In the Catlins region, you can discover the very impressive Cathedral Caves New Zealand. Accessible only at low tide, the carved tunnels will make you feel small! Below is my guide to help you plan your Cathedral Caves Walk: access, carpark, forest walk, Waipati beach and the caves...
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Why visit Cathedral Caves in the Catlins - video
Clarifying the frequent mix-up
Before I share all about the caves, let's start with a clarification. Do not mix up the Cathedral caves with Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel peninsula in North Island. Those are 2 different locations (and the Narnia scene was at the cove not the caves).
About the Cathedral Caves NZ
Let's start with a few information to better understand the attraction the caves have:
- 2 sea-formed passages
- They are connected at the back and measure 200m in length
- The tunnels carved by the sea are 30m in height! Impressive New Zealand coastal scenery!
- They are accesses via a walk in beautiful coastal forest, on a protected Maori land managed by a trust of Kāi Tahu descent
- The are named Cathedral caves, because of their impressive height and shape like cathedrals. And apparently the acoustic is similar too, but nobody has tested while I visited.
This is one of my favorite places to visit in South Island (see my Top 25 list).
And here is a short video of my walk to the Cathedral Caves to give you a better idea:
Geology of Cathedral Caves
- The cliffs are from te Jurassic period (around 160 million year old). They are made of sandstones
- The caves were formed over tens of thousands of years and ended up joining at the back
- Sandstone is hard. The caves were created by erosion, by the waves
- You can see vertical fractures. This is where the weak points in the sandstone were, allowing the waves to "dig"
Planning Tips - Cathedral Caves New Zealand
Location of Cathedral Caves - Map
- South Island, in the Catlins region (South east coast)
- South of Dunedin, off Chaslands Highway
- Dunedin to Cathedral Caves = 2h drive
- Invercargill to Cathedral Caves = 1h20 drive
- Don't miss the turn! It is quite sharp when driving from the North
- The last 2km are unpaved are lead to a large carpark
- Below is a map with the highlights of the Catlins region, including Cathedral caves
All the maps to easily plan your road trip are included in my eBooks:
Be overwhelmed by the beauty, not the planning!
- 12 easy-to-plan Maps
- 200 scenic locations in NZ
- Tips to plan + make the most of your time
- 285+ large photos to decide where to go
- GPS coordinates direct to the carparks
Visiting Cathedral Caves
- It costs 5 NZD per adult to park and do the walk (1NDZ per child) - BRING CASH!
- Toilets on the carpark but nothing down at the beach
- You should plan 1h30 to enjoy it.
- Walk: 20min down through the forest and then 5 to 10min walk on the beach to the caves - and the same back up 🙂
- Opened from Late October to May (opening may be delayed because of Spring tides)
- Opening hours are indicated on their website - it changes everyday to be around the low tide - check here - I recommend arriving before the low tide point, to complete the walk and have enough time to enjoy the caves before the water rushes back in
- Bring insect repellent, there are lots of nasty sandflies
- Do not collect any plant or shells - be respectful of the environment
- No drones allowed
- A torch may be good to see the back of the cave - but I did not really used mine
Planning to rent a car in New Zealand? Check out the local company Snap Rentals
I selected it myself and paid my rental in full.
- They were very nice and responsive, they pick you up and drop you off at the airport
- The car I rented was in perfect condition
- In addition, they have all-inclusive insurance packages with AAA roadside assistance, which means I didn't have to worry (I think it's worth the price)
Where to stay?
- If you are staying a night in the Catlins, Curio bay is often the destination to try and see the penguins at night
- I stayed at the Lazy dolphin lodge in Curio bay just by the beach - Check out photos and availabilities
Road to Cathedral Caves
There is one main road to go through the Catlins region: the Chaslands Highway. It is a good road with one lane in each direction. It takes you to many of the Catlins waterfalls.
As you approach, the turning point for the Cathedral Caves is clearly indicated.
Note that as soon as you turn you are on unpaved road and the first 200m are quite bumpy. It is better after.
At the entrance, they indicate the opening times: 1h30 to 2h each side of the tide. Check hours for your day of visit
I strongly recommend arriving 45min to 1h before low tide, so that you can do the 30min walk and enjoy the caves at the lowest tide.
Then you have to drive 2km on a gravel road through the forest. Just slow down to avoid little rocks breaking your windows.
And you reach a large carpark with attendants to whom you pay the entrance fees.
Cathedral Caves Walk (Chaslands) through coastal forest
Now you can leave the car behind and start the Cathedral Cave Walk:
- 20min walk down through the coastal forest - 1.5km walk going down 100m in elevation
- 5 to 10min walk on the flat sandy beach to the caves
I really enjoyed the caves, but I must admit that I was as impressed with the coastal forest walk. This was one of my favorite short walks through NZ forest. It is very lush, creating a unique atmosphere.
Most people were almost running to get to the beach or back to their car. I don't get it! This walk through the forest is magical!
This is a temperate rainforest with Podocarp trees. There are also a lot of tree ferns, ground ferns and mosses which I love. The area has quite a lot of rainfall, which creates this abundant nature.
Take your time and stay silent, you might hear some fo the birds living in the forest: bellbirds, fantails, grey warblers...
As you exit the forest, you discover the Waipati beach.
It is so famous for the caves that people rarely mention the name of this pristine beach!
It is a large flat cove with nice sand. It is where the Waipati river ends (also known as Chaslands River).
You have to walk to your left, to reach the cliffs and the caves.
For the forest walk you need walking shoes, but here most people went barefoot.
This is a really wet area, so there are quite a lot of sandflies. I recommend wearing long pants and long sleeves even on beautiful days so as not to be eaten alive!
And below is the view looking back on Waipati beach.
You can see the amazing forest right by the beach. I love the contrast! I am glad they have protected this land: the Waipati beach scenic reserve.
You may see sea lions sleeping on the beach. Do not approach! Keep 10m away and let them be.
Cathedral Caves Cavern entrances
So after your 30min of walking, you finally see the 2 giant entrances to the Cathedral caves.
They are 40m apart.
The first one often has a pool at its entrance, but the second one is easier to enter.
Be careful though. Regularly, there are tidal surges and even at the low tide point, some water can reach the entrance of the cave.
But you can also have fun with it looking at people not paying attention and running when its happening. Funny!
This is the entrance to the second one. This is the most impressive cave.
However below is the entrance to the first cave, and I think this is the most beautiful one.
But that does not matter as it is easy to see both! And you can even walk from one to the other at the back, since they connect!
Inside the Cathedral Caves at low tide
At low tide, it is easy to walk inside the caves.When some water is left inside you can get some cool reflections.
200m in length (combined) and 30m in height, this is really impressive!
Walk back up
And then you have to walk back up: the flat beach, and then the forest uphill.
Take your time, enjoy the Nature!
Thing to do around Cathedral Caves - McLean Falls
There are may other places to discover in the Catlins Region.
There is one just one the other side of the Chaslands Highway: the McLean Falls.
This is a beautiful waterfall - Plan 1h (round walk + time at waterfall).
The last 3km to the carpark are unpaved but easy.
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Impressive, isn't it?
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