you may have already moved onto the next on the list already.
However, for those that enjoy the very best in extreme adrenaline pursuits, you can’t go past skydiving. Skydive Franz are the experts in the area who not only offer a thrilling skydive experience. They also boast the highest skydive in New Zealand – the Kea Jump from 20,000ft (an 85-second freefall).
Like we said, it’s not for everyone but you’d be surprised how many have taken and loved the leap. If that still sounds too intimidating, there are jumps available at 16,500ft, 13,000ft and 9,000ft too.
Get 10% off Skydive Franz when renting with GO Rentals using your GO Play Card!
11. West Coast Wildlife Centre
Last but by no means least, the West Coast Wildlife Centre is home to two of the rarest Kiwis in the country – the Rowi and Haast Tokooeka.
It’s a fantastic place to visit and a great indoor option when the weather gets a little too wet with more than enough to keep you (and any kids) entertained for hours. Our favourite part is the VIP Backstage Pass which includes a guided tour through the incubation and rearing area as well behind-the-scenes access to the Tuatara Encounter. It’s one of those extremely intimate and moving experiences that make trips like this all the more special.
Some awesome things to do in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier!
So there you have it! 11 great things to do in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier to get all the very best out of your time there. Some of these are absolute tourist gems and others are hidden gems. If you are planning a trip to explore the West Coast of the South Island, be sure to add as many of the above activities into your itinerary. We hope you’ve enjoyed the read and if your road trip takes you further south still, be sure to check our recommendations for Wanaka and Queenstown too!
If you are looking for a rental car for your West Coast adventure, we have handy branches in Queenstown, Christchurch and Dunedin. Why not make a road trip of it and explore all that the South Island has to offer?