Blazing trails on the glacier: the history of guiding at Franz Josef Glacier

These days we wouldn’t think twice about jumping in a car or bus and zipping between Queenstown and Franz Josef in a day, or Fox Glacier and Hokitika in a few hours.  The roads are safe, sealed, and offer some nice cafés along the way. It’s all pretty pleasant really.

But what if we stepped back in time 104 years. The road from Hokitika to Franz Josef has just opened and it’s a treacherous 12-hour journey.  How keen would you be then? 

Amazingly (and despite this exhausting and dangerous journey), a tourism industry existed way back then. Thanks to the resilient nature of the ‘West Coasters’ a trail was blazed for the beginnings of a tourism industry that has made us what we are today.

From pounamu, to gold, to tourism, here are some of the biggest influences on tourism in Franz Josef Glacier today.

Historic Guiding Party


In 1865 gold was discovered in South Westland bringing an influx of hopeful miners to the beaches and inland areas of the West Coast.  A small community was established at Waiho (Franz Josef).  It wasn’t long before the West Coast gold rush dwindled.  In true West Coast fashion, some hardy types stayed on to settle at Franz Josef as farmers or loggers.  Despite the stunning setting and the spectacular glaciers, South Westland was a remote place, mostly due to the lack of adequate access roads.

Thanks to the stoic nature of the West Coasters, they forged ahead with the idea of bringing visitors to this stunning part of the world and slowly a tourism industry was born.  By the late 1920s, tourism had replaced gold as Franz Josef's main industry.  The gold may be gone (so they say), but it has left behind a rich history that provides us with some great tales to tell.


No discussion on guiding at Franz Josef Glacier is complete without Peter and Alec Graham.  The Graham brothers are considered two of the most important figures in New Zealand mountaineering.

These two West Coast legends were born in the late 1880’s and went on to forge the way for guided glacier hiking.  The Graham brothers were renowned for their exceptional skill and versatility in the mountains.  They were also highly regarded for their hospitality skills where a focus on safety and having fun was first and foremost.  Peter and Alec ran the Franz Josef Hotel for nearly 25 years and we have them to thank for many of the tracks and huts that are still widely used today. Their greatest achievement was their commitment to introducing thousands of visitors to the mountains and glaciers.


The remote and difficult terrain of Franz Josef was a major challenge for early tourism pioneers.  Imagine building a hut on an alpine pass with no aircraft support.  That meant every piece of material was carried in.  It took resilience and a deep understanding of the glacial landscape.  Mistakes could be deadly.

The greatest strength of the development of tourism in Franz Josef was that it was run by born-and-bred West Coasters, who had generations of knowledge ingrained in them.


historic walking to terminal face

Franz Josef Glacier is unique because it travels to just 240 metres above sea level.   It’s known as one of the most easily accessible glaciers on the planet. 

But working with nature isn’t always easy.  Between 1934 and 1946, the glacier retreated by about 1 kilometre, making access for guided hikers extremely difficult.  When a lake formed at the terminal face, tourists were ferried by boat to the ice for glacier hikes.  When an iceberg emerged from the lake, nearly swamping a tourist boat, it was decided that a safer access was needed.  Undeterred, the Public Works Department was quick to build a high track to get keen tourists onto the glacier.  In 1965 a major advance saw more access problems with large pieces of ice pushing up near the terminal face.  Glacier trips were described as “adventurous”. 

In 2014, Franz Josef Glacier Guides began accessing the glacier by helicopter after the front of the glacier became unstable during the current period of retreat.


It’s taken passion, resilience and enthusiasm to build the tourism industry that now exists at Franz Josef Glacier.  It seems that enthusiasm is infectious.

If you’re interested in the full history of guiding at Franz Josef Glacier began, pop in to our Information Boards at the Glacier Base Building.