Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls | The Catlins, New Zealand

Hidden in a forest filled with regenerating podocarp and broadleaf trees, Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls cascade over moss-stained boulders into the Matai Stream. Both 10 metres tall and encompassed by lush foliage, the waterfalls are a worthy stop on your Catlins road trip if you have time to spare.

During our recent trip to the southeastern region of New Zealand’s South Island, we had the chance to explore every waterfall in the Catlins that we could find, including Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls. While we must admit that these falls didn’t capture our hearts like the enchanting forests leading to Koropuku Falls or the awe-inspiring waterfalls on the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track, it doesn’t mean that they should be overlooked entirely.

If you’re looking to spend multiple days exploring the enchanting Catlins region or seeking out easily accessible waterfalls in the area, we highly recommend making a stop at Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls. In this post, we’ll provide you with all the necessary information to help you decide whether including Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls in your Catlins itinerary is a must.

Matai Falls in the Catlins surrounded by vibrant green moss

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What To Know About Exploring Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls In The Catlins

Quick Statistics For The Matai And Horseshoe Falls Walk

Distance
1.5 km return

Time
30 – 45 minutes

Navigation Difficulty
Very Easy

Trail Difficulty
Very Easy

Physical Effort
Very Easy

Elevation Gain
50 m

Highest Elevation
145 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Car park

Where Does The Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls Track Start?

Matai Falls Walk Carpark

Bordering the Table Hill Scenic Reserve in the Otago Region, Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls reside near a historic railway that once linked the towns of Balclutha and Tahakopa.

Branching off the Papatowai Hwy – part of the Southern Scenic Route – you’ll find a small gravel car park beside the road that marks the trailhead for Matai Falls. There are no toilets at the car park or phone service – the closest destination with reliable service is Owaka, a 15-minute drive east of the Matai Falls Trailhead.

How To Get To The Matai Falls Trailhead

Google Map of Matai Falls

The Matai Falls Trailhead is located 1 hour 40 minutes southwest of Dunedin and 1 hour 30 minutes east of Invercargill. The directions to reach the trailhead are very straightforward, with no need to detour from the Southern Scenic Route. 

The only challenge is spotting the sign for Matai Falls. We recommend keeping an eye on the distance from either Papatowai if you’re travelling from Invercargill, or Owaka if you’re coming from Dunedin, to ensure you don’t miss the gravel car park. Matai Falls is located 16 km from Owaka and 8 km from Papatowai.

Click Here For Directions From Dunedin
Click Here For Directions From Invercargill

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Who Is The Matai and Horseshoe Falls Walk For?

Walking the Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls track in the Catlins

The walk to Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls follows a well-maintained path through a regenerating forest to two lovely cascading waterfalls. The walk is very straightforward and can be completed within 30 – 45 minutes, making it an easy addition to any traveller’s itinerary.

However, if you’re short on time and you’re searching for a waterfall walk that will take your breath away, we recommend choosing McLean Falls or Purakaunui Falls instead. Both of these walks are still short, yet offer way more bang for your buck – in our opinion.

When Is The Best Time To Visit Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls?

Horseshoe Falls in the Catlins

The Catlins receives an average annual rainfall of 1,300 mm that falls consistently year-round. This means that no matter the season you choose to visit, Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls will be flowing at their fullest.

However, the Catlins is a very seasonal destination and many businesses close over the quiet winter months. If you’re planning a visit in winter, just remember that you may not have as many options for eating out – but you will have a much higher chance of enjoying the waterfalls all to yourself!

In addition, winter in this southern region can be bitingly fresh, lasting from mid-April to the end of October. We suggest packing extra winter clothing during these months – but it’s always a good idea to have your down jacket and rain jacket handy, regardless of the time of year.

Best Time Of Day To Visit Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

For the best experience and lighting conditions, visit Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls in the late afternoon. Both of these waterfalls face south and at this time of day, the soft afternoon light shines through the forest and illuminates the waterfalls beautifully.

Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls Track Notes

The Trailhead To The Historic Rail Trail Junction

Walking on the Matai Falls Track in the Catlins surrounded by dense forest

To begin the walk to Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls, you’ll cross a small wooden bridge and step onto a wide gravel path that will lead you through a spindly forest of green and brown trees all tangled together.

The path gently declines as it makes its way through the sun-filled forest towards the waterfall. With a lack of towering podocarp trees due to this forest once being cleared to be part of a rail trail, the light filters through easily.

After 250 m, you’ll arrive at a track junction. A trail to your left descends to the historic rail trail while the main track continues straight ahead. If you’re interested in seeing the historic Stone High Cutting, make a quick detour to the rail trail.

The Historic Stone High Cutting

Walking the Historic Matai Falls Rail Trail

Once you reach the old railway sign, which provides information on the history of the railway, turn left and almost immediately you’ll walk between two enormous rock walls. Now adorned with moss and ferns, these towering rock walls were blasted and cut to allow the railway to pass through. 

The Rail Trail is a 3.4 km return track that follows the old line and takes roughly an hour to complete. We didn’t bother doing this walk but we do recommend including the quick 2-minute detour to the rock walls.

The Historic Rail Trail Junction To Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls Junction

Walking along the easy path to Matai Falls in the Catlins, New Zealand

Returning back to the Matai Falls Track, continue walking along the weaving path deeper into the forest. The closer you get to the waterfall, the bigger the trees become, towering over you as you begin to hear the rumbling sound of Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls.

Trail junction for Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls
Matai Falls left & Horseshoe Falls right

You’re afforded glimpses of the boulder-strewn Matai Stream just before you reach the track junction for Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls, roughly 15 – 20 minutes later. The right track leads up a short staircase to Horseshoe Falls while the left track follows alongside the creek for a brief moment before stopping at a viewing platform.

Matai Falls

Matai Falls Lookout
Matai Falls from the lookout

Matai Falls is a single-tiered waterfall that plunges into a shallow rocky stream before spilling through the mossy boulders scattered throughout the water. The waterfall is surrounded by sheer rock walls dressed in multiple shades of green moss and ferns, the latter gently swaying in the breeze created by the waterfall.

The thick forest encompassing Matai Falls provides a better canopy over the waterfall, allowing the understory to flourish. This is a pleasant waterfall, but we found Horseshoe Falls to be the most impressive of the two.

Horseshoe Falls

Horseshoe Falls surrounded by vibrant forest and mossy rocks

Returning to the junction and following the slightly narrow staircase for 100 m, you’ll arrive at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Horseshoe Falls consists of a main flow of water that cascades down moss-covered rock slabs into a debris-filled creek blow. Another stream to your right runs off the blocks of dark grey rock slabs in a slow trickling manner.

Returning To The Trailhead

Returing on the Matai Walk in the Catlins

Once you’ve finished exploring both Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls, return along the same track to the car park. The 1.5 km track took us 40 minutes to complete, including a spot at the giant rock walls on the Matai Rail Trail.

Other Important Information For Visiting Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

Leave No Trace

Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls are hidden within a regenerating forest that needs our help to flourish. When you’re visiting these waterfalls – or any destination in the Catlins – please stay on the designated track and take all your rubbish with you, including food scraps and tissues.

There are no toilets or rubbish bins at the Matai Falls Car Park, requiring you to plan your trip and use the public toilets at Papatowai or Owaka before departing. You’ll also find rubbish bins at Owaka.

Other Things To Do Near Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

Walking the cliffs of Long Point in the Catlins, New Zealand
Long Point Coastal Walk

The Catlins offers a plethora of activities, from scenic coastal walks to enchanting waterfalls and wildlife sightings at the rugged headlands. During our four-day exploration of this region, we checked off as many waterfalls and coastal walks as possible. Below, you’ll discover our list of the top five things to do in the Catlins.

Where To Stay Near Matai Falls

Matai Falls and the greater Catlins region is located roughly 1 hour 40 minutes from both Invercargill and Dunedin. This makes the Catlins an easy destination to visit on a day trip from the cities.

Historic Rail Station in Dunedin
Dunedin

However, if you’d rather spend longer than a few hours experiencing the waterfalls and dramatic coastline of the Catlins, then we suggest staying within the region. Owaka is the largest town within the Catlins, offering basic services and the largest choice of cafes and restaurants. But our favourite town is Kaka Point, a beautiful little seaside village just 30 minutes northeast of Matai Falls.

Below is a list of our top 3 recommended places to stay in the Catlins.

Camping Near Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

The best way to experience the Catlins – in our opinion – is in a campervan. There are plenty of campsites to choose from and in summer, the limited accommodation generally fills up quickly. 

Campervans parked at Purakaunui Bay Campsite
Purakaunui Bay Campsite

Our favourite place to camp in the Catlins is Purakaunui Bay. This campsite is run by the Department of Conservation and costs $10 NZD per person, per night. However, if you pre-purchase a DOC Campsite Pass, you can pay a one off fee for either a month or a year and receive unlimited use of almost all DOC Campsites in New Zealand.

Below we’ve listed our top 3 suggested campsites in the Catlins.

Final Thoughts

Horseshoe Falls Lookout on the Matai Falls track

The walk to Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls is very accessible, consisting of an easy 40 minute return walk and conveniently located on the Southern Scenic Route. If you have the luxury of time, Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls are worth the stop.

We hope this article on Matai and Horseshoe Falls has helped you decide whether to include this waterfall walk in your itinerary. In our opinion, if you have time for just 2 – 3 waterfalls, we highly recommend leaving this one out and choosing Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls and Koropuku Falls as your top 3 priorities.

If you have any questions about the walk to Matai and Horseshoe Falls – or the Catlins in general – please feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to us via Instagram.

Happy Adventuring 🙂