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Top 12 Rock Formations in the South Island, New Zealand

Top 12 Rock Formations in the South Island, New Zealand

There are lots of interesting rock formations in the South Island, from boulders lying on beaches to clay cliffs, organ pipes and a rock that looks like a split apple. For maximum ease most are named after what they look like. Check out our top 12 rock formations in the South Island, New Zealand!

Cathedral Cliffs

Gore Bay would be another standard North Canterbury beach if it wasn’t for the Cathedral Cliffs. It’s a quick viewpoint to visit and is one of the better detours off the main road between Christchurch and Picton.

The Cathedral Cliffs overlooking Gore Bay, North Canterbury, New Zealand

Split Apple Rock

If you’re keen to visit Abel Tasman National Park but you’re in a hurry, Split Apple Rock is a good spot to go. It’s just north of Kaiteriteri and is only an hour’s drive from Nelson.

The beach is as good as most you’ll see in the national park, with the added bonus of an interesting rock — the reason for its name is obvious!

Clay Cliffs

Formed by a fault pushing up layers of silt and gravel, the Clay Cliffs of Omarama is a fun diversion from the main road through the Waitaki Valley (to or from Mount Cook / Lake Tekapo).

It only takes a few minutes to explore the Clay Cliffs as it’s a small area. If you visit in summer (usually late December) you might see lupins — they’re classed as a destructive weed in New Zealand and are a bit controversial — they look great though!

Elephant Rocks

Towards the Oamaru end of the Waitaki Valley you’ll find the Elephant Rocks. These limestone rocks come in all shapes and sizes and sit quietly amongst the sheep of a local farm.

The surrounding area is also home to a large amount of fossils. It’s part of the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark, which also includes Oamaru and the North Otago coastline.

Wharariki Beach

Rocky offshore islands and a cave are the rock formations to look out for at Wharariki Beach. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in Golden Bay — go at sunset if you can.

Castle Hill

You’ll be surrounded by giant limestone rocks when walking around Castle Hill, found on the drive between Christchurch and the West Coast. It’s popular with rock climbers as well as people looking for a short walk, with adventure fans also drawn in by the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve nearby.

Tunnel Beach

Sandstone cliffs, sea arches and a tunnel carved through rock are the main sights at Tunnel Beach.

It’s a short, steep walk down to the beach from the car park, and once close to the beach you’ll walk down to the sand through a tunnel carved out of the rock. The tunnel was commissioned by the Cargill family in the 1870s so they could access their own private beach — you can see why they made such an effort to build it.

The Obelisk

The Obelisk sits atop the Old Man Range in Central Otago. It’s another world up there– a moon-like landscape of barren earth and massive rocks. The Obelisk is the most striking of all, sitting right on the edge with a sweeping view of the Alexandra Basin. It takes around 45 minutes to drive there from Alexandra — you’ll need a 4WD to get there.

Organ Pipes

The Organ Pipes are just below the summits of Mount Cargill and Butters Peak. From these viewpoints you’ll get unparalleled views of Dunedin, but if you’re looking for adventure you’ll want to walk down to the Organ Pipes.

The pipes are columns of basalt rock, formed when the Dunedin Volcano erupted millions of years ago. You can scramble up the hill of fallen organ pipes then stand at the top and look out over the countryside (do so at your own risk).

Nugget Point

Nugget Point is one of the most beautiful spots in the Catlins, a region packed with beaches, waterfalls and clifftop views. A trip to Nugget Point involves a short walk to the lighthouse, where you’ll get a great view of the “nuggets” below.

You may also see seals and sea lions, and if you time your visit close to sunset you could see penguins at Roaring Bay (right next to Nugget Point).

Moeraki Boulders

The Moeraki Boulders are strewn across Koekoe beach on the Otago coast, with the tides determining how many of them you’ll see.

Sunrise at Moeraki Boulders, Coastal Otago, New Zealand

The boulders are best seen at sunrise, but don’t worry if you can’t get up early as they’re worth seeing at any time of day.  There’s a café above the beach and the tiny Moeraki village is only a few kilometres away.

Pancake Rocks

These 30-million-year-old layers of stacked limestone draw a lot of tourists to the tiny West Coast town of Punakaiki. You can see the Pancake Rocks on a short and accessible walking trail, which snakes around a series of viewpoints overlooking the unique coastal surroundings. We even saw dolphins just offshore.

The Pancake Rocks are the best rock formations in the South Island in our opinion — the perfect reason to add the West Coast to your South Island travel plans!

The best things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Other Rock Formations in the South Island

There are some other boulders close to Moeraki but they aren’t as impressive. There are also basalt columns and the Roman Baths at Blackhead, Dunedin as well as the “Brighton Claw” (I made that one up) further along the coast.

Other Top 12 Lists

We’re creating this series of posts as a way to explore this site / what the South Island has to offer. Read a few and you’ll get lots of inspiration for your travels around the island. Top 12 Beaches | Top 12 Rivers | Top 12 Lakes | Top 12 Scenic Drives | Top 12 Small Towns | Top 12 Cities and Big Towns

Do you know of any other cool rock formations in the South Island? Let us know in the comments below!

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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.