| | |

7 Best Catlins Camping Grounds (2023)

Are you looking for the best camping grounds in the Catlins?

If so, you’ve come to the right place!

With gorgeous wild surf beaches, abundant wildlife, and beautiful waterfalls to explore, camping in the Catlins will be a trip you’ll never forget.

However, there are quite a few campgrounds in the Catlins and it can be overwhelming to know where to go. 

That’s where this guide will help!

I live in Queenstown and go camping in the Catlins a lot. It’s where I go for a weekend trip whenever I’m craving the coast. I love the beach, and my partner is a surfer, so the Catlins is one of our most frequented destinations on the South Island.

In this guide, I’m sharing my favourite Catlins camping spots with you. 

So let’s get to it…read on to discover the best camping grounds in the Catlins!

*Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the link provided, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I really appreciate your support!

About this Catlins Camping Guide

A small teal tent at a campsite surrounded by flax plants, set up alongside two camping chairs and a small camp table at the Curio Bay Camping Ground in the Catlins.
Whether you’re tent camping or camping in a campervan, there’ll be a campsite for you on this list!

The campsites in this guide are suitable for both tents and campervans, and some of them even have camping cabins. 

I’ve included a mix of DOC camping grounds and privately-owned campsites with more amenities (because sometimes you just need a hot shower during a camping trip!).

I know some of you may be after a list of freedom camping sites, so I’ve also included a few of the best Catlins freedom camping spots at the end of the post. These free campsites, unlike the rest of the campsites in the guide, are only suitable for self-contained campervans.

🚐 Thinking of Hiring a Campervan for Your Catlins Camping Trip?

I recommend using Motorhome Republic to find the best deals on campervan rentals in New Zealand.

You’ll find plenty of options for campervan hires out of Auckland, Christchurch, and Queenstown.

Check Campervan prices here!

Map of the Best Camping Grounds in the Catlins

Map legend:

  • 🌿 Green tent = DOC Campsite
  • 🔶 Orange tent = Holiday Park or Private Campground
  • 🚙 Blue van = Freedom Camping Site

The 7 Best Camping Grounds in the Catlins

1. Purakaunui Bay Conservation Campsite

A teal tent next to a surfboard at a beachfront campsite at the Purakaunui Bay DOC camping ground in the Catlins.

📍 Location: Purakaunui Bay Scenic Reserve | Google Maps

⛺️ Type of campground:  DOC Campsite

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes.

🚻 Facilities: Non-flush toilets; water taps (boil or treat the water before drinking); fire rings (which you should only use if there isn’t a fire ban in place).

🐶 Dogs allowed? Yes, on lead only.

The Purakaunui Bay Campsite is, hands down, one of the best campsites on the South Island.

This DOC campground has basic facilities but is located next to one of the most beautiful surf beaches in the Catlins.

In fact, Purakaunui Bay is so stunning that it was used as a filming location for the Chronicles of Narnia movies.  This gorgeous bay is home to a wild golden-sand beach backed by towering cliffs, and the whole place is mind-bogglingly beautiful.

Wildlife viewing is amazing here, too: sea lions often bask in the sun on the beach (or cheekily chase surfers and swimmers out of the water!). 

When you’re not hanging out at the beach, make sure to pay a visit to nearby Purakaunui Falls, which is easily one of the best waterfalls in the Catlins. This photogenic waterfall is about a 15-minute drive from camp, and you can access it via a short walk through the rainforest.

While Purakaunui Bay is a bit “off-the-beaten-track,” this campground is a popular destination and you should expect to find quite a few other people there. If the lower campground is too busy for your liking, you can drive up the hill to set up camp there. 

Fall asleep listening to the waves crash and wake up to watch the sunrise over the ocean…it honestly doesn’t get better than that!

2. Curio Bay Camping Ground

A compact red campervan by Spaceships parked at the Curio Bay Camping Ground in the Catlins at an oceanfront campsite, with a picnic table and chairs set up next to it.

📍 Location: 590 Waikawa-Curio Bay Road, Curio Bay | Google Maps

⛺️ Type of campground:  Private Campground

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered & powered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes (there are no cabins at this campground).

🚻 Facilities: Camp kitchen; bathrooms with hot showers and flush toilets; drinking water; coin-operated laundry facilities; beach access; surf rentals nearby.

🐶 Dogs allowed? No.

If you’re a wildlife enthusiast and you’re looking for a camping spot in the Catlins, don’t miss the Curio Bay Camping Ground.

The Curio Bay Camping Ground is located in a prime location between Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay, two of the best places to spot wildlife in the Catlins.

Porpoise Bay is long stretch of sandy beach with excellent swimming and surfing opportunities. It’s also home to a pod of Hector’s dolphins, which are one of the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. 

If you go swimming or surfing at Porpoise Bay, you might have a few dolphins come by to check you out—if so, make sure you don’t approach or touch them, and let them visit you on their own terms.   

Curio Bay, on the other side of camp, is one of the best places to spot yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) in the wild. In addition to penguin-spotting opportunities, you can view a unique petrified forest at Curio Bay.

The best time to spot penguins at Curio Bay is just before sunset, so when you camp at the Curio Bay Campground, you’re in the most convenient place for penguin viewing. You can walk to the viewing area in just 5 minutes from camp.

The facilities at this campground are completely adequate but nothing fancy. The main reason to camp here is because the location is simply unbeatable. 

I’ve noticed that some online reviews complain about the cost to camp here but honestly…there aren’t many places in the world where you can spot penguins and swim with dolphins for free! I happily pay to camp at Curio Bay several times each summer to experience the magic of these wildlife encounters. 

3. Newhaven Holiday Park

A purple camping cabin with a picnic table on the grass in front of it at the Newhaven Holiday Park in the Catlins.
The Newhaven Holiday park has cosy cabins in addition to campsites.

📍 Location: 324 Newhaven Road, RD 1, Catlins | Google Maps

⛺️ Type of campground:  Holiday park

🏕Camping options available: Unpowered and powered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes; camping cabins

🚻 Facilities: Camp kitchen; free BBQs; bathrooms with coin-operated hot showers and flush toilets; laundry facilities; beach access; WiFi

🐶 Dogs allowed? No.

The Newhaven Holiday Park is the best holiday park in the Catlins.

This family-run campground is located 5km from Owaka and is right by Surat Bay Beach, which is one of the best places to see sea lions in New Zealand.

The campground has a great array of camping options, including powered and unpowered campsites plus some cosy, affordable camping cabins. If you can, I recommend requesting campsite #1…it has the most epic beach views.

From camp, you’ll have walking access to Surat Bay Beach. At low tide, you can walk along the beach for ages and keep your eyes peeled for sea lions, which you’re highly likely to see.

If you’re really up for a good walk, you can walk all the way along Surat Bay Beach to Cannibal Bay, where you’ll usually find even more sea lions!

When you spot a sea lion, do ensure you keep a 20-metre distance. I like bringing along my camera with a zoom lens to get up-close photos of the sea lions from afar.

Another nice thing about camping at the Newhaven Holiday Park is that it’s under a 10-minute drive to Owaka, where you’ll find a Four Square supermarket and some good dining options. 

The takeaway spot in Owaka is a must-visit; they make delicious burgers and fish & chips at an affordable price. They have gluten-free and vegan options available, too. Pick up a takeaway dinner to enjoy back at camp with a drink before going for a sunset beach stroll!

4. Papatowai Campsite

A golden beach and trees overhanging at the estuary by the Paptowai Campsite in the Catlins with a sunburst showing through the tree branches.
The gorgeous estuary at the Papatowai DOC Campsite.

📍 Location: 2499 Papatowai Highway, Papatowai | Google Maps 

⛺️ Type of campground:  DOC Campsite

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes.

🚻 Facilities: Toilets (non-flush); water taps (treat before drinking); cooking shelter; camp shop

🐶 Dogs allowed? Yes; on lead only.

The Papatowai Campsite is a lovely, well-maintained DOC campground in the Catlins. As a bonus to its excellent facilities and convenient location along the Southern Scenic Route, this is one of the best options for cheap camping in the Catlins! 

From the campground, you’ll have access to the estuary, and you can walk to Papatowai Beach at low tide.

The camp pitches here are grassy and level, and there’s a nice leafy feel to the campground.

While this campground is usually peaceful and quiet during the off-season, it can get really packed during peak season (especially around Christmas and New Years). I prefer camping without many people around, so I avoid camping here during peak season.

While this campground has basic facilities, it has more than you’ll find at most DOC campsites. I particularly love the fact that there’s a covered cooking shelter, which comes in handy if you get caught in a Catlins downpour! There’s also a shop right at the entrance to the campground (with ice creams! and beer!), so if you forget something, you don’t have to worry.

When you camp at the Papatowai Campsite, make sure to pay a visit to the nearby Lost Gypsy Gallery and grab a hot drink at the coffee cart next to the gallery.

There are also some short, peaceful walks nearby, including the Lake Wilkie Track and Tautuku Estuary Walkway.

5. Kaka Point Camping Ground

A view over the green headland at Nugget Point / Tokatā with little islands dotting the ocean in front of it.
The Kaka Point Holiday Park is the closest camping ground to Nugget Point / Tokatā.

📍 Location: 34 Tarata Street, Kaka Point | Google Maps

⛺️ Type of campground:  Holiday Park

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered & powered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes; camping cabins

🚻 Facilities: Camp kitchen; BBQs; bathrooms with free hot showers; laundry facilities; drinking water

🐶 Dogs allowed? Yes, with restrictions—dogs are allowed from 15 February until 20 December and they must be on lead around camp.

If you’re looking for a campsite close to Nugget Point / Tokatā, look no further than the Kaka Point Camping Ground.

Located at the top of Kaka Point and surrounded by native forest, this campground is a wonderful place to camp on the northern edge of the Catlins. 

Its proximity to the bush means that this campground is filled with lots of native birds, including tūī and bellbirds. I love camping in places where you can hear lots of birdsong, and this spot is excellent for that!

In addition, you’ll be able to walk down to the sandy beach at Kaka Point, where you’ll also find a restaurant and takeaway shop. Right next to the campground is a playground, bowling club, and tennis court, so there’s a lot to keep you entertained.

The best part about camping here, though, is that it’s just a 15-minute drive from the campground to Nugget Point / Tokatā, one of New Zealand’s most iconic lookouts.

This makes it so convenient to access Nugget Point around sunrise or sunset, which I highly recommend doing for the best lighting/photo ops (honestly, watching a sunrise from Nugget Point is something you won’t forget!).

While you’re at Nugget Point, don’t miss a visit to the Roaring Bay Hide, where you can sometimes spot yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho). For the best chance of spotting penguins, you’ll want to be there around dawn or dusk. It also helps to bring a pair of binoculars.

6. Pounawea Motor Camp

The trail to Jack's Blowhole between a rolling green hill on one side and native bush on the other with ocean views over Jack's Bay in the Catlins.
The Jack’s Blowhole Track is one of several short walks near the Pounawea Motor Camp.

📍 Location: Pounawea Road, 1 Park Lane, Owaka | Google Maps 

⛺️ Type of campground:  Holiday Park

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered & powered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes; camping cabins

🚻 Facilities: Camp kitchen; BBQ; bathrooms with free hot showers; coin-operated laundry facilities; fresh drinking water; dump station

🐶 Dogs allowed? Yes, but with restrictions. See their dog policy for more information.

The Pounawea Motor Camp is located just 2.5km from Owaka, in a beautiful waterfront setting on the Catlins River estuary. 

If you’re after an Owaka camping ground, this is a great choice!

The campground is surrounded by trees and native bush. Combined with its location on the estuary, this means that the birdlife is outstanding. You can listen to (and sometimes see) tūī, bellbirds, wood pigeons, and morepork, just to name a few. 

There are several short walks you can do right from the campground. While you’re there, you should also drive to nearby Jack’s Bay and walk along the Jack’s Blowhole track. The blowhole itself isn’t particularly remarkable, but the walk is gorgeous and well worth a visit.

While you’ll find powered and unpowered campsites at the Pounawea Motor Camp, they also offer some excellent waterfront cabins, which have epic views and are great value for money. 

This campground makes a great base for exploring the Catlins region—Nugget Point and Purakaunui Falls are both nearby day-trip options.

7. Whistling Frog Resort 

The cascading tiered waterfall at McLean Falls in the Catlins surrounded by native plants.
McLean Falls is just a 5-minute drive from the Whistling Frog Resort.

📍 Location: 9 Rewcastle Road Chaslands, Papatowai | Google Maps 

⛺️ Type of campground:  Holiday Park

🏕 Camping options available: Unpowered & powered campsites for tents, campervans, caravans, and motorhomes; camping cabins.

🚻 Facilities: Camp kitchen; communal lounge; bathrooms with free hot showers; coin-operated laundry-facilities; free WiFi; onsite cafe/restaurant.

🐶 Dogs allowed? Yes, with an extra fee, and they must be on lead (add the “dog-friendly” option when you book online).

Out of all the Catlins campsites on this list, the Whistling Frog Resort is the only campsite that’s not right by the beach. However, if you’re driving through the Catlins on a quick road trip and want somewhere convenient and comfortable to camp, then this campground ticks the boxes. 

The Whistling Frog Resort is located right off the main highway in the Catlins and offers a whole host of camping options.

In addition to plenty of powered and unpowered campsites, they have camping cabins, cottages, and motel rooms. There’s also an onsite cafe and restaurant here with delicious food (including homemade pizza and lots of craft beer options!).

Another great thing about the Whistling Frog Resort is that it’s just a few minutes down the road from one of the best waterfalls in the Catlins: McLean Falls. The walk to McLean Falls takes around 40 minutes round-trip and is one of the best short hikes on the South Island, so don’t miss it!

You’ll also be just a 5-minute drive from the famous Cathedral Caves, which are best visited at low tide.

Best Freedom Camping Spots in the Catlins

Planning to freedom camp in the Catlins? If so, make sure you’re travelling in a certified self-contained campervan

If you’re camping in a self-contained campervan and want to freedom camp, I recommend checking out the below freedom camping spots in the Catlins:

Please make sure you read all of the signs at whichever freedom camping site you choose, and follow the rules about where you can and can’t park. 

It’s also worth mentioning that these freedom camping spots are extremely popular, so you’ll want to arrive early and have a backup plan in case your chosen site is full.

Tips for Camping in the Catlins

Cooking sausages in a cast iron skillet on a yellow camp stove at an oceanview campsite at Purakaunui Bay Campground in the Catlins, New Zealand.
Don’t forget everything you’ll need for your Catlins camping trip, including food and your camp stove. There aren’t many shops in the Catlins, so arrive prepared!
  • The best months to go camping in the Catlins are October through April. Some campgrounds and attractions in the Catlins close during the winter months, and it can also be quite cold for camping during the winter.  
  • Summer is a popular time for camping in the Catlins. In particular, the weeks around Christmas and New Years are extremely busy at basically every campsite in the Catlins. 

    If you’re camping during the summer season, make sure you book your campsite well in advance, and be prepared for campgrounds to be busy.
  • You’ll want to stock up on groceries and fill up your campervan’s water tank before you head to the Catlins. There’s a Four Square supermarket in Owaka and small camp shop in Papatowai, but other than that, there aren’t any supermarkets in the Catlins.
  • There are petrol stations in the Catlins in Owaka, Papatowai, and Tokanui. Just make sure you plan out your driving distances in advance so you don’t get caught out with an empty tank in a remote place!
  • Be prepared for wind and rain on your Catlins camping trip. The Catlins can be quite windy, and the weather can turn from sunny to rainy in a flash.
  • When you encounter wildlife like seals, sea lions, dolphins, and penguins in the Catlins, admire them from a distance and don’t ever approach or antagonise them. I recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars for viewing wildlife from afar. It’s also helpful to have a zoom lens for your camera so you can snap wildlife photos without getting too close.
  • As always when camping in New Zealand, please ensure you leave no trace. Use toilet facilities provided, dispose of any rubbish and recycling in a responsible manner, and don’t camp or light fires where you’re not allowed to. 

Where to go next after your Catlins camping trip?

A yellow road sign in the Catlins pointing to Owaka on the left and Invercargill on the right.

Thanks for reading my guide to the best camping grounds in the Catlins! 

I hope it’s helped you plan a fun camping trip.

So, where should you go next?

If you’re doing a road trip around the South Island, I suggest you head to Te Anau and Milford Sound after your Catlins trip! 

While there, don’t miss the incredible drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, where you’ll also find lots of excellent camping grounds near Milford Sound.

From there, head up to Queenstown. There are heaps of great camping options in Queenstown, too.

Do you love camping in coastal areas, and plan to visit the North Island? I recommend checking out my North Island camping guides below:

Happy camping!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *