The Catlins region in the far southeastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand is a place where land rises sharply from the coast to the inland ranges. ‘Where the forest meets the ocean’ is how locals also describe the Catlins. The rugged coastline with wide sandy beaches, lush, ancient forests with mossy trees, an abundance of waterfalls and rivers and both hilly and rolling green farmland offers a lot of things to explore. Read in our complete guide about the 20 best things to do in the Catlins and go explore this remote place in New Zealand.
Best months to visit the Catlins
The Catlins has temperate climate with an average rainfall of 1300mm throughout the year which nurtures the green landscape. The best months to visit the Catlins are roughly October until March. But the weather is always a bit unpredictable in New Zealand. Even in the summer months you can get a lot of rain.
The temperatures hover around 16-24 degrees in summer with an outlier up to 30 degrees. Perfect beach weather. Winter temperatures vary from 8-13 degrees with some frosty nights and the occasional light snowfall. The coldest months in the Catlins are July, August and September and the warmest months are from December until March.
How many days do you need in the Catlins
Depending on the time you have to explore the South Island. I would definitely recommend at least 2 days to explore the Catlins. You can drive the Southern Scenic Route. This is a tourist highway linking Queenstown, Fiordland, Te Anau and the iconic Milford Road to Dunedin via, Riverton, Invercargill and The Catlins. In 2008 an Australian travel magazine labelled it “one of the world’s great undiscovered drives” and if you drive here yourself you will totally understand why!
So while you can drive this road in just one day, you won’t have time then to do some of the amazing waterfall hikes, relax at the beach or visit all the best spots in the Catlins. Therefore we recommend spending at least 2 – 3 days in the Catlins. With this complete guide of best things to do in the Catlins we hope to inspire you to make your own Catlins itinerary with all the things that have your interest!
20 BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE CATLINS
Walk through a mossy forest to Koropuku Falls
The Koropuku Falls are some of the Catlins waterfalls you have to visit! If you only have time to visit one or two waterfalls in the Catlins, then Koropuku should be one of them. This charming, fairytale like waterfall can be found in the western part of Catlins Conservation Park, along the scenic Chaslands Highway.
Although Koropuku Falls is only 10 meters high (about 33 ft), it might sound not too impressive. But the scenery, the walk towards the falls through the mossy forest and the perfect silk curtain like waterfall with lush surroundings make Koropuku Falls a gem.
How to get to Koropuku falls
The Koropuku falls are located in Catlins Conservation Park along Chaslands Highway. These are roughly a 1.5 hours drive away from Invercargill or a 2 hour drive from Dunedin. The road is a well maintained sealed road. The GPS of the trailhead is S 46° 34.717′ E 169° 13.162’ or just put the location into Google Maps. Look out for a small wooden sign saying ‘Koropuku Falls’ (NOT a DOC sign) with a small pullover bay. Here you can park your car and start the walk. It is about a 10 – 15 minutes walking to the falls over a path with logs. Sometimes it can be a bit muddy after rainfall. There are no facilities such as toilets here.
Watch sunrise from the Fortrose Cliffs
The cliffs at Fortrose provide a stunning lookout point over the ocean, the rugged coastline of the Catlins and a raw beach. The Fortrose Cliffs are located 2km south of Fortrose township and follow a gravel road until you get to the cliffs. From here you can watch a beautiful sunrise, or just go during the day for a stop to breath in the fresh air of the ocean.
Visit Waipapa Point Lighthouse
Waipapa Point Lighthouse is a historic lighthouse in this far southwest corner of The Catlins. It’s a great spot for a walk along the scenic sand dunes and rugged coastline. You can go marine wildlife watching and might be able to spot sea mammals and several types of birds. Waipapa Point Lighthouse is definitely a photogenic place with the surrounded scrub and steps leading to the red door of the lighthouse. Although the lighthouse is not open for public access, there are enough things to explore in the direct area.
How to get to Waipapa Point Lighthouse
From Invercargill it’s a 45 minute drive to Waipapa Point along a sealed road. Along the Fortrose Otara road you will see a sign pointing towards Waipapa Point lighthouse which is then only a 4km each way detour from the highway.
The road stays sealed all the way to the spacious car park which has toilet facilities and sign boards which tell you where to go.
Book a day trip to Stewart Island
Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third-largest island, located about 30 kilometres south of the South Island. From the Catlins you can perfectly visit Stewart Island during a day trip when taking the ferry from Bluff. You will cross the Foveaux Strait before setting foot on this beautiful nature reserve. Because it is not possible to bring your own car on the ferry, you can rent cars and motor scooters at the Oban Visitor Centre.
There are many things to do on Stewart Island. Because the island is known to be a haven for the brown kiwi or Tokoeka, you can book this great tour to spot the native kiwi bird of New Zealand. Other species you can see on Stewart island are blue penguins and the rare yellow-eyed penguins.
You can also book other tours to Stewart Island to see more of this beautiful island off the coast of the Catlins.
Waipohatu waterfall walk
The Waipohatu waterfall walk is a stunning 7 kilometre loop walk in the Catlins Forest Park taking you to two stunning Catlins waterfalls. It’s a great mix between a rainforest walk with bits of muddy uphill and downhill track with the Waipohatu waterfalls as points of interest. While the walk starts off as a gentle stroll through stunning rainforest, it will soon become more challenging with plenty of tree roots, muddy, slippery parts and some stairs.
Although the trail is quite easy to follow without much incline, only 330 meters elevation gain, there are some slippery parts where you have to take care. It’s a great family friendly forest walk, but be prepared with good hiking shoes. Otherwise it’s going to be a challenge to not slip.
No matter how careful you are, accidents can happen.
A slip during hiking is made before you realize it, and the consequences can be bigger than you want to think of.
We are very happy with SafetyWing and highly recommend getting an insurance with them!
The Pouriwai waterfall is a tall 10 meter high waterfall flanked by a moss covered cliff. When you arrive you won’t have the best view on the waterfall, you will have to cross a shallow stream to get right in front. But be careful when crossing the stream with slippery rocks. Eventually use a stick for balance. This is some of the lesser known Catlins waterfalls, but definitely worth a visit!
The Punehu waterfall is a small, wide waterfall surrounded by moss-covered trees. It’s a short but slippery descent down to the natural pool. Here you can sit down at one of the tree trunks and enjoy a little break from the hike. The natural pool is too shallow to take a dip in, and besides admiring the beauty of nature you might want to continue to the next one pretty quickly.
How to get to Waipohatu waterfall track
The Waipohatu falls walk trailhead is located at the end of Waipohatu Road which is on the way to Curio Bay. There’s a turnoff to a gravel road from the main road which could be easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled! You’ll get to the car park in about 10 minutes where also toilets and a picnic area is located. This is the start of Waikawa forest which takes you to the Waterfall loop track.
Watch sunrise from Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point Lighthouse is an iconic panoramic view on the eastern coast of the Catlins. The lighthouse is one of the country’s oldest lighthouses perched on the cliff named by Captain Cook because they looked like pieces of gold.
It’s a short walk from the car park along the headland to get to the lighthouse which is officially called Tokata lighthouse. When you look down the rocks you might be able to see a colony of fur seals or some of the world’s rarest penguins.
Funny thing to know is that Nugget Point is called like this because of the rocky islets in the ocean, the Nuggets. If you’re an early bird then you can see a beautiful sunrise from Nugget Point. But also during the day it is worth a visit!
Spot the yellow eyed penguin
The Yellow eyed penguins are the rarest penguin in the world and only breeds on the south-east coast of New Zealand. They are the fourth largest penguin in the world standing at 65 cm and weighing around 5 kg. You can observe the penguins at several places in the Catlins, but Curio Bay is some of the easiest places to spot them from a viewing platform. The best time to spot the yellow eyed penguins is after 5 PM until dark. So if you want to have a chance of seeing them, plan your day accordingly.
Check out the windswept trees at Waipapa Point
The windswept trees are something unique from the Catlins. These trees are formed over time in a 45 degree angle due to the harsh winds that sculpted them. At Waipapa Point Lighthouse you can see these kind of trees from up close and walk underneath them. It only takes little imagination to see what they have to endure being formed like this! It’s fascinating to see.
Explore the Mc Lean Falls
The spectacular Mc Lean Falls in Catlins Forest Park is a 22 meter high multi level cascade surrounded by mossy rocks and native forest. The short but beautiful walk through the forest along a well maintained track is a great family friendly walk in the Catlins. The stunning forest with well maintained gravel and boarded walk is an easy walk with stunning bush and different trees to spot along the way.
You can admire the upper and lower level Mc Lean falls from a safe viewpoint. But if you want to you can see the main waterfall from up closer when you scramble up along the rocks. This 22 meter high Catlins waterfall is one of the beautiful ones in this region and definitely worth a visit!
How to get to Mc Lean Falls
The Mc Lean Falls car park is located along the Southern Scenic Route in the Catlins. There are plenty of signs along the Chaslands Highway that tell you to turn off to the Rewcastle road. Most of the road conditions are sealed, only the last 3 kilometres follows a gravel road until you get to the car park.
From the car park it is a 20 minute walk along the well maintained, flat path until you get to the impressive McLean Falls.
Visit the Cathedral Caves with low tide
The Cathedral Caves are two impressively connected limestone sea caves located on Waipati Beach along the Catlins coast. These two sea-formed passages together measure 200 metres with an impressive height of 30 metres. Unfortunately, but for obvious safety reasons, you can only visit the Cathedral Caves with low tide. At the entrance of the road towards the Cathedral Caves is a sign where you can see if they are open or not. So you don’t have to drive all the down to be disappointed with a closed beach.
There is a small charge for the use of the car park and access to the bush track, beach and caves.
Children under 5 – Free
Children 5 – 14 yrs – $2 NZD
Adults 15 and over – $10 NZD
Check out the Purakaunui Falls
The Purakaunui Falls are a beautiful three tiered waterfall in the Catlins surrounded by native forest. After a short walk through the mature beech forest you will get to the viewing platform of Purakaunui Falls. This 15 minute return walk is easy to follow and only has some stairs down to the waterfall at the end. The Purakaunui Falls are some of the most famous Catlins waterfalls and even some of New Zealands most photographed waterfall! With 20 metres height over 3 tiers it isn’t the highest waterfall in New Zealand, but because of it’s different tiers and the way the water is falling down the rocks, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful!
How to get to Purakaunui Falls
Just 17kms south of Owaka is the Purakaunui Falls Scenic Reserve located. The Purakaunui Falls can be accessed from two roads off the Papatowai Highway. This road is part of the Southern Scenic Route which is a tourist highway linking Queenstown, Fiordland, Te Anau and the iconic Milford Road to Dunedin via, Riverton, Invercargill and The Catlins. In 2008 an Australian travel magazine labelled it “one of the world’s great undiscovered drives” and if you drive here yourself you will totally understand why!
So enjoy the drive to Purakaunui Falls and don’t forget to watch the signs! The falls are signposted at both turn offs coming from Owaka and Warnock Road. Once you reach the spacious car park you will see the trailhead clearly signposted. There are toilets and a picnic area at the parking lot and some information panels about the falls.
Admire the petrified forest at Curio Bay
Curio Bay’s Jurassic petrified forest is one of the world’s finest fossil forests, dating back about 180 million years. It’s super interesting to see how this old wood has turned into stone overtime. The cause were floods because most of what New Zealand is these days, was still lay beneath the sea at that time. So the logs, mostly from ancient conifers, were buried by volcanic debris and mud flows. Gradually over the last 10,000 years, as New Zealand’s current coast line has been formed, they were replaced by silica to produce the fossils which are now exposed and can be seen on the tree stumps at low tide.
You can walk along the fossil forest but of course make sure to not take anything and respect this geological site. The Living Forest walkway is closely located to the petrified forest so you can see how it may have looked millions years ago.
Walk to the Matai and Horseshoe Falls
The Matai Falls walk is a beautiful short walk in the Catlins through regenerating podocarp and broadleaf forest. You will get to see two Catlins Falls from a lookout point which are closely located to each other. The walk is only 15 minutes to Matai waterfall and another 4 minutes to Horseshoe Falls. It’s easy to do for every age which makes it a perfect family activity in the Catlins.
At Matai Falls is a small viewing platform, unfortunately there isn’t another way to access the waterfall and the natural pool is too shallow and small to take a dip in. The short hike through the forest towards the waterfalls is a nice little break from exploring Catlins coastal area.
How to get to Matai Falls walk
The Matai Falls are located along the Southern Scenic Route in the Catlins, about 18km south of Owaka. The trailhead is located along the Papatowai Highway and clearly signposted so you can’t miss it!
Relax at Curio Bay
Curio Bay is a stunning wild coastline in the Catlins with spectacular scenery. It’s a beautiful place for a beach day, but also to spot wildlife such as the rare yellow eyed penguin and Hector dolphins that play in the surf. There is also a campground at Curio Bay, so if you want to stay overnight then that’s possible as well.
The beach stretches from the Curio Bay Cliffs until the next headland and offers many opportunities for coastal fun and relaxation. It’s a stunning beach to have a walk, read a book or swim in the calm water.
Visit the most Southern Point of New Zealand’s South Island
Closely located to Curio Bay is Slope point, the southernmost point on the South Island of New Zealand. The 10 minute walk across private farmland
from the car park brings you to the cliff edge from where you can see a sign pointing to both the Equator and the South Pole. There isn’t much else to see, but it’s definitely a fun place to tick off from your Catlins itinerary if you’re exploring this area anyway!
Walk the Tautuku Estuary walkway
The Tautuku Estuary walkway is a short 15 minute walk through podocarp forest. Surrounded by many Manuka trees and fernbirds you walk over a wooden boardwalk into an open space with wetlands called the Estuary flats. Here you can see some wildlife and enjoy the quiet, open area. Not super impressive, but a nice short stroll and very family friendly. Even wheelchairs and buggies can join this short walk over the flat boardwalk.
Spot Hector dolphins at Curio Bay
Hector dolphins are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world and can often be found in Porpoise bay feeding, resting and socializing during the summer. Commercial dolphin watching tours are no longer available in Porpoise Bay, however the dolphins can often be seen from the beach.
If the Hector dolphins are in the sea, swimmers should enter the water at least 50 meters away from the dolphins to limit the disturbance. Let any interaction be on their terms and of course don’t give the dolphins food!
Look out over Bluff Hill lookout
Bluff Hill provides visitors with a spectacular view over Foveaux Strait and the Southland Plains. Located nearby Invercargill it is a great place to enjoy nature with it’s native forest, wind-battered coast and scrub-covered hillsides. There is a well-established track network, mountain bike track, car park and interpretation panels so you can enjoy the outdoors here all day.
Visit Jack’s Blowhole
Jack’ blowhole is part of a subterranean tunnel which is over 200 metres long. Many years ago a cave in this sea tunnel collapsed and created the famous blowhole you can see today. After a short walk along the stunning Catlins coast you can witness the blowhole and its power. During high tide you can see a dramatic spouting show. Therefore it is recommended to plan your walk around the tide times.
Check out Tunnel Hill
The Tunnel Hill walk is a scenic walk through the historic reserve to explore some of the last remains of the old river railway running through The Catlins. Fun fact, this is the world’s southernmost railway tunnel! It was excavated by hand in 1891 and nowadays you can still see the remains. It’s s great short walk in the Catlins but nothing too overly spectacular.
Best tours on the South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is full of adventure, stunning scenery and fun experiences to be made. There are few experiences which are an absolute must when you’re traveling New Zealand’s South Island. Below a summary of the best tours you can book.
Depart during a morning cruise on a smaller boat that travels outside of peak hours. This will give you prime viewing and more time on the water than other tours. You will listen to the informative commentary from the passionate skippers of Southern Discoveries and enjoy a provided picnic lunch. If you want to, you can include a kayak excursion and paddle Harrison Cove in a small-group. Limited to 8 people you will have a very intimate experience to really take in the immense scale of the bluffs and explore Milford Sound in a unique way.
A memorable experience to see the Franz Josef Glacier from the air during a helicopter flight above ice falls, snowfields, and crevasses. You will depart from a helipad in Franz Josef and then make your way along the glacier down to a snowfield to see the icy landscape from up close. There you will take in the sweeping views across the maritime glacier. An unforgettable experience on the west coast and a once in a lifetime must do! Because in 10 years from now glacier will be much smaller…
The lesser known and quieter version of Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound. During this full-day tour you will journey across the clear waters of Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife while taking in the scenery. If you’re lucky you might see fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and crested and little blue penguins. You naturalist guide will tell you everything and point out interesting sights.
A Milford Sound scenic flight is the perfect way to see the impressive landscape of Fiordland NP from the air. Depart from Milford Airport and track west along Milford Sound. Climb alongside Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak for some great views of the fiords and its towering peaks. After the 20 minute helicopter flight you will return to Milford base.
Another way to see Fiordland National Park from above is when you booked the scenic fly-cruise-fly tour from Queenstown. You will get a round trip flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound followed by a boat cruise in Milford Sound. Take in the spectacular views of the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps, remote valleys and waterfalls. During the flight you will have an amazing aerial view of Lake Quill and Sutherland Falls as can be seen on the picture below. This experience will take your breath away and is a must do if your budget allows it. Without a doubt some of the most scenic flights in New Zealand.
Best places to stay in the Catlins
The Catlins are some of the most underrated destinations on New Zealand’s South Island but absolutely worth visiting. If your itinerary allows it, I would even recommend staying for a few nights around Catlins to explore not only the Catlins Conservation Park but everything in between from Invercargill to Kaka point. You can either base yourself along the coast, in Invercargill or at some of the quiet camps. There are plenty of options, but here are the best accommodations to stay in our opinion.
Catlins Mohua Park
Located close-by Catlins Forest park are these stunning self-contained chalets with free WiFi and private parking. Each chalet features a fully equipped kitchen, a dining setting and a lounge area with a sofa. Every unit comes with a private bathroom with bathrobes. Bed linen and bathrobes are provided. All chalet’s at Mohua Park do not include a TV so you can fully take in the stunning views from your terrace. Free use of bicycles is available to explore the area and many of the Catlins waterfalls and other points of interest are only a 20 – 30 minute drive away. Truly a stunning and comfortable stay with beautiful views.
The Langlands Hotel Invercargill
Located within 400 meters from the city centre of Invercargill you will find the Langlands hotel. Featuring spacious rooms with a fitness centre, private parking, a restaurant and a bar, this 4-star hotel offers all the comfort you need. Invercargill is a great little town with plenty of restaurants. A great choice if you don’t want to be too much off the beaten path and far away from supermarkets and restaurants.
Kaka point accommodation
Kaka Point accommodation is a beautiful, luxury, self-contained studio in the small sea-side town of Kaka Point at 100 meters from the beach. Surrounded by an abundance of nature and wildlife, you can awake to views of the spectacular coastal scenery.
The studios have fully equipped kitchens with a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, stove top and tea/coffee making facilities. Guests can enjoy uninterrupted, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Nugget Point Lighthouse from the privacy of their unit or relax in their private, therapeutic, double spa bath.
How to get around in New Zealand
To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a car, campervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand.
Car rental New Zealand
Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we personally recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for these kind of roads.
We rented for 6 weeks a Mitsubishi ASX model and were super happy with this car!The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies and terms and conditions. You can also check Rental Cars to compare at which platform you can get the best deal. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick up date.
Campervan rental in New Zealand
Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a roadtrip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not. This because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will you give you a true feeling of freedom and connects you with nature.
We personally recommend to book your campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they have a wide range of Stationwagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 road side assistance & long term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream roadtrip!
More New Zealand travel guides
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the best things to do in the Catlins. Make sure to put this unique area on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!
There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides and read more!