Westland National Park
Westland National ParkWestland National Park, established in 1960 and considerably enlarged in 1982, extends from the west coast at Gillespie's Point and Okarito (white heron reserve) to Mount Tasman (3498m), one of the highest peaks in the Southern Alps. The national park's main attractions are the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, which flow down from the permanent ice caps of the 3000m peaks of the Southern Alps to an altitude of 300m above sea level, where evergreen rain forest and tall tree ferns flourish.Directly on the coast it is relatively warm and less wet, with an annual rainfall of around 2500 mm. In the western foothills of the Southern Alps rainfall is around 5000 mm, and in the alpine and summit regions it is over 7600 mm. In Westland National Park you must expect to encounter violent and long spells of rain and snow - without which there would of course be no snowfields, glaciers or rain forests.The main road through the national park is Highway 6, which gives access to all the major natural attractions and many lesser ones.There are a number of way marked trails in the national park. Before setting out on a walk it is essential to inquire about the condition of the trail at the visitor center in Franz Josef or the Fox Glacier tourist village, which also supply detailed descriptions of the routes.
Te Wahipounamu Nature Reserve
Westland National Park and Mount Cook National Park together form the large Te Wahipounamu Nature Reserve, which because of its unique expanse of rain forest it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier (25km north) reach down from some of the highest peaks of the Southern Alps, in Westland National Park, to around 300m above sea level, amid dense forests. They were originally named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert. But in 1865 the German geologist Julius von Haast renamed the more northerly of the two after the Austrian emperor Franz Josef. And in 1872, when the then prime minister of New Zealand visited the glaciers, the one to the south was given his name.The glaciers are at their most impressive at sunset. The very high rainfall (up to 7500 mm) produces dense rain forests but also means many rainy days. Stable weather conditions prevail in winter, when the snow-capped peaks that form the backdrop to the glaciers can often be clearly seen. In summer, during the main holiday season, the two holiday resorts at the foot of the glacier are overcrowded; it is essential, therefore, to book well in advance.A 7km road and a footpath lead to the mouth of the Fox Glacier. A walk over the glacier is not difficult with suitable footwear. For inexperienced glacier walkers a guided walk (available twice daily) is recommended.From the Peak Indicator, a viewpoint 9km further west, there are magnificent views, in clear weather, of the mountain peaks and the creeping glacier. The view is particularly fine at sunrise or sunset.
20km below the village of Fox Glacier, Gillespie's Point reaches out into the wild Tasman Sea. Gold was found here in the 19th C.
Franz Josef Glacier
Over the last 200 years the relatively steep Franz Josef Glacier has frequently advanced and then withdrawn again. On balance, however, it has retreated markedly. Meltwater from the glacier forms the Waiko River.A narrow road (6km) runs along the south side of the Waiko valley to the parking area at the mouth of the glacier. On the way there it is worth taking the side roads going off to Peter's Pool, Sentinel Rock and various lookouts with views of the glacier.A walk (2 hours there and back) over the wide river bed and rocks polished by the ice leads to a viewpoint at the glacier's mouth. For a walk over the glacier itself it is best to join one of the guided tours, which are available twice a day.
There is a breathtaking view of the Franz Josef Glacier from the Alex Knob (1295m).
Franz Josef Glacier Village
The village called Franz Josef Glacier is a popular tourist resort. The little church of St James was built in 1931. From its chancel window there was once a good view of the glacier.
8km north of the Franz Josef Glacier village on Highway 6 is the idyllic little Lake Makourapi, whose waters mirror the majestic alpine peaks and green expanses of forest. The lake is the haunt of many bird species.
25km north of Franz Josef Glacier village is Okarito, a small township founded by gold miners in the 1860s. In good weather there are marvelous views of the Southern Alps from here.
The Okarito Lagoon is a bird sanctuary, established to protect the white heron. This is its only nesting place in New Zealand. There are guided bird watching walks from November to February.