Alex Knob Track
The day walk up to Alex Knob overlooking the Franz Josef Glacier is a beauty. On a good day, you are rewarded with incredible 360-degree views of the glacier, the Southern Alps beyond and sweeping views of the West Coast. The track was so well maintained, it felt like the easiest 1000m climb I’d ever done.
DoC recommend an 8-hour return for the 17.2 km track and rate it as Advanced. After a summer of tramping, I was in good form and it took me just over 5 hours return, including an hour break at the top waiting for the cloud to clear. I took a day pack with all the safety essentials, lunch, water and warm clothes, etc. I was glad for the warm clothes – even on a very hot summer day at sea level it got pretty cold at the top.
Getting There Alex Knob Track
The Alex Knob Track is on the way to the main Franz Josef car park not far from the village. Head South from Franz Josef on the SH6, cross the bridge then turn left down the Franz Josef glacier road. The track starts a couple of kilometres down on the right. There is a decent-sized parking spot and signage for the Lake Wombat track and Alex Knob. There are no toilets at the car park, so go before you arrive.
A friend had been reluctantly dragged up the Alex Knob track a few years ago. They started walking too late, and when they got to the top the afternoon cloud had come in, it was pretty miserable and there was no view. With that in mind, I set the alarm for 5.15 am at the marvellous DoC campsite at Lake Mapourika where I camped the night before. I immediately went back to sleep, but slightly regretted the decision as I drove into Franz Josef. The mountains were out and it was a beautiful clear day with just a small puff of cloud over the Ebenezer Peak just past Alex Knob.
Lake Wombat Track
I started walking at 9.20 am. The first section was through the forest along the wide, beautifully maintained and gently undulating Lake Wombat track, a sedate 3.8km return, suitable for families.
Alex Knob Track
Fifteen minutes later I was at the junction with the Alex Knob track where it changes to a tramping track. There was a notice reading that the track had been maintained under the government’s Jobs for Nature program which employed some locals in outdoor/nature jobs during Covid. They did a fantastic job and I was really impressed with the state of the track. I quietly thanked them countless times throughout the morning.
The Alex Knob track involves a 1000m climb, so it isn’t easy, but it seemed like it had been made as easy as possible – the kind of track that makes you want to run up it. It started with a series of zigzags for the first few hundred metres of elevation. You will encounter some tree roots and rocky sections, but nothing that should pose any problems for regular trampers.
I walked the track during a period of hot dry weather. I was really glad to be walking through the shade of the forest. All the streams were dry, so if you’re walking in summer take plenty of water.
Towards Rata Lookout
In small clearings along the way there were some views of Lake Mapourika, and the roar of the Waiho River rose up through the trees. The first great views of the Franz Josef Glacier were from the Rata Lookout at around 10.20 am. If you didn’t want to carry on any further, this would be a very respectable effort with superb views of the glacier and glimpses of rata in bloom from the track.
Towards Christmas Lookout
The section to the Christmas lookout wasn’t as steep and took me 30 minutes. It was a bit more of a tramping track with a short section that looked like it could get a bit muddy in wet weather. Again, there were superb views from the lookout. I hadn’t heard many birds yet, but a lone tomtit flew in for a quick visit. The cloud was slowly coming in across the mountains and wished I’d made an earlier start.
Towards Alex Knob
After Christmas Lookout, it was into the dracophyllum zone – always a good sign of upward progress. I heard a distant kea and hoped there would be a couple at the peak. The canopy thinned and the track became significantly more rugged with a few sections requiring a bit of concentration and tree-root scrambling. The track eventually narrowed and became steeper and as bushes replaced the trees there were a couple of little drop-offs, but plenty to hold on to around them.
Above the bush line, the views back to the west coast were incredible. I was walking just under the cloud layer, and pushed on, hoping it would clear when I reached the peak. The narrow track was easy to follow and there were markers and poles higher up amongst the grasses.
I reached Alex Knob (1303m) at 11.40 am, 2 hours 20 mins from the car park. The cloud blanket was parting now and again and I quickly snapped some photos of the still-visible glacier, hoping it wouldn’t get any worse. At the top, there was a cool structure detailing the peaks of the area (which, unfortunately, I couldn’t see through the cloud).
A track continued on along the top, so I wandered along until it ran out. I was lucky – the cloud wasn’t low or thick enough to completely obscure the glacier and I sat down and got stuck into my lunch, hoping it would clear.
Alex Knob and Franz Josef Glacier
The views of the Franz Josef Glacier were breathtaking. Pristine white up high, and dirty grey with rock debris below. The shattered face of the glacier split in two tongues around a giant rock outcrop. Huge crevasses were visible on the face even from this distance and rivers and waterfalls thundered down from cracks and gaps. The glacier is currently in a period of retreat – check out this article for more information.
The cloud cleared on and off, giving me a glimpse of some of the higher peaks above the glacier. Helicopters that I heard on and off during the walk flew up the valley below me, as small as insects.
It was a scorching hot day at sea level, but up here with a breeze picking up and me cooling down it got pretty cold. I was really glad I’d brought a couple of extra layers, my gloves and hat. After about an hour I made my way back down. The cloud was still coming and going and not looking like it would clear significantly in the next hour.
Back to Lake Wombat
On my return, I left Alex Knob at 12.45 pm, reached Christmas Lookout by 1.30 pm, Rata Lookout by 1.50 pm and was back at the Wombat Track by 2.30 pm. I headed down for a look at Lake Wombat and soaked up the sun on the bench.
I would definitely recommend the Alex Knob track if you’re fit, love a climb and have most of the day. If you don’t think you fall into those categories, then a walk to the Rata or Christmas lookouts would be great options.
Happy Tramping!! TT x