Lake Matheson is a stunning glacier lake reflecting views of the Southern Alps including Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. It’s one of the most famous mirror lakes in New Zealand offering breathtaking views. The easy Lake Matheson walk follows a 4.4 km loop trail along the lake’s edge from which you can explore the different perspectives of the lake. There are plenty of photo spots with benches along the track to take in the views. Read in our complete guide everything you need to know about Lake Matheson, the loop track and different photo spots.
How to get to Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson is located along the west coast nearby Fox Glacier Township. When you drive on theCook Flat Road you have to take a turn and travel 5 km along this road before you get to Lake Matheson.
There is a huge car park available and a cafe called ‘ Matheson Cafe’ where you can have a coffee or enjoy breakfast or lunch.
Explore Lake Matheson with a nature guide and enjoy pick up and drop off from your hotel in Franz Josef
Lake Matheson walk key facts
Before we dive into the details about the Lake Matheson walk, let’s first have a look at the key facts of the trail so you’re well prepared!
Lake Matheson walk distance and duration: The 4.4 kilometre lakeside loop track is a short but sweet walk in glacier country. It will take about 1.5 hour to complete the circuit around Lake Matheson. You can also only walk to the jetty viewpoint which is 2.4 kilometer from the car park taking only 45 minutes.
Lake Matheson walk difficulty and incline: With only 133 meters elevation gain during the Lake Matheson walk there’s isn’t much difficulty about this trail. The path is very well maintained and even wheelchair friendly until the Jetty viewpoint.
About Lake Matheson
The Lake Matheson walk is also known as Te Ara Kairaumati Walk in Māori language. Located in Tai Poutini National Park along New Zealand’s South Island west coast, you can perfectly combine a visit to Lake Matheson when staying in Franz Josef.
Only on a calm and clear day you can see a mirror reflection in the lake. The reflection in Lake Matheson are due to the dark brown colour of the water which is the result of leaf litter from the forest floor. This is because the streams that feed Lake Matheson pass through dense native bush, and often accumulate foam after heavy rains. They then carry organic matter from the forest, which turned the water of the lake into a dark brown surface. The result is that limits visibility of the water and enhances the mirroring effect from the lake.
What is the history of Lake Matheson?
Lake Matheson was formed between two moraine terraces about 14,000 years ago when Fox Glacier Te Moeka o Tuawe retreated. During this last major ice age, the retreating glacier left behind a valley and a huge slab of ice insulated by a deep layer of moraine gravel. This gradually melted and collapsed to form the lake bed.
Best time to visit Lake Matheson
The most common question is ‘what is the best time to visit Lake Matheson if you want to see the reflections?’. Of course this completely depends on the weather circumstances as you need a calm and clear day to see the mirror reflection. Only if it’s wind-still and with a clear sky you’ll be able to see the reflection of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman including the other snow capped peaks.
Usually the best time for this is in the early morning or before and around sunset. Because Matheson Lake is located along the west coast, the sun is setting on this side of the island. This means that with sunset the peaks will be beautifully lit up by the last sun rays. While with sunrise the sun comes from behind the mountain range, leaving Lake Matheson in the shade for a long time. Therefore would my advice be to visit Lake Matheson with sunset if you’re in for a great photograph. However, sunrise is a great timing too as you’ll have the chance of low hanging fog. If you’re planning to just enjoy the Lake Matheson walk and it’s stunning ancient forest and nature surroundings, then any time of the day is a great choice!
What to expect at Lake Matheson walk
Lake Matheson walk starts really gentle with a suspension bridge crossing and follows the gravel path through ancient forest. You can see plenty of things along the way such as the highest peaks of the Southern Alps, native birds, flowers and plenty of beautiful trees.
Reflection island Lake Matheson
The best viewpoint of Lake Matheson is Reflection island which is only 1.9 kilometres walking from the visitor centre. To get here the fastest you’ll have to turn right at the first junction. You’ll then follow the path through the forest until you get to the wooden steps that take you down onto the viewing platform.
If you walk a bit further up the stairs, there is another viewpoint overlooking the lake. However, it is a bit covered by bush and therefore not the best viewpoint. It does have bench to sit down, so if you want a moment to relax and take in the views, then going up to this spot is recommended.
Along the way, look out for eels and other wildlife. The long-finned eel is the most common species at Lake Matheson and can sometimes be spotted when breaking the tranquil surface of the lake.
If you have more time after finishing the Lake Matheson walk, then you can also visit the nearby Lake Gault. This is 8km return walk starts from the visitor centre and branches off the Lake Matheson Track. It’s a great combination if the Lake Matheson track is too short for your taste.
FAQ Lake Matheson
Can you swim in Lake Matheson?
Yes you can swim in Lake Matheson if you’d like to. However, it’s quite difficult because the lake’s edge is wild and there is very little access to the water’s edge. You could jump in the lake at the view points, but other visitors probably won’t be happy with that when they are trying to get a photo without ripples in the water.
How deep is Matheson Lake?
Lake Matheson has an average depth of 12 meters.
Why is Lake Matheson famous?
Lake Matheson is famous for its stunning mirror-like reflections, which are the result of leaf matter leaching into the water and turning it a dark brown colour.
How to get around in New Zealand
To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a car, campervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand.
Car rental New Zealand
Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we personally recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for these kind of roads.
We rented for 6 weeks a Mitsubishi ASX model and were super happy with this car! The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies and terms and conditions. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick up date.
Campervan rental in New Zealand
Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a roadtrip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will you give you a true feeling of freedom and connects you with nature.
We personally recommend to book your campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they have a wide range of Stationwagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 road side assistance & long term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream roadtrip!
Where to stay near Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson is only 5 kilometre away from Fox Glacier township which is a small and quiet village. Franz Josef is a 30 minute drive away which has many more options for supermarkets, restaurants and cafes. Therefore I recommend to stay in Franz Josef instead of Fox Glacier town. You can then easily visit Franz Josef Glacier, the Glacier Hot Pools and many more attractions near Franz Josef. Here are the best places to stay in Franz Josef.
We have stayed here ourselves and absolutely loved the self contained chalets. It felt like a ‘home away from home’ with everything you need. A fully equipped kitchen to cook your own meals, comfortable bed, table with chairs for dining, comfortable couch, private parking and a shared laundry. Highly recommended!
Set amongst lush native bush in Franz Josef town is the Rainforest Retreat located. With a range of different accommodations from luxury tree huts to backpackers rooms the Rainforest Retreat has something for every budget. There are 5 bedroom holiday homes and one bedroom cottages. There is also the option to choose for a private hot tub with some tree houses or rooms with bunkbeds. With an on site spa, sauna and restaurant, there is nothing you will miss in this beautiful accommodation.
Centrally located in Franz Josef Village, the Scenic Hotel offers spacious and modern furnished rooms and suites with en suite bathroom. Some rooms have a balcony. You can enjoy breakfast and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant which serves modern New Zealand cuisine and quality wines.
Best tours on the South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is full of adventure, stunning scenery and fun experiences to be made. There are few experiences which are an absolute must when you’re traveling New Zealand’s South Island. Below a summary of the best tours you can book.
An absolute unforgettable experience in New Zealand is a helicopter flight to Franz Josef Glacier including a snow landing. Fly above the ice falls, snowfields, and crevasses before you land in a glacial snowfield. A must do in Franz Josef and absolute once in a lifetime experience!
Depart during a morning cruise on a smaller boat that travels outside of peak hours. This will give you prime viewing and more time on the water than other tours. You will listen to the informative commentary from the passionate skippers of Southern Discoveries and enjoy a provided picnic lunch. If you want to, you can include a kayak excursion and paddle Harrison Cove in a small-group. Limited to 8 people you will have a very intimate experience to really take in the immense scale of the bluffs and explore Milford Sound in a unique way.
The lesser known and quieter version of Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound. During this full-day tour you will journey across the clear waters of Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife while taking in the scenery. If you’re lucky you might see fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and crested and little blue penguins. You naturalist guide will tell you everything and point out interesting sights.
A Milford Sound scenic flight is the perfect way to see the impressive landscape of Fiordland NP from the air. Depart from Milford Airport and track west along Milford Sound. Climb alongside Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak for some great views of the fiords and its towering peaks. After the 20 minute helicopter flight you will return to Milford base.
Another way to see Fiordland National Park from above is when you booked the scenic fly-cruise-fly tour from Queenstown. You will get a round trip flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound followed by a boat cruise in Milford Sound. Take in the spectacular views of the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps, remote valleys and waterfalls. During the flight you will have an amazing aerial view of Lake Quill and Sutherland Falls as can be seen on the picture below. This experience will take your breath away and is a must do if your budget allows it. Without a doubt some of the most scenic flights in New Zealand.
More New Zealand travel guides
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about Lake Matheson. Make sure to put this awesome spot on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!
There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides and read more!
Franz Josef Glacier Country
Best Franz Josef walks – The Ultimate Guide
Mount Cook National Park
McLean Falls – The Complete Guide