On our incredible road trip around the South Island of New Zealand one of the places we were most looking forward to experiencing was The Franz Josef Glacier, what might be considered alongside Fox as the best glacier in New Zealand. This region of glaciers is one of the most unique in the world and really goes to show just how special the landscape of New Zealand really is. The glaciers that cover the central Southern Alps of New Zealand lie incredibly close to the coast of the country owing to its long and slender shape. This means that the terminus of the Franz Josef Glacier is just 19 km (12 mi) from the sea and less than less than 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level, there are not many other places in the world where a rainforest, the sea and a glacier meet all within a few km of each other! However, we discovered that the heli-hike tours were both beyond our backpacker budget and also felt somewhat irresponsible considering the rapid retreat of these incredible and ancient ice sheets. So instead we searched out the best hike (tramp) in the region from which to take in the majesty of the glacier and the mountainous landscape that surrounds it. Which brought us to the Roberts point track, an incredible 5.5hr tramp through some breathtaking scenery. Here’s our guide to the Roberts track and trail, the best Franz Josef glacier free walk.
How to get to Franz Josef For The Roberts Point Track
The town of Franz Josef sits on the West Coast of New Zealand in a relatively remote area of the country so getting here can be a little bit of a challenge but it’s well worth the effort. (And that’s before you even set foot on the advanced Roberts point track!)
Nearest and Recommended Airports
The nearest major town to Franz Josef is Hokitika which is 134 km up the coast. There is a domestic airport that serves Hokitika however it only operates small propeller flights to and from Christchurch which can be quite expensive.
The best option for travel to Franz Josef is to arrive into the well connected Christchurch International Airport and then travel the 375 km route to Franz Josef by public transport or hire vehicle.
We recommend renting a car or campervan to make the most of any trip to New Zealand as many of the attractions are rural and hard to get to using public transport. Franz Josef is a perfect addition to any South Island road trip and Christchurch usually makes for the most common and easy start of point.
From Franz Josef it is possible to continue on to Wanaka (284 km) / Queenstown 351 km)/ Milford Sound (625 km, Via Wanaka & Queenstown) then you can continue in a loop back around to Christchurch via Mt Cook National Park and Lake Tekapo. Another idea would be to start with Christchurch to Queenstown and then work your way up the West Coast and back over to CHCH.
The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef is 375 km and will take around 5 hrs. We recommend splitting the journey up to enjoy the incredible Arthurs Pass which connects the East and West coasts of New Zealand as well as stopping off at some of the towns on the West Coast such as Hokitika.
Public transport wise it is possible to take the scenic tranzAlpine express from Christchurch to Greymouth which is considered one of the most beautiful train routes in the world. However it isn’t cheap and takes around 5 hrs. From Greymouth to Franz Josef it is possible to take an InterCity bus which takes 3 hrs.
It is possible to take the InterCity bus all the way from Christchurch to Franz Josef via a change over in Greymouth.
From Franz Josef Township To The Glacier
To get to the start of the many walks around the glacier valley from the township the distance is around 2 km. So it can be done in a short drive, a walk or there is also a shuttle bus from the town too.
If you want access to the actual glacier you will need to do a Heli-Hike tour/ You don’t need transport once you are in Franz Josef to do the Roberts point track hike.
Where To Stay In Franz Josef
Franz Josef township might be small but it is well used to hosting many visitors and caters mostly for those on a higher budget, especially the restaurants. However there are some cheaper options in the town too for backpackers who will likely be camping. Most accommodation is within walking distance of the town and Roberts point track.
Where you stay will of course depend on if you are camping or not and what your budget it.
Best Budget Campsite – Orange Sheep
We stayed at Orange Sheep and for the money it has be to be one of the best campsites we stayed at during our road trip around New Zealand. We had to wait out the weather for a few days whilst in Franz Josef and the site provided a great place to relax. Set in the rainforest and with great views of the mountains you really do get the full experience of this unique place, it’s quite a magical place to stay. It has several camp kitchens, a lounge with powerpoints, laundry, BBQs and 3 large and clean toilet and shower blocks.
Best Campsite For A Bigger Budget – Top 10
Top 10 is a trusted brand when it comes to campsites and you know what you’re going to get. Not only is it an ideal place to pull up the campervan or RV but it offers some wonderful cabins and apartments too. Facilities also include fully kitted out kitchens in the cabins and apartments and also great camp kitchens too, there is even a BBQ too. On top of that there are hot tubs, a children’s playground, laundry and a games room.
Best Backpacker Accommodation – YHA
You can’t really go wrong with the YHA, this classic hostelling brand provides quality and cheap prices with very little fuss. It’s not fancy but it offers clean and budget friendly rooms, shared kitchen and lounge spaces, pool tables, TVs and huge lockers.
For backpackers and budget traveller it is the ideal location and even has private rooms too.
Best Hotel for a Mid Range Budget – Rainforest Retreat
Set in cabins in the rainforest this accommodation offers an idyllic and tranquil retreat. With several different types of accommodation and rooms on offer, even some dorm rooms, it offers something for all budgets. Facilities include a sauna, BBQ, laundry, luxury tree huts, on site restaurant, kitchen and terraces.
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What Time Of Year Is Best To Visit Franz Josef/ Roberts Point Track New Zealand
Franz Josef is an idea location to visit year round but the West Coast owing the rain shadow created by the Southern Alps is famous for its unpredictable and wet weather, it is still however the best glacier in New Zealand partially because of this hike.
Many people might think that summer is the best time to visit thinking that it must get unbearably cold in winter, however that’s not always the case. Summer might be great for temperate hiking weather but it also bring with it much more rain, humidity and low clouds not to mention lots more tourists.
Winter on the other hand brings about much clearer and crisper days with much more predictability. The proximity of the township of Franz Josef to the coast also means temperatures here are still a reasonable 5-15 c in winter. Winter also bring with it more snow and ice on the surrounding mountains which makes the area even more picturesque for your Franz Josef hiking trip.
Driving in winter in New Zealand can be a little bit more challenging and some of the hiking trails, such as Roberts point track can be sometimes a little bit icy. However given the wet conditions in summer this trail is generally quite slippy in the warmer months anyway and the drier conditions and low elevation can actually make it easier in winter.
You can do a New Zealand glacier hike all year round but in summer low clouds often result in more cancellations.
Seasons in New Zealand are:
Summer: Dec, Jan, Feb.
Autumn: Mar, Apr, May.
Winter: Jun, Jul, Aug.
Spring: Sep, Oct, Nov.
What To Pack For A Visit To Franz Josef & Roberts Point Track
Franz Josef can be an unpredictable area year round so you need to pack according to a variety of different weather conditions.
In the summer the temperatures are generally pretty warm and comfortable in town but rain is common and it can still be chilly at higher elevations and in the evening. (If you do end up doing a New Zealand glacier hike you are provided with appropriate clothing). For this hike however a rain jacket, light walking pants, decent hiking boots/ shoes and a jumper/ hoody is sufficient especially on a sunny day.
We did do the Roberts point track hike in shorts and t-shirt but we brought extra layers just incase. The temperate climate for a glacial region is one reason Franz Josef is the best glacier in New Zealand.
In winter or colder months you should be sure to bring extra layers including base layers and a down jacket especially for hiking and nighttime. You might also want to bring some more substantial high ankle boots incase the trails have snow or ice on them which makes Franz Josef hiking a bit tricky.
Also bear in mind your sleeping arrangements. If you are camping in winter be sure to back extra layers, good quality sleeping bags and a mat to sleep on to keep you off the ground. A campervan or car can also get quite cold in winter too.
Taking The Incredible Roberts Point Track and Trail Hike/ Tramp – The Best Free Hike in Franz Josef
Our Experience Of The Roberts Point Track and Trail
Setting off on this 11 km/ 5.5hr hike we were pretty excited to get into the wilderness surrounding the glacier covered mountains and tackle one of the best single day hikes in New Zealand. We had heard the trail was a little slippery in parts but we are quite experienced hikers so it didn’t put us off and we were well prepared for a challenging but rewarding hike which is why we selected the Roberts point track and trail for our Franz Josef hiking trip.
The hike itself starts off before the path towards the glacier along the valley floor which may people take and it quite often overlooked. The early stages of the hike are very much a tame stoll along well maintained paths through some incredible fern rainforests along the Douglas Track (One of the easiest Franz Josef hiking trails)
The first stop off point is only around 20 minutes into this full days journey, the amazing kettle lake of Peter’s Pond. Formed by ice left behind by the retreating glacier centuries earlier the small lake perfectly reflects the looming snowy mountains and glaciers beyond and is an incredible site to behold. Technically this isn’t part of the Roberts point track but you pass through this area walking from the carpark to the start across the river.
Crossing over the first swing bridge of the track the route starts in earnest and will follow the path of the Waiho Glacial River as it cuts its way through the valley. The track clings to the side of the sheer river edge and traverses the incredible rata and kamahi forest with several sections opening up to wonderful views across the valley. This trail offers a great opportunity to experience the native NZ bush up close and personal which is why it’s rated one of the best Franz Josef hiking trails.
Most of the route is well signposted through you do need to be careful not to wander off and get too close to the powerful river which has proven to be fatal in the past. Once the trail hits the mossy rainforest the route begins to gain elevation on uneven and unmaintained ground. Scrambling over slippy green rocks and using exposed tree roots as hand holds the trail is precarious at times but always exciting and not overly challenging for experienced hikers.
Highlights of the Roberts Point track include the main swing bridges that cross the smaller streams that cut along the path, most of these have limited to how many people can be on and any given time… one of them is limited to just a single person! The most spectacular however is the 111m bridge that crosses high above the valley below, swinging side to side as you make your way across it is certainly an exhilarating experience!
Beyond here you cross some flatter glacial smoothed terrain which can also become quite slippery but offers some wonderful views over the valley and a hint of what’s to come! The next real wow moment comes in the form of the unassuming Hende’s hut, a relic left behind by a local blacksmith who oversaw the building of the track in 1906.
It’s position becomes clear as you round the corner to the insane “Hende’s Gallery”, a set of wrought iron and wooden stairs piled into the cliff side to traverse this otherwise impassable section of sheer alpine fault lines.
Coming to the end of the trail from nowhere appears an elevated viewing point rising above the forest to offer sweeping views across the mountains and a surprisingly up close and intimate view of the glacier. From here you really get a sense of the scale of the enormous sheet of ice and it really does make you feel tiny! Seeing the helicopters fly down the valley to become tiny specks against the vastness of rock and ice is truly awe inspiring. This has to be the best Franz Josef glacier free walk with views like this!
This is the New Zealand we came to experience. True wilderness, adventure and breathtakingly beautiful nature! The Roberts Point track and trail gives you exactly that and it’s the most incredible Franz Josef glacier free walk!
Roberts Point Track New Zealand – Information:
11 km – 12.3 km return via same track (depending where you start, 12.3km from the carpark) / 5 hr 20 min / Rating: Advanced
DOC Website Information: www.doc.govt.nz
How Fit Do I Need To Be And How Hard Is The Roberts Point Track and Trail Hike?
The trail requires a decent amount of fitness and agility to take on the 11km hike (12.3km from the carpark) , however most reasonably experienced hikers will have no major issues. It should take the average person between 5 and 6 hours return to complete the Roberts point track and trail.
The trail itself is classed as “Advanced Tramping” and does include some quite steep sections, slippery and uneven ground, several exposed swing bridges and cliffside stairs too. so it’s not a walk in the park and is one of the hardest Franz Josef hiking trails but it is a really great way to see the best glacier in New Zealand up close.
We did see some older people with guides too so this might be an option for those unsure about the route.
We did however complete the trail in under 5hrs even with several photo & food breaks. We also ended up doing the trail twice as we returned for better weather so it’s not too bad! For us, if you can do it, it’s the best Franz Josef glacier free walk.
For many backpackers this is the closest they will come to a New Zealand glacier hike as the heli-hikes are just so expensive and also destructive to this very environment! If you’re looking for free things to do in Franz Josef glacier then this is the best for sure!
What To Bring on a Franz Josef glacier hike –
Good sturdy shoes/ boots with a lot of grip and ideally ankle support.
Food, water, high energy snacks and some spare.
A foil blanket incase you get stuck on the trail at night.
What Are The Views Like Of The Glacier & Is It Worth The Effort?
In a word, YES! The views are incredible and it’s by far one of the things to do in Franz Josef glacier.
You’ll experience an ancient native mossy fern lined forest, exhilarating feats of engineering crossing numerous swing bridges spanning deep glacial carved ravines. You’ll traverse hundred year old steps clinging to the side of the cliff and you’ll get the closest to one of New Zealand’s glaciers you could ever be without getting on a helicopter and therefore not contributing to global warming and the destruction of these icy giants! if you’re on the lookout for the best Franz Josef glacier free walk then this is it!
So yeah, it’s worth scrambling over damp rocks and tree roots for the best Franz Josef glacier hike! The Roberts Point track New Zealand ended up being one of the best hikes we did in the whole country.
Franz Josef Glacier Hike : Map & Advice
Always check the weather on the DOC website before heading out as it can change quickly. Avoid the trail if it is raining as it can get VERY slippy underfoot on this particular Franz Josef glacier hike.
You can use a dedicated service provided by the DOC to check into a route and let someone know your intentions before you set out. This is called the New Zealand Outdoors Intentions process (Link here) . You can also call in at the Westland Tai Poutini National Park Visitor Centre or iSite in Franz Josef before hand too for up to date info and to let them know you are on the Roberts point track New Zealand trail.
There has unfortunately been a Roberts point track death so do be careful.
Be sure to leave yourself enough time before it goes dark or the weather closes in. Those who died here did so because they continued to hike after dark and ended up getting lost and trying to cross the river. Remember NEVER CROSS THE RIVER, it is an extremely fast and cold glacial river. Only cross on the Douglas Swing Bridge. If you do get stuck in the dark try to stay put and wait until morning. Bring supplies and a foil blanket as well as a phone and battery pack.
Try to go earlier in the day if you can, not only to insure you have enough time but also because the weather often gets worse as the day goes on here. This is one of the best things to do in Franz Josef glacier but you go for views so be sure it’s going to be as clear as it can be!
Never try to access the glacier from any part of the route especially where it ends. There is no access and it is incredibly dangerous terrain.
Map/ Route Information for Roberts Point Track and Trail –
Google maps doesn’t actually show the trail accurately at the beginning, from the main car park at the glacier close to the information boards (check them out before setting off) you can take the Peter’s Pool route to join Roberts Point and so take them both in.
Other Alternative Hikes To Roberts Point Track and Trail ?
Easier Hikes –
Douglas Track and Peter’s Pool
This route is the start of the Roberts Point Track and stops when the trail reaches the river, though of course you can go over and back across the swing bridge for the experience! This is a great short and gentle walk to experience the mature native rainforest here and of course the stunning Peter’s Pool, a Kettle lake. This trail also has to be one of the things to do in Franz Josef glacier given how amazing and easy to reach the views are.
Douglas Track – 3.9 km return via same track / 1 km / Rating: Easy
Peter’s Pool – 1.1 km return via same track / 25 min return / Rating: Easiest (This trail is also a wheelchair friendly Franz Josef glacier hike)
Franz Josef Glacier Valley/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk
This is the classic walk everyone who visits has to do and it’s one of the most popular things to do in Franz Josef glacier. The steady amble down the valley floor, at one time part of the glacier itself, offers a unique look at how it’s powerful forces have shaped the land and a sobering view of how much it has retreated. Heading past waterfalls and over the rock and shingle of this one time riverbed you will come towards the terminus of the glacier and be able to see it from about 750m away. It’s a really easy Franz Josef glacier hike and most people will find it doable.
5.4 km return via same track / 1 hr 30 min / Rating: Easy
This short and steady climb up this incredible rock feature offers great views for not much effort. At one time this area would have been covered in the glacier, but as it retreated this ground up and compressed rock was left behind in 1865. It now offers a great elevated view down the valley towards the glacier which has retreated 3km down the valley since 1909.
900 m return via same track / 20 min / Rating: Easiest
Harder Hikes –
This is one we have our eye on for next time we visit. The 8 hr return hike is a steady climb on the opposite side of the glacier to Roberts Point, over alpine meadows and towards several stunning viewpoints. If you do decide to tackle this hike you must check in with the isite in Franz Josef beforehand and let them know. The summit is also above the snowline in winter months so you must be experienced to tackle it. Despite this being a longer trail Roberts Point will get you closer to the glacier itself but Alex Knob does offer more of a panoramic view. It’s another amazing Franz Josef glacier hike for the experienced tramper.
17.2 km return via same track / 8 hr / Rating: Advanced
To See More Tramping Trails in The Area Checkout The DOC Website – www.doc.govt.nz
Have You Been or Are You Planning on Doing A Franz Josef Glacier Hike? Have You Done The Roberts Point Track and Trail?
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