Franz Josef Glacier was high on our list of must-see locations in New Zealand, so we were really excited as we left Hokitika heading south-west. Unfortunately, our hopes for the stunning views soon plummeted as Franz Josef greeted us with dark skies and relentless rain. Would the glacier be even visible in these conditions? We didn’t know. But we had to find out.
Franz Josef Glacier Walk
Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most famous glaciers in New Zealand and a well-known tourist attraction. There is a couple of different hiking routes that lead to the glacier. Given the conditions, we chose the shorter, more popular one, called Franz Josef Glacier Walk. However, if you enjoy hiking and the weather is fine, you might also consider the Roberts Point Track. Though considerably more difficult, it apparently offers better views. Keep in mind that neither trail lets you enter the ice. For that, your only option is a helicopter tour.
Franz Josef Glacier Walk is a relatively short 1.5 hours return hike. It starts at the parking lot, then leads through the forest to the valley overlook. From there the path follows the valley floor all the way to the observation area at the bottom of the glacier. It’s an easy and enjoyable hike with almost no elevation gain, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everybody.
Hiking in the Rain
It was still raining full force when we reached the first overlook so the view was rather unimpressive. Interestingly, though wet and unfriendly, the valley looked strangely appealing. Under the dark clouds, the vast rocky landscape felt desolate and almost Mordor-like. I think it was the first time New Zealand truly reminded me of the Lord of the Rings.
If there is one great thing about the rain however, it’s that it creates some impressive waterfalls. And as we continued our way towards Franz Josef Glacier, we saw enough proof of that. Dozens of little waterfalls appeared at the sides of the canyon and on the cliffs around us. It literally seemed as if the rock itself was weeping.
Hiking in the rain may sound romantic or brave to some, but in reality, it’s rarely pleasant. It rains often in New Zealand, so make sure to pack some water-resistant clothing. I also highly recommend waterproof hiking shoes. There aren’t many things that can make your life miserable as quickly as wet feet.
Fading Glory of Franz Josef Glacier
Luckily, as we were approaching the end of the trail, the rain subsided a little and we soon caught our first glimpse of Franz Josef in the distance. As we came closer, the clouds lifted just enough to reveal the famous glacier in all its glory. Even in the grey overcast conditions the wall of ice still looked quite impressive. And yet, I couldn’t help to wonder just how truly grandiose it must have been only a few short years back.
Prior to coming to New Zealand, I have read a lot of reports saying that Franz Josef glacier had retreated dramatically in recent years. By the time we reached the observation area at the end of the trail, it became apparent that, sadly, these reports have been true. Once, the snow masses descended all the way to the bottom of the valley and beyond. These days, only the upper portion of the slope is covered with ice. The rest is rocks and sediment. The amazing blue color still shines through but it’s diluted heavily by the black dirt.
It truly is sad. As people, we often tend to disregard the damage our actions inflict to the surrounding environment. And yet, one glance at Franz Josef is enough to realize that climate change is very real and is happening at accelerating speed. At the current pace, once mighty glacier will completely disappear from sight in just a few years.
The day was beginning to fade by the time we got back to the car. I managed to capture a few images I felt content with. And despite being soaked to the bone, we were both incredibly happy with the experience. For me, that’s the main takeaway here. The valley walk is incredibly beautiful and well worth the effort even on a rainy day. The waterfalls created by the rain and the mist-shrouded cliffs make it look ethereal and other-worldly. And the glacier at the end is still an impressive sight.
I also want to reiterate that it rains a lot in New Zealand, especially on the West Coast. Make sure to factor that in when making plans. A clear sunny day is never a given and you have to be ready for wet conditions. Pack water-resistant clothing and always have a plan B in case the weather does not cooperate. And remember – a bit of rain is not the end of the world. New Zealand in general and Franz Josef Glacier in particular are both immensely spectacular on a wet day. So don’t let a little moisture strip you of a memory of a lifetime.
A Few Notes on Photography
Even though the glacier has retreated, it is still a very compelling subject. You will probably find yourself framing it in multiple compositions. But the hike has a lot more to offer, especially on a rainy day. There are waterfalls of course, but also the valley itself looks fantastic with all the clouds and the mist. It took me a long time to learn, but the best shots are not always about an epic burning sky. If the weather is all rain, look for the mood and atmosphere. Think about the Lord of the Rings movies with its often dark and gloomy landscapes. Also, try to work people into the shots, human presence often gives a sense of scale and dimension to the surroundings.
Gear-wise, I mostly used the wide lens, but for close-up shots of the ice you might want to pack a long zoom. I would also advise taking a tripod if you are interested in shooting waterfalls. Slower shutter speed is the key to make the water look smooth and silky, and you’ll need a tripod for that. I also highly recommend having a polarizer filter, especially on a rainy day. The cliffs are mostly comprised of black rock that tends to reflect a lot of light when wet. The gleam can create some nasty distractions in the shot and the polarizer filter helps to avoid that.
If you liked this article, I have a few more on New Zealand that you might find helpful. I also have a YouTube video where I go into more detail about the Franz Joseph glacier. And of course, I would also appreciate hearing from you. If you happen to have any questions or comments, leave them down below and I’ll be glad to help!
Spectacular images as always. And, yes, the extent of the retreat in just a few decades is a real shock.
Thanks! And I agree – though I haven’t eye-witnessed it, I actually found a video on the official website that shows a timelapse of retreat between 2013 and 2015, and it’s massive. I think it only got worse since then. Here’s the video I’m talking about: https://www.franzjosefglacier.com/about-us/blog/watch-2-years-of-glacier-retreat-in-15-seconds/