Westland Tai Poutini National Park on New Zealand's south island is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing sixty glaciers, including two of the most accessible glaciers in the world, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These two glaciers are only twenty minutes drive apart so you can easily visit both in a single day. Terminating almost at sea level near two small towns, you won't need to climb a mountain or spend days trekking to get to the face of the glacier. Even with young children it's an easy walk.
They can be visited year round and provided you don't mind the chill, the walk to the glaciers is actually more spectacular in the cooler months thanks to the early morning frosts, the chance of snow and the higher than usual chance of sunny days allowing you an unobstructed view of the glacier working it's way down to the valley floor.
The two main ways to get there are from Christchurch via Arthurs pass and Greymouth or from Queenstown via Wanaka and Hokitika. Both drives take 5-6hrs depending on conditions and are spectacular, although my preference is the drive via Queenstown. The scenery between Wanaka and the coast was absolutely breathtaking.
Getting up close
Both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier have walking trails from a carpark along the river bed to reach the face of the glacier. There is no charge to walk to the terminal face of either glacier and you don't need a guide. They are also connected by bikeways to the local townships if you want to cycle from town.
Franz Josef Glacier
The walk to Franz Josef is the longer of the two. Approximately 3km each way, it includes a short walk through a temperate rainforest before you reach the river bed. It's actually the easier walk because it's almost completely flat and the surface is very even. The only uneven part is the final 50m, but even that is pretty easy.
It's also stunning. There are enough rocks just off path asking to be jumped on, creeks to look at and waterfalls to gaze up at that you can easily keep children engaged. Between the steep cliffs and mountains, the waterfalls and the glacier cascading down from snowy heights to a rainforested valley it's a spectacular walk.
The disappointing part is when you reach the end of your journey, or at least it was when we were there in September 2012. The glacier is currently retreating, and rapidly. This is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world and when it starts to retreat it retreats quickly.
Where the walk ends used to be close to the glacier but now it's about 800m from the terminal face. In fact from the end point you can't even see the terminal face. A giant pile of scree and rock that used to lie under the glacier blocks your view. This photo shows you how the glacier has changed over the past ten years. Pretty amazing right?
In all honestly you get a better view 500m back down the path. The terminal face of Franz Josef has been really unstable over the past few years so this is probably why they haven't tried to extend the walk closer. Safety first is good. But it would have been nice if there were signs letting us know that before we reached the end of the walk.
The walk to Fox Glacier isn't quite as scenic as the walk to Franz Josef but at this point in time you get a much better view of the terminal face of the glacier, which is only 100-200m from the barrier at the end of the walk (at least that was the case in September 2012). You don't however get a great view of the glacier making it's way down the valley from the walk like you do from the walk to Franz Josef. You need to drive to a nearby lookout point to see that.
The walk to Fox Glacier is much shorter, approximately half the distance. BUT the path is more challenging - there are several small stream crossings and a lot of ups and downs. It can be wet and slippery in places. As you can see from the photo below, saying the surface is uneven isn't overstating things! Our 7 year old was in heaven. Our youngest child found it hard going, but then she'd already done a 6km walk that morning followed by a 2km walk to see a lake at lunch. Regardless pack good shoes!
Of course you can choose to just walk part way along the flat creek bed and stop when the path starts getting challenging. You'll still get a decent view of the glacier from a distance and a better view of the glacier face than you do at Franz Josef.
Which do you visit?
Glaciers change rapidly so ask locals and other tourists what the situation is at both glaciers, specifically how close you can get to the glaciers before you visit. What we saw at both glaciers was totally different to what friends saw three years previously.
We found we got something different out of visiting both glaciers. Since they are only twenty minutes drive apart you can easily visit both in a single day if you are just hiking to the base of each. Until Franz Josef starts advancing again or they move the end point of the walk, Franz Josef offers a great view of a glacier working it's way down from the mountains to sea level but not necessarily a great way to get up close to one. Visiting Fox Glacier at the moment allows you to get a lot closer to the terminal face and see the features of the glacier.
If you are worried about your children being able to walk the distance to both glaciers, I'd recommend walking all the way to Fox Glacier to get up close to the glacier but only walking halfway to Franz Josef.
Also it's not a bad idea to visit Franz Josef first. Cloud often sets in during the afternoon and since one of the best parts about visit Franz Josef is the view of the glacier the best time to go is when the sky is clear.
Getting up even closer
For safety reasons both walks only take you within a few hundred meters of each glacier, not right to the base. To get closer you need to join a guided tour, which unfortunately are only open to children 7 years and above.
Unless of course you have the money to pay for a helicopter flight over the glaciers! You'll get to see places that are only accessible by air. For families with children aged 9 years and older you can even go heli-hiking on the glacier. There are a number of helicopter companies which operate in the area and the local tourist information centre will help you make a decision on which company and tour is right for your family.
Things to know before you go
Being prepared for the weather
The weather changes really rapidly at the glaciers. Even the weather in the nearby towns isn't a good indication of what the conditions at the glaciers will be like. We visited both in a single day and during our day we ranged from sweating in t-shirts to standing in drizzling rain in puffer jackets and beanies.
Be prepared for all conditions, particularly rain. Pack all-weather jackets that cuts out rain and wind and provides insulation from the cold. Berghaus jackets are the perfect example of the style of jacket you want to bring.
Bring snacks and water
This is a national park so there aren't any stores along the hiking trails. Bring snacks and drinks.
Wear good shoes
The walk to Fox Glacier definitely warrants proper hiking shoes. The trail is very uneven, with several stream crossing, lots of boulders and it can be quite slippery in places if it's been raining. For Franz Josef any comfortable walking shoe will be fine.
Fox Glacier has toilets at the carpark. Franz Josef doesn't. Enjoy that one if you don't prepare in advance!
Allow extra time for rock collecting
If your children are anything like mine, being surrounded by 30 billion interestingly shaped rocks will be too great a temptation to ignore. Expect to spend a fair amount of your visit collecting and admiring rocks. And a lot more time explaining why they can't take all of them home!