Franz Josef's cloak of ice once flowed from the mountains right to the sea. Following millennia of gradual retreat, the glacier is now 19km inland and accessible only by helicopter. Swarms of small aircraft from Franz Josef Glacier village, 5km north, lift visitors to views of sparkling ice and toothy mountains. Many land on the glacier to lead groups to blue-tinged caves and crevasses. A glacier experience is the crowning moment for thousands of annual visitors, but walking trails, hot pools, and adventure sports from quad biking to clay target shooting keep adrenaline pulsing.
Geologist Julius von Haast led the first European expedition here in 1865, and named the glacier after the Austrian emperor. The dismal forecast of a rainier, warmer future spells more shrinkage for Franz Josef, whose trimlines (strips of vegetation on the valley walls) mark out decades of dramatic glacial retreat.