The Ultimate Guide to Catlins Waterfalls
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The Ultimate Guide to Catlins Waterfalls

The Ultimate Guide to Catlins Waterfalls

Post summary: the best waterfalls in the Catlins, and how to get to them!

The Catlins is a wildly beautiful part of New Zealand’s South Island. This region is filled with stunning beaches, lush rainforest, heaps of wildlife, and some of the country’s best waterfalls.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast who likes getting off-the-beaten-track, then you shouldn’t miss this part of the South Island. You’ll find no shortage of epic things to do in the Catlins!

In this guide, we’re focusing specifically on waterfalls in the Catlins. There are so many beautiful waterfalls to explore in this region! 

So let’s get to it. Read on to discover where to find the best waterfalls in the Catlins.

What you’ll find in this Catlins Waterfalls Guide

  • We’ll give an overview of all the waterfalls you can visit. We’ve included our opinions on the best ones to explore—and the ones you can skip.
  • We’ve included the must-see, well-known waterfalls in the area, plus some off-the-beaten-track waterfalls you might not find in most guides.
  • As you’ll need to walk to all of these waterfalls, we’ve included the walking times and walking difficulty. We’ve also provided GPS coordinates to the parking area for each waterfall. Simply plug these coordinates into Google Maps and you’ll be on your way!
  • You’ll also find a handy map below that shows where each waterfall is located in the Catlins.

First Things First…Where is the Catlins Region?

Nugget Point Catlins
Nugget Point in the Catlins region—there’s so much to see in the Catlins in addition to its epic waterfalls!

The Catlins lies in the southeastern section of New Zealand’s South Island. This region sits between two of the South Island’s largest cities and can be explored along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill (or vice versa). 

You’ll best experience the Catlins via a road trip. If you have the time, try taking a drive along the Southern Scenic Route. This iconic drive links together Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Invercargill, the Catlins, and Dunedin.

The Southern Scenic Route is one of the best road trips in New Zealand—and the Catlins is a “must-visit” region along this drive!

It’s worth noting that the Catlins is located in a part of New Zealand that’s known for its frequent windy and cold weather. This part of the world has been deemed the “Roaring 40’s,” meaning its location between latitudes 40° – 50° can lead to strong westerly winds. Basically, all you need to know is that the Catlins can get extremely windy. Arm yourself with some warm, windproof layers and you’ll be prepared for inclement weather.

Luckily, all of the waterfall walks mentioned in this guide are well-protected from the wind. This means that even if the wind is howling at the Catlins beaches, you can find some respite from the weather in the Catlins waterfall forests.

Some tips for visiting these Catlins waterfalls

  • Before you set out on your Catlins waterfall adventure, make sure to look up directions in Google Maps and download the maps to your phone. You might not get service in all of the Catlins, as it’s a remote place.
  • There aren’t many places to shop for supplies in the Catlins. Make sure to pack along any food/water you’ll want for your trip. If you need supplies, there are small supermarkets in Papatowai and Owaka. We usually try to stock up on food and drinks before heading down to the Catlins. 
  • Make sure you have warm layers of clothing, a raincoat, and shoes with good grip. Hiking boots or sturdy sneakers with grippy soles are best. The Catlins area gets a lot of rainfall, and some of these waterfall tracks can get slippery and muddy. 

Map of Catlins Waterfalls

Catlins Waterfalls: the Ultimate Guide

The Must-See Catlins Waterfalls

1. McLean Falls 

McLean Falls - One of the Best Waterfalls in the Catlins

If you visit just one waterfall on your visit to the Catlins, make it McLean Falls. This 22-metre cascade waterfall is truly epic; in fact, we think it’s one of the best waterfalls in New Zealand!

The walk to McLean Falls is beautiful, with a well-worn trail under a canopy of rainforest. It’s mostly easy walking, with some uphill walking but nothing too difficult. 

After reaching the waterfall, the adventurous can rock scramble/climb up closer to it. Just be careful and make sure you’re wearing good, grippy shoes! Otherwise, it’s beautiful to view from the lookout below if you don’t feel like venturing off-path.

After enjoying the falls, walk back to your car via the same track.

McLean Falls Upper Waterfall
The upper portion of McLean Falls

2. Purakaunui Falls 

Purakaunui Falls in the Catlins

Take a short walk through lush rainforest to reach Purakaunui Falls, a cascading, three-tiered waterfall that’s super photogenic. 

While not as tall as McLean Falls, Purakaunui Falls is equally worth a visit—especially if you like taking photos. (A slow shutter speed and this waterfall were made for each other).

The walk to the falls is so pleasant, you won’t want it to end. The forest filters sunlight beautifully, but it’s equally gorgeous here on a moody, drizzly day.

After about 10 minutes of walking through the forest, you’ll reach a viewing platform for the falls. Once you’ve enjoyed viewing the waterfall, retrace your steps back to your car.

Tip: If you visit Purakaunui Falls and have a bit of extra time, drive out to nearby Purakaunui Bay. It’s a great place for a little beach walk or picnic—and you might spot some NZ sea lions, too. PK Bay is also home to a great Catlins camping ground, which is one of the best camping spots on the South Island!

Lesser-Known Catlins Waterfalls

3. Koropuku Falls 

Koropuku Falls - a Hidden Catlins Waterfall

Koropuku Falls is a real hidden gem in the Catlins. While not as acclaimed as McLean Falls and Purakanui Falls, this waterfall is equally worth a stop if you’re road-tripping in the Catlins.

This waterfall is situated right off the main Catlins highway (Chaslands Highway along the Southern Scenic Route). Koropuku Falls is marked by just a small sign that’s super easy to miss. At the trailhead, there’s parking space for maybe four cars, tops. While this waterfall isn’t very well-known, we imagine the carpark could fill up quickly on a busy day. Head there early if you want to visit the falls!

The walk to Koropuku Falls is not long (15 minutes one-way), but it does involve a couple of small creek crossings and wet, slippery terrain (especially after rainfall). Locals have placed ponga (tree fern) logs on parts of the trail to help with the rough ground. Please take care and ensure you’re wearing shoes with good soles on this walk!

As you walk to the waterfall, you might feel like you’re in a fairy forest. It’s a lush, ferny, moss-laden forest that feels quite magical. It’s hard to watch your step in here as you’ll want to look up and around at the rainforest rather than down at the ground beneath your feet!

When you reach the falls, prepare to be wowed. This waterfall might not be the tallest in the Catlins (that award goes to McLean Falls), but it’s a picture-perfect waterfall surrounded by jungly ferns, with a lovely pool below it. You might feel like you’re in a tropical paradise—if it weren’t for that notoriously wet and cold Catlins weather, that is!

After you’ve enjoyed Koropuku Falls, make your way back to your car via the same track.

4. Matai Falls / Horseshoe Falls

Compared to the Catlins waterfalls listed above, Matai Falls (and nearby Horseshoe Falls) don’t have quite the same “wow” factor. These small waterfalls dry up to a trickle in the summertime. You might have better luck with them if you visit during winter, or after a heavy rainstorm.

If you have heaps of time in the Catlins and are looking for things to do, then add Matai and Horsehoe Falls to your itinerary. The forest walk to get to both falls is short and quite easy, so it does make for a nice break from the car if you need a leg stretch! Otherwise, if you’re pressed for time, then give this one a miss—the first three waterfalls on this list are truly the best of the best.

5. Waipohatu Waterfalls (Loop Hike)

Punehu Falls - Catlins Waipohatu Waterfalls Track
Punehu Falls on the Waipohatu Waterfalls track

The Waipohatu waterfalls are different from the other Catlins waterfalls on this list. Whereas accessing all of the other falls requires a short (and pretty easy) walk, getting to these falls requires a day hike—and a difficult one at that!

While just a 10-minute drive from Curio Bay (which you should definitely visit!), the Waipohatu Waterfall track is a real, rugged adventure. This one’s for visitors who want to get way off the beaten path, and who enjoy hiking on rough trails. 

What you need to know about the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track:

Expect muddy conditions, underfoot roots to maneuver over, and overgrown (but beautiful) native bush. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has kindly laid down ponga (tree fern) trunks on parts of the trail to form a boardwalk of sorts in some of the particularly muddy places—but this is very much a tramping track and is best for sure-footed hikers.

To get to the true trailhead for this hike, plug in our GPS coordinates listed above. You’ll want to drive past the official Waipohatu carpark and continue on the road for a few minutes to reach a parking area right at start of the trailhead. From this parking area, we recommend hiking this loop counter-clockwise: start in the forest, and end on the road part of the walk. 

There are two waterfalls along the Waipohatu track: Punehu Falls (which reminds us of a smaller Purakaunui Falls) and Pouriwai Falls. The waterfalls are close to one another, so if you want to shorten this hike you can simply hike to both falls via the forest trail, then hike back out the same way you came in (vs. hiking the entire loop trail). 

We should mention, though, that getting close to both waterfalls requires a scramble/hop over some slippery rocks, so please do take care!

If you’re on a quick trip to the Catlins and/or if you’re not comfortable with rough hiking conditions, we’d recommend skipping this hike. The waterfalls here are stunning but they’re much harder to get to than the others on this list—and to be honest, we don’t think this is one of the best hikes on the South Island (but of course, that’s a matter of opinion!). 

Pouriwai Falls - Catlins Waipohatu Waterfalls Track
Pouriwai Falls on the Waipohatu Waterfalls Track

The Catlins Waterfalls You Can Skip…

6. Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is a tongue-in-cheek name for this unimpressive Catlins waterfall, which couldn’t be more different than the famous North American Niagara Falls! It was named by a surveyor with a real sense of humor.

In all seriousness though, you can skip this “waterfall,” which is really just some water flowing over rocks. It’s not worth the time to visit.

Instead, head to nearby Niagara Falls Cafe, which truly is worth a stop—we think it’s the best cafe in the Catlins. The cafe features quirky decor, local produce, and homemade baked goods. Grab a coffee and a treat to fuel yourself up for your other Catlins waterfall adventures.

7. Barrs Falls

Barrs Falls - Catlins
Barrs Falls in the Catlins—this waterfall turns into a trickle in the summertime.

If you’re driving through Owaka, you might spot a sign for Barrs Falls. Look up Barrs Falls online, and you might find it’s been described as a Catlins secret spot. 

Sorry to say, but you’ll be disappointed by this waterfall if you’re expecting a secret Catlins gem! By Catlins waterfall standards, this is a mere trickle (unless it’s been raining heaps). If you’re really keen to check out Barrs Falls, though, then go for it—the walk to the falls takes just a few minutes, so you’ll have plenty of time left for the many other Catlins adventures that await.

There you have it—an overview of the best waterfalls in the Catlins, and the waterfalls you can skip!

To sum everything up: the waterfalls we most recommend visiting in the Catlins are as follows: McLean Falls, Purakaunui Falls, and Koropuku Falls.

If you have more time to spare, you might want to explore some of the other waterfalls on this list; however, McLean Falls, Purakaunui Falls, and Koropuku Falls are really the best of the best.

We hope this guide has helped you decide which waterfalls to visit on your trip to the Catlins! We absolutely love the Catlins and think that you will, too—especially if you enjoy visiting beautiful waterfalls.

More Adventures You Might Like

For more South Island adventures, check out our guide to the epic drive from Christchurch to Queenstown.

After more South Island waterfalls? Another waterfall-packed drive is the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

One more gorgeous South Island drive is the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy; rather than lots of waterfalls, you’ll find tons of lakeside gems and fantastic hikes!

If you’re keen to visit as many waterfalls as possible in New Zealand, don’t miss these beautiful waterfall walks in Tongariro National Park on the North Island.

So you’ve checked out the bottom of the South Island on your Catlins waterfall adventure—why not pay a visit to the bottom of the North Island, too? Cape Palliser and the Putangirua Pinnacles beckon travelers who like exploring off-the-beaten-path!

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The Best Waterfalls in the Catlins
Must-See Waterfalls in the Catlins

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