view of lake matheson from the reflection island viewpoint fox glacier
Hikes & Walks,  New Zealand,  South Island,  West Coast

Lake Matheson Walk: The Best Short Walk In Fox Glacier

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Last Updated On 11th July 2023 By Lauren | Wild Lovely World

This post will tell you everything you need to know about the beautiful Lake Matheson loop walk on the West Coast of the South Island.

Visiting Lake Matheson is one of the best free activities to do in Fox Glacier! The beautiful lake is one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand. It is known as the ‘Reflective Lake’ because on a clear day you can see incredible views of the mountains reflected in its waters. This is the location of a scene that has been featured in New Zealand tourism for decades! Lake Matheson has promoted New Zealand’s natural beauty across the world and has become an icon in itself.

The best way to see Lake Matheson is on the loop walk track. The easy walk takes just 1.5 hours to complete. The loop walk can be done in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction and goes all the way around Lake Matheson. This post will tell you about the loop walk and stops of interest along the way, including ‘Reflection Island’.

Lake Matheson also has an interesting geography and history. Learn all this and more in this complete guide to Lake Matheson.

Lake Matheson Loop Walk In Fox Glacier, West Coast: Everything You Need To Know

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Looking for more amazing things to see and do in Fox Glacier? Check out this post: 10 Free & Cheap Things To See & Do In Fox Glacier

Where Is Lake Matheson?

Lake Matheson is located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. It is around 5 km from the Fox Glacier village. The area is also known as Glacier Country because of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers that are close by.

History Of Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson is called Te Ara Kairaumatia in Te Reo Maori. It was a traditional food-gathering place for local Maori travelling along the West Coast to collect pounamu. They would hunt eels and waterbirds there to eat.

The lake is believed to have been named after a cattle farmer called Murdoch Matheson. Murdoch Matheson was one of the first Pakeha settlers on the Cook River flats in the 1870s.

Lake Matheson is located in the Westland Tai Pountini National Park, established in 1960.

Geography Of Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson is a glacial lake that was formed around 14,000 years ago from the retreating of the Fox Glacier. The glacier left a depression which has gradually been filled with water from the surrounding forest and seepage.

The streams that feed into Lake Matheson pass through the surrounding bush. The organic matter from the forest can cause foam to accumulate after heavy rains – you can often see this foam in the streams on the Lake Matheson loop walk. The tannins from the forest also cause the water to turn a dark brown colour. This limits the visibility into the lake and enhances the mirroring effect causing it to be reflective.

Lake Matheson has an acidic PH. Due to the nature of the formation and water flow in Lake Matheson, eventually, the lake will become a bog.

History Of Tourism At Lake Matheson

Tourists on Lake Matheson in 1965. Photo from the Archives New Zealand's National Publicity photo collection (Creative Commons)
Tourists on Lake Matheson in 1965. Photo from the Archives New Zealand’s National Publicity photo collection (Creative Commons)

Lake Matheson has been a famous tourist destination in New Zealand for many years. It has been featured on tourism postcards, posters and stamps since the 1930s.

Marcus King was a designer who worked for the New Zealand Tourism Department. He created beautiful pictures of iconic scenic New Zealand destinations that really put them on the map. Lake Matheson was one of the locations featured on the postcards and posters.

Tourists came from across New Zealand to visit Lake Matheson. From the 1950s tours to Lake Matheson were offered from the Fox Glacier Hotel. The Fox Glacier Hotel is a historic heritage building built in 1928. The hotel was purpose-built by the founding settlers of Fox Glacier (the Sullivan family) to aid tourism in Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson. Tourists would travel to Lake Matheson by bus, then hike through the bush and take boat trips out onto the lake. The boats would stop at Reflection Island where the tourists would wait for the ripples to subside so they could see the famous reflections.

Nowadays, the Lake Matheson loop walk provides visitors with excellent opportunities to view the lake and the mountains, as well as the ancient forest that surrounds the lake. There are several spots of interest to take a stop and look at the views. I will describe more about these spots and what to see later on in this post.

One Of The Most Photographed Lakes In New Zealand

view of lake matheson from the view of views
View of Lake Matheson from the View of Views – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Lake Matheson has become famous as the “Reflective Lake” of New Zealand. The lake reflects the mountains of the Southern Alps, including Mount Tasman and Aoraki/Mount Cook (New Zealand’s highest mountain). However, to see the reflections you will need to go on a very clear or still day. The lake is often rippled by the ducks that live on the water! The best time to see the lake still and reflective is at sunrise or sunset.

Even if you don’t see Lake Matheson on a still and clear day, the views are still beautiful and the walk is a gem! Lake Matheson is a glacial lake and is surrounded by ancient bush forests. The track goes all the way around the lake and can be done as a loop in either direction.

Walks & Scenic Stops At Lake Matheson

lake matheson loop walk trail map
Lake Matheson Loop Walk trail map – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Drive to the start of the walk and park at the car parking area (outside Lake Matheson Cafe). The walk starts by crossing a bridge over the Clearwater River. From there, you can choose to go left or right, taking the track clockwise or anti-clockwise. I have done this walk in both directions and they are much the same in terms of ascending/descending.

Jetty Viewpoint

If you head in the clockwise direction you will first come to the Jetty Viewpoint.

The Jetty Viewpoint is a boarded platform that provides a nice view of the lake and mountains.

There are photos and some information signs here about the lake. There is also a bench here.

If you wanted a really short walk then you could walk here and back. It takes just 15 minutes to get to the Jetty Viewpoint from the car park.

From the Jetty Viewpoint, you cannot see Mount Tasman or Aoraki/Mount Cook as those mountains are in the other direction. However, you can see other mountains and still see a beautiful view over the lake. For the best views of Lake Matheson and the Southern Alps, I recommend continuing on the loop walk!

View Of Views

At the top of the lake is a spot called the “View of Views”. If you climb up the steps to a small viewing platform you will get a nice view across the lake.

The View of Views is the scene of many iconic photos of Lake Matheson. There is a sign there with a picture of the scene from the early days of tourism to Lake Matheson.

It is worth the effort up the short stairs to see the viewpoint!

view of views doc sign on the lake matheson loop walk fox glacier
View of Views DOC sign on the Lake Matheson loop walk – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Reflection Island

Reflection Island is the spot of those famous photos of Lake Matheson. This is a platform on the lake which will give you that iconic view of the famous reflective scene of Mount Tasman and Aoraki/Mount Cook on the lake.

It takes around 45 minutes to get to Reflection Island from the car park and is approximately a halfway point on the Lake Matheson loop walk. From there you could return back to the car park or keep going on the loop.


There are two wetlands on the Lake Matheson loop walk – the Western Wetland and the Eastern Wetland. Both of these wetlands provide an opportunity to look for wildlife and learn more about New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

There are information signs at the wetlands and board walked sections so you can cross directly over the wetland/lake. These sections add variety and interest to the walk.

lauren and fiachra at lake matheson fox glacier new zealand
Lauren and Fiachra at Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier, New Zealand – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Read this post for more amazing things to see and do in Fox Glacier: 10 Free & Cheap Things To See & Do In Fox Glacier

Lake Matheson Walk FAQs

What To Wear & Take On The Lake Matheson Loop Walk

The Lake Matheson walk is easy and well-formed the whole way. You can do this in trainers or walking shoes. I recommend taking a rain jacket with you, just in case!

There are several good stops on the track including picnic benches, so take a snack or packed lunch with you! Or stop at the Lake Matheson Cafe for refreshments before/after the walk (more info below!).

How Long Is The Walk Around Lake Matheson?

It takes between 1 hour to 1 hour 30 mins to complete the Lake Matheson Loop Walk at an easy pace. You can complete the walk in less time if you do not take too many stops and skip the View of Views viewpoint. If you go to the View of Views and make stops at all the viewpoints (Reflection Island and the wetlands), it will take around 1.5 hours to complete the Lake Matheson walk. The trail is well-maintained and around 2.6 km long. The walk around Lake Matheson is a great short walk in the Fox Glacier area.

Can You Kayak On Lake Matheson?

I wouldn’t recommend kayaking on Lake Matheson. Firstly, it is very far from the car park so you will have to carry your kayak a long way. Secondly, the lake is also very small and has a lot of birdlife. Thirdly, I think that the DOC may have banned kayaking in Lake Matheson. Lastly, you may annoy a lot of tourists if you begin creating ripples in the water by kayaking! The best options for kayaking in the West Coast Glacier Country are Okarito Lagoon and Lake Mapourika.

Can You Swim In Lake Matheson?

Lake Matheson is not really suitable for swimming, although you could try it! But it is quite wild and there are not any good spots to enter the water. Again, if you do go swimming there you may end up annoying tourists who want to try to take a photo of the reflective lake. Unfortunately, there are not really any good places for a swim in the Glacier Country (Franz Josef/Fox Glacier). However, there are a few good spots further up the West Coast. If you want to swim in a West Coast lake, I recommend visiting Lake Kaniere and Lake Brunner. Both of these lakes are excellent and safe for swimming.

Are Dogs Allowed At Lake Matheson?

Dogs are not allowed at Lake Matheson. This is because it is a kiwi zone.

Are Drones Allowed At Lake Matheson?

Drones are not allowed at Lake Matheson. This is because there are many helicopters flying in the Fox Glacier area. This is monitored strictly and you could land a hefty fine if you use a drone anywhere within the Westland Tai Poutini National Park area.

Side Trip: Hike To Lake Gault

A turn-off on the Lake Matheson Loop Track will take you to Lake Gault. This is another glacial lake and is picturesque but not as much so as Lake Matheson.

The walk to Lake Gault takes you through the ancient forest and climbs uphill around 200m. On a clear day, you will be able to see reflections in the lake of the Southern Alps mountains.

It takes around 4 hours return to do the Lake Gault track. To get to the turn-off, begin the Lake Matheson walk by turning right after the bridge (anti-clockwise direction). Shortly you will come to a sign showing the way to Lake Gault on your right-hand side. The track is an in-out so you will need to return the same way you came.

For more information on the Lake Gault Track, visit the DOC website here.

Breakfast & Coffee At The Lake Matheson Cafe

The cafe at Lake Matheson is a really excellent breakfast spot! I recommend the Salmon Benedict. The coffee is also good.

While waiting for your order, you can admire the views or wander around the gift shop. They sell a range of souvenirs and crafts locally made in New Zealand.

Breakfast at the cafe costs around $20 and drinks are around $5. The cafe opens at 8:30 am. It’s a great way to start the day!

Visit Matheson Cafe’s website to see the menu.

Check out my New Zealand Travel Guide for heaps of helpful info on roadtrips, best places to eat, campervan tips, city guides, must-dos, itineraries and more… Essential for the best New Zealand trip ever!

Lake Matheson Loop Walk: Complete Guide – Thanks For Reading!

This complete guide to the Lake Matheson loop walk has given you all the information you need to have an awesome trip out to the lake! Being one of the most famous lakes in New Zealand with incredible views and fascinating geography and history, Lake Matheson is definitely worth a stop on your West Coast trip in New Zealand. I hope you have an awesome time! – Lauren x

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Lauren is a coffee and cat obsessed travel writer from the U.K., specialising in solo female, couple travel and budget backpacking. She has previously lived in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, England and Scotland. Follow her adventures around the world on her blog

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