16 Adventurous Things To Do In The Catlins, New Zealand

The Catlins, a lesser-explored area nestled along the southeastern coastline of New Zealand’s South Island, boasts lush rainforests teeming with waterfalls and dramatic coastlines adorned by soaring sea cliffs. 

With countless things to do in the Catlins, from wildlife spotting to chasing waterfalls to surfing in the untamed South Pacific Ocean, this wild region offers something for every adventurer.

On our recent 4-month road trip through New Zealand, we spent almost a week exploring as much of the Catlins as we could squeeze in. During that time, we visited 7 waterfalls, countless bays and headlands and spotted some adorable fur seals.

From our experience, we’ve compiled a list of only the best things to do in the Catlins so that you can successfully plan your south coast road trip. In this post, you’ll find a diverse range of activities to suit all travellers, plus some handy tips for visiting the Catlins.

Curio Bay being smashed with wild surf and a rainbow shining on the horizon

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Quick Tips For Visiting The Catlins, New Zealand

  • The best time to visit the Catlins is from November to April
  • You’ll find basic services such as a small grocery store and fuel in Owaka, but we recommend stocking up on groceries in Invercargill or Dunedin before arriving
  • There are coin-operated hot showers, a dump station and potable water in Owaka
  • Many restaurants and cafes close down during the winter period
  • Allow at least 2 – 3 days to properly experience all the things to do in the Catlins
  • There is minimal phone service outside of the small towns scattered throughout the Catlins

16 Best Things To Do In The Catlins, New Zealand

1. Explore Our Favourite Waterfalls On The Waipohatu Waterfalls Track

Standing on a large mossy boulder next to Pouriwai Falls on the Waipohatu Falls Track

If there is just one waterfall walk you complete in the Catlins, we can’t recommend the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track enough. This 2.5 – 3 hour circuit walk leads you through an untamed temperate rainforest, passing by two incredibly breathtaking waterfalls – Punehu Falls and Pouriwai Falls.

Pouriwai Falls especially took our breath away. You’ll descend into a deep moss-stained basin to the base of the thundering waterfall that plummets over the cliffside, bouncing off the enormous boulders scattered throughout the basin on its way to the contrastingly peaceful stream below.

While the Waipohatu Waterfalls Walk demands a little more effort compared to the other waterfalls in the Catlins, we highly recommend adding this to your itinerary if you have the time and skill for a moderately challenging trek.

2. Search For Fur Seals At Waipapa Point

Fur Seal laying on the grass at Waipapa Point in the Catlins, one of the best places to see a seal

Located 10 km from Fortrose, Waipapa Point is home to a historic lighthouse that illuminates the rugged coastline. While the tall sand dunes and rocky shoreline offer a pleasant beach walk, the main reason you should visit this headland is to search for fur seals and sea lions.

The best time to spot these adorable sea mammals sun-baking beneath the lighthouse is in the early afternoon when the rocks are nice and warm. From our experience, it’s less likely you’ll see seals and sea lions on the beach if it’s an overcast or rainy day.

3. Get A Surf Lesson At Curio Bay

Porpoise Bay in Curio Bay
Unfortunately for us, the surf conditions at Curio Bay were poor

During the warm summer months, Curio Bay comes alive with tourists and locals enjoying the sweeping sandy beach that’s famous for its epic surf and endangered Hector’s dolphins.

The surf at Curio Bay accommodates a range of levels depending on where you paddle out, which makes it the perfect location for surf lessons!

Catlins Surf, located next to the Curio Scape Campground, offers 2-hour surf lessons for beginners and experienced surfers at an affordable price. They even provide private lessons if you’d rather have a more personalised experience.

For those that don’t need a lesson, Catlins Surf also rents out surfing equipment, including wetsuits, surfboards, bodyboards and stand-up paddle boards.

4. Take A Walk To Jacks Blowhole At Jacks Bay

Jacks Bay from the Jack's Bay Blowhole Track, one of the best things to do in the Catlins

Located just south of Owaka, Jacks Bay is a quaint seaside shack town bordered by soaring white sea cliffs and distant farmlands. Even on its own, Jacks Bay is a worthwhile place to stop on your Catlins road trip, with a long golden sanded beach boasting epic surf when the conditions are right.

But the main highlight at Jacks Bay is the captivating Jacks Blowhole. This unique horizontal blowhole, located 200 metres inland from the surging ocean, channels the underground flow into a deep cavern where a formidable force of power is released. 

Jacks Blowhole Track is a peaceful and easy walk that takes roughly 40 – 60 minutes to complete. To make a day of it, pack your swimwear and enjoy an afternoon relaxing on the beach at Jacks Bay after your walk.

5. Stand On The Southernmost Point Of New Zealand At Slope Point

The seacliffs at Slope Point covered in sea mist after waves crashing onto the rocks
Slope Point

It would be sacrilege to travel all the way to the south of New Zealand without stepping foot on the southernmost point. To reach the southern edge of the South Island, you’ll walk for roughly 10 minutes through private farmland, following the fence line and swinging to the left towards the iconic signpost.

If the wind is hammering from the southwest like it was the day we visited, there is a strong chance you’ll get drenched by the sea spray that explodes up the tall sea cliffs. But honestly, being soaked in salty sea spray just added to the fun of standing so far south.

Note: If you are visiting Slope Point during lambing season (between September – November) and there are sheep in the paddock, there is no public access to the point. 

6. Experience The Rare Petrified Forest At Curio Bay

Petrified Forest at Curio Bay in the Catlins, New Zealand
Can you see what appears to be a fallen tree?

To witness something truly unique and incredibly rare, make your way down to the beach on the western side of Curio Bay. There, you’ll find a 170 million-year-old petrified forest, a remnant of when New Zealand was part of the Gondwana supercontinent. 

At low tide and when there aren’t any penguins on the beach, you can walk through what used to be a living forest, now transformed into fossilised rocks. It’s truly amazing to witness the intricate details of a tree trunk while experiencing the solidness of stone.

If you visit during high tide or when the penguins are expected to occupy the beach, you can still catch a glimpse of a small display of the petrified forest outside the Waikawa Museum.

7. Spot The Rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins

Sunset from the Penguing Lookout at Curio Bay in the Catlins
Curio Bay Penguin Lookout

The yellow-eyed penguins (aka Hoiho) are one of the rarest breeds in the world, found only on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island and Auckland and Campbell Islands south of the mainland.

The best place to try your luck at spotting these impressive and distinct penguins is at Roaring Bay at Nugget Point or Curio Bay.

You’ll find a hide at Roaring Bay that allows you to stay unseen while attempting to find them scattered throughout the dunes. At Curio Bay, a viewing platform above the sandy beach provides the perfect spot to watch them come in from a day of hunting out at sea.

The best time to see the yellow-eyed penguins is either at dawn or dusk. This is when they’re most active. Unfortunately, when we visited Curio Bay, the weather was incredibly unfavourable which prevented the penguins from coming to shore.

8. Visit The Lesser-Known Koropuku Falls

Koropuku Falls surrounded by vibrant tree ferns and a golden plunge pool

The Catlins is most famously known for its abundance of waterfalls hidden within the lush temperate rainforests. But one that often gets missed is Koropuku Falls.

Koropuku Falls is one of our top 3 favourite waterfalls in the Catlins. It features a much more unkept trail through an unruly forest compared to more popular waterfalls such as Purakaunui Falls, but that just adds to the allure.

A short 10 – 15 minute walk will lead you through a dense moss-stained forest to Koropuka Falls, an enchanting single-tiered waterfall that flows over sheer rock walls adorned with thriving ferns of all shapes and shades of green. It’s a beautiful undisturbed waterfall with no viewing platforms or other human-made structures, making this Catlins waterfall feel much more natural and rugged.

9. Scramble To The Base Of McLean Falls

Mclean Falls Lower waterfall surrounded by thick green forest
Mclean Falls Lower Waterfall
Mclean Falls cascading over smooth rocks, one of the best things to do in the Catlins
Mclean Falls Middle Waterfall

McLean Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Catlins, and for good reason! This monstrous waterfall plummets 20 m into a deep plunge pool before spilling over a series of dark grey rock slabs bordered by a lush fern-filled forest.

The official trail ends after 1.1 km at the middle tier of McLean Falls, but for the adventurous, you can continue walking along the rock slabs for a brief moment before scrambling up the loose and steep embankment to the main waterfall above. Standing beneath the powerful waterfall allows you to truly grasp its sheer size and volume.

Note: The scramble to the base of McLean Falls isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires you to scurry up a very steep embankment so be sure this is within your ability before attempting to go further than the viewing platform.

10. Snap The Iconic Photograph At Purakaunui Falls

Purakaunui Falls cascading down into a golden stream with light rays glistening through the trees

Purakaunui Falls is a photographer’s dream waterfall, with a viewing platform extending into the middle of the Purakaunui River and twisted silver beech trees hanging over the banks to provide the perfect foreground.

But even if you’re not a photographer, the pleasant 10-minute walk to Purakaunui Falls is well worth your time. The cascading waterfall tumbles down dark grey rocks onto a shallow slab before continuing its journey downstream.

Moss of every shade of green thrives by the waterfall, growing thick on the sheer rock walls encompassing the left side of the waterfall, and draping over the tree roots and boulders at the water’s edge.

11. Enjoy A Coastal Walk At Long Point

Walking along the cliff line on the Long Point Track in the Catlins

If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path walk in the Catlins then you must add the Long Point Tack to your itinerary. This 1 – 1.5 hr circuit track showcases the raw beauty of New Zealand’s rugged southeast coastline.

We stumbled upon the Long Point Track by chance, once again following a brown tourist sign after leaving Purakaunui Bay, and were pleasantly surprised with what we found. The track takes you across tall rugged headlands, past grazing sheep and onto a wave-swept beach frequented by fur seals, sea lions and sea birds.

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12. Wander Through The Impressive Cathedral Caves

Located at the north end of Waipati Beach, the Cathedral Caves consist of two sea-formed passages that measure 200 metres in distance and 30 metres in height! They’re an incredible phenomenon that can only be accessed when the tides, swell and weather conditions are right.

Part of the walk to the Cathedral Caves crosses Maori freehold land and a small fee is required for the use of the car park and access to the bush track, beach and caves. Check out the Cathedral Caves website for more information.

Sadly, we were a few weeks too early to visit the caves as they’re closed during the winter months. Their opening times vary but they’re generally open from November to the end of June.

13. Watch The Sunrise From Nugget Point Lighthouse

Nugget Point Lighthouse surrounded by turquoise ocean water and blue skies

Of all the stunning coastal cliffs and walks in the Catlins, Nugget Point is by far the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking. The wild and untamed beauty of this wind and wave-swept headland left us in a constant state of wonder.

Nugget Point Lighthouse is one of the oldest working lighthouses in New Zealand’s South Island. From its position high above the rocks scattered around Tokata Point, you’re afforded the best place in the Catlins to watch the sunrise.

Out of all the things to do in the Catlins, embarking on the easy 20 – 30-minute return walk along the narrow headland is an absolute must. Not only will you witness the majestic beauty of Nugget Point, but you may also spot seals, penguins, and an array of seabirds.

14. Enjoy The Laid-Back Vibe Of Kaka Point

Kaka Point Beach in the Catlins
Kaka Point

Kaka Point is our favourite seaside village on the Catlins coast and a great place to base yourself if you’re planning to spend a few days ticking off all the epic things to do in the Catlins.

The sweeping golden coastline is home to one of the Catlins best surf spots and also offers one of the only surf-patrolled beaches in the region. But the best part is that Kaka Point is just 15 minutes north of Nugget Point, allowing for an easy sunrise mission at the lighthouse.

There is very little to be found at Kaka Point, other than holiday houses and surf shacks, but there is a cafe/bar called The Point Bar & Cafe that boasts prime real estate right on the beach – the perfect place for a sneaky afternoon beer.

15. Go Surfing At Purakaunui Bay

Surfing at Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins
Surfers at Purakaunui Bay Campsite
Surfer at Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins
Surfing at Purakaunui Bay

For hardcore surfers, you don’t want to miss a surf at Purakaunui Bay. The bay provides consistent beach breaks, the best being to the eastern side of the river mouth. You’ll enjoy both left and right-handers at Purakaunui Bay, which are surfable at all stages of the tide.

The only downside to surfing at Purakaunui Bay is the notorious winds that can destroy the waves. If you have a warm enough wetsuit, then winter is the most reliable time to surf here. If not, you want to wait for a northwesterly wind and a southeasterly swell.

Another epic surf spot for advanced surfers is Long Point, just west of Purakaunui Bay. Long Point is a reef break that offers up a hollow left-hander. The optimal conditions for Long Point are the same as Purakaunui Bay, but due to being sheltered from an easterly wind, it can be more reliable. However, this location is even more remote than Purakaunui Bay and requires a high level of experience.

16. Have A Picnic At Florence Hill Lookout

View over beach in the Catlins from Florence Hill Lookout

Ok, this isn’t technically an ‘adventurous’ thing to do in the Catlins, but you’ve gotta eat at some point!

Florence Hill Lookout offers stunning vistas across the sweeping Tautuku Bay and over to the rugged Tautuku Peninsula. The vast grassy headland that protrudes from the car park provides the perfect picnic spot – especially a late afternoon picnic when you can also enjoy the soft glow of the impending sunset.

Final Thoughts

If one thing is for certain, it’s that you won’t be bored when you visit the Catlins. There are plenty of adventurous things to do in the Catlins, many of which cater to all levels. While you won’t find any jaw-dropping hikes like you will in Milford Sound, the Catlins is a worthwhile destination to visit if you have extra time to spare.

We hope that this guide on the best things to do in the Catlins has helped you plan your road trip. If you have any questions about the Catlins, please don’t hesitate to drop a comment below.

Happy Adventuring 🙂