6 Awesome Waterfalls In The Catlins To Add To Your Road Trip

Nestled in the southeastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, the Catlins is a rugged coastal region adorned with patches of lush temperate rainforests. This peaceful corner of the country beckons both travellers and locals alike, allured by the captivating Catlins’ waterfalls.

On our New Zealand road trip, we dedicated almost a week to exploring the enchanting pockets of forest amidst the picturesque farmlands of the Catlins. We discovered not only the renowned waterfalls in the Catlins that are marked on the tourist map but also the hidden gems that remain off the beaten path

We visited a total of 7 waterfalls in the Catlins and all but one has made it to our list of the best Catlins’ waterfalls. In this post, you’ll find our detailed review of the top waterfalls to visit in the Catlins. We have also included inspiring images and helpful tips for your visit to this beautiful region.

Standing on the mossy rocks at Pouriwai Falls on the Waipohatu Falls Track

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Your Guide To Visiting The 6 Best Waterfalls In The Catlins

We know that you may not have enough time to explore all 6 waterfalls in the Catlins. So to help you choose, we’ve listed the waterfalls below in order of our preference.

The only waterfall we found in the Catlins that didn’t make our list was Niagara Falls – which is not worth the detour, trust us! It is nothing more than a ripple in a river, named after the mighty North American waterfall in jest.

Waipohatu Waterfalls (Punehu Falls & Pouriwai Falls)

Time: 2.4 – 3 hours
Distance: 6 km circuit
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: 246 m
Trailhead: Waipohatu Picnic Area

Pouriwai Falls flowing in to a mess of green covered rocks on the Waipohatu Falls Track in the Catlins
Pouriwai Falls
Punehu Falls on the Waipohatu Falls Track, one of the best Catlins Waterfalls
Punehu Falls

Starting with our all-time favourite, the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track offers a rugged beauty that you won’t experience from any other waterfall in the Catlins – aside from maybe Koropuku Falls.

A rough and often overgrown path leads through the verdant temperate rainforests, leading you on a circuit that passes by two incredible waterfalls – Punehu Falls and Pouriwai Falls. Our favourite of the two magnificent waterfalls is Pouriwai Falls, which took our breath away from the moment we stepped into the deep moss-stained basin.

While there’s no denying that this waterfall walk requires a little more effort, if you enjoy your trails a little wilder and less crowded then we have no doubt that the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track will be worth your time!

McLean Falls

Time: 40 – 60 minutes
Distance: 2.2 km return
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 85 m
Trailhead: McLean Falls Car Park

The lower waterfall at Mcleans Falls, one of the best waterfalls in the Catlins
Mclean Falls Lower Waterfall
Main viewpoint of Mclean Falls
Mclean Falls

McLean Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Catlins, fighting for first place with Purakaunui Falls, and it’s obvious to see why once you reach the monstrous cascading waterfall.

This short and enjoyable walk through a lush forest blanketed by moss and lichen leads to a triple-tiered waterfall. McLean Falls plunges 22 metres from the main terrace before tumbling over a series of dark grey rock slabs, offering several stunning vantage points to watch the surging waterfall.

We loved McLean Falls for many reasons, but it was the exhilarating and mildly demanding scramble to the base of the 22-metre drop that secured its position as the runner-up for the best waterfall in the Catlins.

Koropuku Falls

Time: 15 – 30 minutes
Distance: 800 m return
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Elevation Gain: 44 m
Trailhead: Koropuku Falls Car Park

Koropuku Falls peacefully flowing into a golden stream

If you’re searching for a quick and easily accessible adventure that will lead you away from the crowds gathered at the more popular waterfalls, then look no further than Koropuku Falls.

While Koropuku Falls itself is alluring, the major drawcard for this waterfall is the enchanting trail that leads to the curtain-like falls. You’ll find yourself deep in a wild forest, with fallen tree fern logs acting as stepping stones to avoid the muddy and messy forest floor.

After the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track, the walk to Koropuku Falls was our favourite. But the best part is that the Koropuku Falls Trailhead departs from Chasland Hwy (the Southern Scenic Route) and takes no time at all, making it an easy Catlins’ waterfall to include even if you’re simply driving by.

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Purakaunui Falls

Time: 20 minutes
Distance: 600 m return
Difficulty: Very Easy
Elevation Gain: 17 m
Trailhead: Purakaunui Falls Car Park

Purakaunui Falls cascading down into a golden stream with light beaming through the forest

Purakaunui Falls is perhaps the most photogenic waterfall in the Catlins and arguably the most popular. Its fame is partly due to the easy wheelchair-accessible trail, but we can’t argue with the fact that Purakaunui Falls is stunning.

The 20 m waterfall tumbles over three tiers of dark moss-stained rock slabs into the languid Purakaunui River that flows beneath the viewing platform. Twisted beech trees hang over the falls, providing an alluring foreground for photographers.

The only reason that Purakaunui Falls isn’t higher on our list is due to the crowds that flock to the waterfall daily. You would need to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon to enjoy this waterfall in solitude.

Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

Time: 30 – 45 minutes
Distance: 1.5 km return
Difficulty: Very Easy
Elevation Gain: 50 m
Trailhead: Matai Falls Car Park

Matai Falls in the Catlins
Matai Falls

Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls is another easy waterfall walk that’s regularly visited by travellers. A wide gravel path will lead you to the two neighbouring 10 m waterfalls that plunge over dark grey boulders into Matai Stream.

Horseshoe Falls on the Matai Falls Track
Horseshoe Falls

While these waterfalls didn’t quite captivate our attention as much as the ones above, the walk was still pleasant and worth our time. We also detoured to view the impressive Historic Stone High Cutting, which was blasted and cut away to allow the old railway to pass through.

Barrs Falls

Time: 10 minutes
Distance: 350 m return
Difficulty: Very Easy
Elevation Gain: minimal
Trailhead: Barrs Falls Car Park

Barrs Falls hidden by thin bushes on the barrs falls track

If you’re looking to avoid the crowds completely, then Barrs Falls is the Catlins waterfall for you! We stumbled across Barrs Falls after following the brown tourist sign on the way to Purakaunui Falls and while the waterfall is quite modest, it turned out to be much prettier than the images we found online.

The walk to Barrs Falls is short and straightforward. The path leads you through a tangled moss-stained forest to a small viewing platform that overlooks two waterfalls roughly 5 – 7 m tall. For the best experience, try to visit Barrs Falls after heavy rain when the waterfalls are at their most impressive.

Essential Information About Exploring The Waterfalls In The Catlins

Where Is The Catlins?

Catlins shaded in on a map
Rough area of the Catlins

The Catlins extends along the southeastern coastline of New Zealand’s South Island, spanning from Balclutha to Fortrose. Part of the Southern Scenic Route, this is a great destination to add to your road trip if you’re planning to drive from Dunedin to Invercargill.

This region encompasses Slope Point, the southernmost tip of New Zealand, as well as a rugged coastline with golden beaches and lush farmlands. Owaka is the main town within the Catlins, where you’ll find basic services such as fuel, a grocery store, a pharmacy and several restaurants and cafes.

Best Time To Visit The Catlins

Watching the sunrise at Tunnel Beach in the Catlins, New Zealand
Sunrise at Tunnel Beach

The Catlins experiences an average annual rainfall of 1,300 mm, which remains consistent throughout the year. As a result, the waterfalls in the Catlins are generally always flowing at their best, making any time of the year an excellent time to visit and witness their beauty.

However, due to fewer visitors in winter, the Catlins is still a very seasonal destination. Between May and mid-October, it’s common to find restaurants and cafes closed for the winter.

The ultimate time to visit the Catlins in our opinion is late October, just when businesses are opening back up but before the busy summer crowds arrive.

How Many Days Should I Spend In The Catlins?

Massive waves crashing into the point at Curio Bay in the Catlins
Wild surf at Curio Bay

We recommend spending at least two full days in the Catlins to truly experience the wild beauty that hides within the temperate rainforests. Two days will allow you to check off most – or jampack all – of the Catlins waterfalls we’ve listed, but to include any of the other things to do in the Catlins, we suggest allowing 3 to 4 days.

If you’re short on time in New Zealand’s South Island, then you can easily fit the top 3 or 4 waterfalls into a day trip on your way to other more appealing destinations such as Milford Sound or Aoraki / Mt Cook.

Best Places To Stay While Exploring The Catlins

As I mentioned above, Owaka is the main town within the Catlins region. While the town itself isn’t anything to write home about, there are several lovely accommodation options nearby if you’d like to stay close to town.

Our favourite place to stay in the Catlins is Kaka Point. It is a little further out of the way compared to Owaka, but the coastline is stunning and staying here gives you the chance to view the sunrise from the incredible Nugget Point Lighthouse.

Below is a list of our top 4 recommended places to stay in the Catlins:

Where To Camp In The Catlins

The best way to experience the Catlins – in our opinion – is to hire a campervan. The accommodation throughout the region is quite minimal but there are several awesome campsites in the Catlins that offer incredible views at a fraction of the cost of an Airbnb.

Campervans camping at Purakaunui Bay Campsite in the Catlins
Purakaunui Bay Campsite
Surfers on the beach at Purakaunui Bay
Purakaunui Bay

Our favourite campsite in the Catlins is Purakaunui Bay Campground. This DOC-managed campsite is $10 per person, per night and allows you to camp right on the edge of the incredible surf beach – which is often frequented by seals!

Here is a list of the top 4 campsites in the Catlins:

Final Thoughts

While the Catlins region as a whole wasn’t our favourite area of New Zealand, there’s no denying that the waterfalls you will find are nothing short of magnificent. If you have the time, the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track is a must. But if you’re only passing through, we highly recommend prioritising Mclean Falls, Koropuku Falls and Purakaunui Falls.

We hope that this guide to the Catlins waterfalls has helped you plan your road trip. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any further questions about the Catlins – we’re always happy to help!

Happy Adventuring 🙂