New Zealand is a country renowned for its natural beauty, and it boasts a diverse landscape that includes wild coastlines, rugged mountains, lush forests and volcanic terrain. But one of the biggest jewels in its sparkling crown would have to be the glaciers – and visiting these frozen wonders is a bucket list experience for adventurers around the globe.
If this sounds like you, but you’re not sure exactly how to see glaciers in New Zealand, never fear – you’ve come to the right place. This guide to the glaciers across the ditch covers everything you need to know about how many there are and where they’re located, the best ones to visit, and the coolest ways to experience them. And perhaps most importantly, the impact climate change is having on them. So don’t wait around, because who knows how long these glaciers have left…
Why Glaciers Are Important and the Impact of Climate Change
As living reminders of the Ice Age, New Zealand’s glaciers have long been an integral part of the country’s identity, and have also helped shape some of the South Island’s most iconic landscapes, like Milford Sound and the Southern Alps. Not only are the glaciers an example of Mother Nature at her finest, but thanks to their accessibility (there is nowhere else in the world, at this latitude, where glaciers have advanced so close to the sea) they’ve also proven to be a huge tourism drawcard.
Unfortunately, glaciers around the world are melting at a rapidly increasing rate due to climate change, and New Zealand’s famed ice blocks are no exception. It’s predicted that the Franz Josef Glacier will shrink by 38 per cent by the year 2100, and recent studies have found that the glaciers on the North Island have declined in area by 25 per cent since 1988. Essentially, New Zealand’s glaciers are disappearing faster than ever, and if the current rate of global warming doesn’t slow down, their long-term fate is not looking good.
How Many NZ Glaciers Are There, and Where Are They Located?
Annual aerial surveys of the New Zealand countryside reveal there are still roughly 3,000 glaciers on the South Island, with the majority of them located near the Main Divide in the Southern Alps – a 450-kilometre mountain range that runs directly down the middle of the island. There are a dozen or so glaciers north of Arthur’s Pass in the Spenser Mountains and St Arnaud Range, while the southernmost glacier is situated on Caroline Peak above Lake Hauroko. All are classed as mid-latitude mountain glaciers, and most cover an area of at least one hectare.
On the North Island, the only place you’ll find any glaciers is the volcanic Mount Ruapehu. It’s home to 18 all up, with one positioned in the actual crater. The three largest are Mangatoetoenui, Whangaehu and the Summit Plateau. Due to the radiating heat and occasional eruption of ash and rock debris, the glaciers here are melting at an accelerated rate.
The Top Glaciers To Visit in New Zealand
Franz Josef Glacier
Widely considered the most visually stunning of all New Zealand’s glaciers, Franz Josef Glacier was first explored in 1865 by geologist Julius von Haast, who christened it after the Austrian emperor. You’ll find it nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps in Westland Tai Poutini National Park – an official UNESCO World Heritage area. The closest major city to Franz Josef Glacier is Christchurch, which is about a five-hour drive away.
Named for Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1872, the Fox Glacier is located just a short 30-minute drive from Franz Josef Glacier. It boasts blue ice caves and deep crevasses, and its terminal face is just five kilometres from the nearby township.
At 27 kilometres in length and with a depth of more than 600 metres, the Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s largest. It sits just below Mount Cook, and its fast-growing terminal lake is one of the only lakes in the world that contains icebergs. Tasman Glacier is also accessible by car from Christchurch, with a four-hour drive.
A honourable mention must also go out to the Rob Roy Glacier – a dramatic hanging glacier located in Mount Aspiring National Park, just outside of Wanaka. And we can’t forget the Murchison Glacier, an 18-kilometre-long beauty positioned on the eastern side of Mount Cook. Tricky to reach and super steep, it’s an isolated playground for hardcore skiers and snowboarders.
How to Experience Glaciers in New Zealand
So now that you’re up to speed on everything there is to know about New Zealand’s glaciers, you’re probably wondering exactly what the best ways are to experience them. Well, you’re about to be spoiled for choice, because with something to suit all holiday budgets, fitness levels and adrenaline expectations, the options are (almost) endless.
Is there a more epic way to see the glaciers than from high above in a helicopter or small plane? We don’t think so. On a scenic flight you’ll soar over breathtaking territory, soaking up the sights as you’re treated to a bird’s-eye view of the icy paradise. Some heli-tours will even land directly on Fox or Franz Josef so that you can get out and go glacial hiking.
As we’ve already mentioned, there are actual icebergs in Lake Tasman (which was formed due to the swift retreat of the Tasman Glacier and sections of its ice shelf breaking away), and you can marvel at them up close on the only glacial boat tour in New Zealand. You’ll also learn all about the fascinating geography and geology of the alpine site, and even touch ice crystals that are hundreds of years old.
Without a doubt, the easiest (and cheapest) way to see the glaciers is on a hike, and New Zealand just happens to have some cracking routes. Some of the best include the Rob Roy Track, a renowned one-day hike that provides a spectacular viewpoint of the Rob Roy Glacier, and the many trails of Mount Cook National Park, including the Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns Track and Mueller Hut Route. For some kid-friendly alternatives, try the Douglas Walk or Sentinel Rock Walk, both near Franz Josef Glacier.
If slow and steady is more your style, the most relaxing way to see the glaciers would have to be by kayak. Many of New Zealand’s glaciers have lakes at their base, and in the summer months you can take to the water for a paddle on the pristine, mirror-like waters. Lake Mapourika near Franz Josef Glacier is a delightful spot for a guided kayak tour, or you can get out among the bergs on Lake Tasman.
Because this is New Zealand, you just know there are going to be a number of heart-pumping ways to see the glaciers. And here are just a few: skydiving, ice climbing, skiing, snowboarding and – our personal fave – a six-day camping expedition on Murchison Glacier. One of the more extreme glacier tours of NZ, you’ll helicopter up to base camp, discover what it takes to survive in the snowy wilderness and spend your days skiing the long glacier runs.
Book your flights to New Zealand with Webjet to be on your way to experiencing the NZ glaciers for yourself. You can also book hotels and accommodation in the cities and towns located close to the glaciers, plus you can explore guided activities and tours to book for your NZ itinerary.