Franz Josef is a popular jumping-off point for all the glaciers in the area (there is more than just the Franz Josef glacier). It’s a tiny town that travelers spend just a night or two here as there’s not much to do in the area. The glacier is about 5km from town, and, with climate change eroding the face, is 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, I wouldn’t spend more than 2 nights here. 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!
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Franz Josef
1. Go heli-hiking
2. Raft on Whataroa and Perth Rivers
3. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre
4. Go rainforest trekking
5. Walk the Historic Swinging Bridge
Other Things to See and Do
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1. Take a helicopter tour
The Franz Josef glacier has some of the best “ice architecture” in the entire world, and there’s no better way to see it from above. 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. Tours start around 245 NZD per person and range from 15 minutes to 3 or more hours.
2. Soak in the Glacier Hot Pools
These outdoor thermal baths offer a refreshing a dose of rejuvenation. After all of the intense glacial hiking you are bound to do, it is great to head here for a soak (and maybe even a massage!). For a soak and massage, expect to pay around 100 NZD. For just a soak, prices are around 25-30 NZD. The pools are suitable for people of all ages.
3. Go horseback riding
Take a load off your feet and add some extra mileage to your sightseeing via horseback. Book a trip through Glacier Country Horses and go for a trek through farmlands and forests. Taking the ride on horseback down to the river offers a stunningly photogenic backdrop of mountains. Trips can be just an hour or a whole day, with prices starting at 90 NZD per person.
4. Visit Fox Glacier
If you’re craving more glacier views, head over to Fox Glacier. The glacier is only about 40 minutes drive from Franz Josef Township, making it a worthwhile stop. The Fox Glacier Valley trail is only 1-hour trip (return) and takes you to the edge of the glacier. Definitely worth while if you’re in need of another awesome sight!
5. Get off-road
Several tour operators in the area offer exciting cross-country excursions via ATVs. You will be able to cross glacial pathways and rivers, and easily navigate the dense forests and muddy rivers. It’s one of the most thrilling things you can do while in the area, with prices starting at 160 NZD for a two-hour trip (you can also be a passenger for just 70 NZD).
6. Skydive from 13,000ft
Imagine jumping out of a plane at 18,000 ft (only a few places in the world offer this elevation), only to see glaciers, mountains, rivers, and rain forest all at once. Franz Josef offers skydiving opportunities starting at around 320 NZD for a 13,000ft jump. For a 19,000ft jump (the highest in New Zealand) expect to pay around 559 NZD per person.
7. Kayak on Lake Mapourika
On Lake Mapourika you can rent kayaks for around 60 NZD for a half day, or you can participate in a kayaking tour for 115 NZD (it lasts around three hours). 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 rainforest. Some tour operators offer a hike and kayak combo, allowing you to step foot on the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary.
8. Walk the Tatare Tunnels
The track takes you to the tunnels that were blasted through bedrock and used to supply water to the Waiho River sluice face during the historic gold rush. The whole walk takes about 80 minutes return, and it’s worth taking 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.
9. Hang out on Okarito Beach
This is a typical West Coast beach, more rugged and wild than calm and relaxing, but locals love hanging out here. It’s a great place to watch the sun set 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.
10. 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 20 minutes long and will give you a solid view of the glacier.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start at 87 NZD per night for a twin or double bed, though 100-150 NZD per night is more typical. Free WiFi is common but not included everywhere. A few hotels offer free breakfast. Airbnb is limited here. While there are no shared accommodation options available, you can find private rooms for around 85 NZD per night and an entire home or apartment closer to 160 NZD per night.
Average cost of food – Being a small town, your food options will be limited. A typical restaurant meal can cost 25 NZD or more. Thanks to limited options and lots of tourists, the prices are really high compared to other places and it’s better to cook in town. There’s one grocery store in town (FourSquare) and a week’s worth of groceries will cost 70-90 NZD. Groceries here are more expensive than in other parts of New Zealand thanks in part to the town’s isolation and lots of tourists (It’s actually cheaper to pick up groceries on your way here!). You can find grab-and-go sandwiches at the cafes for around 10 NZD. If you do eat out, Full of Beans cafe, Monsoon Bar and Restaurant, and Snake Bite Brewery are your best options.
Transportation costs – Franz Josef is a tiny town (there are less than 500 people here) so you can just walk everywhere. The round trip Glacier Shuttles bus to the glacier costs 12.50 NZD (it will pick up and drop off anywhere in town), though you can walk to the glacier from town. It takes about 40 minutes to go from town to the park’s gate. Buses run up and down the coast connecting Franz Josef to all major cities. The bus to Greymouth is 34 NZD, Queenstown is 62 NZD, and Nelson is 56 NZD.
Suggested daily budget
70-120 NZD / $50-80 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, not going crazy on the glacier activities, and using local transportation.)
Money Saving Tips
- Cook your meals – There are limited dining options in town, and since Franz Josef receives a lot of tourism traffic, you can expect to find high prices. You’re better off preparing your own meals to save yourself some money.
- Take a 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 5 NZD beers from 5-7pm. It will save you a few bucks, and in New Zealand every dollar counts!
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