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The only way to approach Lake Matheson on the south island of New Zealand is on foot. Visitors to the South Westland lake park their cars, then start down the path that leads to the walking track circling the lake. First they must cross the suspension bridge over Clearwater River, Lake Matheson's outflow, and then the lake becomes visible through a break in the trees. Set against the backdrop Mount Cook (or Aoraki in Maori) and Mount Tasman, Lake Matheson also holds its perfect reflection earning it the nickname "Mirror Lake."
Visitors have been coming to the lake for centuries to enjoy the reflected view of the mountains, best seen in the morning. It is the color of the water and the stillness of its surface that makes the lake such a good reflecting pool. Lake Matheson has dark brown water stained the color of rich ale by water leaching through the humus of the forest floor that surrounds the lake. In fact, Clearwater River isn't clear at all but rather a dark brown where it leaves the lake journeying a bit downstream before clearing up.
The white and red pine forest that surrounds Lake Matheson protects the water from wind, keeping the surface of the lake glassy smooth. The trail that rings the lake leads through the ancient forest while at the same time being easily accessible. Part of it is even wheelchair accessible. There are two particularly good viewing points around the lake, Jetty View Point and Reflection Island. The land around the lake is managed by the Department of Conservation.
Occasionally the surface of the water may be broken by one of the long-finned eels that live in the lake. The Maori fished for eel and hunted the area's waterfowl, and Lake Matheson was called a "mahinga kai," Maori for food gathering place. Today it is easier to find food at one of the cafes at the entrance to the lake's walking track. There are no buildings on the lake's shore and no residential development. Accommodations including holiday cottages and vacation rentals are nearby.
Lake Matheson was carved by a receding glacier approximately 14,000 years ago. Fox Glacier, the longest of the west coast glaciers, is seven and a half miles from the lake. Visitors can take a glacier walk or scenic flight over the area. The more adventurous can plan a heli hike, ski tour or mountaineer up one of the snow-capped glacial peaks, some in excess of 10,000 feet. The towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef have amenities to outfit adventurers as well as restaurants, shops and galleries to amuse those who stay behind.
The West Coast Tai Poutini National Park surrounds Lake Matheson. Established in 1960, the park encompasses 315,161 acres and includes the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri ote Moana) and the beaches of New Zealand's west coast. Gillespie's Beach, a 20-minute drive west of the town of Fox Glacier, is home to a seal colony, and one hour from the town, Monroe Beach is a favorite for the Fiordland Crested Penguins.
With the majestic glaciers and spectacular coast, the West Coast Tai Poutini National Park has abundant recreation opportunities and thousands of acres of wilderness to explore. The beauty of the glaciers, snow-capped mountains and rich forests is enhanced by the reflection of Lake Matheson, and the calm water of the lake encourages its visitors to the same stillness allowing them to soak in the beauty of New Zealand's South Westland.
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