Located on the south eastern corner of the south island of New Zealand, the Catlins offers a glimpse of New Zealand’s untamed beauty. With its rugged coastline, scenic beaches and incredible waterfalls, there are many great things to do in the Catlins. Home to a wide range of New Zealand’s incredible marine life, you could also have a special encounter with sea lions, fur seals, penguins and the rare hector’s dolphins.
The Catlins encompasses the area between Kaka Point and Fortrose, with many of its attractions located along the Southern Scenic Route (the tourist highway linking Dunedin, Invercargill and Te Anau). Apart from the scenic drive along its meandering roads, the good thing about the Catlins is that there are many places to explore – you are sure to discover somewhere different with your every visit.
While you need a good few days to see the Catlins properly, a day trip (it is only a 90 minute drive from Dunedin) is well worth it if you have limited time. I have sorted this list of things to do in the Catlins, starting with the must-see attractions (which you can visit in one day) and following-up with other noteworthy sights that you can add to your itinerary if you plan to stay for a few days.
Here are some of the amazing things to do in the Catlins:
Nugget Point is one of the most iconic sights in the Catlins, and for good reason – the geographical features in these parts are incredible. Dominating the unique coastal scene are little rock islets known as “nuggets” which come in various shapes and sizes. These nuggets are best viewed from the platform at Nugget Point Lighthouse, a lighthouse built in 1869 which rests atop a headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The Nugget Point Lighthouse is located at about 10 minutes walk from the car park. The walk to the lighthouse is easy but it can get very windy there so make sure to bring something warm. Also, don’t forget to keep a lookout for wildlife which is often hanging around below the track.
Other attractions worth visiting near Nugget Point include Kaka Point, a great area for picnic and water activities and Roaring Bay, another awesome spot for spotting wildlife including seals, sea lions, the rare yellow-eyed penguins.
READ MORE: Nugget Point, The Catlins
Jack’s Blowhole and Jack’s Bay
If you have an hour to spare, it’s worth doing the trip to Jack’s Blowhole, a 55-metre-deep blow hole formed following the collapse of a sea cavern. Seeing the blowhole in action is a bit hit or miss unless you time your visit perfectly. It is best seen at high tide. The walk itself is easy and the views as you go uphill from Jack’s Bay are stunning. During lambing season (September/October), this walk is closed.
Jack’s Bay, along with the Jack’s Blowhole area is a great place to spot sea lions and yellow eyed penguins (visit around dusk for higher chances). Make sure to keep at least 20 m distance from marine wildlife.
Cannibal Bay and Surat Bay
Cannibal Bay, named by geologist Dr James Hector after human bones were discovered in the dunes, is the complete opposite of its dark name. This stunning bay features incredible white sand beach and pristine waters surrounded by dramatic cliffs.
Named after the ship Surat which was wrecked at the bay in 1874, Surat Bay is another amazing beach in the Catlins with long stretches of white sand.
Cannibal Bay and Surat Bay are connected by a sandy track which takes about 10 minutes to walk.
One of the most photograped waterfalls in New Zealand, Purakaunui Falls is a cascading three-tiered waterfall surrounded by lush forest. As with most waterfalls, the best time to visit is after a day of heavy rainfall. Purakaunui Falls can be reached via a short forest walk (about 10 minutes one way) from the Purakaunui Falls car park.
Florence Hill Lookout
Florence Hill Lookout is a great place to stop and enjoy the spectacular coastal views of Tautuku Bay to the south and Tahakopa Bay to the north.
Lost Gypsy Gallery
Lost Gypsy gallery is a unique collection of rustic mechanical pieces, housed in converted bus at the small town of Papatowai. Handcrafted by artist, Blair Somerville, the different inventions are quirky and unique.
The Cathedral Caves are sea-formed caves which measure about 200 meters in length and up to 30 meters in height. Located on Waipati Beach, these caves are truly remarkable. It is definitely one of the highlights of our time in the Catlins.
The Cathedral Caves are open between late October and May. The caves are accessible from two hours before low tide until one hour after low tide. It is not available for access before 7.30am or after 8:30pm. Check the tide times at Cathedral Caves for more information (this information is also displayed at the gate towards the carpark). There is a small charge for access ($5 NZD). From the carpark, the Cathedral Caves and Waipati Beach takes about 20 minutes to walk (one way). A torch (cellphones are fine) is essential to visit these caves, as parts of these caves are in total darkness.
READ MORE: Cathedral Caves, The Catlins
One of New Zealand’s most spectacular waterfalls, McLean Falls is a 22 meter high water fall which cascades down a series of tiers and pools. Surrounded by lush forest, Mclean Falls has two viewpoints, a lower waterfall which takes 10-15 minutes to reach and an upper waterfall, located further uphill on the track. Both are incredibly stunning and a must-see when you visit the Catlins. The track to McLean Falls takes 40 minutes return.
READ MORE: McLean Falls, The Catlins
Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay
Curio Bay is the site of a petrified forest some 180 million years old. It’s a truly remarkable site. The petrified forest is visible for around four hours either side of low tide. Curio Bay is also a great spot to see yellow-eyed penguins. We saw one hanging around during our last visit and it was a fascinating experience. Don’t forget to bring your zoom lens!
The rare hectors dolphins are spotted occasionally in the Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay area. If you’re into surfing, this area is also a popular surfing spot in the Catlins.
Check out the post below for another great location in New Zealand to spot hectors dolphins.
If you are planning to visit the Catlins for more than a day or decide to come back for another day trip (and want to mix it up a bit), here are some other places that are definitely worth adding to your itinerary:
Apart from being known as a great Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite, Purakaunui Bay offers an amazing beach set with remarkable cliffs and unique rock formations.
If you enjoy tramping / hiking, it’s worth doing the short walks at Tautuku which includes the Lake Wilkie Track, Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk, and Tautuku Bay. Tautuku Beach is also worth a look.
Papatowai and Tahakopa Bay
Papatowai and Tahakopa Bay are popular to locals for water sports and an outdoor activities. It’s still very quiet though. The best access through this area is via Picnic Point, where you get a stunning view of the Tahakopa river and beach.
Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls
More waterfalls! Though not as grand as Purakaunui Falls or McLean Falls, there are other cool waterfalls in the Catlins that are worth a visit. Matai Falls is a 10m high waterfalls surrounded by greenery.
Horseshoe Falls, located close to Matai Falls, is named after its unique horseshoe shape. It’s also very pretty when there is a lot of water cascading down.
Koropuku Falls is located along the west side of the Catlins and offers a great bush walk and a very charming waterfall surrounded by trees. I really loved the walk which seems very off the beaten track. Koropuku Falls is quite hard to spot because there is no actual carpark and there is only a small post next to the road which can be camouflaged by the surrounding greenery. It’s best to add it to your map ahead of time. Check the map below for the location.
Waipapa Point Lighthouse
Waipapa Point Lighthouse, built in 1883, it’s a great spot to end your time in the Catlins as it is located close to the end of this region. From the lighthouse, you’ll get great views of the coast and the beach below.
READ MORE: Waipapa Point Lighthouse, The Catlins
Still looking for other stuff to do? There are other sights in between the ones above that you can visit if you have more time:
Pounawea – a great place for water activities like kayaking and fishing. It’s a beautiful spot for pier photos and a quiet picnic.
Tunnel Hill – the remains of the old Catlins River railway.
Niagara Falls – an ironically named set of rapids which is nothing like it’s namesake.
Slope Point – the South Island’s true southerly point.
Fortrose – the Southern end of the Catlins and site of the remains of the 1886 steamship “Ino.”
Map of the Amazing Things to Do in the Catlins, New Zealand
Do you have plans to visit the Catlins in New Zealand? Which of these attractions in the Catlins are you most excited to visit? Let us know.