Franz Josef is a small mountain town on the East coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
The town is nestled by the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which is home to the famous Franz Josef glacier.
It is a hub for outdoor and nature lovers with plenty of adventures easily accessible, whether you want to go on a scenic flight, glacier hiking, quad biking, climbing or the famous Franz Josef Skydive.
On a side note a little history, the town is named after the glacier which itself was named by Julius Von Haast, in honour of the Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef.
Along New Zealand there are many places or roads that share this early sailors history, for example the Haast Pass road which goes through the Mt Aspiring National Park.
If you want some of the best panoramic views this is the area to come, the panorama above is from a peak above the Franz Josef village, it is very unique as there are few places where you can see high alpine glaciers roll into mountainous forests and eventually the ocean!
It has the views people travel a long way to see and definitely is worth the hike!
Where to Stay in Franz Josef?
Franz Josef has plenty of accommodation from hotels to hostels. Here are a few suggestions on where to stay:
- YHA Franz Josef
- Chateau Franz Backpacker
- Rainforest Retreat hostel
I stayed at the hostel called Rainforest Retreat, it was fantastic!
How do I start great services and great price, especially in comparison to the other places I had stayed along the South Island’s East coast.
The hostel had a hot tub, which was free to use and rewarding on a winters evening, but then came the fantastic bar and restaurant!
The restaurant has great food but even better pizza. They have an evening a week where it’s a homemade fire cooked pizza night as much as you can eat with a drink for $20 NZD! A crazy good deal! If I was going to go back the hot tub and pizza would make it a easy choice for accommodation!
I loved the few days I spent in Franz Josef, the atmosphere was great and so were the locals! Myself and my friend got very lucky with the weather which meant we both managed to get out on some amazing adventures!
Where to Eat?
Franz Josef is quite pricey when it comes to going out, so I cooked in the hostel most of the time or used the restaurant that was attached to the Rainforest Retreat.
Honestly, I suggest you do the same, save money for Queenstown as there are so many great cafes and restaurants in Queenstown that are really worth heading to!
In Franz Josef there is a little supermarket on the single high street that makes up Franz Josef, they have everything you will need!
However, there are some great cafes for a coffee and snack when you’ve finished a days hike that I certainly made the most of.
What to Do?
Franz Josef is an outdoor activity hub!
It is especially famous for either the heli glacier hikes or the highest skydive in New Zealand which are also rated as ones of the most beautiful in the world.
But apart from that, there is quad biking as well as just the simple enjoyment of hiking which is completely FREE!
The hiking is what I spent my time doing and i’m going to tell you about a great hike up to the peak named Alex Knob.
Yep I know, interesting name. I never asked why it was called that but oh well!
Who is This Hike Suited for?
This hike is fine for anyone who is relatively fit, can walk a reasonably long distance and is comfortable hiking off trail i.e has experience.
In summer, this is a perfect hike for beginners and intermediates. However, if you are there in winter you want to check the snow and ice levels as this makes it seriously more technical and dangerous hike and will require extra kit!
Anyway, now onto the fun part of the hike! Starting from the town the hike to Alex Knob is a round 20km approx. The hike itself is 17.2km but then you have the extra distance between the town and trail start.
I was there in winter and the snow level was around 700mm, meaning I was hiking on snow and ice at the top which is at 1300m altitude.
For anyone interested in hiking in this region, before you set out head over to the tourism office which is next to the glacier guides office, they can give you all the important info such as trail condition and weather forecast!
Having an idea of watching sunset from the summit, I had to make the most of my time in Franz Josef as it was short! So I left in the mid morning and hiked up ready for the sunset to then hike back down in the dark under head torch light.
Here is the Story!
I left the hostel around 9am. It was cold outside, so I was wrapped up in my puffer jacket and beanie!
Just after the village I followed some stunning river which runs parallel to the road. The valley revealed peaks in the distance shinning in the early morning light, to think I was going to be up there in a good few hours just excited the hell out of me!
For the first 4 hours of the hike I walked in the bush, as the Kiwis would call it. Beautiful, vibrant forests constantly were being filled with bird noises.
New Zealand’s forests are unlike anything back home in Europe, they genuinely feel way more atmospheric and alive!
The first viewing spot along the trail to Alex Knob looked over at the Franz Josef glacier through the forest canopy!
I just remember the rush of excitement as I stood there looking over at the glacier! From the viewpoint I could see the river formation of the melted water that was running off the glacier below, as it carved its way down the valley.
Nature has always amazed me!
Most people hike to the base of the glacier, as it is only a few hours. The view at the bottom is less impressive than seeing the whole glacier from above.
Plus the trail can get pretty packed with tourists while the Alex Knob hike means you get a little more space to yourself! I only met 2 people on the trail.
After a few more hours hiking up you leave the tree line behind and the valley reveals itself. If you love stunning landscapes as I do, it is going to leave you speechless.
Alpine ridges are my favorite, I love the feeling of being exposed to the elements and the views are always breathtaking. Being able to look all around and feel so small in the mountains makes me feel truly alive!
Greeted with panoramic views from alpine to ocean, it was for this reason that I wanted to visit New Zealand, a country which is renowned for its beauty.
Turned out I had some time to kill, my plan to watch sunrise was certainly going to be on the cards but I had underestimated the length of time it would take me to hike up.
Oh well only 3 hours early… I mean i am surrounded with some of the world’s best views so I was 100% happy with what my life.
I plugged in my headphones and just enjoyed the moment of beauty. Picking out the details of the mountains and glaciers, I started to watch the heli tours fly over the glacier thinking how small helicopters looked in comparison to the ice formations.
Then it happened!
I heard a crunch, shattering sound. Glaciers are home to seracs that are large pinnacles of ice, they are one of climber’s biggest nightmares, as they are unstable and might collapse.
That is what I had heard, finally spotting the debris I reminded just how incredibly small I was within this mountain environment.
As golden hour light falls in the alpine environment, we, photographers and outdoor lovers, call it the Alpenglow as it makes valleys, pinnacles and all the snow glow orange and red.
I have a little ritual when travelling to new places and hiking in the mountains and it is simply to sit and enjoy watching it.
Sure, it means i’ve had to hike down gnarly trails under torch light but it leaves me with some of my most relaxed and best memories from all my travels.
I love taking the chance to sit and just enjoy one of nature’s best displays…
Franz Josef Skydive
My friend Maisy, who I was travelling across New Zealand with had wanted to do the World’s famous Franz Josef skydive.
The skydive in Franz Josef is famous for two things:
- Being the highest in New Zealand at 18,000 feet you get a awful lot of free fall time!
- It has been rated one of the most beautiful skydives in the world as you have the alpine environment and ocean in view!
Maisy had her skydive planned for the morning. In the morning, the wind conditions are calmer meaning the dives can go ahead.
However, she was unlucky and at the last minute it was cancelled due to strong winds.
Gutted we knew she had one more chance to jump out of the tiny little plane above this beautiful corner of the world. It came to be!
In the afternoon the weather cleared up and she was scheduled for another jump, it went ahead and soon she found herself jumping out of the plane.
If skydiving is on your bucket list, then i would suggest you to make it happen in Franz Josef.
Being able to look at the alpine snow covered peaks and ocean coastlines really takes the dive to another level.
What Activities to Do in Franz Josef?
As I said, Franz Josef is the hub for outdoor and adventurous activities!
If the Skydive isn’t for you, why not try out one of the following:
- Quad Biking
- Heli glacier hike
- Scenic flight
- White Water Rafting
Getting onto these activities is super easy. Either book in advance via whatever travel tour you are going with, or if you are travelling alone then do it in Franz Josef itself.
Down the high street are all the tour operators offices and activity centers, just have a wonder down the street see what interests you most and head into one of the offices, get yourself booked onto an awesome adventurous activity and I promise you won’t regret it.
I love heli flights, and you will get to learn a little more about them in the Queenstown article where I share with you a great heli experience. However, Franz Josef is also a great location to experience a scenic flight as the National Park is so stunning and wild!
Lake Matheson is only a 30 minute drive from Franz Josef.
This lake is a classic gem of New Zealand, in good conditions you get a mirror reflection of the beautiful pine trees leading into the backdrop of the Mt Cook National Park. The two peaks clearly visible are Mt Cook otherwise known as Mt Aorkai, New Zealand’s highest peak and Mount Tasman.
I’m a absolute sucker for alpine lakes and the reflections that you can get with the right conditions, I think it’s because of the culmination of so many factors that attract me to these mountain features.
I’ve hiked to many across Europe and now in New Zealand, if the weather doesn’t come together then the reflection is lost as the wind blows away that otherwise crisp mirror image.
I went shortly after sunrise, the first beams of light hitting part of the alpine faces making them glow in a beautiful golden light.
Getting to Lake Matheson?
Lake Matheson, is by far the easiest mirror lake i’ve ever accessed. You park up by the visitor center which also has a good cafe that I treated myself to a warm drink after the cold sunrise mission.
The gravel paths to the far side of the lake are clearly marked and you cross a really cool swing bridge.
For the best mirror reflection of the mountains you want to definitely walk right round to the far side of the lake. It takes around 15 to 20 minutes to walk round to the far side of the lake, meaning its a great pit stop if you are on a road trip!
Heading to Queenstown
I’m on the bus bound for Queenstown, i’ve had Queenstown in the back of my mind ever since I arrived in New Zealand!
Luckily, i’ve got two weeks in Queenstown and a rental 4×4 car meaning I will be able to explore off the beaten track!
In the next article i’ll share with you some stunning landscape spots that you should visit, skiing in Cardrona resort, a scenic flight experience and some of the best hiking in Fiordland National Park!
I’ll even share some top cafe spots in Queenstown and of course the famous Fergburger experience!
Be sure to read the next article for plenty of inspiration for a trip to New Zealand!
P.S. Sorry for my English!