Out along the wild Wairarapa coastline lies one of the best camping and hiking areas in the Wellington region: Cape Palliser.
Visit Cape Palliser to see the North Island’s largest fur seal colony, check out a scenic lighthouse, and walk the Putangirua Pinnacles. This area is one of New Zealand’s best hidden gems.
You can day trip to Cape Palliser from Wellington, but why not make a weekend of it and set up camp? The area sure packs a punch, and you won’t want to leave once you’re there.
Cape Palliser is far away from it all, and that’s partly what makes it so special. There are no commercial businesses—no supermarkets or shops—just rustic beach houses and fishing boats. There is, however, a whole lot of nature to explore.
The shoreline along Cape Palliser is pebbled and scattered with paua shells. Golden-green mountains back right up to the coastline. And the sea is blue, blue, blue—with views out to the Kaikōura Ranges in the South Island beyond.
In short, it’s a pretty spectacular place to visit.
In this guide, we’re sharing what to do in and around Cape Palliser, including walks, wildlife viewing, and where to camp in the area.
So without further ado, read on for our guide to Cape Palliser.
How to get to Cape Palliser
Cape Palliser is a 2-hour drive from Wellington, and lies at the southernmost tip of the North Island—in fact, it’s technically farther south than Nelson or Blenheim! An area map is below:
Things to do in and around Cape Palliser
1. Go for a walk in the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve
The Putangirua Pinnacles were the filming site for the Paths of the Dead in the Lord of the Rings films. It’s an eerie badlands area with unique rock formations that look like they belong in a desolate landscape.
The hike itself takes all-in-all about 2 hours. We recommend going in the morning or late afternoon when the sun isn’t boring down on you, as there isn’t a ton of shade in some spots. The softer light later in the day will also add a nice glow to the towering hoodoos.
If you camp at the adjacent DOC campground, you can go for a walk a few hours before sunset, then make it back to camp in time to grab a cold one and walk to the nearby beach for a stunning happy hour sunset — more on that in the camping section below!
2. Visit the Cape Palliser lighthouse
The Cape Palliser lighthouse is a charmer—it offers amazing views of the coastline, and is picture-perfect, really.
You have to walk up 250 steps to get there!
Really, though, the stairs are part of the fun, as long as you don’t have vertigo. They are STEEP.
Bring your camera up to the lighthouse, as you’re definitely going to want some photos—of the views, of course, and also the stairs you just climbed up.
3. Check out the Cape Palliser seal colony
Cape Palliser is home to a whole heap of fur seals. In fact, it’s the largest fur seal colony on the North Island. There’s even a seal nursery, with seal pups out and about from November-January. Watch the pups wrestle, plop into the water ungracefully, and nap and nurse. They will make your heart melt.
There is a big unpaved carpark between the Putangirua Pinnacles and the lighthouse, closer to the lighthouse and on the right hand side of the road if you’re heading towards the lighthouse (check the map above for the exact spot). Park here, and go for a little wander towards the ocean. You’ll soon spot some seals, but will likely hear or smell them first. They’re stinky little buggers.
Just ensure to always keep your distance from seals. Watch them from afar, and never get between them and the water. Best to find a nice big rock to perch on, and watch them from up above.
Where to Go Camping at Cape Palliser
This DOC campground is an excellent place to pitch a tent or park your campervan. It’s right next to the Pinnacles walk, within walking distance to a pebbly beach, and overlooks a nice creek.
The great thing about camping here is that you’re right next to the Pinnacles walk – so you can head out for the walk later in the afternoon once the sun isn’t so hot, and return to camp for a cold drink and sunset at the beach. The perfect reward for your walk!
There are drop toilets here, but bring your own drinking water.
If you’d prefer to stay in a cabin, check out Waimeha Camping Village, a sweet little holiday park in Cape Palliser. They have a handful of cosy cabins right across from the ocean, in addition to powered and non-powered campsites.
What to bring on your camping trip to Cape Palliser & the Putangirua Pinnacles
Make sure to bring all of your food and drinks with you to Cape Palliser, as there are no groceries or other supplies available out this way. Martinborough is the last stop for supplies.
Also remember some warm clothing and a windproof layer – the weather can turn quickly along the coast.
If you’re camping at the Putangirua Pinnacles campsite, also ensure to bring your own drinking water.
On the Way To and From Cape Palliser
Make sure to stop at Land Girl Cafe on the way to/from Cape Palliser. Grab one of their cheese scones and a hot tea or coffee, and peruse their great little selection of gifts and tchotchkes. They have wonderful retro decor and a nice outdoor seating area.
More Weekend Trip Inspiration
If you’re looking for more weekend trips near Wellington, check out our below guides to the Wairarapa region!