A Heli-Hike Tour is a MUST DO When You Visit the South Island
The West Coast Glaciers of Franz Josef (FJ) and Fox are New Zealand icons and a trip to the South Island is not complete without visiting at least one of them. They are a seeming paradox – rivers of ice that descends into lush green rainforest.
The best way to see them is going on a heli hike tour. Jump into a helicopter and be flown to a spectacular section of the glacier in a matter of minutes.
As part of both tours, you are given crampons (those spikey things you put on your boots) jackets, pants, gloves, boots, socks and beanie to keep you dry and warm. All that plus a professional guide that will keep you safe and entertained on the ice for at 3 hours for NZD 459 at Franz Josef, and NZD 450 at Fox Glacier.
The experience of walking on a glacier and moving through these wonders of nature is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. Furthermore, New Zealand is the closest place you can experience this from Singapore.
However, few of us will have time to experience both of them; this leads us to the big question: which should I visit, Franz Josef or Fox Glacier? We highlight a few considerations to help you decide.
How Steep is it?
FJ is a steeper glacier. The steeper gradient does allow for more interesting ice features but this really depends on your luck as such features come and go within a matter of weeks (i.e. the cave you saw on instagram 2 weeks ago might not be there anymore). If you are concerned about keeping up, you can ask to be put in a slower group.
If you prefer to take it easy, Fox is the safer choice as it is not as steep.
FJ has multiple (more than 10) departures starting from 8:15am whereas Fox has 3 departures per day. This could work out well for you because you have more options to choose from. However the number of departures directly impact how many people you are sharing the glacier with. FJ would feel more touristy.
All FJ tours include free entry to the hot pools, a welcomed addition after spending time hiking on the glacier. If you’re a LOTR nerd, ask your helicopter pilot to point out to you where Mt Gunn is (in the Return of the King, this is where the beacons are lit between Gondor and Rohan).
Fox however gives you something more unique, the chance of seeing Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, on your flight in.
What Else is There to See in Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
Franz Josef and Fox townships are about a 25 minutes drive apart. FJ is the bigger of the two with more accommodation and dining options. In the busy season, you’re more likely to find room availability in FJ. Fox gives you a more laid back small town feel.
Each location has its great other attraction and it’s not as if you have to give up on either should you choose one over the other. FJ has the West Coast Wildlife Centre where you have the best chance of seeing a real kiwi (the bird, not the people, or fruit :P). The Rowi Kiwi that they house is the world’s rarest kiwi, found only near Franz Josef. The kids will love the interactive displays. Fox has the famous Lake Matheson where you can catch amazing sunsets on the Southern Alps.
You can try Ice Climbing on both glaciers. If you have the extra bucks to spend, I recommend the all day hike at Fox (Extreme Fox). Fox also offers an overnight trip on a hut overlooking the glacier. This is a great choice to experience a unique small group adventure.
|Comparing Factor||Franz Josef Glacier||Fox Glacier|
|Town||Bigger town with more accommodation||Laid back town|
|Glacier terrain||Steep = more formations||Not as steep|
|Overall feel||Busier location||Less touristy|
|Bonus||Hot pools included!||Views of Mt Cook|
|Nearby Attractions||West Coast Wildlife Centre, LOTR||Lake Matheson|
|Practical reasons||More departures||Other trips: Extreme Fox-All day heli hike NZD699 & Overnight trips|
So Franz Josef or Fox?
If you just want to see a glacier and get the best deal, choose Franz Josef.
If you are picky and prefer not many people on the glacier as you OR if you want a real adventure of exploring the glacier, choose Fox.
- Stay 2 nights on the west coast to maximize your chance of getting a good weather window. Heli-hikes are often cancelled due to bad weather (it rains roughly 220 days, you can do the math.)
- Use the gear they provide, chances are they will get wet. Since they are provided why not use them.
- Dress warm with at LEAST 2 layers, a neck warmer/scarf is a simple effective way to stay warm.
- Put sunscreen on.
- If taking photographs: HDR setting works very well on a glacier
- If you are really unlucky with the weather, there’s a new kid on the block. Check out Mt Cook Glacier Guides, it’s run by the same folks from Fox.
PS: To see how much the glacier has changed check out: https://www.franzjosefglacier.com/social/blog/watch-2-years-of-glacier-retreat-in-15-seconds/