Franz Josef or Fox Glacier: Which Glacier Hike Is Better?

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Travellers to New Zealand’s South Island often visit at least one of either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef for guided walks, climbs or a combination of flights and hiking. Competition is fierce between the two guiding companies - so much that they won’t even speak each other’s names. If you don’t have time or money to visit both glaciers, you may be wondering which hike is right for you.

fox glacier or franz josef

The face of Franz Josef glacier

The face of Fox Glacier currently features a dramatic ice cave.

We did the Franz Josef Glacier Guides ‘Half Day Glacier Experience,’ followed by ‘The Nimble Fox’ all-day glacier walk with Fox Glacier Guiding three days later. Though we’re here in the summer, winter is the best time to visit the glaciers because it isn’t as rainy (glacier country is surrounded by rainforests).We arrived in Franz Josef to heavy rain and worried it would wreck our planned excursion. Apparently the guided glacier trips proceed in pretty much any weather, but we were thrilled to awaken the next morning to a beautiful sunny day for our half-day hike. For Fox Glacier we weren’t so lucky and steady rain fell on us pretty much the entire day.

Our group climbs the steps on Franz Josef glacier.

New Zealand’s glaciers flow almost to sea level and Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are accessible from the edge of the townships named for them. While visitors can walk almost right up to the faces of these giant frozen rivers on their own, a guided tour is a must for walking out onto the ice. Our Franz Josef guide told us that some very silly people have tried walking onto the glacier in jandals (thongs or flip-flops, if you like). And yes, people have died from falling on or off the glaciers, even on guided tours. This is completely avoidable if you stay with your guide on the path and follow his instructions exactly. We felt very safe during both our hikes.

Luckily, everyone in our group fit through this tight squeeze on Fox Glacier.

The types of trips offered by each company are very similar. We showed up to the offices at the prescribed time and were suited up with our gear: a rain jacket, overtrousers, socks, boots, crampons, gloves and hats. At Fox Glacier we were also offered fleece jumpers, backpacks and alpenstocks (walking sticks with a spike at one tip). The equipment is similar. I preferred the boots at Fox Glacier because they fit me better but the overtrousers at Franz Josef were much higher quality. Provided backpacks are handy so your own doesn’t get soaked in the rain. But after the full-boot crampons provided by Franz Josef, I couldn’t believe the little spikes we latched on to the middle of the soles of our boots at Fox. They were adequate but I much preferred the Franz Josef crampons. The disadvantage there is that we had to carry our crampons in huge waist packs that we continued to wear throughout the tour.

Climbing up through a tunnel on Franz Josef glacier.

We were then transferred to the glacial valley for a 30-60 minute (depending on the glacier) hike to the face. The difficulty of the hikes is probably about the same. At Franz Josef we walked through a forest, a valley and then climbed a tall hill to reach the ice. The pre-ice hike at Fox Glacier is pretty much just a walk through the valley with a climb up a hill at the end to reach the ice. The face of the Fox Glacier is much more beautiful than at Franz Josef at the moment, however, with the rushing river spilling out from a huge blue ice cave.

Free exploring on our Fox Glacier hike

The differences lie primarily in the glaciers themselves and how they are guided. Franz Josef extends 12 kilometres from the three glaciers that feed into it and the terminal face is 19 kilometres from the sea. Fox Glacier is fed by four glaciers and falls 2,600 metres from the base of the Southern Alps to the West Coast. It is longer than Franz Josef at 13 kilometres and the gradient is less steep to climb. If you’re doing a heli-hike, Fox Glacier offers you views of Mounts Cook and Tasman. The guided hike at Franz Josef is on a pre-cut, pre-determined path while the paths at Fox Glacier are set by the guide on the day. Depending on the conditions, the group and the guide, the tour may vary. The glacier experiences are quite different from one another for this reason.

We all took turns posing in a moulin on Fox Glacier.

Fox Glacier is slightly less expensive than Franz Josef, however, visitors on half- and full-day walks on Franz Josef are offered complimentary access to the Glacier Hot Pools, which are fed with water from the glacier. The township of Franz Josef also has more accommodation and facilities than that of Fox Glacier, though the latter is very nice and has plenty of good places to eat. Aside from the ice climbing experiences, Franz Josef walks and heli-hikes claim to be up to an hour longer than those on Fox Glacier. For us, the amount of time on Fox Glacier was plenty on our one-day trip as it gets quite cold on the glacier and a lot of energy is expended moving around.

A group of visitors and guides working on Franz Josef

So which hike is better? The answer depends on what each individual is looking for. If a person has never done any hiking over loose terrain (or much hiking at all), I would recommend Franz Josef. The Fox Glacier experience is completely safe and suitable for beginners, but even with all my hiking experience, I still felt unsure of foot in several parts. They baby you a lot more at Franz Josef. Our Fox tour moved very fast and felt like more of an adventure over rough terrain. While our guide constantly checked the track and made sure we were all safe and comfortable, he wasn’t always giving us specific instructions or slowing down the pace.
John and I thought both of our guides were excellent and we saw some really beautiful formations on both tours. But Fox Glacier Guiding hosts fewer people and we preferred the more free-style approach to the tour that this allows. It was a challenge and I really enjoyed that. The fitness levels required for both hikes are probably about the same and whichever hike you choose, you’ll have a great time.

This was as far as our guide could take us on Fox Glacier. It's huge and to safely go any higher a flight is required.

Tips:

Dress warm. You may be dissuaded from wearing too many layers or hats and gloves in the summer, but if you’re a person who gets cold, I recommend wearing a scarf and hat. I caught a nasty chill on my neck at Franz Josef and had sore neck muscles for days even though it was sunny. Dress in layers so you can peel these off if you get too hot.

Use their gear, especially if you’re travelling the next day and the weather is wet. If you wear your own clothes and carry your own backpack, you’ll have to worry about drying these out.

Shorts are fine. I can’t speak for the winter weather but it’s fine to wear shorts on the glacier in summer. You can put your overtrousers on top of the shorts once you get onto the ice if you‘re cold (recommended if it is raining). Do not wear jeans as you won’t be allowed onto the ice with them.

Don’t forget sunscreen. The sun is very hot in New Zealand and the glare is amplified by the reflections off the ice. Even on an overcast day, the intensity of the sun will burn you very quickly.

Stay on track and listen to your guide. He will teach you how to put on your crampons and give you instructions for walking on the ice, so pay attention and don’t talk during these demonstrations. A couple of visitors on our Fox tour kept going closer to crevasses for a better look and the guide had to caution them back. The glaciers can still be very dangerous even though you’re allowed to walk on them. Don’t be stupid and put your life at risk just to get what you think will be a better photo.

Glaciers exist all over the world. Have you visited any?

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72 Comments on "Franz Josef or Fox Glacier: Which Glacier Hike Is Better?"

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Emma Anderson
4 months 12 days ago
Hi, We are heading out to NZ in feb next year on honeymoon and were really keen to do this as we are both fit outdoorsy types and enjoy hiking. However having now looked at pictures and read your reviews and comments below, I have two concerns; Firstly are the ice caves really tight? I am not claustrophobic as such but crushingly tight spaces do make me nervous, also someone mentioned heights? We are both a bit nervy of proper heights, not small ledges or anything but I hadn’t really considered glaciers having great heights to be scared of? Thanks!… Read more »
Inspiring Travellers
4 months 6 days ago

Emma, I wouldn’t call the ice caves claustrophobic so I think you’ll be fine! For the heights part, I guess that depends on how nervous you are… perhaps you best ask your guide or someone of the organisation up front if they take you on higher ledges before you make a final decision and book a tour. Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time in New Zealand, it’s a beautiful country!

Craig
Craig
8 months 22 days ago

This is one of the few activities I hated on my trip to NZ. Just had an awful time. It can be a lot of physical effort and a bit nerve-racking. Cool to look at, but I don’t think hiking on the thing is worth it at all.

Inspiring Travellers
8 months 20 days ago

I guess it all depends on what you are looking for. Me personally, I like a bit of adventure and physical activity, so I love these kind of things, but if you’re not interested in exploring the ice and aren’t into heights, this isn’t the thing for you indeed 😉

Carmen
Carmen
1 year 11 months ago

Thanks for the information!
I am planning to go in Dec and was wondering what the difference was.
So you guys didn’t do the helihike? which hike did you do with Franz Josef?

Inspiring Travellers
1 year 11 months ago

December is summer so it should be nice. No, we did a hike that appears to not be available anymore. It seems that both glaciers are now offering only heli-hike options…please contact the companies to see what is available.

Audrey
Audrey
2 years 1 month ago

This is really great! Thanks for the information!
My family is visiting NZ in October and we’re planning to attempt the guided hike for Fox Glacier. May I ask how long does the hike usually take? Also, I’m worried that my stamina may not be up for this hike. Any recommendations on what I can do to prepare myself? Thank you in advance!

Inspiring Travellers
2 years 1 month ago

Hi Audrey, I went to their website and it appears that they are doing heli-hikes only now there…you may want to call and confirm this as I’m not seeing the trek we did on their website anymore. They can give you all the latest details on trips available. As for training, I don’t think you need much more than just general exercise and decent fitness. Again, I think calling over there or emailing is the best bet as the options may have changed. Enjoy!

Liz Beem
Liz Beem
3 years 1 month ago

Like most everyone else we are on a tight budget and timeframe. Have you heard if it is truly worth the extra expense of the heli-hike tours? I know you can get further up the glacier…but just wondering if that changes the experience much. Thanks for any recommendations! Your info is already really helpful!

Inspiring Travellers
3 years 1 month ago

I have actually never heard anything about the heli-hike tours. We didn’t think that sounded worth the extra money but not having done it, that’s difficult to comment on. I’d say if you’re really into glaciers and dying for an aerial view, or if it’s a special occasion, they would probably be amazing. Otherwise, I’d save my money for more activities. The hikes on the glaciers themselves from below are pretty awesome one their own.

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