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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrOn a still day, the dark waters of Lake Matheson are a mirror for New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook. Near Fox Glacier in South Westland, Lake Matheson is a traditional mahinga kai (food gathering place) for the indigenous Maori people.
Lake Matheson is arguably the most photographed lake in New Zealand, and the Lake Matheson walk is a must-do attraction for all visitors to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
GeographyLake Matheson was formed by glaciation around 14,000 years ago. The Fox Glacier retreated from its last major advance towards the sea, and left a depression which later filled with water forming Lake Matheson. The lake is located on a valley floor about 12 km from the current Fox Glacier and Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Mount Tasman .
The waters of Lake Matheson are a shade of dark brown, so on a calm day they create the ideal reflective surface. In the mirror-like reflection you can see Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and Mount La Perous. Natural leaching of organic matter from the surrounding native forest floor causes the unusual color.
HistoryThe region has long been a special place for Maori, and is a traditional mahinga kai (food gathering place).
Tourist visits to Lake Matheson started in the 1950s. It was a popular early morning excursion for guests from the nearby Fox Hotel. The walk began from the same place as the trails commence today, but conditions were slightly more treacherous without the current bridges.
After a 15-minute walk through the bush, visitors would arrive at a small beach where a rowboat was moored. After a short paddle, visitors would arrive at Reflection Island, and wait for the ripples to disperse and the famous mountain reflections to appear.
Lake Matheson is one of the most iconic ‘postcard’ scenes in New Zealand, and has long featured on chocolate boxes, beer bottles, calendars and even the 1946 New Zealand Peace Stamp.
Flora and FaunaThe area around the lake is managed by the Department of Conservation, and is filled with native kahikatea (white pine) and rimu (red pine) trees. Flax bushes and a variety of New Zealand fern species also thrive near the lake.
The lake is home to long finned eel, as well as many water birds. If you take a hike around the lake, you will be sure to hear plenty of birdsong.
HikingAt the car park, there is some great information about the lake itself. The car park is also the entrance to two walking trails around the lake.
Car park to jetty viewpointFrom the car park, an easy walk passes over the Clearwater River suspension bridge. The Clearwater River drains off the lake and is tinted brown under the bridge, however it quickly becomes clear and true to its name. The trail winds its way through ancient native forest, before finishing at a jetty (pontoon) that stretches out onto the lake. The walk is 1km return from the car park, and takes about 40 minutes. This shorter walk is graded for wheelchair access.
Lake CircuitIf you have a little more time, you can continue on around the lake from the jetty viewpoint. At the View of Views at the top end of the lake, you will also find magnificent mountain reflections shrouded in native foliage. Reflection Island also offers a stunning vista. The circuit covers 2.6km return, and takes around 1.5 hours.
Dawn and dusk are the times when the lake is at its calmest, offering the best views.
Eating and GiftsLocated at the base of Lake Matheson and the gateway to the walkway, the Matheson Café and ReflectioNZ Gifts and Gallery offer a quick break. The café has delicious food, with breakfast, lunch and dinner, with local wine and a side of unbeatable views.
If you need a souvenir, or missed the picture perfect shot of the reflections in the lake, you can pick up a postcard to send home. The gift store also stocks a range of Kiwiana products and clothing.
How To Get ThereFrom the middle of Fox Glacier Weheka township, turn onto Cook Flat Road (this is well signposted). Travel 5km along this road, then turn right onto the side road to Lake Matheson.
Other informationCheck the current track conditions and weather forecasts at the local Department of Conservation office in the Fox Glacier Weheka township or at the Westland Tai Poutini National Park Visitor Center (On State Highway 6 at Franz Josef Glacier).
The weather in the area can change rapidly, so always take warm and waterproof clothing with you. Be sure to bring water, insect repellent and sunscreen.
A variety of accommodation is available in nearby Fox Glacier village.
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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Jul 20, 2015