NZ's Best Waterfalls are in The Catlins

New Zealand has the best waterfalls!

I've been writing a series of posts discussing New Zealand's best waterfalls by region. And after visiting a fair few waterfalls in different places around New Zealand, I feel I'm now qualified to rate them.

The Catlins has to be THE BEST region in New Zealand for waterfalls if you're wanting to visit a few of the best in just one day - there are at least four worth visiting within only an hour's drive of each other, there aren't many places in New Zealand where you can say that! Plus the whole of the Catlins area is simply stunning and one of the remotest parts of New Zealand so even just driving these roads is a scenic journey in itself to enjoy!

I wanted to wait to write this particular post as until recently I hadn't visited the daddy of them all - McLean Falls. The track was shut for the better part of 2019 after a massive rockslide closed the track so back in August when I visited the area we couldn't go - I was pretty devastated. So you can imagine how happy I was that I was managed to fit it into my day off when working as a tour guide recently with luxury tour company Aroha Tours.

Photographing waterfalls is a great past-time for any landscape photographer during the day when you're in-between sunrise and sunset and looking for a way to pass the day. You'll get the best results from your waterfall shots if you use a set of neutral density filters and a circular polariser  - I use KASE filters and highly recommend them as they are shock-proof and are multi-coated so that they're easy to clean when they get spray on them at waterfalls!

NZ's Best Waterfalls - the Catlins edition:

Ease of Access: 1 = a long or hard walk or drive to get to  vs 3 = easy to get to by car and/or on foot

Photography Options: 1 = hard to photograph with a lot of spray or to get good compositions vs 3 = lots of choice and easy to photograph

Overall Experience: 1 = I wouldn't necessarily go back vs 3 = I'd want to visit anytime I was in the area

1) Purakaunui Falls, The Catlins 8/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access: 3

Not too far down the road from the very popular Nugget Point lighthouse (about 45 minutes), lies one of NZ's most photographed and beautiful waterfalls. This is a 3-tier cascade waterfall and is only a short and easy 10 minute walk from the road - the shortest of all the walks to the waterfalls in the Catlins so this makes it the most accessible too. Being in a remote part of New Zealand, Google Maps might try and take you on some strange and roundabout routes to get here though - so don't necessarily trust the first option that comes up as there are probably quicker routes available!

Photography Options: 2

I've visited here twice, both times in winter, and the volume of water was pretty powerful - almost too powerful with a fair amount of spray to contend with. The best compositions can be found either in front of the waterfall from the main viewpoint or off to the left hand side where you can get down nice and low and add some foreground interest to the shot. The only annoying thing is there's a dead branch here that tends to be right in the shot from these low down compositions - unless you want to spend a lot of time in Photoshop you'll have to put up with it in your shot.

Overall Experience: 3

I'd definitely put this on your Must-See NZ Waterfalls list - it's one of the most photogenic and photographed in the country and well worth the visit if you're in the area. And if you're short on time and can't decide which waterfalls to visit, I'd make this one and McLean Falls a priority!

Purakaunui Falls Catlins Winter
Purakaunui Falls side view Catlins

2) Matai Falls, The Catlins 7/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access: 2

Travel south from Purakaunui Falls for only about 10 minutes and you'll come across Matai Falls - and here you get a double whammy because Horseshoe Falls is at the same place too - so you really do get bang for waterfall buck! The walk in is mostly downhill so you'll have a bit of an uphill walk on the return journey but it's not too taxing.

Photography Options: 2

The walk in takes about 15 minutes or so and then the two waterfalls are relatively close together. When we visited Matai Falls there was a large tree trunk in the bottom of the frame but I thought it actually added a bit of interest into the foreground. The surrounding scenery here is really rather lush with the green forest surrounds and a few colourful leaves dotting the forest floor.

Overall Experience: 3

I was actually more impressed with Matai Falls than I thought I would be, and the fact that you can visit two totally different waterfalls at the same location was a real bonus. As always the forest setting of the waterfalls in the Catlins is downright pretty which makes the whole experience very enjoyable.

Matai Falls Catlins NZ

3) Horseshoe Falls, The Catlins - 5/9

Ease of Access: 2

Located on the same walkway as Matai Falls, Horseshoe Falls is five minutes further off the main track up a short but steep track with stairs. You definitely should allow time to visit both if you're here, you'd be crazy not to.

Photography Options: 1

This waterfall is a little trickier to get a good composition at as there is a bit of foliage in the way but if you can, try and incorporate the trees into your shots by framing them around the waterfall and I'm sure you'll still come away with a shot that you are happy with. There's really only one angle to shoot from here based on where the track ends and the view point of the falls.

Overall Experience: 2

In my opinion, Horseshoe Falls isn't QUITE as nice as Matai Falls which is why I haven't given it full top marks, but it is still very much worth the visit if you're already going to visit Matai Falls. We visited in winter and the flow was really good so it's hard to say if the same would be true in the height of summer.

Horseshoe Falls Catlins NZ

4) McLean Falls, The Catlins - 8/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access: 2

In my opinion, this is the BIG DADDY of all the waterfalls in the Catlins and by far one of the most impressive in New Zealand. I'm not sure if I just struck it lucky visiting early in the morning but the birdsong on the walk in here was probably the most extraordinary I've EVER heard in New Zealand in the wild - that's saying something! There are a number of different spots to shoot the waterfalls along the track but to get to the very top waterfall is about 20 minutes. It's mostly a flat easy walk apart from the last 5 minutes which is up a fairly steep track which has only recently been reopened after a large landslide cleaned out the whole track early in 2019.

Photography Options: 3

You're going to want to allow a couple of hours here to really enjoy exploring all the available compositions there are here. And if you're really feeling game you can clamber up the rock face to get to the very top waterfall amphitheatre. I watched several groups do this and took a test climb before bottling it and giving up - haha! Then one guy came back and showed me his amateur iPhone shot after which I became convinced I NEEEEEEDED to get up to the top. One of my reservations was that I had to be able to get me and my gear safely up and down again without anyone's help since I was there by myself and I didn't want to fall or injure myself mid-tour with my clients! So I very gingerly made my way up and back down again. In the end it was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be when I took it slowly and carefully - climbing is definitely NOT my strong point so you might do it easily and wonder what all the fuss is about!

Overall Experience: 3

Despite how impressive the top set of waterfalls are, I think my favourite shot was towards the end of my time here when I shot at the lower falls. The sunlight started breaking through the trees and creating some magical misty rays and lighting up a part of the forest that had been very dark and dull before. I was pretty amped by the end of this shoot and I really didn't want to leave here! I'll definitely be putting this on my list to visit ANYTIME I find myself in this part of New Zealand.

McLean Falls Amazing Tiered waterfall NZ
McLean Falls Upper Falls
McLean Falls Top Waterfall NZ
McLean Falls Top Waterfall
McLean Falls Lower Waterfall Catlins
McLean Falls Lower Waterfall

5) Koropuku Falls, The Catlins - 6/9

Where to find it

Ease of Access: 1

This little gem of a waterfall is an added bonus but it is NOT easy to find - because it's not a DoC maintained waterfall it's very easy to miss the start of the track which is only a small signpost on the side of the road and there's no official parking area, just a wide shoulder on the main road. I would suggest putting the location into Google Maps whilst you still have reception as much of The Catlins has patchy if any cellphone coverage. If you're travelling from McLean Falls it's about 20 minutes further south on the main road.

The actual walk into the falls is very pretty if a little challenging. The track can be very boggy and is maintained with a lot of punga branches as squishy boardwalk. There's also a small stream to gingerly rock hop across and a few fallen branches to clamber over. The walk in only takes 15-20 minutes and it can feel very remote and isolated so do make sure you go with a friend or have a personal locator beacon on you if you're alone.

Photography Options: 2

I've visited here twice - once in winter and once in the height of summer. Unfortunately in winter when we visited, it was just after a very unexpected and heavy snowfall so there was a large branch right in front of the waterfall which made it impossible to get a good shot. So on that occasion, we made do with photographing the lovely stream downstream of the falls.

On my return visit in February, the tree had been cleared and the waterfall was looking LOVELY! It's a very pretty setting and a wee bit of sunlight breaking through above the falls only added to the atmosphere.

Overall Experience: 3

If you have time for a whole day exploring all the waterfalls in The Catlins going from north to south then this would be your last stop of the day and well worth it in my opinion. The fact that the track is maintained by locals and is in such a remote valley makes it a fun and unique place to explore.

Koropuku Falls Catlins NZ
Koropuku Falls River Catlins NZ

For more on my NZ's Best Waterfall series check out these posts:

NZ's Best Waterfalls - Northland & Waikato

NZ's Best Waterfalls - Coromandel, Rotorua & Tauranga

NZ's Best Waterfalls - Fiordland & Milford Sound

If you would like to join me to capture the beauty of this remote region, check out my 2025 Catlins 4-Day Landscape Photography Workshop.

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