West Coast Glacier Experience – A lifetime of memories in a single day

Many visitors to Fox or Franz Josef Glacier limit their excursions to a guided glacier experience, but there is much more to enjoy in this stunning region.

These glacier walks and heli-hikes are must-do activities, providing the opportunity to walk safely on a glacier and gleam insight from a knowledgeable guide about New Zealand’s mountains and glaciers. But there is also much more to enjoy in this region.

Within a twenty minute drive you will find amazing contrasts such as lakes, rivers, forests and beaches of an untamed, yet accessible wilderness as pure as you will find anywhere.

This is where New Zealand's highest peaks,  Aoraki / Mount Cook reaching 12,316 ft and Mount Tasman 11,473 ft soar upwards, awesomely close and imposing through the canopy of the rampant rainforests.  Rivers race each other on their short and wild journey to the sea and pounding ocean waves relentlessly sculpt the rugged coastline.  This area is Westland National Park, an area of outstanding natural values and part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. 

Gillespies Beach - Accessible wilderness, as pure as you will find anywhere

Most of the guided walks at Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers are half-day excursions so consider visiting Gillespies Beach and Lake Matheson after an exciting glacier experience later in the day.  I have visited both many times, in fact some of my favorite photos are taken in this region.  From the wild and remote Gillespies beach you can stand with the Tasman Sea behind you with camera pointed over a canopy of ancient rainforest and Fox Glacier and Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mt Tasman in the background.  I doubt there are many places in the world where you can experience such contrasts of scenery in one picture perfect view. 

Not only is Gillespies Beach wild and remote – it has a colorful past.  Gold was discovered here in 1865, and the mining madness began.  Evidence of dredging equipment can be found now quietly rusting in the swampland on the Gillespie’s Lagoon Walk. Gillespie’s Lagoon is at the mouth of the Clearwater Creek and is sometimes landlocked. It is an ideal spot to have a soak in the sun warmed water. From the bridges over the creek you can gain one of the most spectacular views of Southern Alps, with the skyline dominated by the cloud piercing Aoraki / Mount Cook.

There are a number of short walks that will take you to mining relics and a miner’s cemetery. If you have more time you can investigate a 98ft long miner’s tunnel blasted through the sea cliffs to allow for all-weather access to the gold operations.  Today the viewpoint high up the cliff at the end of the tunnel gives you a spectacular view of the Tasman Sea and dramatic coastal cliffs leading to Galway Beach. A longer 3 ½ return walk takes you to the Seal Colony at Galway beach.

Lake Matheson – A jewel in New Zealand’s crown

On your drive back to Fox Township is New Zealand’s most photographed lake, Lake Matheson.  Famous for it’s stunning reflections of Aoraki / Mount Cook, Lake Matheson was formed around 14,000 years ago when the Fox Glacier retreated from its last major advance towards the sea. The glacier left a depression that later filled with dark ale-colored water. Discoloring of this water was caused from leaching from organic matter on the ancient forest floor that surrounded this lake.  A tiny lake well protected from the wind, its waters often sit incredibly still, providing the perfect mirror for the mountains above (the view is best at sunrise and sunset).  An easy walk through the forest affords fantastic reflective views once you reach the lake, as does a walk on to the jetty which takes you past tall Kahikatea (white pine) and Rimu (red pine) trees.  It’s easy to see why Lake Matheson is considered to be a jewel in New Zealand's scenic crown.  The well formed loop track around the lake will take approx 90 minutes.

You’ll experience a magical day and be amazed that you’ve seen so much in so little time.  This part of the South Island is a true highlight of any trip to new Zealand.

A couple of tips:

  • During your drive to/from Fox Glacier, you will be sure to see the New Zealand bird, Pukeko. With their bright blue plumage and red beaks, they easily stand out against the New Zealand greenery, particularly when their white tail feathers begin flashing in alarm.
  • In the car park at Fox Glacier, you will often see the world’s only alpine parrot, the ‘Kea', measuring  approx 19” in length, it is mostly olive-green with a brilliant orange under its wings and has a large narrow curved grey-brown upper beak. They are super intelligent and very mischievous.  Known as "the clown of the mountains", it will investigate backpacks, boots or even cars, often causing damage or flying off with smaller items.
  • Be sure to check with the Department of Conservation (DOC) office before departing Fox Township for a trail map and up-to-date information.  DOC is open Mon-Fri, closed w/ends however they post information outside their front entrance.
  • Follow the track as it is outlined – in a clockwise direction as the views open out on the last section providing great vistas.
  • Takes water and snacks – there are no services or stores at Gillespies Beach however there is a gift  shop, restrooms and café at Lake Matheson.
  • Be sure to have insect repellent to ward off the small sand flies that are often found at the beach.  If you are moving, you are okay, but when you stop, they can be a nuisance.
  • Charge your camera batteries – you’ll need them! 

    Call or visit Active Downunder on 800 425 9036 to learn more.

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