New Zealand is well-known for its dramatic landscapes and breathtaking scenery. Of the many natural wonders that visitors must see when exploring the mountainous country, its glaciers stand out as some of the most impressive.
These giant sheets of ice move imperceptibly slowly downhill like a river, carving out valleys and unique landforms. They also crack and shift as they go, creating a landscape of crevices and chasms which visitors can explore.
For visitors to NZ who enjoy hiking and stunning views, taking a tour on a glacier is the perfect activity. Discover the glaciers of New Zealand with this handy guide.
How many glaciers are there in New Zealand?
New Zealand is home to thousands of glaciers, mainly in the Southern Alps—a snowy mountain range on the South Island.
The most famous glaciers in New Zealand include:
- Fox Glacier
- Franz Josef Glacier
- Hooker Glacier
- Mueller Glacier
- Murchison Glacier
- Tasman Glacier
- Volta Glacier
According to the current definition of a glacier as being at least 1 hectare in area and having existed for a minimum of 2 decades, there are currently 3,144 glaciers in New Zealand.
18 of these glaciers are on the North Island and the rest are on the South Island, including the famous Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.
What is New Zealand’s largest glacier?
The Tasman Glacier (also known as Haupapa) is the largest glacier in New Zealand. It is found in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park on the South Island, flowing west from Hochstetter Dome and Mount Elie De Beaumont. Along its course, it passes along the eastern slopes of the 2 highest mountains in New Zealand: Mount Tasman and Mount Cook (Aoraki).
Tasman Glacier is easily accessible. It terminates at Lake Tasman, only 8 km (5 miles) from Mount Cook Village. Tour groups will fly visitors from here up onto the glacier by helicopter.
Some important facts about the Tasman Glacier are as follows:
- Total length: 23.5 km (14.6 mi)
- Widest point: 4 km (2.5 mi)
- Thickest/deepest section: 600 m (2,000 ft)
- Total area: 101 square km (39 sq mi)
The Tasman Glacier begins at 3,000 m (9,800 ft) above sea level and ends at an altitude of 800 m (2,600 ft).
Glacier hiking in New Zealand
Glacier hiking is a truly unique experience. Not only is the terrain unusual, but the views are spectacular.
Walking along the snow and ice requires special snowshoes called crampons, which have spikes on the bottom to grip the surface, and a special pole for balance.
Glacier hiking is something everybody can do as long as they are active, sure-footed, and enjoy walking.
New Zealand’s glaciers are perfect for first-timers and tours along the glaciers are typically fully guided. The guides know the glaciers well and ensure that visitors follow safe routes.
There are also routes that are more challenging and well-suited to more experienced mountaineers, such as scaling the ice on Franz Josef Glacier.
Take a heli hike on a New Zealand glacier
One of the special things about glaciers in New Zealand is that they are easily accessible. The townships of Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, and Mt Cook Village lie close to some of the most famous and popular glaciers in the country.
Rather than climbing all the way up from the bottom, many companies offer “heli-hikes”. This involves a short helicopter ride from a nearby settlement to a point on top of the glacier. The flights take mere minutes and offer stunning views of the Southern Alps.
From there, visitors can take a tour along the top of the glacier. On some glaciers, such as the Fox glacier, guides may be able to take tour groups into the ice itself at certain parts.
Can you walk on Franz Josef Glacier?
Franz Josef Glacier is one of several glaciers on which visitors can take guided tours. Known in Maori as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, it is one of the country’s most popular glaciers and one of the biggest tourist attractions in New Zealand.
Both guided and unguided tours were possible at one time, but in 2012 the terminal face was declared unstable and since then it has only been accessible by helicopter.
Tour companies from the nearby township of Franz Josef can provide a flight, equipment, and guides for visitors who want to walk on the glacier.
Glacier safety in New Zealand
Glaciers can be hazardous even to experienced climbers who know the terrain. Shifting ice and hidden crevices can lead to fatal falls and people becoming trapped. It is important to follow safety practices when close to a glacier and especially when hiking on one.
When visiting a glacier in New Zealand make sure you wear:
- Appropriate, sturdy footwear
- Warm waterproof clothing
- Multiple layers
Always pay attention to signs. These may warn travellers that there is a danger of ice falls, river surges, falling rocks, or flooding.
Never cross a barrier that has been put in place due to a hazard, even if there are people beyond it. These may be part of a tour group with a guide who knows a safe route.
When hiking on a glacier, it is always advisable to go with an experienced guide who knows the terrain, even if hiking unsupervised is permitted. When on a guided tour, the guide’s instructions should be followed at all times.
How to visit New Zealand’s glaciers
The first step to visiting the glaciers of New Zealand is to get to the country itself. This includes obtaining the relevant documentation to enter the country.
Nationals of Australia are free to travel to New Zealand with only their passports.
Citizens of a number of other countries who can travel to New Zealand visa-free must obtain the New Zealand eTA (electronic travel authority) in order to enter the island nation. Eligible countries include EU member states, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Japan, among others.
Foreigners should check if they are eligible according to the New Zealand eTA requirements.
Visitors from countries not on this list must obtain a tourist eTA New Zealand or other relevant permit.
The eTA can be obtained via an online application form, which eliminates the necessity to travel to a New Zealand embassy, as with a traditional visa application.
The majority of New Zealand’s glaciers are located on the South Island. Christchurch is the biggest city and its airport receives flights from Australia, China, the USA, and other parts of New Zealand. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are around 6 hours’ drive from Christchurch, while the drive to Tasman Glacier takes around 3-4 hours.