Plan your trip to the bottom of the South Island with our tried and tested recommendations. These are the best things to do in the Catlins.
The Catlins is a charming coastal region that stretches between Balclutha and Invercargill. The feeling of untouched nature is abundant in this southeast corner of the South Island.
Often skipped in favour of the more mountainous regions of Otago, the lower peaks of The Catlins also see lower numbers of visitors. However, its unique wild scenery is a real highlight for those in the know.
The area is understandably popular with outdoors lovers, especially those who want to spot wildlife, birdlife, and unique flora. Look out for Hector’s dolphins and yellow-eyed penguins – the rarest dolphins and penguins worldwide.
Many of the best things to do in The Catlins take you along the Southern Scenic Route, which stretches 600 kilometres from Dunedin to Milford Sound. Aside from road-tripping, hiking and cycling are great ways to enjoy this area. There are many adventurous hikes or short trails to choose from, with endless ways to view the memorable views and marine life.
The Catlins is also home to some super quirky small-scale tourism, such as Teapotland. Yep, it truly is just a massive collection of teapots!
And don’t be fooled by ‘Niagara Falls.’ These tiny rapids were given the name as a joke and do not resemble their Canadian counterpart. Keep your eyes peeled for the adjacent Niagara Falls cafe too – now converted, it was once a school.
These eccentricities are a humorous contrast to the pristine nature surrounding them, making this part of Aotearoa all the more special.
A visit to the Catlins is a glimpse back in time. Visit for yourself and get a taste for a slower pace of life in New Zealand.
The Best Things to See and Do in the Catlins
Plan your visits to the best spots in the Catlins using this map of the region. All of the locations we recommend in this article have been pinned for your convenience.
1. Nugget Point Lighthouse
Kicking off this list with some unbeatable coastal views is Nugget Point Lighthouse.
Begin with a 900m winding walk up to the historic 1869 lighthouse, where the panoramic viewing platform looks over breathtaking scenery. The 360-degree platform is 78 metres above sea level, giving you a great vantage point over the Nugget rocks and beyond. On a clear day, you can even see Stewart Island from here.
This site is particularly popular with photographers and birders, who can often be seen at sunrise catching the first light.
Alongside seabirds, fur seals like to relax on the rocks below. In summer, look out for elephant seals that stop over during their migration.
A few minutes away you’ll find Roaring Bay. This beach is home to a small colony of yellow-eyed penguins, known as hoiho in te reo Māori. These tiny penguins only live in New Zealand and the sub-Antarctic islands. We recommend you visit before sunset for a chance to see them.
While at Roaring Bay, you may also see seals and sealions. Both frequent this spot.
Nearby, Kaka Point is the perfect place to stay for the night. Sleepy in the winter and a hotspot for local holiday homes in the peak season, the sandy beaches and nearby rainforests will take your breath away year round.
2. Tunnel Hill
This fun little spot takes us from overland views to underground tunnels. Tunnel Hill is extra unique as it is the Southernmost railway tunnel in the world!
Just a 360-metre return walk from the car park, this historic tunnel was built in the 19th century but was never used. It’s interesting to check out the brickwork and imagine how the men layered it to create the archway.
Look out for cave wētā on the tunnel walls! Wētā are a group of insect species endemic to New Zealand. They’re essentially flightless crickets and among the heaviest insects in the world – but don’t worry, they’re entirely harmless. These incredible insects are also the namesake behind ‘Wētā Workshops’ and ‘Wētā Digital’. These special effects companies transformed New Zealand’s film industry with movies such as ‘The Lord of the Rings.’
The tunnel is 250m, so while you can see the light from each entrance, it does get dark in the middle. Don’t forget your torch!
3. Jack’s Blowhole & Jack’s Bay
This short trail boasts fantastic views over the ocean, crossing through farmland and bush between its coastal lookouts. Follow the well-formed walk past stunning views over Penguin Bay before continuing down the staircase, which leads to a viewing platform.
There you can enjoy the crashing waves at Jack’s Blowhole. On a stormy day, you’ll feel the immense power of the ocean despite being 200 metres inland. The blowhole is 55 metres deep and is quite remarkable. Even on a calm day it’s worth seeing.
The return walk takes around 20-30 minutes in each direction, depending on how long you linger at the various viewpoints along the way. We suggest you allow at least an hour.
4. Purakaunui Falls
Likely one of Otago’s most famous waterfalls, Purakaunui Falls is a must-see on any Catlins itinerary. It is incredibly photogenic – unsurprisingly, you’ll likely see it highlighted on many regional postcards.
You’ll find the falls at the end of a 20-minute return track through the beech and podocarp forest, passing clear streams and luscious ferns.
We suggest you walk to the bottom to get the best view of the three-tiered falls, although there’s also a top viewing platform just moments from the car park for wheelchair users. The rest of the track is well-maintained but does have a gentle slope and stairs descending to the waterfall.
While in the area, take the unsealed road down to Purakaunui Bay. With towering stone cliffs watching over this pristine white sandy beach, it’s a great place to admire surfers and sea lions.
There’s a handy DOC campsite ($6 per person) near the headland too..
Papatowai comes with the slogan ‘Where the forest meets the sea’, which gives you an idea of the vibe of this tiny township.
There are a few ways to enjoy the superb nature here, from relaxing on Papatowai Beach to pulling over to Florence Hill Lookout for gorgeous views over Tautuku Bay.
Don’t miss The Lost Gypsy Cafe and Gallery while you’re here. This old bus is overflowing with exciting knick-knacks and trinkets – it is a unique place to stop for a break along your journey.
6. Cathedral Caves
After a stroll down the gorgeous Waipati Beach, you will find these impressive sea caves along the cliffs. The Cathedral Caves (not to be confused with Catherdral Cove in the Coromandel) are remarkable for their length and height – the two passages are 200 metres long and up to 30 metres tall. You won’t help but marvel at these hugely impressive natural structures.
When visiting, be prepared with some cash. The caves include a small charge for car park use. Entry cost is $10 for adults and $2 for children, with little ones under five free free of charge.
Make sure you visit at low tide, or the caves are not accessible.
Close by, visit Lake Wilkie for a change of scene. Beginning near the Tautuku Outdoor Education Centre, a pretty 30-minute return boardwalk takes you to the pristine reflective lake surrounded by native fauna and birdlife.
7. McLean Falls
Native birdsong, gurgling river, and roaring fall – you’ll love this Catlins gem!
To get there, follow a 3km gravel road to the McClean Falls Track car park. From there, there’s a slightly uphill bush walk towards the 22 metre tall waterfall.
The last 100 metres consists of a steep staircase where signs will advise you to walk swiftly due to previous rockslides. The path can be slippery in this section, so we recommend wearing suitable footwear.
But it’s worth the 1.6km trail! After the steps, the lush forest opens up to McClean Falls, a stunning tiered fall cascading over mossy rocks into the sublime pool below.
After your walk, grab a snack or coffee from the nearby Whistling Frog Cafe. This is a popular local spot for food that’s also part of a campsite resort.
8. Curio Bay
We love Curio Bay and recommend you visit shortly before dusk to spot yellow-eyed penguins.
Walk to the signposted viewing platform and peer over the bay below. From there, look out for the penguins making their way back from the ocean across the rocks before shuffling into the bushes below. You should get a glimpse of them as they head back to their nests.
The Petrified Forest
Curio Bay is also home to the fascinating petrified forest. This rare sight only occurs when an entire forest burns yet remains preserved as fossils. The site is definitely worth seeing – it ages back 170 million years! However, it’s hard to wrap your head around the age of the tree stumps preserved around the bay.
It’s easy to find the viewing platform and forest. Park at Tumu Toka CurioScape and follow the signs from there. Run by the South Catlins Charitable Trust, CurioScape works towards reforestation, conservation, and restoration of endangered penguins. From their building, you can book tours or visit the restaurant. Curioscape Campgrounds have excellent facilities for campers too.
If you have time, walk over to the adjacent Porpoise Bay. More rare wildlife is in store here – look out for Hector’s dolphin, the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world.
9. Take a Hike in the Catlins
Like many destinations known for their glorious landscapes, the Catlins is the perfect place to go hiking (or tramping, as we say in New Zealand). And thankfully, there are many great walks available – from short, accessible strolls to longer excursions for those looking for a workout.
Our Favourite Catlins Hikes
- Matai Falls – a 1.2km return walk to the beautiful 10m tall waterfall.
- Old Possum Track loop – a lesser-known 6.1km loop that passes through bush and beach. We recommend suitable footwear. Start from The Old Coach Track walkway.
- Waipohatu Waterfalls Track – this 6km track takes just under 2 hours to complete, and winds through Waikawa forest past two waterfalls.
- Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay walk – a 2-hour sandy loop walk, perfect for sea lion spotting, tidal pools, dunes, and endless coastal views.
- Catlins River-Wisp Loop Track – a 12km loop along the river including gorgeous forest, many waterfalls, and four wire-rope suspension bridges. The entire track is 24km involving two separate loop tracks.
10. Slope Point
If we’re being honest (and we always are) the views at Slope Point don’t quite match up to others listed above. However, its location marks the southernmost point on the South Island which makes it a worthwhile stop on your Catlins itinerary.
Once you reach the car park, it’s another 15-minute walk to the end. We recommend you take a jacket as it gets very windy!
You’ll see evidence of the wind before you even get out of the car. Look out for the crooked, windswept trees that lay low to the ground, half-flattened by those fearsome winds blowing over from Antarctica.
Slope Point might not be worth going out of your way for, but it’s a worthwhile stop if you’re on your way to Invercargill.
Enjoy the rest of your drive along the Southern Scenic Route in these final miles. Waipapa Point, with its sweeping views and lighthouse, and Fortrose township both make fantastic last stops.
The Catlins are wild, rugged and a great example of a more relaxed way of life in Aotearoa.
If you enjoy scenery and wildlife, it is an absolute must on your New Zealand itinerary.
By Cassie Bailey