Kawarau Gorge, Otago, New Zealand

Exploring the Magnificent Kawarau Gorge, New Zealand

Updated: 14th January, 2024

Nestled between the tourist hotspot of Queenstown and the historic town of Cromwell in Otago is the dramatic Kawarau Gorge. This magnificent gorge has been carved out of the rock by the turquoise Kawarau River, which flows from Lake Wakatipu to Lake Dunstan, and is famous for its stunning natural beauty, its Gold Rush history, and – for all you thrill seekers out there – its world-famous bungy jumping! Read on for all you need to know about exploring the Kawarau Gorge, including the best spots to visit along the way!

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Visiting the Kawarau Gorge: An Overview

Best Time to Visit the Kawarau Gorge

The best time to visit the Kawarau Gorge is in the late summer and early Autumn months (January – March), as the weather is warm and perfect for enjoying outdoor activities along the river! During Autumn, the rocky slopes surrounding the Kawarau Gorge become covered with reds and oranges, making it a stunning time to visit!

How to Get to the Kawarau Gorge

The Kawarau Gorge is a scenic and adventurous destination that lies between Queenstown and Cromwell on the South Island of New Zealand. Driving is the fastest and most convenient way to get to the gorge, as it takes about 40 minutes from Queenstown and 15 minutes from Cromwell. You can follow State Highway 6, which runs along the gorge and offers stunning views of the river and the mountains. 

Best Things to Do along the Kawarau Gorge

1. Explore the Historic Town of Cromwell

The Kawarau River runs through the stunning Kawarau Gorge, beginning at the iconic Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown before meeting the fast-flowing Clutha River near Cromwell.

Cromwell old town, near Kawarau Gorge in Otago, New Zealand

Cromwell is a charming historic town, nestled along the banks of the Kawarau River and Clutha River in Central Otago. It is surrounded by golden hills and thriving orchards and vineyards, and is a beautiful town to explore! Cromwell was established during the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s, and you can wander around some of the old heritage buildings in the Old Cromwell Town.

2. Visit the Goldfields Mining Center

For an interactive and fun historical experience, a visit to the Goldfields Mining Center at the entrance to the Kawarau Gorge is a must! This awesome reserve takes you back in time, where you can experience the life and culture of the gold miners who worked along the Kawarau Gorge in the 1860s.

Walking along the Kawarau Gorge, Otago, New Zealand

You can take a self-guided walk, or join one of the excellent tour guides as they take you around the stunning goldfields, including the replica Chinese Village and the many shafts and tunnels along the riverbanks. You can even try your luck panning for gold along the way!

You can reach the Goldfields Mining Center by car, or, if you are feeling a little more adventurous, you can walk along the Kawarau River from Cromwell to the Centre! This walk takes you through some beautiful countryside and along the stunning river’s edge – making for an awesome day hike!

Kawarau River looking over Cromwell in Otago, New Zealand

3. Admire the Power of Roaring Meg

Just 5 minutes drive along the Kawarau Gorge from the Mining Center is the iconic Roaring Meg Lookout, which offers some absolutely breathtaking views over the Kawarau River! This is a lovely place to stop along the drive from Lake Tekapo to Queenstown, and has a platform with panoramic views over the wild river below.

Kawarau Gorge, Otago, New Zealand

The Story of Roaring Meg

Roaring Meg‘ is the stream and waterfall that drives the hydro-electric power station, before falling magnificently into the Kawarau River.

There are several stories about how this stream came to be known as Roaring Meg. My personal favourite is during the wild days of the Otago Gold Rush, a woman known as ‘Roaring Meg’ ran a sly-grog shop (an illegal liquor store) for the gold miners in the 1860s. She was known for her loud voice and fiery temper!

4. Enjoy a glass of wine in the Gibbston Valley

If you are a fan of fine wines, or just sitting at a lovely restaurant in the sun, then you will not want to miss the stunning Gibbston Valley! Located down State Highway 6 and along the banks of the rushing Kawarau River, it is one of the most notable wine regions in New Zealand (and definitely worth a visit!).

Gibbston Valley Vineyards, Kawarau Gorge in Otago, New Zealand

Gibbston Valley is known as the ‘Valley of the Vines‘, and is home to several award-winning wineries and vineyards – especially its Central Otago Pinot Noir! You can enjoy a variety of wines, including joining a wine tasting or embarking on a bike tour, which allows you to cycle along the stunning river and visit several of the wineries dotted along this lush valley.

5. Jump off the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge!

One of the most popular stops along the Kawarau Gorge has to be a visit to the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. This magnificent bridge is known as the ‘Birthplace of Bungy’, and is home to the world’s very first commercial bungy jump, which is over 43-meters high!

Bungy jumping at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge in Otago, New Zealand

This stunning spot is fantastic for relaxing, with a cafe, great parking, and clean toilets available. You can either sit in the sun and people-watch or (if you’re a thrill seeker!) join the brave souls leaping off the bridge with only an elastic band to catch them!

Calling all Lord of the Rings fans! Kawarau Gorge has another claim to fame – the wild blue Kawarau River was used as the filming location of the River Anduin, where the Fellowship travelled to The Pillars of the Kings.

6. Cycle along the Kawarau Gorge to Arrowtown

One of my favourite day trips from Queenstown is to get out on a bike and explore the incredible Queenstown Trails! The Queenstown Trails are a series of interconnecting tracks that zig-zag throughout the incredible landscape and are one of the best ways to see the area.

Biking along the Kawarau Gorge in Otago, New Zealand

One of my favourite biking tracks is to cycle from Queenstown to the charming town of Arrowtown, which follows the banks of the wild Kawarau River. This trail takes you through some of the most amazing scenery the South Island has to offer – rolling green hills, deep blue water, and thriving vineyards (where you can always stop for a rest and a glass of wine along the way!).

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