The Best Glacier Hiking in New Zealand
Is glacier hiking in New Zealand on your ‘must-do' travel list? Then read on, to understand how you can experience a glacier hike as part of your New Zealand Trails trip.
Most glaciers are in remote mountain areas, far away from where we visit in our daily lives. There are few places in the world you can easily access glaciers at low altitudes and New Zealand is one of them. If you love the outdoors and hiking in the mountains, then take the next step and experience walking on a glacier first hand!
So, what makes walking on a river of ice that has patiently carved a valley out of sheer rock over tens of thousands of years so special? The answer is in the question! For those of you who have experienced walking on a glacier, we’re sure it’s one of your most memorable outdoor experiences. If you haven't experienced glacier hiking yet, now is the time to try.
Where can I go glacier hiking in New Zealand?
There are over 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand and all but 20 of these are in the Southern Alps. The country offers excellent opportunities for exploring glaciers for people of all abilities and experiences, from seasoned mountaineers to absolute beginners and everyone in between. Most New Zealand Trails trips include glacier hiking on their itineraries, where you'll visit Mount Cook National Park and Glacier Country on the West Coast.
How do I get onto the glacier?
Heli-hiking makes our glaciers accessible. With a short helicopter flight you can be up on a glacier in just a few minutes from the townships of Fox Glacier, Franz Josef and Mt Cook Village. There are guiding companies in all three of these spots which offer heli-hiking trips every day the weather allows. They’ll provide all of the equipment necessary and of course you’ll be with an experienced glacier guide who has all the training and safety equipment to make your day both memorable and safe.
Check out our five incredible New Zealand Trails guided tours here.
Which heli hiking is best?
If you’re coming all the way to New Zealand and glacier hiking is something you’re really looking forward to, then we would recommend hiking on the Tasman Glacier, from Mount Cook Village.
A couple of reasons why the Tasman is our favourite spot for glacier hiking in New Zealand:
- The Tasman Glacier is huge. It is New Zealand’s longest glacier (29 kilometres / 18 miles), more than twice the length of Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers. We've been up glaciers on both sides of the Southern Alps, and we reckon the views are most awesome from the Tasman.
- You’re surrounded by New Zealand’s highest peaks – Aoraki/Mt Cook and of course Mt Tasman are right there, you’re looking at them on your hike. It’s true that both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers flow down from the same mountains, but due to the topography you don’t have the same views from them.
- The flight alone is worth it. The helicopter flight up to the Tasman Glacier is around 10 minutes, you get a full view of Mt Cook Village, the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake and Aoraki/Mount Cook, as well as the glacier itself from terminal moraine to the higher ice fields. Flying into Fox or Franz Josef is fun, but it’s quite quick in comparison to the Tasman flight.
- There are less people. We think this is very important. As there is no longer the option to walk directly up to a glacier for glacier hiking anywhere in New Zealand, the only way to hike on a glacier is by helicopter. This means there are more people flying onto the glaciers than ever before. The operations at Fox and Franz Josef are on a bigger scale and can get very busy at certain times of the year. On the Tasman Glacier, it’s a common occurrence to have the place to ourselves.
To sum it up, on all tours, we’re trying to give our guests the best possible glacier experience, that’s why we recommend hiking on the Tasman during our stay at Mount Cook Village.
Glacier Hiking in New Zealand – Who is it for?
One of the best things about the New Zealand outdoors is that it is readily accessible for everyone, including unique activities like glacier hiking. This is what makes New Zealand an outdoor Mecca, not just for the wonderful scenery and environment, but because there are tourism operators all over the country whose services make experiences like glacier hiking available to all of us.
The walking itself is very similar to hiking on a normal track or trail, the big difference is that you’ll walk quite slowly and carry a special pole for balance. It’s also the first time that many guests will wear crampons. Crampons are like small snowshoes with spikes on the bottom to give you traction on the ice. Your guide will help you put them on securely and correctly. You don't need experience in glacier hiking, mountaineering or anything like that, if you are an active person, enjoy walking and are confident on your feet then you will have no problem with guided glacier hiking. The glacier walks on our trips are always fully guided; there will be an expert glacier guide leading the group. And of course, there’s plenty of backup just a radio call away if we ever need it. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more about glacier hiking in New Zealand.
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What is a glacier?
The Chinese and Japanese languages explain what a glacier is perfectly, they use the characters of 'ice' and 'river' to form the word for glacier and that is exactly what it is, a frozen river of ice flowing down a mountainside. Glaciers always occur in mountainous areas as they require dense ice, provided by falling snow, and a slope for the ice to flow down. For a glacier to flourish, there must be more snow falling and accumulating than lost through melting and erosion. High mountain ranges in the face of moist cool air, just like the slopes of New Zealand's Southern Alps, provide the perfect environment for a glacier.
Like all rivers, glaciers flow 'downstream' and as they do this, the movement slowly causes the glacier to crack and deform under their own weight which inevitably creates crevasses, seracs and other amazing ice features. The force of the slow downward flow will push rock debris to the front and side of the ice creating landforms known as cirques and moraines. In the last major ice age, which finished around 10,000 years ago, huge glaciers flowed down both sides of New Zealand's Southern Alps carving out valleys which we travel through on most of our tours - Milford Sound, Lake Wakatipu and the Waimakariri Valley were all carved by glaciers.
What's unique about New Zealand’s glaciers?
The most unique aspect of glaciers in New Zealand are their accessibility, there aren't many glaciers in the world within walking distance from the nearest town! For example, the Tasman Glacier begins high in the Southern Alps at an altitude of 3,000m (9,800 ft) and falls around 2,200m (7,200 ft) over it's 29 km (18 mile) journey to a height of only 800m (2,600 ft) above sea level.
The glacier terminal lake is only 8km (5 miles) from Mount Cook Village - it's an easy half day trip to experience the glacier and we are back in town for lunch! A few other facts about the Tasman - it is part of Te Wahipounamu, Southwest New Zealand World Heritage area and flows down from New Zealand’s second highest mountain, Mount Tasman. The total area of the glacier is 101 square kilometres (39 square miles) and is as much as 4 km (2.5 miles) wide and 600m (2,000 ft) thick. It can take up to 40 years to flow from top to bottom!
Tasman Glacier hiking is a highlight on our ‘World Heritage Walking Tour’
All of our South Island trips offer the chance to go heli-hiking on the Tasman Glacier. If, even after reading all of this, heli-hiking doesn’t float your boat, you can instead spend your day in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park hiking up to the Mueller Hut, walking the Hooker Valley Track or exploring Mount Cook Village.
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- Get your free New Zealand Trails guided tour brochure