New Zealand’s South Island is a paradise for people who love getting up close to nature — mountains, rivers, beaches, lakes and waterfalls (and so much more). We’ve been exploring this island for over six years now and have finally whittled down our favourite waterfalls to a top 12. Our list of the top waterfalls in the South Island features entries from all over the island. Let us know at the end if we missed any of your favourites!
There are a few small waterfalls in Peel Forest, South Canterbury. Emily Falls is a good one to visit, with a short forest trail leading to a pool with a low-key waterfall. Check out Mount Peel if you’re keen for a day walk.
A track by the Wainui River in Abel Tasman National Park leads to this powerful waterfall. It’s one of the better inland sights in the national park, which is most famous for having the best beaches in the South Island. You’ll pass Wainui Falls when driving to Totaranui from Golden Bay.
This waterfall near Murchison, towards the top of the South Island, is an easy walk from the main road. It was created by an earthquake in 1929 and is now a popular scenic spot (don’t swim there though!).
Carew Creek Falls
Carew Creek Falls sits just above Lake Brunner. It’s a fairly off the beaten path West Coast destination, usually seen as a detour off the main road towards Arthur’s Pass. It should take around 20 minutes to walk to Carew Falls. Once there you can walk around the rocks and get some awesome views of the falls.
Thunder Creek Falls
The South Island is suited to all levels of fitness, with interesting pieces of nature often only a minute walk away from the comfort of your car. Thunder Creek Falls is a great example of that — a stunning waterfall surrounded by native bush next to a pristine river. You’ll see it when driving between Queenstown / Wanaka and the West Coast. Probably the most scenic road in New Zealand, with waterfalls, mountains and some of the bluest rivers you’ll see anywhere in the world.
Tucked-away in a quiet corner of Lake Rotoiti, Whiskey Falls isn’t on the radar for most tourists in New Zealand. Walk around the lake (or catch a boat) to an old wooden pier and head up through the forest to the falls. Nelson Lakes National Park is home to heaps of other walks — such a cool place to explore if you can handle the sand flies.
Devils Punchbowl Falls
Devils Punchbowl Falls is a great place to seek out if you’re keen for a walk in Arthur’s Pass. It should take around two hours (return) and the 130 metre falls is an impressive place to finish at. The walk starts right in Arthur’s Pass Village, which you’ll drive through when travelling between Christchurch and the West Coast.
Avalanche Creek Falls
Avalanche Creek Falls is also in Arthur’s Pass Village. It’s a lot easier to visit than Devil’s Punchbowl Falls — a two-minute walk along the Avalanche Peak Track. You’ll get an awesome view of the falls from the bridge, and there’s another viewpoint just up the hill.
Purakaunui Falls is most famous waterfall in the Catlins, a region known for its waterfalls and beaches. It’s an easy one to visit, with a short track through the forest leading to a viewing platform where you’ll get a perfect view of the three-tiered waterfall.
This is the only waterfall on this list that you can’t access on a day walk (or less). You’ll see it around halfway through the Milford Track, or you can do a scenic flyover. At 580 metres it’s one of the tallest permanent waterfalls in New Zealand (many claim it’s the tallest) and you can get surprisingly close to the base of it.
The Routeburn Track is one of the top Great Walks in New Zealand and usually takes three days to complete. Most people stay at Routeburn Falls Hut on the first night, which is a short walk from the falls itself. Routeburn Falls sits above the bushline in one of the most spectacular mountain regions in New Zealand. If you can’t commit to the full three days it’s a good day walk option.
Lady Bowen Falls / Stirling Falls
Two of the South Island’s most famous waterfalls are located a short distance apart in Milford Sound, Fiordland. Lady Bowen Falls is the taller of the two and is the first one you’ll see on a boat cruise.
You’ll get even closer to Stirling Falls as the boats usually pull up right underneath it — a fun experience if you don’t mind getting wet.
Other Waterfalls in Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park is full of waterfalls, at least when it’s raining! There are lots of permanent ones too, with Lake Marian Falls and Humboldt Falls easy ones to visit when driving to Milford Sound. Earland Falls is another one on the Routeburn Track which you can visit as a day walk (maybe combine it with Key Summit). There are a few other waterfalls on the Milford Track too.
You’ll also see waterfalls on the Doubtful Sound tour — highly recommended if you’ve already been to Milford Sound (or do both).
Other Waterfalls in Mount Aspiring National Park
Those three are quick and easy to visit, and you should also see one or two by the side of the road. We pulled up next to the one below without even realising it was there (we just wanted to stop and get a photo of the view).
Other Waterfalls in the Catlins
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!
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