A Look at New Zealand’s Legendary Lake

A Look at New Zealand’s Legendary Lake

The morning after our arrival in Franz Josef Glacier was supposed to be a ridiculously early start for me. I was planning on getting up well before dawn to head to Lake Matheson for a sunrise photography shoot. If you don’t already know about the location, you probably have already seen a picture of Matheson in the morning light with the reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman on its still waters. It is perhaps one of the most photographed and visited lakes in all of New Zealand.

Well against my better judgement, I decided to do some astro photography the night before instead of sleeping. The results were kind of meh, but I still enjoyed seeing the Milky Way for the third straight night. Here is one of the better images I got that night:

a night sky with stars and mountains

This pretty much meant that the following morning, I overslept and woke up just 20 minutes before sunrise. As you may have noted on the map, the lake is 30 minutes away from Franz Josef Glacier (where I was staying). And the time it takes to walk around the 2.6 km track and setup your camera on location isn’t negligible.

a map with a red line

The drive from Franz Josef Glacier to Lake Matheson is a windy and narrow one, but I made good time since there were no cars on the road at that early of an hour. Sure enough it took me exactly 30 minutes to the Lake Matheson parking lot. The parking lot is quite massive, but do get here early because as I was leaving, it was absolutely full due to the tourists and tour buses arriving.

a group of cars parked in a parking lot
Lake Matheson Parking Lot

From the parking lot you will see a sign leading to the Lake Matheson trail, which is about a 3 mi loop. There is a gift shop and cafe right at the start of the trail, but at this early of an hour, there wasn’t a soul in sight.

a sign in front of a building

Make sure you take the trail to the right at the first fork because you want to go to Reflection Island for the best views. I was running late and only made the right choice by chance. The trail to the right starts from the great plains adjacent to the lake. I was pretty much jogging the entire way, but stopped to take a photo of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook. Awesome part about being in the shadow of the mountains is that the sun doesn’t come up over the mountains until a bit after sunrise.

a large field with a tree in the middle

From the plains, the trail turns onto a path through the forest where there is a small hill to climb. It was hardly noticeable for me because I was amazed at how dense the jungle was around the lake.

About 12 minutes down the trail (30 mins if you are walking), there is a sign board which leads you down some steps to Reflection Island. This is where the iconic images are shot along the lake shore. a sign on a staircase in a forest

On this particular morning, there was a beautiful fog blanketing the surface of the lake. It really added a lot of mood and character to the lake’s magnificence. I was sweating like a pig from jogging with my heavy backpack on, but it was well worth it because I got to the shore a few minutes before sunrise happened.

a lake with trees and mountains in the background

I pretty much spent over 1 hour at the lakefront photographing the reflection. The only other person there was a local photographer named Hamish (you can check out his work here). He was kind enough to let me borrow his sandfly repellent while we waited for the light to happen. It’s always fun talking to a local about what it’s like living in New Zealand and comparing notes on what should and should not be seen or photographed. And of course it is always very interesting hearing about what foreigners think of the state of American politics (aka Donald Trump).

There weren’t too many high clouds in the sky on this particular morning so the best light happened just as the sun began to peak over the mountains. You hear about and you see it in a lot of photographs, but there is nothing like getting an image for yourself.

a body of water with trees and mountains in the background

a lake with mountains in the background

After about an hour by the lake, it was beginning to get harder and harder to get good shots as more tourists showed up. So I said my goodbyes to Hamish and began to walk back to the parking lot. On my way back there were these beautiful boardwalks leading through the jungle.

a wooden bridge in a forest

I came upon a sign pointing to a few more viewpoints and gave all of them a go while I swatted away the sandflies. If you prefer a higher vantage point, there are some stairs leading up from the trail to an observation deck:

a person walking up a staircase in a forest

The views are a bit obstructed, but nonetheless great. If everywhere else is full, no doubt you should get up here and soak it all in.

a lake surrounded by trees and mountains

There are a few more view points around the lake as you walk on the trail. And there is clear signage everywhere pointing towards them.


a sign in the woods

Perhaps my second favorite location was the Jetty Viewpoint where all the photographers (from the cars I had seen parked earlier) seemed to be hanging out. The reflections are again spectacular, but the view of the peaks is rather obstructed here.

a person standing on a deck overlooking a lake

It was a good thing I didn’t take a dip in the water that morning. It was not that I wanted to, but apparently the largest population of freshwater eels live in the waters of Lake Matheson.

a sign with a fish on it

Anyway it took almost 35 minutes to get back to the car all in. I took one last look at Mount Tasman and headed off into the sun. This pretty much caps my wonderful morning walk around Lake Matheson.

a sign in a field with mountains in the background

Bottom Line:

There is no doubt that you should pay a visit to the legendary and photogenic Lake Matheson while you are in New Zealand, especially in the early morning hours. The reflections are absolutely superb and so are the views along the trails. The trail is short and handicap accessible, which can’t be said for many other trails. There’s just something about seeing mountains reflected on lakes that makes us tick as photographers and visitors.  This place is something to definitely keep on your bucket list of places to visit and perhaps photograph.

Have you been to Lake Matheson? What’s your favorite viewpoint along the shores of the lake or your favorite NZ lake for that matter?



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