15 best things to do in Franz Josef: Welcome to Glacier Country

Franz Josef (Waiau, as it is known in te reo Māori) is a must for any South Island itinerary and is within easy access of Queenstown and Wānaka.

With towering glaciers, beautiful lakes, and plenty of outdoor activities, it’s no wonder this place is such a popular destination.

Although this town is most famous for its iconic glacier, there are other awesome things to do in Franz Josef! Plus, there really is something magical about this little West Coast town – you’ll know what we mean when you visit for yourself.

For these reasons, we’d recommend allowing at least a couple of days to explore this area so you can make the most of your trip.

The Best Things to Do in Franz Josef

Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, to relax in the hot pools, or visit one of the scenic lakes in the area, this place has plenty to offer.

So, let’s take a look at the best things to do in Franz Josef!

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1. Fly To Franz Josef Glacier in a Helicopter

Franz Josef Glacier is the town’s most famous attraction, and no trip here is complete without visiting it.

The first of three ways to see it, and the option that perhaps suits the most people, is via a helicopter tour.

These tours are surprisingly affordable and are suitable for people of all ages. They soar over Franz Josef Glacier and the surrounding rainforest, before stopping atop the mountain for your snow landing. There you’ll have free time to start a snowball fight, make snow angels or simply enjoy the sights.

Franz Josef Glacier really is best seen from above, so these flights are highly recommended.

Tourists with their three helicopters parked on the snowy landscape of Franz Josef Glacier.

2. Heli Hike on Franz Josef Glacier

If you have an adventurous spirit, the only thing better than flying above a glacier is landing on it and squeezing your way through the ice!

Your heli hike will begin with a safety briefing and a clothing fit-out before you make your way to the helicopter pad. From there, you’ll fly up and over the glacier before right on it.

Tourists looks very tiny at the foot of a huge snowy mountain.
Heli hikers exploring the Franz Josef Glacier. Photo credit: Miles Holden.

Experienced guides will lead you on the ever-changing ice fields. You’ll squeeze through ice caves and over crevasses, all whilst marvelling at the incredible views surrounding your group.

These tours are suitable for people of most fitness levels. As long as you can move freely, you’ll be fine to take on a heli hike. After all, this tour is all about enjoying your natural surroundings, not about racing through them.

Did you know? Franz Josef Glacier is particularly well-known for the deep blue colour found within its ice.

Ice climbing in Franz Josef Glacier.

3. Walk the Family-Friendly Trail to the Glacier: The Franz Josef Walk

If you’re not up to flying (or the weather won’t allow the helicopters to take off), then why not walk to the glacier lookout instead?

The trail is fairly flat so is suitable for people of all fitness levels. It winds gently through the rainforest, opening up to glimpses of the towering mountains all around, along with waterfalls and the upper glacier. You’ll finish at the viewing platform, where you can see the area the glacier-carved away and a glimpse of the Franz Josef glacier itself.

Unfortunately, the glacier sits a fair way back from the viewing area now, but if you can’t make it up in a helicopter (or just don’t want to), it’s still worth visiting.

However you choose to see the Franz Josef Glacier, be sure to add this 30-minute in-and-out walk to your itinerary!

Did you know? They have kea (both at the car park and on the track) so keep your eyes peeled throughout! Also, for those that have done this walk before, you’ll notice it’s quite different now. You’re no longer allowed onto the riverbed, so the track is much shorter.

Walking along the trails of Franz Josef Glacier Walk.

4. Head Out on a Guided Walk

If you’re new to the area, a guided walk is one of the best things you can do to acquaint yourself. Led by Cliff, you’ll not only enjoy the spectacular scenery, but you’ll also get to learn about local Māori legends and the area’s flora and fauna as you walk to the Franz Josef Glacier lookout.

Along the way, you’ll walk through the rainforest, admiring hidden waterfalls, and looking out for native birds and plants. You’ll also get to learn about how the glacier was formed and the unique geology of the area during this walk.

Best of all, as a registered guide, Cliff is able to take you off the main track and onto the older ones, where he’ll help you spot all sorts of interesting creatures and plants.

5. Challenge Yourself on the Roberts Point Track

If you’re keen to walk to a glacier viewpoint but want a walk that’s more exciting than the Franz Josef Walk, the Roberts Point Track might be just what you’re looking for.

At 11 – 12.3 km return (depending on the car park you leave from), and with an elevation gain of approximately 650m, this track has a number of exciting features including suspension bridges, cliff-hugging pathways and rock scrambles. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the native rainforest, waterfalls and of course, the glacier.

Expect to take approximately 5.5 hours to complete this exciting walk.

Fox Glacier Highway, West Coast 7886

Tourist walking on a pathway attached to a cliff.

6. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre

Visiting the West Coast Wildlife Centre is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Franz Josef, particularly if you love animals as much as we do!

It’s the largest kiwi hatching facility in the South Island and is home to two of the world’s rarest kiwi species; the rowi (Okarito brown kiwi) and Haast tokoeka (southern brown kiwi). There’s a nocturnal house within so you can see these intriguing native birds during the day, and you’ll even get the chance to speak to the rangers if you purchase the recommended backstage tour.

They also have the highly endangered tuatara available for viewing.

We love that the West Coast Wildlife Centre brings together nature, conservation and wildlife in such a meaningful, ethical manner.

Cnr Cron and, Cowan Street, Franz Josef / Waiau 7886

Baby Kiwi bird held softly.

7. Enjoy a Scenic Cruise of Lake Mapourika

Lake Mapourika was created around 14,000 years ago as the glacier retreated due to the recent ice age. Now, it is one of the most scenic lakes in the area, so what better way to explore it than by going on a cruise?

This cruise will take you on a 2-hour journey around the lake, so you can enjoy its beauty and spectacular mountain backdrop.

If you’re lucky you’ll also spot some of New Zealand’s native birds as the skipper takes you closer to the shore. The lake is home to tūī, bellbirds, white-faced heron, white heron, king fishers, oyster catchers and even the rare rowi, our most endangered kiwi.

You’ll definitely need your camera for this activity as the views are spectacular. Plus it’s a wonderful way to kick back and relax as you soak up the scenery.

Red boat cruising along the glassy waters of Lake Mapourika.

8. Kayak Lake Mapourika

If you’d prefer a more adventurous way of exploring Lake Mapourika, then a kayaking tour may be for you!

This guided kayaking tour lasts for around 3-4 hours and will allow you to paddle along the lake’s mirrored waters.

Not only will you get to enjoy panoramic views of the southern Alps, but your guide will also take you to an area of untouched rainforest. You’ll get to see the variety of landscapes that Franz Josef is so famous for, so take your time and enjoy the ride.

They intentionally keep the groups small, so you’ll have the undivided attention of your guide too. Even if this is your first time kayaking, this ensures you don’t have to worry.

A kid stands on a kayak while his father paddles through the calm waters.

9. Hike the Tatare Tunnels Walk

If you’re up for some more walking (or tramping, as we call it in New Zealand) then we’d recommend the Tatare Tunnels Walk.

The track itself is 3.6km (2.2 miles) return, and you’ll want to allow at least 1.5 hours for this hike.

The trailhead is located at the end of Cowan Street; from there you’ll follow an old 4WD road. After around 10 minutes, the trail climbs up to an impressive view of Tatare Gorge. Then you’ll head to the Tatare Tunnels, so make sure you’ve packed a torch which is where the real fun begins.

These tunnels are often filled with water – in fact, it can easily reach up to ankle height.

21 Cowan Street, Franz Josef / Waiau 7886

A person in front of a mossy tunnel entrance.
Photo credit: Jan Hazevoet.

10. Relax at the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools [closed at time of writing]

With so many adventurous activities to get up to, you’re going to need some downtime too. What better way to relax, than by heading to the Franz Josef Glacier hot pools?

There are three main pools here, each nestled within a lush rainforest for the ultimate in tranquillity. They are suitable for any age and temperatures range from 36 to 40°C.

If you’re looking to escape the crowds, then you can even book yourself a private pool. These are perfect for a romantic getaway.

This is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Franz Josef!

63 Cron Street, Franz Josef / Waiau 7886

At the time of writing the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools were closed. Check their website to see if they’ve reopened.

A woman in an orange bikini waddling in the waters of Glacier Hot Pools.

11. Soak in the Waiho Hot Tubs

If you’re looking for romantic, private pools in Franz Josef, we highly recommend Waiho Hot Tubs.

Each of these wood-fired cedar hot tubs sits in amongst the beautiful rainforest. With the light smell of smoke swirling around you and the soothing comfort of the warm, mountain-stream water, it really is a uniquely romantic experience.

Waiho Hot Tubs in Franz Josef are amazing!

Elyse – New Zealand Travel Tips member

Each hot tub can accommodate up to four adults (and a child) and comes complete with a private, dry shelter to store your personal belongings – perfect for the West Coast rain that the region is so well-known for.

Plus, the water in each hot tub is drained and refilled fresh for each new reservation, ensuring it is 100% pure. The pools are also heated to approximately 39 degrees Celsius, though guests have the ability to adjust this up or down as they choose.

A 60-minute booking at Waiho Hot Tubs includes fresh drinking water and the ability to bring in your own nibbles and drinks (though it’s important to note that glass isn’t allowed). Towel hire is also available for a gold coin donation (which goes to the community fund).

34 Cron Street, Central Village, Franz Josef/Waiau 7886

A pile of chopped wood, and the steamy bath of Waiho Hot Tubs.

12. Go Skydiving Over the Glaciers

Now, this is one for the adrenaline seekers out there!

Skydiving is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there’s no better place to do it than Franz Josef! They offer the highest skydive in New Zealand, where you’ll experience 85+ seconds of freefall from 20,000 feet.

Although a nerve-racking experience for many, you’ll have an expert guide to comfort you at all times. Plus, guarantee it won’t be anywhere near as scary as you’re imagining – there really is nothing else like it!

If you decide this is for you, then you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and the Tasman Sea. You’ll also get scenic views of temperate rainforests, mirrored lakes, and mountain ranges.

We thought that part might grab your attention!

Franz Josef Glacier Base, 69 Cron Street, Franz Josef / Waiau 7886

A woman raising two thumbs up signs with a man behind her during a tandem skydive.

13. Race Around on a Quad Bike

If you’re looking for adventure (but perhaps a skydive is just a bit too much), we recommend jumping on a guided quad bike tour.

You’ll ride a 2-seater ATV through the Franz Josef Glacier riverbed, the river itself, rainforest, grassland and, in all likelihood, plenty of mud. You’ll have a great time splashing your way through sand, mud and riverbeds, all whilst tucked up warm and dry in your loaned wet-weather gear.

This company is family-owned and operated and consistently gets wonderful reviews, so we really do suggest checking them out.

Don’t let the West Coast rain put you off either – as they say at Franz Josef Wilderness Tours, “the wetter the better”.

Absolutely amazing – a must do on a rainy day when the river was flowing and lots of puddles to play in! Had a smile the whole time! These guys are professional, fun and made us feel very safe! Totally rate this experience – went way too fast and wanted to do it all again – just faster!!

Heather Joh

26 Main Road Franz Josef Glacier, 7886

Tourists driving ATV on a rocky, shallow river.

14. See Kiwis in the Wild with Okarito Kiwi Tours

Though not in Franz Josef, we couldn’t help but share Okarito Kiwi Tours with you.

Just a 15-minute drive from town, you’ll have the opportunity to join the only South Island operator licensed to take you looking for kiwi in the wild. Operating with small groups, you’ll be taken deep into kiwi habitat, looking for the rarest kiwi (the okarito/rowi). With a 95% success rate, you’ll have an excellent chance of being one of the few people to see these amazing creatures in the wild.

As kiwis are nocturnal, you’ll explore the region in the darkness of night, where you’ll likely also hear ruru, tree wētā, deer and possums.

Join Ian and his team on these tours, generally running from October until March, for 3-5 hours.

53 The Strand, Ōkārito 7886

A brown Kiwi bird walking while its beak points on the ground. downward.

15. Visit Lake Matheson

Heading a bit further out of Franz, Lake Matheson makes a wonderful day trip from town, or a stop as you head south towards Wānaka and Queenstown. To be exact, it’s a 30-minute drive, found over the hill in Fox.

This lake is enjoyed by photographers and sightseers alike, known for its amazing mirror reflections.

The walk itself is an easy 2.6 km loop track (1.6 miles) and takes approximately 1.5 hours to walk (with plenty of stops to enjoy the scenery). There are a number of platforms positioned around the lake, allowing you to enjoy it from different vantage points.

If you’d prefer, you can just walk 20 or so minutes to get to the first lookout, where you’ll be able to snap lovely photographs whilst enjoying the view.

You will also find a great cafe and clean public toilets as you enter/exit the track. They’re right by the car park, so there’s no missing them.

This is a great free activity to do whilst you’re in Glacier Country.

It is also just one of many great walks in Fox.

Glassy waters of Lake Matheson with morning fog and snow-capped mountains on the background.
Morning Fog at Lake Matheson. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

As you can see there are plenty of things to do in Franz Josef!

Whether you’re looking to hike up a nearby glacier, go on a helicopter ride, or take a stroll along the lakeside, there’s something for everyone.

Have you ever been to Franz Josef?

If you have, what is your favourite thing to do? We’d love to know!

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