The Must-Dos in The Catlins: Nature’s Paradise
The Catlins Coast, the South Island coast that straddles between Otago and Southland, is one of the most underrated spots in New Zealand. Yet, the Catlins has a huge concentration of things to do that are not only easily accessible but they’re also free! The wild coast of the Catlins is full of epic natural attractions from sea caves to waterfalls, lakes to rare wildlife. But if you’re only visiting this remarkable corner of New Zealand for a short while, what are the best things to do in the Catlins?
Reducing such an activity-filled part of New Zealand to just the must-dos is a tough one but these are the things we think you can’t miss when in the Catlins! The must-dos are based on their popularity, accessibility and downright awesomeness. However, if you do have more time in the Catlins, head over to 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins and The Complete Guide to The Catlins for more things to do in the Catlins!
1. Get Epic Photos at Nugget Point
One of the most iconic attractions of the Catlins Coast, Nugget Point is often the first/last thing to see by being located in the north of the district. Enjoy a short and well-maintained walking track along a coastal cliff to the Nugget Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1869. Here, a viewing platform overlooks the rocky “nuggets” in the ocean, as well as a seal colony on the rocks below. Binoculars are needed for the best viewing of the seals.
Location: The Nuggets Road, Kaka Point.
2. Explore Cathedral Caves
This one is a little tricky to get to, but if you are able to get to it it’s definitely worth checking out one of the world’s largest sea caves! The Cathedral Caves is accessible two hours before and one hour after low tide. The high-ceiling cave with two grand entrances is a marvel you will not want to miss. The walk down to Waipati Beach is about 20 minutes downhill and access to the walk is NZ$5 each paid in cash in the Cathedral Caves car park. Note, the Cathedral Caves access road is only open during the low tide between October and May.
Location: On the Chaslands Highway (Southern Scenic Route), the Cathedral Caves access road (Pratt Road) is located a couple of minutes drive east of the Whistling Frog Resort & McLean Falls Road.
3. Walk to McLean Falls
The Catlins has no lack of waterfalls. The most majestic of them all is McLean Falls. Follow the Tautuku River, along the 40-minute McLean Falls Walkway, through lush rainforest past teasing cascades of small waterfalls until you reach the main event! It’s possible to climb alongside the first tiered section of this large waterfall until you reach a long-drop waterfall tumbling into a pool (pictured).
Location: On the Southern Scenic Route (Chaslands Highway), turn off at Rawcastle Road (signs for McLean Falls and the Whistling Frog Resort indicate the right road). It’s a 3km (1.9-mile) drive on a gravel road to the car park.
4. See a Fossilised Forest and Penguins at Curio Bay
The main attraction at Curio Bay is the fascinating petrified forest! A viewing platform overlooks fallen tree trunks and trees stumps from the Jurassic era fossilised into the rocky coast below. You can even walk down onto the rocks for a closer look. Time your visit to Curio Bay in the early morning or evening and you might be lucky enough to spot the rarest species of penguin in the world, yellow-eyed penguins but be sure to keep your distance. Find out more about penguin-spotting in the 5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins.
Location: Curio Bay’s closest settlements are Waikawa and Tokanui. From Tokanui, follow the highway toward Waikawa. From Waikawa, take the Waikawa-Curio Bay Road.
5. Watch the Sea Lions at Surat Bay
A lot of travellers come to the Catlins hoping to see some awesome New Zealand marine life. Of course, with any wildlife viewing, it really depends on being in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, Surat Bay offers you your best chances to see the huge New Zealand sea lions! New Zealand seal lions love to hang out on the beach here, so a walk along the shores of Surat Bay is a must if you only have time to visit one wildlife spot. Make sure to keep your distance, at least 10m (30ft) away from the sea lions.
Location: From Okawa, head toward the Okawa Golf Club (via Pounawea Road or Duttons Road) On the east side of the road bridge follow Newhaven Road. You can either start walking along the beach in Newhaven or park up all the way at the end of Newhaven Road and walk along the beach from there.
6. See the Picture-Perfect Pukakaunui Falls
This Catlins’ waterfall is so easy to access that it would be a crime not to check it out! It’s off the main route that people usually take when travelling through the Catlins (The Southern Scenic Route). It’s a 20-minute return walk through lush native bush until you reach Purakaunui Falls and its photo-worthy cascades! This pretty waterfall is also one of the 8 Romantic Activities in The Catlins for Couples.
Location: Purakaunui Falls is on the Southern Scenic Route at the eastern end of Waikoato Valley Road. The Falls will then be signposted along the Purakaunui Falls Road.
7. Check Out the Lighthouse and Sea Lions at Waipapa Point
Another example of wild Catlins Coast, complete with wildlife and a lighthouse, is Waipapa Point. Waipapa Point holds another glorious lighthouse in the Catlins. It’s also a regular spot for New Zealand sea lions – so if you missed them at Surat Bay, then Waipapa Point is always a great alternative.
Location: From Fortrose, take the Fortrose-Otara Road until you reach the fork at Otara where you take the Otara-Waipapa Road all the way to the end.
8. Stand at the Southernmost Point of the South Island at Slope Point
Ok, this is only really a must-do if ticking off geographical points of interest is what rocks your boat. Slope Point is the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand. There’s not much there other than dramatic coastal cliffs and a signpost stating the distance from the Equator and the South Pole. Note that the 20-minute walk to get to Slope Point may be closed during the lambing season (September to November).
Location: Slope Point is about a 20-minute drive east of Curio Bay. Take the Haldane-Curio Bay Road and turn off at Haldane down the Slope Point Road.
9. Marvel at Jack’s Blowhole
Some 200m (656ft) from the sea is this immense blowhole dropping 55m (180ft) deep! Seeing the scale of this eroded rock formation is impressive any day but if you visit on a high swell day, then you’re likely to hear the explosive noises of waves crashing through Jack’s Blowhole. The awesome coastal views along this 1-hour return walk are just a bonus!
Location: 10km (6 miles) from Owaka, turn off the main road into Pounawea Road and follow for 850m (2,789ft) to the turn into Hinahina Road. Follow Hinahina Road for 6km (4 miles) then follow Jacks Bay Road.
10. Admire the Reflections in Lake Wilkie
For a short yet truly impressive forest walk, head on the track to Lake Wilkie. This 30-minute return walk takes you down to a mirror lake with stunning forest reflections. The forest is often full of bird calls too. This walk is an easy one to do with kids, just like the 10 Things to Do in The Catlins with Kids.
Location: Lake Wilkie is on the Chaslands Highway, about a 2-minutes drive west of Tautuku Beach and 7 minutes’ drive from McLean Falls Road.
11. Watch the Sunset from Tautuku Estuary
A lesser-explored short walk in The Catlins is the Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk. This peaceful 20-minute return walk follows an old tramline to a boardwalk meandering across the estuary. The reeds hide crabs and the extremely rare fernbird, so keep an eye out. The best time to visit the estuary is for sunset.
Location: Tautuku Estuary Walkway, Fleming Road.
12. See the “World’s Smallest Waterfall”
Admittedly, this is a waterfall you can afford to miss but if you’re intrigued then check out New Zealand’s very own version of Niagara Falls. Only, this Niagara Falls’ claim to fame is being the world’s smallest waterfall. You would easily miss it if it wasn’t for the interpretation panel explaining the quirky story behind the name. Well, at least like almost everything else on this list, it’s one of the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins.
Location: Manse Road, Niagara (near the Niagara Falls Cafe).