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10 photo-worthy natural wonders in Dunedin

Ōtepoti-Dunedin has beautiful and varied landscapes unlike anywhere else in New Zealand, making it a favourite spot for photographers and nature lovers.

From volcanic rock formations and beach caves to views of the southern lights (aurora australis), few places have such breath-taking surroundings in such close proximity.

What’s more, some of these gems are still relatively undiscovered, so you’ll have the opportunity to soak up the serenity without crowds of travellers.

It’s no surprise then that exploring Otago’s natural beauty is one of the best things to do when in town.

Join us as we let you in on the best-kept secret in Aotearoa.

Beautiful golden sunrise at a beach.

The best natural attractions in Dunedin

1. Tunnel Beach – A must-see natural attraction in Dunedin

Tunnel Beach is a spectacular sight. This combined natural and man-made wonder is just a ten minutes drive south from the centre of town. Its dramatic sandstone sea arch juts out into the Pacific Ocean, but it’s the hand-carved tunnel and staircase leading down to a secluded beach that gives this beach its name.

Like Coromandel’s Cathedral Cove (but without the queues of tourists waiting to get their picture taken), Tunnel Beach is beautiful. Plus, it has more of a story attached to it.

This man-made tunnel was apparently commissioned by John Cargill, a member of the prominent settler family that lived nearby – reputedly, so his daughters would have a private spot to bathe.

Though Mr Cargill and his daughters are long gone from the area, visitors to the region benefit from his foresight.

People heading to the sea cliffs while looking at the beautiful waters ahead of them.

The walk to Tunnel Beach happens in a few sections – and we recommend visiting near low tide if you plan on going all the way down to the water.

The walk from the car park to the beach is just 20 minutes, but the gravel trail can get a little steep and slippy. Because of this, it’s a good idea to wear appropriate footwear.

Safety first: While on the headland, be careful not to go too close to the edge and keep your distance from the cliffs. There are also rare coastal plants to be mindful of, so sticking to the path is best, so they don’t get damaged.

Once you reach the rocky cliff formation, you’ll notice the tunnel which has 72 steps leading down to the beach. Having been dug out by hand, you’ll see it’s obviously dimpled – be sure to stop for a look. Take your time as you walk down, ensuring you don’t slip. Taller travellers may need to duck occasionally, too.

Once down on the beach, you’ll find boulders, caves and a couple of waterfalls.

This is not the place for swimming, though. Not only can the seas be rough, but there’s also a big rip. It’s best to enjoy the shores, the boulders of the beach and the views from above.

The return walk can be sweat-inducing, but there are opportunities to stop and rest, each with a great view, making it all worth it.

Pro tip: If you stick around into the evening, you might see the southern lights on a clear night.

Two people at a distant standing on top of a sea cliff as the aves crash on to the bottom of the cliff.
Tunnel Beach. Photo: Roady.

2 & 3. Okia Reserve and Victory Beach

Nothing says rural, coastal Dunedin like a day trip to Okia Reserve and Victory Beach – home to penguins, sea lions, a remnant shipwreck and even a couple of pyramids.

Dunedin’s natural pyramids at Okia Reserve are formed from stacks of columnar basalt. They jut out of the rural coastal landscape and bear a striking resemblance to the Egyptian version.

Towering at the end of a long, straight unformed road, Dunedin’s pyramids seem otherworldly.

You can see them from the car park, or walk for 15-20 minutes to the base of these unique geological formations.

Okia Reserve is also 15 minutes away from Allans Beach which is one of the best nude beaches in New Zealand.

We think a visit to this area is one of the most distinctively-Dunedin things to do.

Birds flying over the naturally-formed pyramids during a golden sunrise.

Marking the entrance to Okia Reserve, the big pyramid is (unsurprisingly) more established here than the little pyramid. It is part of the hillside, making it look more or less like a pyramid depending on the angle.

The little pyramid, however, sits out on its own, making it the instant favourite.

A cave in the little pyramid gives you a close-up look at the columns. You’ll also spot swallows darting in and out of an opening higher up.

If you’ve got the energy, we recommend climbing the little pyramid – it makes for a great photo op and also offers views out to the beach.

From the pyramids, you’ll find a track to Victory Beach (30 mins one-way) and a loop walk that takes you through the reserve and out to the beach (2.5 hours return).

Victory Beach provides more stunning scenery and walking tracks through the dunes to the beach. You might even catch sight of the remains of the S.S. Victory poking up out of the waves at the end of the beach.

You can guess how Victory Beach got its name…

A person standing on the summit of a naturally-formed pyramid overlooking the lands and distant sea.

4. Organ Pipes

Dunedin’s volcanic past is clear to see when you visit the Organ Pipes. These huge hexagonal columns of basalt sit near the hilltop of Mt Cargill, offering spectacular views.

The Organ Pipes track (which starts on Mt Cargill Road) is only a short drive from central Dunedin.

Hikers standing on the top of huge hexagonal columns of basalt called the Organ Pipes.
Organ Pipes in Dunedin.

For the most part, the walk through thick bush follows steps. It is almost tunnel-like in some places.  After about 10 minutes, the path opens up to views overlooking the Otago Harbour and Otago Peninsula, and eventually, you’ll begin to see the rock columns rising straight up.

The top greets you with views from Mt Cargill and far-off fields of green. Standing on top of the pillars, the formation looks manmade, with each individual pillar having an almost perfect hexagonal shape – only they’re completely natural.

A bit of a hidden gem, be sure to check out the Organ Pipes while visiting Dunedin.

A person on white T-shirt standing on top of the Organ Pipes overlooking the mountains and far-off lands.
Stunning views from atop the Organ Pipes. Photo: Roady.

5. Southern Lights & star gazing

If seeing the southern lights is on your bucket list, then Dunedin is a great place to hunt them out.

At the right time of year and with the right conditions, the southern lights (aurora australis) are visible from a number of locations around Dunedin.

Grab your camera and head for the hills for the best aurora vantage points or take advantage of the clear skies and take a stargazing tour just a short drive from the city centre.

The months between March and September tend to be the best for stargazing in New Zealand, with the Milky Way passing overhead. This is also when you’ll have the best shot at seeing the southern lights colouring the sky in surreal shades of pink, purple, yellow and green.

Aside from Tunnel Beach, the Otago Peninsula is one of the best locations in the country to see this natural phenomenon. Specifically, Hoopers Inlet.

A person standing on a mountain with his tripod cameras looking at the city and the luminous green southern lights.

6 & 7. Orokonui cloud forest and New Zealand’s tallest tree at Orokonui

The Orokonui Ecosanctuary is home to some of the world’s most fascinating and rare forest birds, reptiles and plants in New Zealand.

It is one of the last areas of cloud forest in the country, and the flora and fauna love it! These water-laden clouds carry moisture into the forest, creating an environment perfect for the growth of moss and fern. It is a beautiful, lush environment and incredibly photogenic.

Orokounui is the perfect place to head to if the weather is a bit grey.

Choose to walk around independently or enjoy the sights and sounds of this enchanting forest with one of their friendly expert guides.

The reserve is home to a particularly memorable tree, too. Though it may not be native, the 80-metre Australian mountain ash tree is still New Zealand’s tallest tree – and we think that makes it worthy of a stop. This forest titan is a 1-hour walk down the valley from the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

We suggest you take your time walking down from the unique native cloud forest to get a photo with this giant tree.

600 Blueskin Road, Dunedin 9081

Fog forming on top of the trees in the mountains.

8. Aramoana Beach and Bear Rock

At the mouth of Otago Harbour, the picturesque Aramoana Beach is home to an eye-catching formation known as Bear Rock (or Keyhole Rock). It is a great place to snap a few photos and to soak up the serenity.

While there, take a stroll on the beach and enjoy the panoramic views of the northern coastline.

The beautiful white sandy beach is split by The Mole, a long seawall stretching out into the harbour entrance. It’s an exciting walk when the seas are big, and is also an excellent spot to watch the albatrosses swooping into Taiaroa Head (on the other side of the harbour).

There, you’ll find a track and boardwalk that snakes through the tidal salt marshes and to the huge sandhill down the northern end of the beach.

Nearby, you’ll also spot the settlement of Aramoana. It is full of classic kiwiana cribs, hosting holidaymakers.

Night sky photographers will also find the beach an excellent vantage point for capturing the Milky Way and aurora australis when it’s visible.

Two travellers walking on a beach, passing in between two rock formations.

9. Signal Hill

Easy to get to and with panoramic views over the city and the ocean beyond, Signal Hill is a favourite location for #dunnerstunner selfies. From this vantage point, you’ll appreciate just how picturesque Dunedin is.

Plus, if you’re keen on mountain biking, this also happens to be home to some of the best downhill tracks in Otago.

Head up Ōpoho Road to the monument look out for amazing view of the entire city, and peek right down the harbour. You’ll also find two bronze statues dedicated to the New Zealand Centennial sitting at the top.

This is our place to see the scope of the city and to get your bearings. It’s also one of the best places to enjoy a Dunedin sunset, so why not pack a picnic and farewell the day in style?

Signal Hill Road, Opoho, Dunedin 9010

Two pairs of couples watching the golden sunset and the panoramic view of the city and the ocean while sitting in Signal Hill.

10. Doctors Point Sea Arches

A short drive north of the city is an amazing stretch of coast with spectacular sea arches, hidden coves and caves. Sea arches are more often found in the North Island, making these ones all the more special.

From Doctors Point Reserve, follow the beach along to Taoka’s Arches. When the tide is out they are the perfect backdrop for photographs.

Low tide also allows you to walk the shore at the base of the ‘Misty Cliffs’, ending up at Canoe Beach on the west side of the Mapoutahi Pā site. This juts out towards the ocean, forming one of the most sheltered, picturesque beaches in Dunedin.

From there, you can climb Mapoutahi via a short track. At the top, you’ll enjoy magnificent panoramic views of Huriawa Peninsula in the north and Blueskin Bay in the west, right around to Potato Point at the far end of Pūrākaunui Beach in the east.

Pro tip: If you’re travelling from Port Chalmers, drive to the end of Osborne Road and walk down the long sandy track. Mapoutahi will appear on your left. From there it’s a short walk up the stairs onto the isthmus and down to Canoe Beach.

Now that you know where to go, grab your camera or phone and capture some amazing shots of Dunedin’s most photogenic natural wonders.

Or perhaps just head out to enjoy the scenery.

Either way, we know you’ll enjoy the natural beauty of Dunedin!

This post was brought to you by Enterprise Dunedin – the Dunner stunner experts.

Unless otherwise stated, photos are from DunedinNZ.

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