Tucked in behind the rugged shores of New Zealand’s West Coast is glacier country. The towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef are not far from the glacier surrounded by rain forest, rivers and snow-capped mountains. Which one should go on your itinerary?
Only 25 minutes apart, the two villages are charming tourist destinations and home to some of the most accessible glaciers in the world. But if you’ve got limited time to spend, even a 25 minute drive can mean the difference between seeing one or both. How to choose between two such spectacular places then? We break it down for you.
The name of both the glacier and the village, Fox is nestled between the forested foothills of the Southern Alps and the rugged West Coast. With a permanent population of just 400, this quaint country town has a multitude of activities both for the sedentary and for those keen on a little adventure. Wander the beach nearby and keep an eye out for washed up greenstone, or take some time exploring the forests surrounding the town.
It goes without saying, a visit to the Glacier is a must. At just 5 kilometres from the village Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Take an easy walk to its terminal face, or choose a guided helicopter tour onto the ice for spectacular views of this dramatic landscape and mountains beyond. If you're fond of walking, another must-do while you're here is Lake Matheson. Formed during the ice age, Matheson is shaded by the back-side of Mount Cook, the highest mountain peak in New Zealand.
Another thing Fox is known for is it’s Glowworms. At nightfall, take a gentle 30-40 minute loop walk through thick rain forest to see multiple glow worm grottos. You’ll also see variety of different types of trees, tree ferns and mosses as well. Fox is also home to a variety of accommodation options and shops as well as eco-tours, scenic flights, bush walks and bird watching.
The town of Franz Josef is slightly larger than its neighbour, Fox Glacier, but similar in feel. A 25 minute drive further up the coast, Franz is also home to a glacier of the same name. Also five kilometres from the town centre, the Franz Josef Glacier is easily accessible. Significantly smaller than the Fox Glacier, the Franz Josef Glacier is steeper and more susceptible to atmospheric conditions. As with Fox you can walk along the valley to the terminal face, or take a helicopter guided tour on the ice.
From the glacier carpark there are a number of short walks such as the tranquil Peters Pool or Sentinel Rock, affording a different view of the glacier. If you’re really keen, head up along the Roberts Point track which climbs along the valley wall. Along the way you'll see the historic Hendes Valley, a cantilevered, part suspended balcony built in the early 1900’s.
Franz Josef is also home to the West Coast Wildlife Centre, a unique interactive experience where you’ll meet New Zealand’s rarest kiwi, the Rowi, and learn about the conservation efforts being made to preserve this species. Another highlight of Franz are the hot pools, nestled in the heart of the rain forest. You’ll have the chance to relax and rejuvenate in a beautiful setting — an activity we highly recommend.
For the bird lovers out there, another activity we highly recommend is visiting Lake Mapourika. Formed by a large block of ice left behind from the retreating Franz Josef Glacier that simply melted into a pool, Mapourika is home to the rare crested grebe, grey duck, mallard duck, black swan, tui, bellbird and grey warbler.
Both the townships and the glaciers themselves are quite different. As mentioned previously Franz is more developed, with a wider range of activities, restaurants and accommodation options, while Fox is smaller, less busy and has a quaint village-like feel.
But really, the main differences are with the glaciers themselves. While Fox is longer and not as steep, it is the less popular of the two. On Fox glacier tours, the route varies each day in accordance to weather conditions and the guide’s judgment — which can lead to some unique and interesting sights — it is also the only glacier with magnificent views of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. Tours on Franz Josef follow a set track that is cut specifically, well-established and accessible to hikers of all experience levels. Franz Josef is also known for it’s famous ‘blue ice’ and features some astonishing blue ice caves.
In a nutshell, those looking for a more established town with varied accommodation options and multiple restaurants will prefer to see Franz Josef, while those focused on the outdoors or looking for something a little more unique will prefer Fox Glacier. Regardless of which place you choose, there is no wrong decision. Both are truly exceptional and showcase the very best of New Zealand scenery.