Magnificient Lake Matheson

By: Nina Mercer


Famous for its reflected views of surrounding mountains, Lake Matheson is a place of almost unparalleled beauty, says NZMCD writer Nina Mercer

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The calm, still waters of South Westland’s Lake Matheson have long drawn visitors from all over the world hoping for a glimpse of the magical reflections of Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Close to the Fox Glacier township, Lake Matheson is a must-visit for those travelling the West Coast.

Lake Matherson Geology

Lake Matheson is a glacial depression that has filled with water. About 14,000 years ago the Fox Glacier had its last significant advance over the coastal plains towards the ocean, grinding out the depression that was to become the lake.

The lake’s water is particularly dark thanks to the leaching of organic matter from the forest floor. West Coast rivers are all brown-tinged for the same reason, and the dark waters make the reflections all the more stunning.

A dawn start needed?

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A tūī enjoys flax flowers

While the reflections are said to be best atdawn, that wasn’t going to happen for our teens and tweenies, and we arrived at the track’s start mid-morning. It was a bright sunny day, and the car park was already full. There was a slight breeze, but we were still hopeful to see the reflections.

The track loops around a café before entering the forest and coming to a wide swing-bridge, the river below looking cool and refreshing. Carrying on into the forest, past tall kahikatea and rimu, we were grateful for the shade.

Nothing beats a bushwalk for a bit of exercise on a hot day. The lake’s water is particularly dark thanks to the leaching of organic matter from the forest floor. West Coast rivers are all brown-tinged for the same reason After about 15 minutes, we reached the jetty viewpoint, the first lookout on the track.

To this point, the trail was wide and easy, accessible to wheelchairs and baby buggies. The lookout is large and robust, and we patiently waited for others to take their photos before taking in the views ourselves. Ripples in the dark water meant the reflections were non-existent, but the mountain views were still fabulous.

This was not our final destination - we were walking the Lake Circuit, about an hour and a half all up - so we carried on.Th e track narrows after the Jetty Viewpoint but is still easy. After strolling through the forest for a while longer, we dropped down to a boardwalk over a wetland area.

Information panels told us about the long-fi nned eels that make the lake their home. Endangered now, they were once an important food source for Māori. Soon after the boardwalk, we came to a junction giving us the option of climbing to the View of Views lookout. Without giving the kids a chance to opt-out, we carried on up.

And yes, it was worth it. Th e view, framed by tree ferns and other foliage, was beautiful and the lake seemed to be getting calmer - our hopes were high for the next lookout point.

Reflection island

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A popular photo opportunity

Back down the hill we went and rejoined the main track. Within a few minutes, we reached the last main lookout, Refl ection Island. Th is lookout platform is enormous, with various levels and, most importantly, a shady spot for a snack. Time for photos.

But as soon as I thought I had the best shot I could get, the waters seemed to calm even more, and eventually we had almost perfect refl ections of the Southern Alps. How lucky. Of course, it made it diffi cult to leave Refl ection Island, because, what if the refl ections got even better and I missed the shot?

But there’s nothing like kids to keep you moving, so after 15 minutes we continued on the way. Th e walk meanders through forest before coming to a more open area with scrubby matagouri before reaching the loop junction and the swing-bridge once again.

Time to make use of the supersized ‘photo frame’ set up to capture the view The view, framed by tree ferns and other foliage, was beautiful and the lake seemed to be getting calmer — our hopes were high for the next lookout point of Aoraki and Tasman, some of the children more obliging than others, before heading into Fox Glacier township for an ice cream. 

Further information

  • How to get there: From Fox Glacier township, follow the signs to Lake Matheson, 5km along Cook Road.
  • DOC campsites nearby: Otto/MacDonald’s campsite: SH6, 13km north of Franz Josef. Lake Paringa: SH6, 40km north of Haast. (Gillespies Beach Campsite is not suitable for motorhomes.)
  • Holiday parks: Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park.
  • Walks nearby: Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk, 1.5-hour return. Check out doc.govt.nz for more information on the West Coast.

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