Driving through the Catlins: Your South Island Road Trip

Updated: 7th March, 2024

Welcome to the Catlins, one of the most secluded and drop-dead gorgeous areas in New Zealand (in my opinion at least!). The Catlins is found on the southern most point of the South Island, and stretches between the Southland and Otago regions. This area is filled with places to visit, from stunning waterfalls to wild beaches, and should be on every travellers New Zealand bucket list. One of the best ways to explore the Catlins is to jump in the car and head off on a classic kiwi road trip! In this article, I will cover the best spots to stop while driving through the Catlins, so you can start planning your perfect adventure!

Catlins Coastline, New Zealand

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Driving through the Catlins: A Road Trip Overview

  • Driving Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Distance: 98 km (61 miles)
  • Recommended Travel Time: 2 – 3 days!

The Catlins is a beautiful, remote area located along the south-eastern coastline of the South Island of New Zealand, and is around an hours drive from the major cities of Dunedin and Invercargill. Although you could easily drive through in a matter of hours, this hidden gem is filled with awesome spots to stop and explore, and I would suggest spending at least 3 days to really enjoy your time here. For this guide, I have used the route we took, beginning at Kaka Point at the northern point of the Catlins, before slowly winding our way south towards Curio Bay and Slope Point – however, if you are beginning in Invercargill and want to mix it up, feel free!

Map of the Road Trip through the Catlins

This route is filled with wonderful places to stop and explore, and I highly recommend taking around 2-3 days to explore this route properly!

The Best Stops along the Drive through the Catlins

1. Kaka Point Beach

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 0 km (0 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 0 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 hour

Your first stop on this incredible road trip through the Catlins region of New Zealand begins at the stunning Kaka Point! Only a short 1.5-hour drive from the major city of Dunedin in Otago, Kaka Point Beach is definitely worth exploring. The wide beaches are lined with golden sand, and the crystal-clear water makes it perfect for a swim if you’re brave enough!

Kaka Point Beach, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

Here you will also find the charming Kaka Point township nestled along the coastline. This small town is the perfect place to stop for a morning coffee and cake before you hit the road, and also is home to a well-maintained camping ground and cosy hotels – so you can spend the night here before setting off on your adventure!

Note: There are very few supermarkets and grocery stores within the Catlins region, so a good idea is to head into the larger town of Balclutha before you head off and pick up some supplies! Balcultha is a 20-minute drive from Kaka Point, and has all the main supermarket chains – perfect for stocking up for your road trip through the Catlins!

2. Walk up to Nugget Point Lighthouse

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 9 km (5.6 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 15 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 2 hours

From Kaka Point, this stunning road trip will take you along the coast towards one of the most iconic attractions in the region – Nugget Point! This incredible lookout is one of the most photographed locations in the Catlins, and well worth a visit.

Nugget Point, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand
The Nuggets!

From Kaka Point, turn left onto The Nuggets Road, which winds its way down the coastline towards the lighthouse. The views along the drive are stunning, so take it slow and be prepared to pull over for a photo stop! As you reach the point, the road climbs into the bush and takes you to the large Nugget Point car park. This is a good sized car park and includes some well-maintained toilets.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

The main walkway from the car park follows along the cliffs until you reach the iconic Tokata / Nugget Point Lighthouse as it rises magnificently over the roaring ocean! From the car park, you follow the road for around 250 meters, until you see a path heading off the left-hand side. This pathway is well-maintained and smooth, and heads through some stunning native bush. As you walk along, you will get glimpses down the rocky cliffs to the wild ocean below. Keep your eyes peeled – you may be able to spot a seal or two playing in the waves!

Walk to Nugget Point Lighthouse, best spots in the Catlins, New Zealand
Views from the walkway to Nugget Point Lighthouse

After around 10 minutes, you will spot the lighthouse up ahead! The walk takes you along a cliff, where you can look down over a wide rocky bay. The bay is not accessible, with magnificent white cliffs surrounding it, but it makes for an incredible view!

Finally, the path reaches the Nugget Point Lighthouse, which is beautifully maintained with a platform around its base. From here, you can look down over the iconic ‘nuggets’, a collection of rock formations that jut out of the turquoise water and give this area its name! If you’re lucky you may be able to spot some of the marine wildlife that call this place home – from seals, sea lions, flocks of seabirds, or even an elephant seal basking in the shallows around the rocks far below. It’s a pretty special experience!

Roaring Bay Walkway

While you’re here, you should also take a minute to check out the incredible Roaring Bay, which is located along the southern side of the point. Just a short drive back from the Nugget Point car park you will see a small secondary car park on the left side of the road, which is where the walk down to Roaring Bay begins!

Roaring Bay Lookout, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand
Looking out from the hide over Roaring Bay!

Roaring Bay is a very special place, and is a known breeding ground for the endangered Hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguins! During the late afternoon, these rare penguins come into shore from a day spent fishing in the open ocean, before clambering up the beach and to their nests in the cliffs. There is a specially built hide just up from the beach, where you can sit with your binoculars and look out onto the rocky shoreline in the hopes that you might see one of these incredible penguins!

3. See the Sealions at Surat Bay Beach

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 23 km (14 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 25 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 – 2 hours

From Nugget Point, this ultimate road trip through the Catlins heads back along the coastal road towards Kaka Point, before turning right down Karoro Creek Road and past the lush green farmland of Ahuriri Flat. After a short drive, you will come across the small town of Owaka, which is one of the biggest towns in the Catlins area! Here, you will find a couple of cafes and restaurants, a small supermarket, and the Owaka Museum, where you can learn a little more about the area’s fascinating history!

From Owaka, the road heads back towards the coast along the banks of the Catlins River, towards the tiny settlement of New Haven. This is a pretty quiet area, with only a few houses and a holiday park, but is worth the detour! New Haven is home to the secluded Surat Bay Beach, a vast strip of golden sand and gorgeous views over the ocean, very popular with sea lions! If you want to see these magnificent creatures up close, just take a walk along the coastline – sooner or later you will spot one sleeping in the sun!

Note: The sea lions are very docile and aren’t too bothered by people, but make sure to keep your distance and not disturb them as they are still wild animals (and huuuge ones at that!). As you walk, you will also see strange patterns in the sand, which usually indicate a sealion has come this way.

New Haven is also a great place to spend the night! During our adventure through the Catlins, we spontaneously decided to spend a night at the quiet Newhaven Holiday Park, which is located right at the end of the beach. This ended up being one of our favourite camping grounds in the Catlins! It has excellent facilities, lovely grassy lawns, and – best of all – and incredible view over the beach during sunset! Bliss!

4. Jack’s Blowhole

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 26 km (16 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 30 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 hour

On the other side of the Catlins River, just south of New Haven, is a gorgeous bush walk to one of the Catlins best-kept secrets – Jack’s Blowhole! This incredible natural attraction is hidden in lush native forest and requires a little walk along the wild Otago coast to reach it.

The walk begins at the car park at the southern end of Jacks Bay, a short 15-minute drive from Owaka. The gravelled track heads up into the bush along the wild coastline, with stunning views over the crashing waves and the secluded Penguin Bay, before emerging out of the bush at the top of the blowhole. From here, you can follow the track in a loop around the entrance to the blowhole, looking down into the churning water below. It’s best on stormy days or at hide-tide when the ocean is funnelled through the gaps in the rocks to create an exciting spray of water!

5. Visit the Famous Purakaunui Falls

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 31 km (19 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 30 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 30 minutes

Now, no road trip through the Catlins region would be complete without a visit to one of the most iconic waterfalls in New Zealand! The Purakaunui Falls are some of the most-photographed sights in the Catlins and a bucket-list destination for your road trip!

The Purakaunui Falls are easy to reach and are only a short 10-minute walk through stunning native forest from Purakaunui Falls Road. The track winds its way through mature beech forest, before emerging at the top viewing platform over the falls! From here, you can look down over the iconic, three-tiered waterfall as it rushes over the rocks and into the stream below. Bonus: Up to the top viewing platform, this walk is wheelchair and stroller-friendly!

From here, you can follow the path a little further, with a little scramble over some rocks, until you reach the lower viewing platform. This is the perfect place for a photo – so don’t forget your camera!

There are a bunch of incredible waterfalls in the Catlins, and it was definitely a highlight for us to visit each one as we embarked on our road trip! Check out the complete list of the waterfalls in the Catlins here!

6. Sleep Under the Stars at Purakaunui Bay Campsite

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 33 km (20 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 40 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: Overnight!

Only a short drive from Purakaunui Falls is one of my favourite campgrounds in New Zealand! The Purakaunui Bay campground is peaceful and secluded, at the end of a long gravelly road, and is a favourite of surfers that come to surf around the bay!

Purakaunui Bay, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

Although very basic, this campground is located in one of the most stunning spots in the Catlins! A huge grassy area leads down to the wide and flat sand banks of Purakaunui Bay, where you might be lucky enough to see a sea lion or two soaking up the sun! Surrounding the bay are tall white cliffs, making it incredibly beautiful.

7. Matai Falls

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 34 km (21 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 35 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 30 minutes

The Matai Falls is the second waterfall to visit during your drive through the Catlins, and was possibly my favourite! It begins with a short walk, which takes you through lush native forest before emerging at the spectacular Matai Falls.

This walk begins at a car park just off the Papatowai Highway, only a short 18 km from the heart of Owaka. The car park is well signposted, so if you keep your eyes peeled you can’t miss it! From the car park, the track heads deep into the forest, before arriving at the base of the falls. This is a truly magical sight, with the 10-meter tall waterfall streaming down the rocks, and surrounded by vibrant green moss and ferns. If you are up for a little adventure, you can continue along the stream, up a steep (but short) scramble up some rocks, and you will be rewarded with a second waterfall – Horseshoe Falls!

On your way back, you will see that the track splits off to the right. If you have a little extra time, you can head down the path towards the old  Matai Rail Trail – a must for history and railway enthusiasts! This walk takes you through the forest and along the old railway line, with lovely views and lots of history. This walk should take just less than an hour to return to the carpark. 

8. Visit the Gypsy Caravan in Papatowai

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 43 km (26.7 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 40 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 hour

The next small town you will come across on your South Island road trip through the Catlins is the charming town of Papatowai! This tiny town is tranquil, but filled with surprises and beautiful things to do if you know where to look. Papatowai is nestled on the banks of the Tahakopa River, with beautiful views over the surrounding forests and rolling green farmland. If you are lucky, you might even get a chance to spot dolphins as they play in the currents along the river mouth!

Papatowai, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

If you have some time to spend in Papatowai, then I highly recommend visiting the magical world of Blair Somerville! Blair is a local New Zealand artist, who has created the incredible, interactive Lost Gypsy Caravan! The Lost Gypsy Caravan and the Winding Thoughts Theatre is an adults’ playground, filled with toggles and buttons and colourful lights, where you can go inside and explore to your heart’s delight! Words don’t really do it justice – you have to just pop in and experience the magic for yourself!

9. Admire the Magnificent Cathedral Caves

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 55 km (34 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 1 hour
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 2 hours

Now it is time for your next stop at another iconic Catlins natural attraction – the Cathedral Caves! These are a pair of spectacular sea caves located at the northern end of Waipati Beach, and are one of the highlights of this road trip in the Catlins.

The Cathedral Caves is made up of two caves, known as Cathedral Cave and the slightly smaller (but no less impressive) Cave of Tombs. This cave system is enormous, measuring nearly 200 meters in length and up to 30 meters tall! Inside, they look like a magnificent cathedral – hence the name – complete with high ceilings, natural arches, and a white sandy floor. These caves have been formed over millions of years, through erosion by the water and sediment of the nearby ocean.

Cathedral Caves entrance, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

How to Get to the Cathedral Caves

Getting to the Cathedral Caves is an adventure in itself! They are located on Maori land, and are managed by a trust, so are only open during specific hours each day. They are accessible to the public from October to May, and only a low tide (otherwise you might have to swim to them!). This means it’s important to plan your trip carefully, so you have enough time to explore!

If you’re planning to visit within the next few days, one of the best places to check opening times is on the website here. This website includes a timetable for when the gates are opened, as well as the last entry time each day. However, if you are looking at planning ahead, you can also check the tide times here which will give you an approximate window.

If you arrive just before the gate opens, you will find a number of cars waiting patiently on the side of the road for the gates to be opened! Just pull over in a safe space, and the groundskeeper will come along shortly to open the gates. From here, there is a short drive up to the car park, where you can park up and pay enter fee, before heading down to the caves!

Cathedral Caves, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

From the car park, the track heads down through stunning native forest and across Maori freehold land, before arriving at the beach. This track can be steep in places, so it’s a good idea to wear decent footwear! Once you reach the beach, there is a short walk across the wide, white sand before you reach the mouth of the caves. When we arrived, the tide was still on its way out, and so we had to time it just right to get into the mouth of the cave before the waves came up and covered the way!

10. McLean Falls

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 57 km (35.4 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 1 hour
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 hour

If you aren’t sick of waterfalls yet, then there is one more that you should see during your drive through the Catlins! The McLean Falls is one of the most stunning sights in the region, cascading over 22 meters of moss-covered rocks into a crystal-clear ravine. There is a bunch of viewing platforms around the waterfall, so you can get some spectacular angles for a photo or two! Or, if you are feeling a little more adventurous, some ‘unofficial’ trails head up near the sides of the waterfall – so you can feel the spray of the water as it rushes by!

Mcleans Falls, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

The walk to the amazing McLean Falls leads you along a smooth trail through the verdant Southland bush until you arrive at the bottom of the waterfalls. This walk is mostly effortless along a well-kept track through the native forest. There are a few steps, and some parts can be a bit muddy after rain!

Getting there: The McLean Falls are situated about 12 kms south of Papatowai. Turn off the Chaslands highway onto Rewcastle Rd, where you can find plenty of car parking on the bush side of the road, near the track entrance. The walk itself is mostly trouble-free along a well-maintained track, with a few steep steps and sometimes muddy conditions. It will take about 20 minutes to walk from the car park to the waterfall.

11. Explore the Petrified Forest at Curio Bay

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 86 km (53.5 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: A couple of hours – even better to stay the night!

Curio Bay is one of the best stops on the drive through the Catlins, and should be near the top of your South Island bucket list! This stunning bay is best experienced in the afternoon and late evening, so I highly recommend staying the night here to make the most of it!

Curio Bay, best stops in the Catlins, New Zealand

The best thing to do in Curio Bay is watch the outgoing tide reveal the 180-million-year-old Jurassic fossil forest â€“ which is one of only 3 accessible forests like this in the world! Millions of years ago, Curio Bay was a part of the eastern edge of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland. The forests that covered this region were destroyed many times by massive sheet floods of volcanic debris. At low tide, you can wander around this old, petrified forest, marvelling at the exposed tree stumps, logs, and other fascinating fossils!

Curio Bay’s Yellow-Eyed Penguins

If you decide to spend the night at Curio Bay, there is another awesome treat for you to see (if you’re very lucky!). Curio Bay is the home to a couple of breeding pairs of the rare Hoiho/Yellow-Eyed Penguin. This magnificent species of penguin is only found in New Zealand, and is endangered – there is only around 4,000 – 5,000 left in the world! It’s a pretty special experience to get to see these awesome animals in their natural habitat.

Penguin footprints left on the mat outside our camper – cheeky buggers!

The best way to see these beautiful penguins is to head down to one of the lookout-shelters around Curio Bay, either in the early morning or near sunset. The Hoiho head out from their nests at sunrise and spend a full day at sea hunting fish, before coming home in the evening to look after their young. When we visited, I wasn’t so lucky to see them – however when I returned to our campground I found one had walked right past us!

12. Swim with the Dolphins in Porpoise Bay

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 84 km (52 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 1 – 2 hours

Just on the other side of the headland is the beautiful Porpoise Bay, a wide inlet filled with golden sand and crystal-clear water. This bay is stunning at the best of times, but it has another awesome surprise – it is home to a pod of playful Hector’s Dolphins! These dolphins are the smallest in the world, and some of the most endangered – making this spot extra special. During the warmer summer months, you can often see fins slicing through the water as the dolphins hunt fish and play in the waves.

Porpoise Bay, Catlins, New Zealand
Swimming with Hector’s Dolphins in Porpoise Bay!

13. Stand at the Southernmost Point of the South Island

  • Distance from Kaka Point: 98 km (61 miles)
  • Time Driving from Kaka Point: 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Recommended Stopping Time: 30 minutes

And for the last stop on this spectacular road trip, you just have to hit the Southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand! Although the area itself isn’t super exciting, it’s a cool feeling to stand there and get a couple of pictures with the iconic yellow signpost! This spot feels like you’re standing at the end of the world, with wind-swept trees marking the remote landscape, and nothing but the sound of seagulls wheeling overhead and the crashing ocean below. As a final stopping point on your Catlins road trip, this feels like a fantastic place to experience.

Slope Point, driving through the Catlins, New Zealand

Know Before You Go: Driving through the Catlins

What is the Best Time to Visit the Catlins

The best time to visit the Catlins is during the summer and early autumn months of December – March! During this time, the weather can still be pretty cool, with average temperatures of around 16 – 24 degrees celsius! You will be more likely to get periods of glorious sunshine during this time, but always be prepared for windy and wet weather! The Catlins is known for its pretty consistent rainfall throughout the year (which is what makes the forests so lush and vibrant) and, to be honest, the wild weather is half the fun!

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