Close your eyes and imagine a paradise with impressive waterfalls hidden in a vivid New Zealand rainforest edged by sweeping seas. Add to that endangered penguins, endemic Hector’s dolphins, and native birds, and you have the Catlins. Covering a section of the southern coast of the South Island, the Catlins is one of my favourite places to photograph.
They call this drive the Southern Scenic Driving Route for a good reason. While always picturesque, each visit is unique. Our first visit was a while ago, as evident by the ages of our children in the Slope Point image below. Yet, nature remains pristine and the Catlins coast continues to be a paradise worth exploring year after year.
Our hikes through the rainforest were spectacular, despite the on-and-off drizzle. After all, it is the rain that amplifies the vibrancy of the rainforest colours. As a bonus, the cool, humid weather kept us comfortable as we hiked. Each stop along the road was different, each hike dramatic in its own way.
Where is the Catlins?
The Catlins is the area along New Zealand’s southern coast between Fortrose and Kaka Point in the Southland region of the South Island. Entering the area takes you off the beaten path and into an unspoiled, subtropical paradise. It’s an area to be savoured and enjoyed.
If in a hurry, one could drive through the region in less than 3 hours. We took three days and enjoyed the wild, rugged coastline; dense, temperate rainforests, dramatic waterfalls; 160 million-year-old petrified wood; and, endangered species. Being a distance from the typical tourist routes, many visitors to New Zealand skip the Catlins, but we love it.
Things to do in the Catlins
Nature honoured the region, thus providing plenty of things to do in the Catlins. Here, we highlight some of the waterfalls, lookout points, and nature at its best.
What struck me first about the region’s waterfalls was the way they cascade over boulders, powerfully rolling down hills, rather than one massive drop like many of the North Island waterfalls. Here are our two favourites:
Purakaunui Falls: A stunning waterfall in its own right, it is also the easiest one to access. As a result, Purakaunui Falls is the most photographed waterfall in the area.
McLean Falls: A 20-minute hike brought us to McLean Falls, the highest of the Catlin waterfalls. This one is nature’s masterpiece, and possibly my favourite waterfall in New Zealand.
Who can resist a visit to the world’s largest sea cave? It takes a bit of planning but is worth the effort. It’s accessible only four hours out of every twelve (the two hours either side of low tide) and only from October to May.
Petrified Forest at Curio Bay
It’s not often we get to see 160 million-year-old petrified logs dating back to Jurassic times, just hanging out amongst the rocks. However, that’s what we found at Curio Bay. There is a viewing platform if you don’t want to walk down to the beach for a closer look.
Pro tip: Be sure to check the tides, and visit near low tide to see the petrified forest. If you are lucky enough that low tide falls early morning or at dusk, you might even see yellow eyed penguins, the world’s rarest penguin.
Nugget Point: Catlins lighthouse
Often simply called the Catlins lighthouse, the spot where it stands at the end of Nugget Point is well known as a destination to spot sea lions and fur seals basking on the rocks, as well as a breeding colony of gannets. Nugget Point is named for the rocky nuggets that dot the sea at end of the point. The lighthouse is an easy 10-minute walk from the car park.
Catlins River Walk
Another fabulous place for a hike, the Catlins River Walk (also called River-Wisp Loop Track) rewards visitors with waterfalls and hidden lakes. Be sure to keep an eye out for native birds as you stroll through the beech forest.
Marking the southernmost point in the mainland (South Island), Slope Point is a key photo spot, although access is closed during spring lambing season (September to November). They say it’s an easy 20-minute walk. We can’t verify this as we always visit in the spring. Be warned, Slope Point is well known for being very windy.
More cool things to do in the Catlins
- Jack’s Blowhole: A one-hour return walk rewards visitors with a huge blowhole 55m deep that is oddly located 200m inland from the sea.
- Lake Wilkie: A 30-minute return walk brings you to a stunning mirror lake surrounded by forest.
- Owaka’s Teapot Land: Starting with one, the private collection has grown to over 1,000 teapots.
- Porpoise Bay: Near Curio Bay, this is a great beach for swimming, surfing, or spotting Hector’s dolphins (in summer).
Catlins accommodation options
Many people will tell you that the Catlins are ideally suited for camping, either tent camping or with a camper van. And, the Department of Conservation makes it easy with a few free Catlin camping grounds. However, while the freedom might be nice, we prefer a certain level of comfort.
While there are plenty of accommodation options as you drive through the region, if you are visiting in peak season, it’s recommended to book in advance.
Several lovely four-star accommodations can be found in the Catlins, which is always our preference.
More on the Catlins New Zealand
- The total population of the region is about 1,300 (as of 2018), and the landmass is approximately 1900 km² (730 sq mi).
- Expect slower-than-average drive times, and be aware that many of the side roads are still unpaved.
- While the drive from end to end is only 170 km, you will want to fill up before you get started, as there are no petrol stations in the Catlins.
- We generally drive to the Catlins from Invercargill, continuing on to Dunedin and if heading north, take a slow ride up the east coast from Dunedin to Christchurch.
- It’s easy to drive the rainforest area on your own, but if you prefer a tour with a company you know, Viator offers a private tour of the Catlins from Dunedin that sounds amazing. Check availability for the Private Tour: Dunedin to the Catlins
- About 30 km south of the mainland, is Stewart Island, a fabulous ecotourism add-on to any adventure.
Read next: 18 Extraordinary Things to Do in the South Island NZ
- The climate is temperate and cooler than other parts of New Zealand.
- Be sure to wear layers. The winds kick up and feel quite cold, contrasting the warmer calm areas.
- As the Catlins is largely rainforest, you should expect some drizzle at a minimum. It rains more than half of the days spread throughout the year.
- Typical summer temperatures are 18-20 °C (64-68 °F), while average winter temperatures are 10-13 °C (50-55 °F).
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
We usually start with aggregator companies as they do the work for us by providing a list of options, prices, and reviews. However, we also added a few personal NZ favourites:
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com as they consistently return the best rates and their reviews are from actual guests. However, for self-contained lodging in New Zealand, we use Bookabach.
- Cars and Campervans: we use RentalCars to find the best deals and dealer ratings. Use Jucy for small campervans.
- Activity discounts: we always check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on selected tours, activities, restaurants and more.
- Travel Insurance: we start at InsureMyTrip as they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you.
Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
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What are your favourite things to do in the Catlins?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
You had me at those waterfalls! They are beeeautiful! We did not spend time in this part of NZ, but it looks like we should it is such a pretty and varied landscape!
What a gorgeous place, and what a gorgeous country you have!
New Zealand looks so beautiful. I’m hoping I’ll get to visit one day!
Sounds amazing! Bookmarking for when I next visit New Zealand 🙂
Wow all of these spots are so beautiful! I never really thought of NZ having such a rainforest area, but I would love to visit here 🙂 I haven’t been to NZ yet so definitely adding this to my list!
OMG! We love the Caitlins, and only visited a small portion last time! We didn’t have enough time to visit that far South on our last trip, but plan to on the next trip to NZ. I am guessing our girls would love the trails, beaches and forests.
The scenery here looks almost Jurassic… or certainly ancient! Looks like a great place for a hike.
This is a very comprehensive guide, thanks for sharing! My husband has visited NZ before and he always says how beautiful it is.
Oooh NZ looks amazing! I will add the Catlins to my NZ bucket list for when I make it there!
Ah this is such great information and inspiration as Catlins is definitely on my travel wish list! Been to New Zealand twice now and made it as far down as Milford Sounds and Dunedin, but sadly didn’t have time to go to the Catlins so was already planning a third NZ trip for this reason 😉
I love rainforests and Caitlins has everything you could dream for in a rainforest. I’m adding it to my list of places to visit in New Zealand. Watch out, Rhonda, I’ll come see your country of residence sometimes soon!
Wow this sounds amazing. I haven’t been the Catlins! New Zealand is just amazing. Thanks for the great info!
We loved the Catlins while in New Zealand. It’s shocking that more people don’t take the time to drive there. We LOVED Nugget Point. I’ll have to mark these waterfalls for a future visit! The pictures are gorgeous.
Your girls were so young in the pictures!!
we managed to visit the Catlins, we stayed one night and visited the waterfalls and of course we took a picture at Slope Point 🙂
Hi Rhonda – gosh I’d love to visit there … sounds gorgeous – wonderful photos. That petrified wood always amazes me when I see it … I can understand why people miss it out – but I can see why you’d recommend it.
I always find your posts so inspiring!! I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand. It’s most def on my bucket list!!
Paul F. Pietrangelo
Good morning Rhonda. Today is the Monday, the 21st. Sorry I’ve been off because of internet problems but I’m back. I just LOVE the beautiful waterfalls. I love waterfalls, small ones and large ones. Have ayou ever seen Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. Now that is a waterfall. I was there last year and I plan on going back to Niagara next year. It’s so beautiful. Well time to go my friend. See ya.
I have never been to the Catlins or anywhere in the vicinity of New Zealand for that matter. I am in love with the falls, a hike through the rain forest sounds perfect. Did you get to see any penguins?
What glorious pictures! And your girls were the cutest things EVER! It sure looks rugged out there. No wonder Jackson filmed in NZ for LOTR. Awesome!
Catlins Rainforest looks so much like Kauai island, Rhonda. If I just looked at your pictures and not read the post, I could swear they were taken in Hawaii. Just gorgeous! New Zealand is definitely on my list for places to visit.
Wow! Just gorgeous. I didn’t realise that New Zealand had a rainforest as well. There really is a lot of geographical diversity in a fairly small country. New Zealand is on our bucket list but it’s the challenge of distance and getting a chunk of time off that is holding us back.
We still haven’t done! 🙁 Maybe in the next few months
Ruth - Tanama Tales
What a beautiful area! Love places where there is a variety of nice coastal views and inland attractions like the waterfalls. I would take my time in this area too. It would be not fun to skip most of the amazing places!
Sounds like a wonderful place to explore. There appears to be many wonderful places to visit in New Zealand.
Have a fabulous day. 🙂
What a beautiful and fascinating place 🙂
Have a tanfastic weekend 🙂
Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor
We went there and loved it! Some of the prettiest scenery in NZ. Actually, I say that about almost every place in NZ because it is one amazing country 🙂
I love to hike, but I have yet to hike in rainforest. Your post told me it is a must. Absolutely stunning – and peaceful … Great pics, and yes, I know that feeling looking at pictures of kids… how did they grow so fast right?! Hugs Rhonda
If i had to guess where you were i would had said Ireland. It looks like parts of the west coast. I love rugged coast lines. They are beautiful in a way that challenges you.
This looks like a beautiful place.
I haven’t been there, but the Catlins rainforest look amazing. I have a thing for rain forests, they make me feel a lot better for some reason. Adding to our extensive list. Love the photo of the waterfalls over the rocks.
Lyn (aka) The Travelling Lindfields
Not every visitor to the N.Z skips the Caitlins, although I’ll admit it isn’t the best known tourist spot on the planet. We spent three days there once in a little cottage at Curio Bay. I dragged David down to a lookout one evening where we saw small groups of yellow-eyed penguins – got some decent photos too. And yes we saw dolphins too – the next day. I assume they were Hector’s dolphins but I can’t be sure.