Franz Josef is a tiny town that’s a popular jumping-off point for seeing the glaciers in the area. Together, the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier are part of the World Heritage Site Te Wahipounamu.
The Franz Josef glacier itself is a 2-kilometer-long (7.5-mile) glacier located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from town. Sadly, with climate change eroding the face, it’s now a 40-minute walk from the parking lot to the glacier. Though the mountain town is beautiful and there are a few hikes to do, you don’t need more than two or three nights here (plus it’s super expensive here).
Travelers usually spend just a night or two here as there’s not much to do in the area aside from the glaciers and some hikes. Come, hike, see a glacier or two, and move on. That’s basically it.
This guide to Franz Josef will help you plan your (short) trip and save you money in the process!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Franz Josef
1. Go heli-hiking
With a heli-hike, you take a scenic helicopter flight over the glacier and then land at a more remote part for a 2.5-hour guided hike. All the equipment you need is provided (like crampons and glacier boots), so you’ll be able to get up close to amazing ice formations. Many tour providers also throw in a complimentary soak in the Hot Pools. Expect to pay around 485 NZD for a heli-hike (it’s not cheap but it’s worth every penny).
You can also just do a scenic flight with Glacier Helicopters for 360 NZD.
2. Raft on the Whataroa and Perth Rivers
Located just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Franz Josef, these white-water rivers make for exciting day trips (or half-day trips) during the summer. They both have Class IV & V rapids and you’ll paddle down glacial waters through lush forest and jagged gorges with experienced guides. Tours start at 135 NZD. You can also do a heli-raft tour, where you take a helicopter to remote rivers (these start from 450 NZD for a half-day tour).
3. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre
Since it opened in 2010, this wildlife center has become one of the country’s most popular attractions. You’re guaranteed to see some kiwi birds from the observation area and they also have hatching programs for two of the rarest species of kiwis in the country. Admission is 32 NZD online or 34 NZD at the door.
4. Go rainforest trekking
This area is home to a tropical rainforest with tons of trails and paths to explore. The forest is lush and full of plants endemic to New Zealand. The most popular walk is the Forest Walk in the Glacier Valley. The trailhead starts at the Glacier car park. For a full-day hike, try the 8-hour Alex Knob Track.
5. Walk the Historic Swinging Bridge
On the drive toward the glacier, you can stop at the historic swinging bridge (also known as Douglas Bridge) on the Robert Points Track. There’s a nice view of the valley here, and the wobbly structure is fun for thrill seekers. A stop here won’t take more than 15 minutes but it can be a good opportunity to get out and stretch your legs.
Other Things to See and Do in Franz Josef
1. Take a helicopter tour
Seeing the glacier from such great heights really gives you a new perspective of the area, plus the photos you get are always stunning. Explore the awe-inspiring ice falls of the glacier, cross the Southern Alps, and circle the top of magnificent Mount Cook. Glacier Helicopters offers tours for 360 NZD.
2. Soak in the Glacier Hot Pools
After all of the intense glacial hiking you are bound to do, head here for a soak (and maybe even a massage for good measure). For a soak and massage, expect to pay around 100 NZD. For just a soak, you’ll pay 29 NZD. The pools are suitable for people of all ages. (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19).
3. Visit Fox Glacier
If you’re craving more glacier views, head over to Fox Glacier. The glacier is only about a 40-minute drive from Franz Josef Township, making it an easy day trip. The Fox Glacier Valley trail is only a 1-hour hike (return) and takes you to the base of the glacier. There are other fun things to do in the area too, like the Minnehaha Walk bush path to a fern grotto to see the glow worms, and stunning Lake Matheson with its glass-like surface perfectly reflecting the surrounding mountain peaks.
4. Get off road
Several tour operators in the area offer exciting cross-country excursions via ATVs where you’ll be able to cross glacial pathways and rivers, and easily navigate the dense forests and muddy rivers. A tour with Across Country Quad Bikes starts at 180 NZD for a two-hour trip (they also have 3-seater buggies you can rent as well).
If you want to see the glaciers from above and not behind the glass of a helicopter, go skydiving for an unadulterated view. Skydive Franz offers skydiving opportunities starting at around 339 NZD for a 3,962-meter (13,000-foot) jump. For a 6,096 meter (20,000 foot) jump (the highest in New Zealand) expect to pay around 599 NZD per person. That’s 85 seconds of free-fall! They also offer combination packages, like a two-night skydiving and kayaking tour (starting at 399 NZD including accommodation).
6. Kayak on Lake Mapourika
On Lake Mapourika, you can rent kayaks for around 55-60 NZD for a half-day, or participate in a full-day kayaking tour from Franz Josef Wilderness Tours for about 130 NZD. You’ll paddle across the calm reflective waters of Lake Mapourika and the narrow inlets of the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary. The tour takes you across the lake, past glacial walls, and through the rainforest. They also offer a hike and kayak combo, allowing you to step foot on the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary. You can also book a guided kayak tour for 120 NZD.
7. Walk the Tatare Tunnels
The track takes you to tunnels that were blasted through bedrock and used to supply water to the Waiho River during the historic gold rush. The whole walk takes about 90 minutes (return). Take a flashlight so you can explore the old tunnel and see the glow worms. The trailhead in Franz Josef Glacier Village is at the cul-de-sac at the end of Cowan Street. Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet!
8. Hang out on Okarito Beach
This is a typical West Coast beach, more rugged and wild than calm and relaxing. It’s a great place to watch the sunset over the water. Come here in the early mornings between October and April, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a kotuku (white heron). They like to feed at the lagoon, which backs onto Okarito Beach.
9. Hike to the glacier
If you want to see the glacier but don’t have the budget for a heli-hike, you can hit the trail to get a good view. The Glacier Valley Walk is a 90-minute hike (round trip) that will get you right up to the face of the glacier. For a shorter trek, the Sentinel Rock trail is only 25 minutes long and will give you a solid view of the glacier. For an even longer one, the Roberts Point Track is an 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) hike that takes over 5 hours.
10. Learn traditional jade carving
Jade or greenstone is commonly found in this area of New Zealand, and Maori have been carving this beautiful stone since the 18th century. Learn how to carve your own jade using these traditional methods at the Te Koha Gallery just outside of Franz Josef. A two-hour carving workshop is 75 NZD.
For more information on other destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides:
Franz Josef Travel Costs
Hostel prices – For such a small town, there are actually a lot of hostels here. Dorms with 4-6 beds cost around 25-32 NZD per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and all the hostels here also have kitchens so you can cook your own food. A couple of the hostels also include free breakfast and some have pools or hot tubs. Private rooms start at 70-80 NZD per night for a double room with a shared bathroom.
For those traveling with a tent, there is camping available in the area. For a basic plot for two without electricity expect to pay about 20 NZD per night.
Budget hotel prices – There are a number of budget hotels in the Franz Josef area. The most budget-friendly hotels and motels start at 90 NZD and include basic amenities like Wi-Fi, TV, and a coffee/tea maker.
Airbnb is limited here, but you can find private rooms for as low as 85 NZD if you get lucky and book in advance. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay at least 140 NZD. Since there are only a handful of listings here, you’ll want to book in advance to secure a place.
Food – Food in New Zealand consists mostly of seafood, lamb, fish and chips, and specialties like Maori hangi (meat and vegetables cooked underground). Expect to indulge on things like roast lamb, muscles, scallops, oysters, and snapper during your visit.
There aren’t a whole lot of cheap food options in Franz Josef. Most restaurants in Franz Josef are pretty expensive due to the large number of tourists in town and the cost of getting the food to this remote part of the country.
Meals at a restaurant or a cafe cost about 12 NZD for a sandwich or salad, but even a simple pad thai or a bowl of noodles can cost 24 NZD. Main dishes at a casual sit-down restaurant are around 25-35 NZD. Pizzas, curries, or pasta dishes start at 22 NZD, while seafood dishes start at about 28 NZD.
A beer is around 9-10 NZD, a glass of wine is about 11-12 NZD while a cocktail is 18-20 NZD. A latte/cappuccino is 5 NZD while bottled water is 2 NZD.
If you choose to cook your own food, plan to spend between 65-80 NZD per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat. Grocery shopping options are limited too so stock up before you arrive to save money.
Backpacking Franz Josef Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget, you can visit Franz Josef for 70 NZD per day. On this budget, you’ll stay in a dorm room, cook all of your meals, do free outdoor activities, have a drink or two, and walk everywhere. If you plan on drinking more, I’d add another 10-20 NZD a day since drinks are expensive here.
On a mid-range budget of about 235 NZD, you can stay in a private hostel or Airbnb room, eat out more, do some paid activities, share a car rental for a day or two to explore, and enjoy a bunch of drinks out.
On a “luxury” budget of 420 NZD per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, rent a car to get around, do a heli-hike, go skydiving, and enjoy all the region as to offer. The sky is the limit to how much you want to spend here!
Franz Josef Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
If you’re planning on doing big adventure tours in Franz Josef, your budget will go out the window quickly. However, if you stay in cheap accommodation, limit your drinking, avoid eating out, and visit during the shoulder season, you’ll be able to cut your costs. Here are some additional tips to help you save money in Franz Josef:
- Cook your meals – The town has limited dining options, and, since Franz Josef receives a lot of tourism traffic, prices are pretty high. You’re better off preparing your own meals to save yourself some money.
- Hike – If you can’t afford one of the guided glacier treks or helicopter rides, there are tons of free hiking trails around the area. You can try a rainforest trek on the Forest Trail, or hike to the glacier face from the car park (the Sentinel Rock trail, for example, is only 20 minutes).
- Use bookme.co.nz – This website offers last minute deals for activities. if you’re looking to do a heli-hike or some expensive tour, check this website first. If you’re flexible, you can save upwards of 30%.
- Hit happy hour at Monsoon Bar – If you’re planning on drinking, this bar has cheap beers during happy hour.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water in New Zealand is safe to drink so bring a water bottle with you to save money. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can always be sure your water is clean and safe!
- Get a temporary job – If you’re running low on money and still have plenty of time left in New Zealand, check Backpackerboard.co.nz for temporary paying gigs.
- Transport vehicles – Campervan and car relocation services will provide you with a free vehicle and gas as you drive it from one destination to another. This can be a great way to save a lot of money if you’re flexible with timing. Check Transfercar.co.nz to see what’s available.
- Get a campervan – Campervans litter New Zealand because they serve as accommodation and transportation all wrapped up in one. For budget-conscious travelers, that’s a win. Be sure to download the awesome Campermates app, which lets you find nearby campsites, gas stations, and dump stations.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Despite being a small town, Franz Josef has some nice hostel options. Here are my suggested places to stay in Franz Josef:
How to Get Around Franz Josef
Franz Josef is a tiny town so you can easily walk everywhere. There’s actually no public bus system or taxi companies here. You just walk places. If you book a tour, your transportation is included.
Shuttles – The round-trip Glacier Shuttles bus to the glacier costs 15 NZD (return). It will pick up and drop off anywhere in town, though you can also walk to the glacier from town. It takes about 40 minutes to go from town to the park’s gate.
The shuttle also offers round-trip routes to Lake Matheson for 30 NZD, Okarito for 30 NZD, and Lake Mapourika for 15 NZD.
Bike rentals – Bike rentals aren’t cheap, costing around 40 NZD per day.
Car rental – If you want more flexibility to explore the area, rent a car. However, there are no car rental offices within Franz Josef, so you’ll need to rent one wherever you’re coming from. In New Zealand, car rentals can be found for as little as 35 NZD per day though you should expect to pay double that if you don’t book in advance. You’ll need an International Driving Permit to rent a car here.
For the best rental car prices, use Discover Cars.
When to Go to Franz Josef
Franz Josef experiences pretty mild temperatures year-round. The winter months are from June-August and temperatures range from 5-15°C (41-57°F). There’s rarely snow in town, although it does sometimes snow atop the glacier. The weather is pretty consistent meaning there’s less chance of your heli-hike tour getting canceled. You’ll also avoid the typical crowds of visitors (and you’ll save money on accommodations too).
Summer is from December to February. This part of New Zealand offers much more sun than other parts of the country. It doesn’t get dark until 10pm, and temperatures range from 12-25°C (53-77°F). This makes summer one of the best times for enjoying outdoor activities like hiking (or patio drinks until late in the evening).
Keep in mind that the Franz Josef area gets a LOT of rainfall — up to 8 meters (26 feet) per year. Be sure to pack some rain gear just in case.
Also, note that the weather changes very frequently here so be flexible with your plans. Your tour could get suddenly canceled even as you’re getting on the helicopter if the wind and clouds change — and they do a lot!
How to Stay Safe in Franz Josef
On the whole, New Zealand is a very safe place to backpack and travel and Franz Josef is no exception. Even solo female travelers should feel safe here (however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.).
If you’re doing any hiking, always check the weather in advance and bring water and sunscreen. If you have a vehicle, don’t leave any valuables in it while you’re out hiking or overnight. Break-ins are rare, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
As earthquakes and tsunamis do occur in New Zealand, consider downloading the Hazard App from the Red Cross. It has all kinds of advice and tips for natural disasters and will also send out warnings and notifications should a disaster occur.
Overall, you’re unlikely to encounter anything problematic here, but keep in mind that this is mountainous, glacial terrain. If you’re doing any adventure activities like heli-hiking, always respect your surroundings and your guide’s instructions. They know the landscape better than anyone else, and if you don’t want any broken bones (or worse), pay attention to what they have to say.
If you experience an emergency, dial 111 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. Make copies of your important documents, like your passport. Forward your itinerary along to friends or family so they’ll know where you are.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance, especially if you’re participating in any adventure activities. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Franz Josef Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- bookme.co.nz – You’ll get some really good last minute deals and discounts on this website! Just select what area you’re traveling in, and see what activities are on sale.
- treatme.co.nz – The locals use this website to find discount hotels, restaurants, and tours. You can save up to 50% off things like catamaran sailing lessons or three-course dinners.
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
- Top Travel Credit Cards – Points are the best way to cut down travel expenses. Here’s my favorite point earning credit cards so you can get free travel!
Franz Josef Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling New Zealand and continue planning your trip: