The backbone of New Zealand’s south island are the spectacular Southern Alps, the home to many glaciers. Two of these are easily accessible by tourists traveling Route 6 along the western shore: the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glaciers. Both are major glaciers working their way from high mountain valleys down to near sea level. Each has unique characteristics; and both can be seen in a single day if you choose to do a self-guided tour. Alternatively, pick either one -- you can't go wrong with either -- if you prefer to get right on the glacier via helicopter or a guided hike.
Our approach from the south began with a stop for coffee and fresh salmon filets (which we’d have for dinner) at a salmon / coffee shop by a river near the Tasman Sea. (Nice people, god coffee and pastry selection, and the salmon was great) Further up the road was a long sandy beach with inviting surf and broad views. Once we left the Tasman Sea, the road began to serpentine as mountains came closer to the western shore. One of the remarkable aspects of these glaciers is the proximity to the sea; almost as close as Glacier Bay, where glaciers fall right into the ocean. But unlike glaciers falling into the sea, these glaciers leave large moaines and rubble accretions.
The walk in to the Fox Glacier was a short and easy walk from the parking lot across a broad alluvial plain set between steep walls carved out over the past several hundred years. Similar to the two century trend in Glacier Bay in Alaska, the Fox Glacier has retreated leaving
moraines and a broad plain behind. The access road from Route 6 is well maintained on a bed of glacial tailings, and the parking lot provides informative boards on the Glacier’s history and ecosystem.
If you want to get up and actually get on the glacier, you’ll have to pay someone: guided walks or helicopter tours are two primary choices, and several options are available on-line, or right in the towns of Fox Glacier. Glaciers can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or aren’t familiar with the topography. This ranger stops you from going past a demonstrably safe zone.
Further north on Route 6 (aka Fox Glacier Highway) is the Franz Josef Glacier. The main difference up in to the furthest free walk is the distance. The walk is much longer, though flat and easy going. The walk is definitely worth it if only to watch the river pouring out of a snow cave at the base of the glacier. But the high waterfalls coming down the steep rocky walls were also worth the walk. The combination of thunderous volume and cold humid air remind visitors of the power and size of these rivers of ice.
We were a little disappointed that we couldn’t walk up the relatively well worn path to the glacier itself, but were reminded only a week or so later in a news item that rocks had fallen near the paths in a very close call for some visitors.
The dynamic nature of glaciers may not be readily apparent when snow melts slowly and seems timeless. But the river disgorging from its accretion base is a stark reminder that a lot of snow is melting underneath, and eventually, something in the structure has to give.
If we had it to do over again, we probably would have taken a tour up into the glacier for a deeper look, with trained guides and known safe access. But having seen both in one day, we know that either glacier would be a great choice.