Travel Diary » New Zealand Road Trip: Glaciers!!!
A few days ago we hiked to not one, but two glaciers! I’m still amazed by that. We saw glaciers!
Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on New Zealand's south island are two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Terminating almost at sea level into a temperate rainforest near two small towns, there's no mountain climbing or days of trekking involved to reach them - just a short walk that's easy with kids from the carpark. Well of course there's the 5 hour drive to get to the west coast in the first place ... but you can do that the day before!
The glaciers are only twenty minutes apart by car and there's no charge to walk along the path to the terminal face of the glaciers. For safety reasons, the walks only take you to within a few hundred meters of the glaciers, not right to the base. To go closer you need to join a guided tour. But here’s the catch - children younger than 7 years of age are not allowed to walk on the glacier surface. So if you are visiting with young kids, seeing them from a few hundred meters away is your only option.
Unless of course you have the money to pay for a helicopter flight over the glaciers! Which from the pictures looks amazing ... just expensive!
Noah is 7 years old so he could have gone on the glacier walk but at 5 years old, Hayley is too young. We decided if we couldn’t all go none of us would go. We’ll come back when they are teenagers. Friends and family who have done the glacier walks thought even at 7 years of age, hiking on the glacier would be very challenging so we'd rather wait until the kids are old enough to enjoy the experience rather than potentially be frustrated by it.
Absolutely! It was one of the coolest experiences ever - no pun intended as the walk was actually quite hot!
We started our morning by walking to Franz Josef Glacier. From the carpark, the walk is currently 3km each way and takes approximately 90 minutes return with kids. We decided to start with Franz Josef over Fox because the walk is longer - better to tackle it in the morning when the kids have more energy.
6km return sounds like a lot with young children but the walk was surprisingly easy. You start out with a short bush walk followed by walking along a gravel path in the river basin. The majority of the walk is flat, flat enough that you could probably even take a jogging stroller along the walk. Our friends from Flashpacker Family did the walk with their toddler who made it most of the way without being carried.
There are enough rocks to explore just off path, creeks to look at and waterfalls to gaze up at that you can easily keep children engaged. With the steep cliffs and mountains looming high above you, the waterfalls and the contrast of a rainforest and glacier it's a spectacular walk.
OK so that’s the good bit.
The negative is that without paying for the guided glacier walk, we couldn't get closer to the glacier than approximately 800m. There was also a huge pile of rubble in front of the terminal face blocking the view.
After advancing 1.5km from the early 80s, the glacier has been in retreat since 2009. And it's retreating rapidly, 500m in three years in fact. Franz Josef and Fox are two of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, moving at 10x the speed of most other valley glaciers thanks partly to the huge snow fall they receives each year (between 15-20m annually at their highest point) and the huge area of snow that feeds into each glacier that then flows down a narrow valley. Essentially think of a funnel - a giant area of snow and other glaciers all feeding into a narrow valley spout. When the snow fall has been good they can advance as fast as 70cm per day. But a decade of less than average snowfall and the glacier's start retreating quickly too.
Two years ago the end of the walk probably would have been quite a good vantage point. Now, with the rubble mountain obstructing the view you can't really see a lot. The fascinating thing is this rubble was actually under the glacier 4 years ago - take a look at this link and the before/after picture. It's really quite remarkable. You would think those photos were taken decades apart not just a few short years.
The terminal face of the glacier has also been very unstable this year, so unstable that they've had to ban any guided walks to the face of the glacier - guided walks now are only by helicopter that land you up higher.
I completely understand the safety issues of not letting inexperienced tourists get too close to a glacier without supervision, particularly given how unstable Franz Josef has been this year, and obviously the national park can't do anything about the glacier retreating ... but it didn't alter the fact that the view was disappointing. It wasn't the fact that you couldn't get closer - it was the obstructed view that was the disappointing part. The view halfway along the path was just as good, if not better than the view at the end of the hike. If we had of realised this we probably only would have walked 3/4 of the way and turned back.
Hopefully they have plans to move the vantage point if the glacier continues retreating because otherwise it was a spectacular walk and experience. Seeing the glacier working it's way down the valley from snowy mountains to a temperate rainforest was spectacular. But a better vantage point at the end of the walk would have turned the experience from a cool day out to 'Wow this is the best day ever'.
Visiting Fox Glacier was almost the complete opposite experience to visiting Franz Josef.
The walk is much shorter - around 40mins return but the trail is harder. Most of the walk is on uneven ground, including a few stream crossings, with lots of ups and downs over small hills at the edge of the riverbed. It was a lovely walk although not quite as scenic as the walk to Franz Josef.
Our children found the shorter walk to Fox Glacier just as challenging as the walk to Franz Josef even though it was much shorter, thanks to all the inclines and the uneven path. It's not too hard a walk for kids, just a little tiring in places. Our 7 year old found it easy, our 5 year old tripped a couple of times and was pretty tired by the end. But then she'd already done a 6km walk and a 2km walk over lunch (we had lunch at a lake and we went for an explore) so she was already tired before we went.
You can get a lot closer to Fox Glacier. We were only 100m away so the view was quite spectacular. Close enough to see all the features. But throughout the whole walk you could really only see the terminal face of the glacier, unlike Franz Josef where you could see the glacier making it's way down from the mountains above.
Until Franz Josef starts to advance again (fingers crossed it does) or they move the vantage point, it's worth visiting both glaciers as they were both were amazing and different experiences in their own right. It was worth walking to Fox Glacier to see the glacier up close and the view of the higher reaches of Franz Josef and seeing all the glacial carved features of the valley and rocks made that walk well worth it too.
They're only 20minutes apart and if you break them up with a lunch stop in between it's not hard to do both in a single day even with young children. I'd recommend walking all the way to Fox Glacier to get up close to the glacier but when you visit Franz Josef only walk halfway unless your children are keen to keep walking.
Because the glaciers are changing so rapidly it's definitely worth asking locals and other tourists what the situation is at both glaciers, specifically how close you can get to the glaciers.
And lastly, allow extra walking time for rock collection. I'm pretty sure my children would have stayed an extra three hours at each glacier collecting, crushing and inspecting rocks.