McLean Falls | Is This The Most Impressive Waterfall In The Catlins?

McLean Falls captures the essence of what makes the Catlins famous, all in one easily accessible package. Wander through a lush forest adorned with vibrant moss, leading to a magnificent multi-tiered waterfall that gracefully cascades through a deep ravine carved by the Tautuku River.

During our 4-month road trip across New Zealand, we dedicated nearly a week to exploring the numerous waterfalls tucked away within the verdant temperate rainforests of the Catlins. Among the many incredible waterfalls we encountered, McLean Falls easily became one of our absolute favourites, second only to the magnificent Waipohatu Waterfalls

If you’re planning a road trip through the Catlins on the South Island’s southeast coast, McLean Falls is a must-visit destination on your itinerary for almost every traveller. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

In this detailed guide, we’ll provide all the information you need about the impressive Mclean Falls Walk. Included, we’ll explain how to reach the base of the 22-metre top tier of McLean Falls and share where to find the best spots for photography along the way.

Mclean Falls lower waterfall covered in green moss

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What To Know About Exploring McLean Falls In The Catlins

Quick Statistics For The McLean Falls Walk

Distance
2.2 km return

Time
40 – 60 minutes

Navigation Difficulty
Easy

Trail Difficulty
Easy (moderate to reach the base of the main waterfall)

Physical Effort
Easy

Elevation Gain
85 m

Highest Elevation
116 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: Car park, toilets

Where Does The McLean Falls Track Start?

McLean Falls Carpark

McLean Falls can be found hidden within a flourishing native forest that encompasses the Tautuku River. The waterfall is located in the Catlins Conservation Park, 3 km north of the Whistling Frog Resort which resides beside the Southern Scenic Route.

At the McLean Falls trailhead, you’ll find a large gravel car park with a toilet block and untreated water. The car park is 1 hour 15 minutes east of Invercargill and 2 hours southwest of Dunedin.

How To Get To The McLean Falls Trailhead

Google map directions to McLean Falls

While there are several tours that you can do in the Catlins, which generally depart from Dunedin or Invercargill, the best way to experience the region is by self-driving. This allows you to visit the best spots – not just the most popular – and spend as much time at each destination as you please.

We highly recommend renting a campervan for your Catlins road trip, which allows you to camp either for free or cheap at some of the most picturesque campsites in the Catlins.

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By Car

To Reach the McLean Falls Car Park, you’ll follow the Southern Scenic Route to the Whistling Frog Resort and turn onto Rewcastle Rd – heading north. Continue along the predominantly well-maintained gravel road for 3 km until arriving at the car park at the end of the road.

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

Who Is The McLean Falls Walk For?

Walking across the bridge on the McLean Falls Track

Out of all the waterfalls in the Catlins region, McLean Falls lands in second place on our list of the top 4 most stunning waterfalls – sharing the podium with Pouriwai Falls, Koropuku Falls and Purakaunui Falls. The multi-tiered McLean Falls is a favourite for photographers and nature lovers, who will fall in love with the enchanting forest surrounding the waterfall.

McLean Falls is an easy and enjoyable walk that is perfect for families, as well as those wishing for a little more excitement along the trail compared to the Purakaunui Falls Walk. Along the waterfall walk, there are several spots where you can detour from the groomed path to admire the many tiers of McLean Falls from the banks of the Tautuku River.

When Is The Best Time To Visit McLean Falls?

McLean Falls cascading over rocks in the Catlins

The Catlins region, situated in the southeast of New Zealand’s South Island, experiences an average annual rainfall of 1300 mm that falls evenly throughout the year. As a result, the waterfalls in the Catlins flow consistently year-round, making it a great destination to visit during any season.

With that said, the Catlins is a very seasonal destination. If you visit outside of the summer season, you’re likely to find many of the cafes and restaurants closed for the winter. But if you’re seeking fewer crowds and don’t mind the cold, then winter is a magical time to explore McLean Falls and the Catlins. 

Best Time Of Day To Visit McLean Falls

For the best experience of McLean Falls, we highly recommend visiting at sunset – or at least in the late afternoon. At this time of day, you’ll be gifted with the light filtering through the valley, creating a perfect glow on the multi-tiered waterfall.

Where Are The Best Photography Spots For McLean Falls?

While Purakaunui Falls is the most popular spot for photographers, we believe McLean Falls deserves your time and attention even more! There are many locations that allow you to find a unique composition of the terraced waterfall, which we will divulge below.

McLean Falls with fallen trees framing scene
Mid-tier of McLean Falls
  • Lower Waterfall – Follow the worn dirt track that detours from the main pathway, just before the sign for The Chute. Hopping onto the rocks at the edge of Tautuku River, you’re in the perfect position to capture the smaller waterfall.
  • The Chute – This location isn’t as alluring as the one above, but if you follow the track leading left at the green direction sign, you’ll come to a clearing with an unobstructed view of The Chute.
  • Mid Tier – Once you arrive at the main viewing point for McLean Falls, drop down to your left (if it’s not slippery) where you can find a unique composition using the fallen tree.
  • The Base of McLean Falls – From the main viewing point, continue scrambling up the side of the waterfall along a rough rocky track before popping out at the boulders flanking the main 22-metre waterfall. If the rocks aren’t slippery, you can walk directly in front of the falls.

McLean Falls Track Notes

The Trailhead To McLean Falls’ Lower Waterfall

Walking over the bridge at the beginning of the McLean Falls walk

You’ll begin the walk to McLean Falls by crossing over Duckaday Creek via a small wooden bridge. The widely cut path undulates through open forest for a brief moment before dipping beneath the shady canopy of the native podocarp forest. 

The gravel path weaves through the dense canopy, where vibrant moss drapes over the twisted tree trunks and blankets the decaying forest floor. You’ll loosely follow alongside the Tautuku River, walking beneath towering tree ferns and ancient podocarp trees. It will quickly become clear to you why this is one of our favourite forest walks in the Catlins!

After 500 m, you’ll cross another wooden bridge and begin wandering along the right-hand side of the river. Soon after the bridge crossing, you’ll climb a set of steps and begin to descend alongside an enormous rock wall to the lower section of McLean Falls.

The Lower Waterfall To The Upper Waterfall Lookout Via The Chute

You’ll come to a small opening in the forest after roughly 10 minutes, with a beautiful view of the smallest tier of McLean Falls. To get a better view of the waterfall, follow the little side track down to the river’s edge – being careful not to slip on the thick moss that covers the rocks lining the river banks.

Mclean Falls lower waterfall covered in green moss
Lower waterfall at McLean Falls

After enjoying the unobstructed view of the lowest terrace of McLean Falls, return to the gravel path and continue along the gently ascending trail to the second viewing point – The Chute. Very aptly named, water gushes out of the small chute between two sheer rock walls. Again, you can follow a rocky path down to the water’s edge for a better view of The Chute.

The Chute waterfall at McLean Falls
The Chute

Leaving The Chute behind, continue the steady ascent along the slightly rocky trail that dips beneath an overhanging rock adorned with ferns and moss. Finally, after approximately 20 minutes, a set of steps will deliver you to the main viewing point at the mid-tier of McLean Falls.

Admiring McLean Falls From The Main Viewing Point

McLean Falls cascading down the mass of slatted rocks in the Catlins

Standing beside the stepped rock slabs between the upper and lower tiers of McLean Falls, you’re afforded a sensational view of the waterfall as it plummets 22 metres from the clifftop above into a deep plunge pool before spilling over a series of dark grey rock slabs before you.

When the rocks are dry, you can explore around the mid-tier to find unique compositions of the photogenic waterfall. But if you’re seeking a little more adventure, you can continue up the rocky slope to the base of McLean Falls above.

Scrambling To The Base Of McLean Falls

To reach the base of McLean Falls, continue walking along the rock slabs for a brief moment before scrambling up the loose and steep embankment. While not completely obvious, there is a worn track that you can follow to the base.

Climbing up the steep rocky trail to McLean Falls main waterfall
Steep, sketchy climb to the top-tier of McLean Falls

Note: The scramble up to the base of McLean Falls is quite steep and dangerous and should only be attempted if you are an experienced and confident hiker.

After roughly 100 m, you’ll find yourself standing beneath the powerful McLean Falls, with a stunning view of the valley and the lower terraces of the waterfall behind you. From this vantage point, you can easily grasp the sheer size and volume of this impressive waterfall.

Standing at the top-tier of McLean Falls in the Catlins

Returning To The Trailhead

When you’re finally ready to leave the enchanting McLean Falls, retrace your steps along the same path back to the car park. Don’t forget to take the time to enjoy the incredible forest as you gently descend along the gravel path.

The walk to McLean Falls took us roughly 1 hour to complete, including a stop at each of the tiers and scrambling to the base of the main waterfall. We recommend allowing just over an hour if you want to spend some time photographing McLean Falls.

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Other Important Information For Visiting McLean Falls

Leave No Trace

McLean Falls is tucked into a captivating forest that is still on a regenerating journey after once being cleared for logging. It’s each and every one of our responsibilities to keep the forest thriving by following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.

It’s as easy as taking your rubbish with you, including food scraps and tissues, and using the toilets provided at the car park. When you’re leaving the main trail, ensure you stick to the worn tracks rather than making your own new ones.

Other Things To Do Near McLean Falls

Jacks Bay from the Jacks Blowhole Track
Jacks Bay

The Catlins is a destination full of rugged coastal cliffs and lush temperate rainforests overflowing with wonderful waterfalls. Below is a list of some of our favourite destinations to visit in the Catlins.

Where To Stay Near McLean Falls

McLean Falls is quite centrally located in the Catlins region, with several options for accommodation nearby. The closest is the Whistling Frog Resort, which offers a restaurant, cabins, motel rooms and camping options.

The Whistling Frog Restaurant
The Whistling Frog Restaurant

If you’d like to be close to basic services such as cafes, restaurants and a small grocery store, then your best choice is to find accommodation in Owaka. But if you’re after the laid-back and slow-paced vibe that a quaint seaside village exudes, we highly recommend staying in Kaka Point.

Here are our top 4 suggestions for places to stay in The Catlins.

Camping Near The McLean Falls

Campervans parked at Purakaunui Bay Campsite
Purakaunui Bay Campsite

The Ultimate way to experience the Catlins, in our opinion, is to camp. There are several amazing campsites in the Catlins that are scattered throughout the region – but the best part is, most are free or cheap and offer 5-star views!

Here is a list of our top 3 campsites in the Catlins:

Final Thoughts

McLean Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls to visit in the Catlins, but for good reason. There’s no doubt the multi-tiered waterfall is incredibly impressive, offering several vantage points to admire the terraced waterfall.

To avoid the majority of the crowds and experience the best of McLean Falls, we highly recommend visiting in the late afternoon or just before sunset. This is by far the best time of day to visit McLean Falls and you’ll likely have the view to yourself.

We hope this guide has helped you plan your trip to McLean Falls. Please feel free to drop any questions in the comments below and we will get back to you as soon as possible!

Happy Adventuring 🙂