Free (and Cheap) Activities in The Catlins
Well, there’s not much of a difference between this list of free things to do in The Catlins and any of our other articles about The Catlins… Almost all of the highlights here are free! Nevertheless, we’ve made it easy for you to distinguish the free waterfalls, walks, wildlife viewings, lighthouses, museums and more, as well as the one natural attraction you need to pay for, in this list of free and cheap things to do in The Catlins. Attractions are listed in order from north to south because this is a darn useful travel guide!
1. Check Out the Views from Nugget Point – FREE
Located at the northern end of The Catlins, Nugget Point is one of the most iconic photo spots in the area. A 10 to 20-minute return walk on a well-maintained trail takes you to the base of the Nugget Point Lighthouse where a viewing platform overlooks some rock stacks whose appearance gives the attraction their name. Take some binoculars and you’ll also have a clear view of the seals frolicking in the rock pools below. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the 20-minute Roaring Bay walk to some viewing hides where you can watch yellow-eyed penguin waddling between the sea and their nests – best seen before 9am or after 3pm.
Location: The Nuggets Road, approximately 9km (6 miles) from Kaka Point.
2. Watch the Sea Lions at Surat or Cannibal Bay – FREE
Near the village of Owaka, enjoy a stroll along Surat Bay or Cannibal Bay beaches where you’re likely to come across groups of New Zealand sea lions basking in the sun. Remember to keep your distance and just enjoy watching these majestic creatures from afar. Check out our advice for the best viewings in the 5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins. The two beaches can be walked between at low tide or you can visit them independently via road access.
Location: Surat Bay – Newhaven Road, approximately 9km (6 miles) from Owaka. Cannibal Bay – Cannibal Bay Road, approximately 12km (7 miles) from Owaka.
3. Visit the Owaka Museum – FREE
For something a little different in The Catlins, or if the rain catches up with you, the revered Owaka Museum is worth a visit. Browse an array of exhibitions of relics found from The Catlins shipwrecks, pioneering industries, early Maori history, clothing wore by the early settlers, and much much more. On-site is also the information centre and a community art gallery. For more museums to check out around The Catlins, check out the 6 Best Museums in Clutha & The Catlins.
Location: 10 Campbell Street, Owaka.
4. Get a Photo of Purakaunui Falls – FREE
There are many amazing waterfalls to check out in The Catlins that we simply can’t fit them all on this list of 10 free things to do in The Catlins! However, you should always make an exception for Purakaunui Falls, a three-tiered waterfall that features on many a New Zealand postcard. The waterfall can be accessed on a 20-minute stroller and wheelchair-friendly walk through majestic beech forest. See more natural wonders like this in the 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins.
Location: Purakaunui Falls Road, approximately 7km (4 miles) from Owaka.
5. Do the Lake Wilkie Walk – FREE
Another short walk, the Lake Wilkie Track takes you through more of The Catlins verdant coastal rainforest to a picturesque lake which creates an important habitat for insects and birds. This 30-minute return walk features a viewpoint of the lake near the beginning of the trail before venturing down to a boardwalk on the reflective lake surrounded by interesting plantlife. This is also a good walk for families, as featured in the 10 Things to Do in The Catlins with Kids.
Location: Chaslands Highway, approximately 5km (3 miles) from Papatowai.
6. Explore Cathedral Caves – CHEAP
Cathedral Caves on the pristine Waipati Beach and is just about the only natural attraction you need to pay for in The Catlins. Many would say the NZ$10 fee is worth it to see the impressive sight – two sea-formed passages that are 200m (660ft) long and 30m (100ft) tall. Needless to say, exploring the caves and their gorgeous beach is a rewarding experience, especially after venturing down a 1km (0.6-mile) bush track to get there. As the trail and beach are on Maori freehold land, there is a charge to use the car park and bush trail, again, costing NZ$10 per adult and NZ$2 per child. EFTPOS is available. Note that this attraction is only accessible at low tide.
Location: Cathedral Caves Road, off the Chaslands Highway, approximately 13km (8 miles) from Papatowai.
7. Walk to the Stunning McLean Falls – FREE
Another waterfall on the must-see list, McLean Falls cascades down multiple tiers that you can climb up to reach the pool of a plunging waterfall. The walk is an easy 40-minute return walk through the forest and following a stream with more small waterfalls to admire along the way.
Location: Rewcastle Road, approximately 12km (7 miles) from Papatowai.
8. See a Fossilised Forest, Penguins and a Sandy Beach at Curio Bay – FREE
One of the more diverse attractions of The Catlins, Curio Bay and the neighbouring Porpoise Bay has plenty to offer. First, check out Curio Bay and its rock pools which are, if you look closely, a fossilised forest where you can see distinct tree trunks and stumps etched in the rock. Visit in the morning or late afternoon and you may be lucky to see yellow-eyed penguins making their way across the rocks to their nests. As always, make sure you only admire them from afar, as to not scare them away from this important habitat. Finally, head over to Porpoise Bay, which is a sweeping crescent-shaped sandy beach ideal for swimming, getting ice cream from the camp shop, and looking out for Hector’s dolphins.
Location: Mair Road, approximately 5km (3 miles) from Waikawa.
9. Head to the Southernmost Point of the South Island at Slope Point – FREE
If survey landmarks are your sort of thing, then head to Slope Point – the southernmost point of the South Island. To mark the significance of the location, there’s a sign indicating the distance you are from the Equator and South Pole. The sign is located on a 20-minute walk over private farmland. While you’re there, admire the rugged coastline, windswept trees and sheep on the farm.
Location: 500 Slope Point Road, approximately 18km (11 miles) from Waikawa.
10. Check Out the Lighthouse and Sea Lions at Waipapa Point – FREE
Finally, one of the southernmost highlights of The Catlins that’s free to visit is Waipapa Point. Here, you’ll find a photo-worthy lighthouse, first lit in 1884 as a response to one of New Zealand’s worst shipwrecks, which you can read about on the information shelter. There are also sweeping sandy beaches and often snoozing sea lions to spot.
Location: Waipapa Lighthouse Road, approximately 16km (10 miles) from Fortrose.
More Free and Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins
- 10 Incredible Things to Do in The Catlins
- 10 Must-Dos in The Catlins
- 10 Hikes in the Catlins and Clutha District
That’s it for our list of cheap and free things to do in The Catlins. For more free stuff, check out the 50 Best Free Things to Do in New Zealand.