Fox Glacier is world-renowned for its icy landscapes and helicopter hikes, which most travellers briefly admire as they descend the West Coast. However, This New Zealand glacier has many more treasures to uncover, and if you take the time to explore the area, you won’t regret it. Offering something for everyone – whether you’re a keen birdwatcher, interested in geology, or looking for a relaxing retreat – Fox Glacier provides a calm surrounding off the beaten track and is one of the best places to visit in the South Island.
The area may be synonymous with expensive helicopter tours, but you’ll be surprised by the array of free things to do, including several walks in Fox Glacier.
Lake Matheson, commonly referred to as the Mirror lake, is one of the most unique and photogenic locations in New Zealand. Thanks to the dark peaty canvas of the lake, dawn and dusk provide the perfect conditions for a reflected image of the surrounding New Zealand glaciers and mountains.
This 90-minute round trip begins behind the Matheson cafe and continues alongside farmland for the first five to ten minutes of the trek before descending into the surrounding vegetation. As you come to the first signpost, you’ll have the choice to go left or right. It doesn’t matter which way round you choose to go if you’re completing the loop (which most people do). However, if you solely want to visit the viewing platform, I’d suggest turning right and embarking on the 25-minute walk to the jetty, which extends across part of the water and offers uninterrupted views of the mirror lake.
If you continue to the view of views, you’ll have an elevated perspective where many Instagrammable images have been snapped.
Lake Gault is a three hour round trip that begins around 20 minutes into your walk around Lake Matheson. Following a gradual climb through 200 metres of podocarp forest, you’ll catch a glimpse of Lake Gault as you embark on several miles of hiking to reach the best viewing points.
Like its sister, Lake Gault is known collectively as one of the mirror lakes of the area and offers an equally spectacular reflected view of the landscape. The reason many people don’t bother with the Lake Gault track is that it increases hiking time to almost five hours, but the reason you want to commit to the extra mileage is for the chance to spot a rare Rowi Kiwi in the wild. That alone makes this track one of the most interesting walks in Fox Glacier.
Operation Nest Egg began in the 90s to increase the dwindling population of Rowi Kiwis, and lake Gault provides the perfect location for their release. Kiwi eggs are taken from nesting sites in the Haast area and brought to the glaciers, where they can be nurtured into adulthood in the safety of a wildlife centre and creche island. Without taking these measures only, 5% of kiwi chicks will make it to adulthood as they aren’t large enough to fight off predatory attacks from the stoats of the area.
Once the chicks mature and reach a weight of 1.2kg, they are considered “stoat-proof” and released back into the wild. As a relatively predator-free zone, Lake Gault is the perfect location for these New Zealand icons to thrive.
And thanks to this programme, you have the rare chance of spotting a Rowi kiwi in the wild. To stand a chance, you’ll have to take a walk at night, so ensure you have a good light source, and you’ll want to be as quiet as you can to avoid scaring any kiwi away. This area is not suitable for dogs or any other animals that threaten the wellbeing of these birds.
The Matheson Cafe is the perfect place to grab a bite, nestled in an idyllic mountain setting with impressive Mount Cook and Mount Tasman views. Set yourself up for a long day of hiking with the ‘Wanderer Breakfast’ consisting of bacon, sausage, hash brown, two eggs, and toast – or opt for a lighter option of muesli or a toasted bagel.
Through the summer months of November to March, this cafe transforms into a fine dining experience with impressive starlight views and the distant sound of a kiwi’s call.
And Matheson Cafe isn’t just an eatery; this area hosts a selection of information boards filled with interesting facts about the area. Did you know that the average rainfall can exceed 5 metres, even ten closer to the mountains despite the high number of sunshine hours on this coast? Or that the Alpine Fault is New Zealand’s largest, running 600 km between Milford Sound and the Nelson lakes? This miniature museum provides the chance to learn about early explorers and the area’s geology while answering all the questions you want to know about Fox Glacier.
After learning all about the area, hop into the adjoining gift shop for the chance to purchase a speciality New Zealand souvenir as a reminder of your trip to this remarkable location.
Fox Lookout Walk
Short of taking a helicopter ride, the Lookout walk is one of the best things to do in Fox Glacier and the optimum place to get closer to this natural wonder. Beginning along the banks of the glacial river, you’ll enjoy interesting views of the grey waters below. And as you begin the gentle incline to the viewpoint, you’ll enjoy forested surroundings and a range of birdlife such as the tomtit, one of the most common birds in the area but pretty rare everywhere else in New Zealand.
The track is less intimate than other walks of the area, with a gravel path that is wide enough for two driving lanes. Still, the views are pretty impressive, the first of which comes just before you reach the peak of your climb. Make sure you continue the walk up to the top car park as less than five minutes from here, you’ll find two other viewing spots, which are arguably the best of the bunch.
Stony paths surround the walk, a great place to discover the glittery schist rocks and greywacke marbled by compressed quartz. The area’s fascinating geology is another highlight of this south island attraction.
The Minnehaha walk is a short circuit you’ll want to complete at least twice during your trip, once in the morning and once in the evening.
A daytime walk on this half-hour return path offers the chance to deviate to the alpine gardens. As you walk, you’ll approach the end of the former glacier road, which used to extend to the glacier’s base. This road has been washed out in recent years and is too dangerous to traverse, thanks to the local landslide at Mills Creek. This landslide is the largest in the southern hemisphere and an awe-inspiring wonder in itself.
Meanwhile, a return trip in the evening provides the chance to see the track illuminated by the bright bodies of a host of glowworms. Take a decent torch as this area can be a little spooky at night, shrouded in darkness. But this does create the perfect environment to view one of New Zealand’s famous critters.
A 20-minute gravel road outside the township takes you to Gillespies beach, the perfect afternoon or evening spot.
Before you go, ensure that you cover yourself with a decent level of insect repellent to deter an abundance of pesky sandflies from using you as a food source. However, once the sandflies are under control, this is a beautiful area to spend some time.
Relax on the beach listening to the waves churning up the rocky shore and hunt for your own treasures among the rocks and minerals on the coastline. Have a picnic in the tabled area behind the sand dunes and dust off your walking shoes for a bush hike.
The walking track at Gillespies beach begins as an open path surrounded by flax that feels very much like a coastal walk, but as you proceed to enter the bush, you’ll feel as though you’ve entered another world entirely. Beginning at the old gold mining site, you can find your way to the walking track through several entrances into the adjoining forest. This path is not an established one – trees have been felled to make walking easier, but a sense of wilderness remains with naturally forested carpets and a valley below. Sometimes enchanting, others slightly foreboding, this walk makes you feel a million miles away from the beach, in some distant, abandoned wood.
After around 20 minutes, you’ll reemerge onto a beach track, leading you down to a colony of fur seals when the season and weather conditions permit.
As you drive back to town, don’t miss the glacier viewing point at the end of Gillespies Beach road, which lets you see three-quarters of this remarkable south island attraction.
There are plenty of free things to do in Fox Glacier, from nature walks to lazy beach days, fossicking for rocks and gems to admiring the sight of glowworms. This cosy town is a welcoming spot where the locals make the area feel like a home away from home; you’ll feel such a sense of peace that you won’t want to leave.