A Guide to New Zealand's Top 10 Waterfalls

There's no lack of choice for waterfalls to visit and photograph in New Zealand. Research online shows over 220 named waterfalls in the country from one end to the other, so you could potentially spend years trying to see them all! While this list could easily stretch to many more, I've chosen this list of Top 10 NZ Waterfalls based on several reasons:

  1. Ease of access, e.g. how easy they are to get to
  2. How photogenic they are in terms of composition choices, or how impressive their surrounding area is
  3. Proximity to other locations of interest in the area

Top Photography Tips for Shooting Waterfalls:

Waterfalls are best visited on cloudy days or early/late in the day when there is no sun on the water to create harsh contrasts between light and shadows. Use a circular polarising filter and turn it until you can see the effect, i.e. reducing glare on the water or wet rocks, and taking light reflections off the foliage to create lusher greens in your image. It can also increase definition in the sky if both clouds and blue sky are visible. A Neutral Density filter (such as a 3-stop or 6-stop) will also allow you to slow your shutter speed down enough to create a silky water effect in the waterfall and any water that may be visible flowing downstream.
Point to Note:

New Zealand is prone to frequent storms with heavy downpours, so flooding and rainfall can significantly change the look and feel of a waterfall environment almost overnight. Sometimes tracks to the waterfalls become inaccessible after heavy rains due to landslides (either temporarily or permanently) so it's worthwhile taking images every time you visit, as you never know when it might be the last time you can go! It also pays to check a waterfall track is actually open before you visit, so I have included links to the relevant track information pages to check out the access before you go.

Here are the Top 10 Waterfalls in NZ to photograph (from north to south):

1. Whangarei Falls, Northland

Walking distance: 5-15 minutes one way

Check current status: Whangarei Falls

This waterfall gets top marks because there are just so many composition options all around the waterfall - both above and below, not to mention the ease of access and proximity of the falls to Whangarei City. Parking is easy and it's a straightforward loop track taking you across the river and down to the base, with my favourite composition shooting looking upstream towards the waterfall down by the rocks on the right hand side.

You can also access spots closer to the falls itself on either side of the river, or shoot from the bridge over the river though this is more challenging if you are shooting long exposures due to the fact people will be coming over the bridge and creating vibrations.

Having visited this location twice about 18 months apart, the rocks surrounding the river were a lot more exposed and less mossy on the second visit, you can see the difference in the top photo to the one bottom right in the collage. The pool at the base of the falls was quite different with a more rocky, sandy bank visible the second time.

whangarei falls northland
Whangarei Falls, Northland early morning light
Whangarei Falls in afternoon light

Other waterfalls in Northland worth visiting: Rainbow Falls, Piroa Falls

For more on Northland waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: Northland and Waikato

2. Owharora Falls, Coromandel

Walking distance: 1 min one way

Check current status: Owharora Falls

Owharoa Falls is approximately 15 minutes from Paeroa and 10 minutes from Waihi. I've included it in the list of NZ's Top 10 waterfalls as it is a 1 minute walk from the road, and it is close to some really interesting walks in the Karangahake Gorge like the Tunnel and Windows Walk. It also makes a great and easy location to shoot a waterfall under the night sky.

It does have a tendency to suffer from a lack of water, particularly in the summer and autumn, so it makes sense to go either in winter or spring or a few days after recent rain, however it can also look quite flooded directly after heavy rain, so finding a happy medium is best!

owharoa falls karangahake gorge
Owharoa Falls, Coromandel
owharora falls coromandel

Other waterfalls in the Coromandel worth visiting: Waiau Falls

For more on Coromandel waterfalls, visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: Coromandel & Bay of Plenty

3. Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato

Walking distance: 10 min (top of waterfall), 20 min (base) one way

Check current status: Bridal Veil Falls

This is my closest waterfall to home and one of my favourites to take attendees on my local photography workshops. For a start, I love that there are 3 different places to shoot the falls from, though my favourite is the middle viewpoint halfway to the base of the falls. Bridal Veil Falls is about 15 minutes down a country road on the way from Hamilton to Raglan, so it's easy to incorporate a visit to this coastal part of the Waikato.

bridal veil falls forest waikato
Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato

The falls here are never lacking in water (unlike some other waterfalls) which is a bonus, but you do have to be prepared for the climb down, there are about 250 steps to the bottom, it's certainly easier on the way down than coming back up! The view from the midpoint is by far the nicest in my opinion due to the layers of forest that frame the waterfall and cliff behind. It's generally more sheltered from the wind and spray here too. The top view is more open so you can incorporate more sky but it can be breezy, and if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction the base of the falls can be tricky to shoot with spray hitting your lens.

bridal veil falls waikato examples

I usually avoid shooting waterfalls on a sunny day, but with the sun on this waterfall, you can often catch a rainbow at the bottom of the falls which will give your image a fairytale feel.

Other waterfalls in the Waikato area worth visiting: Marokopa Falls, Omaru Falls, Wairere Falls, Waitanguru Falls

For more on Waikato waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: Northland and Waikato

4. Tarawera Falls, Bay of Plenty

Walking distance: 20 min (main falls) 45 mins (top track) one way

Check current status: Tarawera Falls

This is a fairly remote waterfall to visit compared to the rest from a driving perspective, but I promise you the journey will be worthwhile, noting the nearest big town is Rotorua (about 1.5 hours away). You need to stop in Kawerau to obtain a permit from the Kawerau Information Centre ($5 at time of writing). Because the access to the falls is on private forestry roads, they need to know when people are in the area, and the gates are only open during daylight hours so you will need to be out by the time the gates close if you are visiting the falls as a day trip and not staying at the nearby campground.

tarawera falls bay of plenty nz
View of Tarawera Falls framed by flowering rata trees

What makes Tarawera Falls unique is that the waterfall is created from underground rivers that lead from Lake Tarawera, and you can in fact access the falls by boat on the far side of Lake Tarawera as well. When a lot of water is flowing the top waterfall will be going, but if lake levels are low and there hasn't been much rain, you might find only the bottom sections are flowing. The walk in is beautiful along a serene, clear aqua coloured river (which reminds me of The Blue Spring), and if you have the time to spend I highly recommend taking the track further and going up to the higher waterfalls up the hill, they are impressive in their own right too.

tarawera falls waterfall nz
Upper waterfalls and the river on the way to Tarawera Falls

Spray can be a big issue if you are trying to shoot at the very base of the falls, so you may find it easier to shoot the falls from further back between the trees. This is an amazing day out, and well worth the trip but you should definitely consider allowing a whole day to explore here.

I have loved my two visits here so much that I wrote an entire blog post on this location, for more info check out: 

5 Reasons Why Tarawera Falls is NZ's Most Epic Waterfall Location

Other waterfalls in the Bay of Plenty worth visiting: Kaiate Falls, McLaren Falls, Kerosene Creek, Okere Falls, Whataroa Falls

For more on Bay of Plenty waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: Coromandel and Tauranga

5. Tawhai Falls

Walking distance: 10 min one way

Check current status: Tawhai Falls

This is one of the more well-known waterfalls in New Zealand due to its portrayal in Lord of the Rings as Gollum's Pool. The setting here is quite special, tucked just off the road to Whakapapa Village and surrounded by alpine beech forest. If you are lucky, you may even hear some beautiful NZ birdsong on your visit, the last time I was here I saw a North Island tomtit which was a rare treat! The access is easy, only a 10 minute walk and only a couple of flights of stairs to negotiate - as waterfall access goes it's one of the easiest around.

tawhai falls sunset nz
Tawhai Falls at sunset

The best time to visit is early or late in the day, as the best compositions do involve only one or two people being able to be in the same spot. My favourite view is from the rocks at the base of the stairs, as the river flows nicely through the frame. You can also climb through the bush to get closer and more direct viewpoints of the top pool and waterfall as well.

tawhai falls ruapehu nz
Closer views of Tawhai Falls and night-time star trails

Due to incredibly dark and unpolluted night skies in the Central Plateau, Tawhai Falls is also great for shooting astrophotography. I spent a night here back in March 2023, capturing both the tail of the Milky Way earlier in the evening around 10pm, as well as star trails (it faces south so the viewpoint works well) just before dawn.

From Tawhai Falls, it's a 5 minute drive to Whakapapa Village where you can start a number of different hikes, or about 10 minutes to the top of the Bruce Road for awesome views over the Central Plateau.

Other waterfalls in the area worth visiting: Taranaki Falls, Waitonga Falls, Mangawhero Falls, Huka Falls

And now we head down to the South Island......

6. Devils Punchbowl Falls

Walking distance: 30-45 min one way

Check current status: Devils Punchbowl Falls

At a 45 min walk from the road, and with a good degree of stairs and elevation to get the heart rate pumping, it's probably one of the harder waterfalls on this list to get to, but you can't beat the proximity to other locations in the area such as Arthurs Pass Village and the Otira viaduct (both great places to spend time with our cheeky kea, NZ's native parrot), and Avalanche Creek waterfall which is tucked in behind the village. Slightly further afield (or on the way depending which way you are travelling through the pass) is Cave Stream and Castle Hill, both incredible locations for landscape photography in their own right.

devils punchbowl falls canterbury
Devils Punchbowl Falls

The walk to Devils Punchbowl Falls first skirts the Bealey River before crossing it, and soon after another bridge takes you over Devils Punchbowl Creek, with some lovely glimpses up the valley of the waterfall cascading down. From here, the walk heads into beautiful alpine beech forest and you start to climb the 150 metres up to the lookout. The sight of the waterfall from the viewing platform is impressive, particularly with the steep river cascading down right underneath where you are standing.

devils punchbowl waterfall nz

Devils Punchbowl Falls have a 131 metre drop, which also makes them one of the tallest waterfalls on this list.

Other waterfalls in the area worth visiting: Avalanche Creek

7. Thunder Creek Falls

Walking distance: 5 min one way

Check current status: Thunder Creek Falls

Haast Pass is one of my favourite roads to drive in New Zealand, linking the West Coast with Central Otago, and there are so many places to stop along the way to enjoy a waterfall or two, not to mention incredible river valley and mountain views. My favourite waterfall along this drive is Thunder Creek Falls - it's a rather tranquil spot with the stunning aqua colour of the Haast River running directly past the waterfall, although not so tranquil are the sandflies that will often relentlessly attack you here!

thunder creek falls haast pass nz
Thunder Creek Falls, Haast Pass
thunder creek falls river
Haast River
thunder creek falls west coast nz

It's literally a 2 minute walk from the road to the viewpoint of the waterfall, making it a super easy place to stop and stretch your legs along the drive, I always make a point of stopping in here on any trip through the pass, and on a sunny day you might even get lucky enough to catch a rainbow over the falls.

Other waterfalls worth visiting in the area: Fantail Falls, Roaring Billy Falls, Gates of Haast, Wilson Creek

8. McLean Falls

Walking distance: 20 min one way

Check currrent status: McLean Falls

The Catlins are well-known for having an abundance of incredible waterfalls within a short drive of each other, but none can compare to the awesomeness of McLean Falls. One morning when I visited, the first few hundred metres of the walk through the bush serenaded me with some of the loudest birdsong I've ever heard.

mclean falls catlins
McLean Falls (upper)

One of the things that makes McLean Falls a great waterfall to photograph is that it has both a lower and upper set of waterfalls so there are plenty of composition options. I really like the lower waterfall as the setting is rather lovely, especially with misty light filtering through.

mclean falls lower waterfall nz
McLean Falls (lower)

If you are feeling adventurous you can also climb up the rock face to get an unimpeded view of the very top waterfall, but do beware this is not for the faint of heart. I have done it once but I found it a little scary coming back down!

mclean falls waterfall nz

With so many different compositions to choose from, this is a location that you'll want to dedicate a good few hours to explore and enjoy. And since you're already in the area, it's easy to make a day of it to explore Purakaunui Falls (below) too.

Other waterfalls worth visiting in the area: Horseshoe & Matai Falls, Koropuku Falls

For more on Catlins waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: The Catlins

9. Purakaunui Falls

Walking distance: 10 min one way

Check current status: Purakaunui Falls

Purakaunui Falls is one of NZ's most well-known and photographed waterfalls, it has even been featured on a NZ postage stamp. It's a wide three-tier waterfall, which makes it quite different compositionally to many of the other waterfalls in this guide. The forest surrounding the waterfall is lush and frames the scene really nicely.

purakaunui falls catlins nz
Purakaunui Falls in winter

One thing to be aware of when visiting Purakaunui Falls is that the waterfall can run dry after sustained periods without rain so visiting in winter and spring (or after you know there has been heavy rain) should ensure that there is enough water to give you some stunning images.

purakaunui falls catlins nz
Purakaunui Falls, The Catlins

Other waterfalls worth visiting in the area: Horseshoe & Matai Falls, Korupuku Falls

For more on Catlins waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: The Catlins

10. Stirling Falls

Walking distance: N/A (accessible via boat cruise, kayak or air)

Last but not least we head to Fiordland, for a very unique waterfall experience at Stirling Falls. Fiordland is THE place in New Zealand where on any rainy day you are guaranteed to see hundreds if not thousands of waterfalls on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound. It's hard to pick a favourite waterfall, but being able to get right up close to Stirling Falls to experience the sheer volume of water and spray at the base of the 151 metre waterfall is an experience not to miss!

stirling falls milford sound
Stirling Falls (via boat access)

There are many different cruise operators who you can take a trip out into Milford Sound with, and most will be able to provide you with this close encounter. You will want to have a very good waterproof jacket and some kind of protection for your camera from the spray, and I also don't recommend standing directly under the waterfall with camera in hand.

Be sure to keep an eye out for any other temporary waterfalls that are flowing while you are out in the Sound, and you'll also get a good view of Lady Bowen Falls while out on the water too.

The true scale of Stirling Falls (at 151 metres high it is the tallest waterfall in this list) within the grander Fiordland landscape only becomes apparent when you cruise away further from the falls to see it with another vessel below it. Better still when viewed from the air, it becomes a tiny part of a landscape of epic proportions. The height of Mt Pembroke towering over Stirling Falls in the image below is over 2,000 metres!

stirling falls fiordland mountains

At a minimum, you need a whole day to explore all the views along the road to Milford Sound, as there are many other waterfalls to see along the way like Christie Falls and the Lake Marian rapids. Better still, spending a couple of days in the area will allow you time to see Fiordland in different lighting and weather conditions - it certainly takes on a whole new persona in the rain!

Other waterfalls worth visiting in the area: Lady Bowen, Christie Falls, Lake Marian Gantry, Giant Gate Falls, Humboldt Falls, any number of unnamed waterfalls that will flow from the cliffs on a rainy day!

For more on Fiordland waterfalls visit: NZ's Best Waterfalls: Fiordland

In Summary

While this is only a Top 10 List compared to the hundreds of waterfalls you could visit in NZ, each of these waterfalls is sure to impress, whether due to the beauty, the setting, the size or the different compositions available at each location. I hope you will bookmark this Guide to NZ Waterfalls to check out some new locations next time you find yourself travelling around the country!

Check out my NZ Waterfalls page at my online store to purchase a waterfall on print or canvas.

Want all my best NZ travel tips & photography advice?

Sign up to my newsletter to get all the good stuff!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.