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Six epic Franz Josef walks


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Glacier country serves up far more treats than just the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk and heli-hiking. Look beyond the alpine vistas and you’ll discover mirror-like lakes, ocean views, cascading waterfalls, daisy-laden meadows and hidden forest trails well off the beaten track. Here’s a guide to the best Franz Josef walking tracks, whatever your interests.  

 

Best glacier views without a helicopter:  Alex Knob Track (8-hour return) 

Accessed from the Glacier Access Road, just south of the Waiho River Bridge, this full day 17-kilometre hike is quite the gut buster and one of the best all-day things to do in Franz Josef. The upside however are the killer Franz Josef Glacier views you’ll be rewarded with on reaching the Alex Knob summit. Leave the more pedestrian sightseeing trails behind and take the zigzag track past rimu, r?t? and k?mahi forest and through alpine meadows to the Rata Lookout.  From there, follow the trail markers to the summit enjoying wider views of glaciers and the Tasman Sea. Climb past the turn-off to Lake Wombat, and the magnificent Franz Josef will come into frame. Push onto the Christmas Lookout and the mighty Alex Knob summit for the best views without flying! 

 

Best West Coast views and wildlife: Okarito Trig walk (1.5 hours) 

For unbeatable views of the West Coast and Southern Alps, drive 25 minutes seaward to the tiny settlement of Okarito. Jump on the Wetland trail before taking the well-graded Okarito Trig track up to a viewpoint overlooking Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Enjoy views on a clear day of Aoraki Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, the Southern Alps, serene lagoons and the West Coast. Combine your hike with a guided kayak tour across the serene Lake Mapourika, through a hidden estuary to the Jurassic-like Okarito State Forest and the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary. Your knowledgeable local guide will point out the unique wetland birds like the graceful kotoku or white heron. The lagoon’s habitat hosts more than 76 species of birds including the endangered royal spoonbill, so pack your binoculars.  

 

Best underground walk: Tartare Tunnels walk (1 hr 20 min return

Discover the picturesque Tartare Gorge, glow worms and abandoned moss-covered water tunnels on the 4-kilometre Tartare Tunnels Walk. The trailhead at the end of Cowan Street follows an old road that once led to a hydroelectric power station. Walk past the Callery Walk junction and continue climbing until you drop down into the Tartare Gorge.  

A steep and narrow forest climb from the gorge lookout, reveals the disused tunnels dripping with ankle-deep water and your very own echo-chamber. Top tip: Wear sturdy footwear and a head torch to enter the tunnels then turn off the light to discover your very own reception committee; hundreds of luminous glow worms!  

 

Most instagrammable track: Lake Matheson (1h 30 min return) 

Famous for its mirror-perfect reflections of New Zealand's highest mountains, Aoraki Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the Lake Matheson track attracts coach loads of visitors. But with international tourists in short supply, New Zealanders’ currently have this serene spot all to themselves. Lake Matheson is the perfect all-weather walk serving up picture-perfect views, just a 30-minute drive from the Bella Vista motel. Add this short yet picturesque hike to your ‘Franz Josef things to do’ list. 

 

Best chance of Kiwi spotting: The West Coast Wildlife Centre 

This Franz Josef conservation centre excels at breeding Rowi Kiwi, a rare species of New Zealand’s national bird, and the endangered Tuatara. Take a walk through this attraction on a rainy-day as their guided tours are run indoors.  There’s a dark house to view kiwi’s, a small cinema which screens West Coast documentaries and an indoor glacier experience, making this one of the best Franz Josef things to do with kids.  

 

Pakihi walk (30 minutes return) 

You’ll rarely spot kiwi on any Franz Josef walking tracks, but this area is home to the rarest species of them all, the little Okarito Brown 

At the trailhead, check out the informative panels before the route takes you across the Pakihi wetland and gently ascends through kamahi and rimu forest to a lookout. Here you’ll enjoy panoramic coastal, rainforest and Okarito Lagoon views, framed by the Southern Alps and Aoraki Mount Cook. 

Whatever your timeframe or fitness level, there’s walks in Franz Josef to suit you. Just ask the Bella Vista team for hiking suggestions and they’ll steer you in the right direction.