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6 Top Things to Do in the Catlins on a New Zealand Road Trip

6 Top Things to Do in the Catlins on a New Zealand Road Trip

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

From visiting rainforest waterfalls to spotting some of the world’s rarest wildlife species, The Catlins is a must-visit adventure destination in New Zealand’s South Island.

Initially, the Catlins weren’t on my road trip radar of places to visit in South Island New Zealand. However, after making a detour to check out some of the waterfalls and hikes, I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how beautiful this region is.

On a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment decision, we packed up our camper in Queenstown and headed out to explore the East Coast. From hikes, waterfalls, and wildlife, we certainly didn’t find a shortage of things to do in and see in the Catlins.

Fun Things to Do in the Catlins

Unfortunately, I had far too little time in the Catlins. Knowing this, I wanted to cram all of these things into a quick 3-day itinerary. In hindsight, I should have dedicated at least a week to making the most of this beautiful region.

Regardless, here's a list of my favourite adventures in the Catlins.

Tip: Here's a map view of all the Catlins itinerary items on this list to help you plan out your road trip!

Catlins attractions map

1. Chase the Amazing Catlins Waterfalls

The Catlins are all about waterfalls. And there's no wonder why... Being surrounded by loads of protected, native forests and having dozens, if not hundreds of freshwater rivers and streams, epic waterfalls are a given!

Here are three of my favourite waterfalls. However, you can find a more comprehensive Catlins waterfall guide here as well.

Purakaunui Falls

Known as the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand, Purakaunui Falls is a must-visit waterfall on your Catlins road trip.

This one is located near Papatowai and is easily accessed via a sealed road just a few minutes' detour from the freeway.

Location: Purakaunui Falls Road, Purakaunui

Purakaunui falls walk waterfall in the catlins

McLean Falls

Next up is McLean Falls. This one is another popular South Island waterfall that is also one of the tallest that I found in the Catlins.

While you can't swim at the main waterfall, there are numerous freshwater swimming spots on the river along the track to the waterfall.

The short walk to McLean Falls is also refreshing and gives you a good glimpse of natural South Island forest terrain.

Location: Rewcastle Road, Otago

Mclean falls main waterfall

Matai and Horseshoe Falls

A quick stop at Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls, just off the highway between Papatowai and Owaka offers two epic forest waterfalls just a few minutes' walk apart.

If you're up for a quick but rewarding stop, these two waterfalls are a great bet. The walk to both is scenic but very easy. You'll reach the upper waterfall within 10 minutes of leaving the car park!

Location: Matai Falls Walkway, Southern Scenic Rte

Matai falls new zealand

2. See the Rarest Penguin in the World At Curio Bay

The Catlins isn't only about hikes and waterfalls! One of the most popular things to do in the Catlins is to visit Curio Bay.

Here, you can get a nightly glimpse of the world's rarest penguins; the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, or the hoiho.

While these penguins are extremely protected under New Zealand conservation law, the DOC has set up safe viewing points, where you can get a glimpse as the adult penguins return to nest each night.

The best time to see the hoiho is at sunset, between 6 pm and 9 pm, depending on the season.

Yellow eyed penguin at curio bay in the catlins
A yellow-eyed penguin spotted in Curio Bay

3. Waipohatu Forest Loop

One of my favourite hikes in the Catlins, the Waipohatu Forest Loop, is a must for anyone making a stop near Curio Bay.

This day walk is a waterfall loop which takes approximately 2-3 hours to complete. If you have some time to kill before going penguin-spotting, I'd highly recommend doing this hike.

Punehu falls on the waipohatu waterfall loop

4. Visit The Cathedral Caves

The Cathedral Caves is a huge, 200 m sea-formed coastal cave passage that is only accessible during low tide.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit the Cathedral Caves during my trip to the Catlins. However, after being told more about it, I really wish I had planned to visit during low-tide hours.

For a full guide to the Cathedral caves, you can visit this blog.

5. Check Out Lake Wilkie

Another short, but worthwhile pitstop on the Chaslands Highway is Lake Wilkie.

The track is again short but relatively easy, leading to the edge of the lake, where you can grab some great reflective photos.

Lake wilkie track in the catlins

6. The Incredible Papatowai

The Papatowai coastline makes for some pretty picture-perfect views of New Zealand's east coast.

Highlights for worthwhile stops include Florence Hill Lookout, where you can watch the waves roll in on Papatowai Beach.

Papatowai viewpoint catlins

More Catlins Experiences

The Catlins are a relatively unexplored region compared to adventure mega-hubs like Queenstown. Therefore, you might not find as many tours in the region. But, below I have included two awesome tours that you should definitely check out!

  • Sea Kayak Tour to Nugget Point Lighthouse - see the awesome Nugget Point Lighthouse from the water and spot unique wildlife like albatross, sea lions, penguins, fur seals, cormorant and dolphins.
  • Sunrise Kayak Tour - prefer to get up early? Check out this alternative kayaking tour for an unforgettable sunrise experience.
Kayaking in the catlins

Where to Stay in The Catlins

We spent 3 days exploring the Catlins and stayed in our campervan. However, if you're looking for accommodation options, below are my top three recommendations.

  • Best Hostel / Dorm Lodge: Lazy Dolphin Lodge - One of the only accommodation options for backpackers and budget travelers near Curio Bay, this lodge offers beach access and unlimited wifi. Guests seem to be pretty stoked about the views and the common area. A good place to stay if you're looking to see the rare yellow-eyed penguins.
  • Backpackers in Owaka: Surat Bay Lodge
    Another budget backpacker option but this time closer to Owaka. Surat Bay Lodge is one of the most popular accommodation options in the Catlins, with beach access and a large garden to chill at.
  • Hilltop Lodge: Hilltop Accommodation Catlins
    This lodge is close to Papatowai, and is one of the best-reviewed lodges in the Catlins. Located right next to native forests, this historic building is a perfect Catlins retreat for two.

Catlins Camping Spots

Free DOC Campsite: Weir Beach Reserve
This campsite is the only free site for non-contained campers in the Catlins. It's essentially a large grassy paddock with amenities including a toilet and non-potable freshwater sink. Just beware of the sandflies.

  • Purakaunui Bay Campsite - This is a good spot to stay if you're going to visit some of the nearby waterfalls. This campsite is another DoC (paid) campsite with basic amenities.
  • Papatowai Campsite - This one is another paid campsite in the forest clearing area near the beach.
  • Holiday Park: Curio Bay Holiday Park - If you'd prefer to set up your camper or pitch a tent and get access to a few more facilities, then this one is a good bet, especially if you've been longing for a warm shower. The non-powered site fee is $20 for 2 people, while a powered site is $30 for 2.

Tip: Remember to download useful apps like Campermate, Spaceships App, and WikiCamps NZ to help you find the best campsites.

Girl hiking in the catlins, new zealand

Review: Are the Catlins Worth Visiting?

Having heard little about the South Island's East Coast, I was wondering whether or not I should stay in the Fjordlands, head to Milford Sound, or head out to the Catlins.

Based on my experience, I highly recommend visiting the Catlins if you want an off-the-beaten-path location that's great for short walks, waterfalls, temperate rainforests, and scenic drives.

I hope this article for things to do in the Catlins has provided you with enough inspiration to visit this coastal gem! If you're looking for more free travel guides to New Zealand, make sure to check out some of the links below.

Girl hiking in the catlins, new zealand
6 best things to do catlins
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.