Located about half-way down the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island, the Franz Josef Glacier is in the small village of Franz Josef. Due to the remoteness of this part of the country, the overland journey can take quite a long time, but there are many beautiful points of interest along the way, no matter which direction you're coming from. It's also important to check weather and road conditions before starting out on your journey. Floods have been known to cut Franz Josef off, and roads are also commonly closed due to snow in the mountains, especially at Arthur's Pass. Here's how to get to Franz Josef Glacier from the north, east, and south.
From the North
Franz Josef is 285 miles (460 kms) from Nelson, the largest city in the northern South Island. The Nelson area is popular with travelers, and many continue south afterwards to Franz Josef. The road south goes through Greymouth (the largest town on the West Coast) and Hokitika, both of which are also popular places for travelers to stop.
Many travelers to New Zealand like to rent their own car, as this allows them to reach some of the more isolated attractions. If driving directly from Nelson, the journey to Franz Josef takes about six hours. From Greymouth, it takes about 2.5 hours. Take State Highway (SH) 6 from both towns. The road is mountainous in places, and coastal in others, with many places to stop and enjoy the views.
It's also possible to get a long-distance bus from Nelson and Greymouth to Franz Josef. These leave once a day, and although they take much longer than driving, you can enjoy the views without worrying about watching the road. From Nelson, you'll need to change buses in Greymouth. From Greymouth, the bus continues to Fox Glacier, south of Franz Josef, but you can request to get off at Franz Josef. Traveling from Nelson to Franz Josef by bus takes about 10 hours, whereas from Greymouth it takes about 3.5. Book tickets in advance.
From the East (Christchurch)
While the distance between Christchurch, on the east coast of the South Island, and Franz Josef doesn't look so far, there are some rather big mountains in between. Whether you self-drive, take a bus or shuttle, or take the combined train-bus service, you'll first have to cross Arthur's Pass to get to Greymouth, and then head south to Franz Josef.
From Christchurch, head west on SH 73. The first part of the journey is quite flat, through the Canterbury Plains, but then you'll reach Arthur's Pass. The drive over the mountains is very beautiful, as this is a national park area. You'll meet the West Coast and SH 6 at Kumara Junction, just south of Greymouth. Follow SH 6 through Hokitika and keep going south until you reach Franz Josef. The journey should take around 5 hours.
A few bus and shuttle bus companies follow almost the same route as noted above. You'll need to change buses (and probably providers, too) at Greymouth, so the trip takes longer than self-driving.
By Bus & Train
The TranzAlpine Christchurch to Greymouth train is considered by some to be one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, and it's certainly one of the most beautiful in New Zealand. It leaves Christchurch early in the morning, and arrives in Greymouth about five hours later. At Arthur's Pass it travels through an underground tunnel rather than over the mountain, as the road does, but the views elsewhere are equally impressive. Train tickets should always be bought as far in advance as possible, as this is a very popular journey.
To continue to Franz Josef, you'll need to spend the night in Greymouth and then catch a bus the following day.
From the South (Queenstown)
Queenstown is 217 miles (350 kms) south of Franz Josef. The journey passes through Wanaka, skirts the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, and along the West Coast through the Haast Pass and Fox Glacier.
From Queenstown take SH 6 the whole way. The Haast Pass, connecting Central Otago with the West Coast, is one of the more challenging but also beautiful roads in New Zealand. The road is in pretty good condition, but there are many sharp, blind corners, so take care. The journey from Queenstown takes about five hours, not including photo stops (of which you'll probably want to take many!)
Daily buses leave Queenstown in the morning and arrive in Franz Josef about eight hours later. It mainly follows the same route as above, but takes a slightly longer route via Cromwell, near Queenstown.