The Franz Josef is a 12 km (7.5 mi) long glacier located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. Together with the Fox Glacier 20 km (12 mi) to the south, it is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.The area surrounding the two glaciers is part of Te Wahipounamu, a World Heritage Site park. The river emerging from the glacier terminal of Franz Josef is known as the Waiho River.
The first European description of one of the west-coast glaciers (believed to be Franz Josef) was made from the steam ship Mary Louisa in 1859.The glacier was later named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865.The Māori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere ('The tears of Hinehukatere'), arising from a local legend: Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche swept Wawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
The glacier area is one of the main tourist attractions of the West Coast, with around 250,000 visitors a year,and up to 2,700 per day (2007).Guided and unguided walks up to and onto the glacier are possible however since April 2012 all glacier walks require a helicopter flight past the unstable terminal face, glacier walks require some specialised equipment, namely ice axes and crampons that latch onto a sturdy boot.
As the walking part of any tour up to the glacier takes a long time, and ends at the first icefall (a sort of frozen waterfall, showing a natural dip of the land underneath), numerous tourists book helicopter tours from one of the several local airlines, which usually drop their guests between the first and second icefall, for a guided 1-2 hour walk through the broken ground atop the glacier. Though the glacial landscape changes almost daily with the glaciers unusually fast flow, and some walks include passages through ice tunnels, they are still considered quite safe and only somewhat strenuous.
Franz Josef township is a little service village (approximately 330 inhabitants) located approximately 5 km away from the face of the glacier on State Highway 6. It has a small but busy heliport, numerous tourist accommodation options (with up to 2,000 people staying overnight during the main season) and a number of restaurants and shops.In June 2010, an Australian tourist died of a heart attack during a guided hike of the glacier.