Top 12 Caves in the South Island, New Zealand

The South Island is better known for its above-ground natural wonders, but head into its shadowy depths and you’ll find plenty of interesting caves to explore. Our top 12 caves in the South Island include sea caves, glow worm caves and heaps more!

Wharariki Beach Caves

There are a few small caves at Wharariki Beach, Golden Bay — great spots for a photo or to escape the heavy wind. It’s one of our favourite “wild” beaches in New Zealand, with rocky islands just offshore and beautiful sunsets.

Punakaiki Cavern

This small cave in Punakaiki, West Coast gets overshadowed by the other things to do nearby, including the Pancake Rocks and Pororari River. It’s a cool little cave though and only takes a few minutes to look around. There aren’t many parks outside but it’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Pancake Rocks.

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Things to Do in Punakaiki

Long Beach Caves / The Arches

Back in the day, if you heard people talking about the Long Beach Caves in Dunedin it was because of the raves that were occasionally held there. I’m pretty sure those are long gone, but it does seem to have held some smaller gatherings. During the day you can check out the caves after a long walk down the beach.

The Arches are nearby at Doctors Point. At low tide you can walk through them and access Canoe Beach and Purakaunui Beach. It seems like a good sunrise spot too.

The Arches, Dunedin, New Zealand

Cave Rock

The big rock on Sumner Beach also has a cave in it. It’s tiny and you can walk through it in less than a minute — an interesting piece of nature at Christchurch’s most popular beach.

Luxmore Cave

The caves on this list so far have been easy to visit, but this one takes a bit more effort. It’s located above Luxmore Hut, where most people spend their first night on the Kepler Track (you can also do it as a long day walk). Slippery stairs descend into the narrow cave — you can’t go too far without it getting dangerous but what you can see is worth the walk.

READ MORE: Hiking the Kepler Track in Three Days

Clifden Caves

Located along the Southern Scenic Route between Invercargill and Te Anau, Clifden Caves is a good place to stop — we didn’t go far in but apparently you can walk right through and back to the car park via the road in around two hours. Check safety before you tackle that mission though! There’s also an old suspension bridge nearby with a coffee cart (only open in weekends at the moment).

Cave Stream

Just past Castle Hill on the road between Christchurch and the West Coast, Cave Stream is a popular caving area in the South Island. You can walk all the way through it — it’s over 500 metres long and you’ll need the right gear and conditions. People have died here before so do your research before considering it. We just had a look from one of the entrances as it’s a short walk from the car park.

Oparara Arches

The Oparara Arches in Kahurangi National Park is a bit of a pain to get to, but the long journey is worth it. It’s located down an awful gravel road from Karamea, right at the top of West Coast (pretty much the end of the main road).

You walk through the forest to the various caves and arches — a really fun couple of hours in the wilderness if you can make it there. They’ve made it harder recently, with the road only open on weekends and public holidays at the moment (Heard any updates about this? Let us know in the comments below).

Cathedral Caves

The Cathedral Caves are the most impressive sea caves in the South Island. Found on a beautiful beach in the Catlins, the long, thin caves stretch a surprisingly long way into the cliffs. The caves are only accessible during low tide or either side of it, so plan your trip accordingly if you’re keen to see them.

READ MORE: 23 of the Best Things to Do in the Catlins

Te Anau Glowworm Caves 

A trip to the Te Anau Gloworm Caves starts with a boat trip across Lake Te Anau. You’ll then head up through the cave to the glowworm area. There you’ll go on a short boat ride with a blanket of stars (glow worms) above you providing the only light. It’s a special tour and the caves would be beautiful even without the glowworms.

NOTE: You can’t take photos in these caves — the one below is from the boat ride.

Rawhiti Cave

A steep track through the forest near Takaka, Golden Bay leads to Rawhiti Cave, which has the most impressive entrance to a cave we’ve seen in New Zealand (and maybe the world). Thousands of stalactites surround the entrance, and you can descend a little way down to get a full view of the roof and the seemingly vast open spaces below.

Ngarua Caves

Our top cave(s) in the South Island is one we visited on our recent trip to Golden Bay. We joined a tour with about eight other people, with the guide leading us through the various sections of the cave. It’s mostly along boardwalks and up and down stairs. It’s easy for most people (there were some young kids on our tour) — not the kind of place you’ll be crawling through mud or wading through water. Harwoods Hole is another famous cave nearby, although you’ll need to go on a proper caving expedition to enter it.

Other Top 12 Lists

Check out our other top 12 lists: Beaches | Rivers | Lakes | Scenic Drives | Rock Formations | Towns | Cities

Did you like our list of the top caves in the South Island? Did any of your favourites miss out? Let us know in the comments!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.