Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most impressive natural wonders on the South Island’s West Coast, and the Alex Knob Track will give you by far the best view of it (outside of a helicopter tour). Hiking the Alex Knob Track should take 6-8 hours and there’s heaps to see – the weather is key though (more on that later).
Alex Knob Track
The Alex Knob Track starts close to the main Franz Josef Glacier car park (there’s a small car park on the right just before the main one). The track starts off easily enough and is the same one that takes you to Lake Wombat. After 20 – 30 minutes it branches off, and the climb begins.
In the Clouds
From the turnoff it’s a long slog through the forest. The track is in good shape though and it was a lot easier than I expected. There are a couple of viewpoints to check out (Rata Lookout / Christmas Lookout) but we were fully in the clouds and couldn’t see anything. We met Leah, a German traveller, close to the Christmas Lookout and she was on her way down, assuming she wouldn’t see anything at the top. We convinced her to push on, as I’d seen the forecast and was confident it would clear. As we ascended from the Christmas Lookout we noticed at blue tinge in the sky, and before long the mountains revealed themselves.
Above the Bush
Once you’re above the treeline it’s an easy walk to the end of the track. The views are amazing from this section – you’ll see the glacier, the mountains surrounding it as well as the plains / coastline on the other side. Throw in a bit of mist / low level cloud and you have one of the best viewpoints you’ll see anywhere in New Zealand.
A Scenic Lunch Spot
We met a few other people at the top and had lunch at a little meadow / clearing. It was such an idyllic spot and with the clouds constantly changing below us, there was always something new to look at. We walked around a bit and got some great views towards the coast and took heaps more photos of the glacier – we were so impressed by these views. Definitely in our top three South Island day walks!
There were a few people camping up there as well – if you can stomach taking all your gear up there it’d be an amazing place to spend the night.
The Long Walk Down
We spent about 90 minutes at the top of the Alex Knob Track, and on the way down the clouds had cleared enough that we could see the viewpoints we missed on the way up. First up was the Christmas Lookout, which gives you another awesome view of Franz Josef Glacier.
Then there was the Rata Lookout, which again has a great view of the glacier. If you don’t want to hike the whole track you could probably call it a day at one of these lookouts (they are around 45 minutes apart, and Rata Lookout should take about 90 minutes to reach from the start of the track). I’d push on if I were you though!
On the way down, if you still have any energy, you could check out Lake Wombat. It’s only a 15-minute walk from the turnoff but it isn’t a must-see (just a lake surrounded by trees).
Alex Knob Track: The Details
- How long does it take? The sign at the start of the track says that it takes 8 hours, although we did it in 6 (plus the time at the top). We went reasonably quick but I reckon most people would do it in 6-7.
- How steep is it? It’s not actually too bad. You’ll gain around 1000 metres in altitude but it isn’t that steep and there are plenty of flat bits.
- What about the weather? We were lucky with the weather when we did the Alex Knob Track. It rains a lot in these parts and this wouldn’t be a walk you’d consider in wet conditions. You won’t see anything! So, make sure to check out the forecast (yr.no) and leave early. I’ve heard even on nice days it gets cloudy at the top around lunchtime. We left at 7.10 am (in early February) and we timed it perfectly.
Other Views of Franz Josef Glacier
You can see Franz Josef Glacier from a few other tracks, and they’re a lot easier than the Alex Knob Track. You can do the valley walk, Sentinel Rock or Peters Pool, or check out the Roberts Point Track for another longer walk (although the views don’t look as good, and someone told us it was harder than the Alex Knob Track).
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