Helicopter ride, glaciers, hiking. In New Zealand’s South Island, these three things come together to create an epic, unforgettable experience. For the uninitiated, a heli hike consists of taking a helicopter up to the top of the mountains, and in a small group setting, taking a guided hike across the glacier plains. Depending on your fitness level and time constraints, you can even opt for the more intense version of the heli hike, which is a glacier climb that takes ~6-7 hours and will have you strapped to carabiners and climb lines as you scale up glacier formations. Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow us to do the latter, but a lot of the information presented here will still be applicable to you, so no worries!
Your research may have revealed there are two main options for glacier hikes – Franz Josef and Mount Cook (there’s also Fox Glacier, but only as a distant third option). Both departure points are of similar distance away from Queenstown, and technically visit the same Tasman glaciers, just on different sides of the mountain ranges. Not surprisingly, the basic itinerary and the prices are similar for both heli hike options, around 450-500 NZD per person (for the best prices, check out Bookme which we found to be cheaper by 10-20% vs. the operator websites). The exact operator type really won’t matter too much in my opinion, as long as it’s one of the top-rated firms on TripAdvisor, since the services offered and itinerary will be nearly identical (even the guides are mostly freelancers). Just be sure that bad weather cancellation policy is crystal clear and easy to obtain. We went with The Helicopter Line, given their long-standing operational history and experienced pilots. These similarities aside, where Franz Josef and Mount Cook differ are in the climate probability, glacier type, and helicopter ride duration.
Climate Probability: Franz Josef is on the west coast of South Island, and the combination of coastal fronts and pressure shifts results in 30-40% likelihood of getting rained/fogged out of your glacier hike. Needless to say, it would be quite devastating to have your trip cancelled after driving 3-4 hours, so this may be a critical factor for you to go with Mount Cook, which has over 85% of its flights operating as planned.
Glacier Type: This is a bit of a toss-up, so depends on your preference. Mount Cook glaciers are vast and wide, and resembles a giant block of ice in the middle of the mountains. On the other hand, Franz Josef glaciers are a lot more jagged and uneven, with finger-like protrusions along the glacier. Both blocks of glaciers are constantly moving, so the terrain will change every single day, but it really comes down to your preference for the type of hike you want, and depends on how the glacier shifted the night before you arrive!
Helicopter Duration: One of our greatest draws to this activity was the helicopter ride, which was a first for us. In reading through reviews and various sites, it turned out that the helicopter ride at Franz Josef was a whopping 5 minutes, which felt quite short to us, even as helicopter beginners. In contrast, the helicopter ride at Mount Cook was 10-15 minutes, which certainly isn’t the longest duration either, but was still 2-3x that of Franz Josef. In our minds, this was the final nail in the coffin to seal the deal.
Keep in mind that regardless of whichever you choose, as long as the chopper lifts off and you’re on the glacier, I have no doubt that you’ll have an excellent time regardless of the choices made. Enjoy the hike!