New Zealand's Best Waterfalls
Aotearoa/New Zealand is blessed with natural beauty of all kinds. As a relatively young landscape, you can witness it still being carved by the immense forces in front of our very eyes. Glaciers carve out mountain valleys as they grind their way towards the lakes and rivers below, and the Southern Ocean constantly redesigns the West Coast of the South Island. The result is a beautiful maze of roads and trails which wind their way through some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the world, allowing us to marvel at the many incredible features formed by the power of nature. While many of these features, such as towering mountain peaks and emerald lakes stand out from miles around, New Zealand’s waterfalls are often found where you least expect them, revealing themselves only to those who know where to look. As locals and experts in all things New Zealand we’ve discovered many on our hiking adventures around our beautiful home. Here is a list of some of New Zealand's best waterfalls, some famous spots visited by millions each year and others still local secrets hidden away from all but a lucky few.
Lady Bowen Falls
Cascading into the world-famous Milford Sound below, Lady Bowen Falls is without doubt one of the largest and most impressive waterfalls in New Zealand. At a towering 162m (500ft) high, it transports millions of gallons of water high from the glacial valleys above down into Milford Sound. Often heard before it is seen, the waterfall is visited on a cruise on Milford Sound, appearing not long after departure from the Milford Sound ferry terminal. Known as the valley of a thousand waterfalls when it is raining, Milford Sound only has two permanently flowing waterfalls (Stirling Falls being the other), and the township of Milford relies on Lady Bowen Falls for all its drinking water and even electricity from a small hydro power station. In fact, so much water falls into the fjord that there is actually a layer of fresh water on top of the sea water below, offering a unique marine environment. With its close proximity to the head of the sound, Lady Bowen Falls can be seen in the distance by land but the best view is by joining one of the scenic cruises on the sound, which offers spectacular close-up views of the falls both at the start and end of the cruise as well as of the other incredible waterfalls that spring from the mountains above.
We visit this iconic location on all our South Island New Zealand hiking tours. It’s frequently one of our guests' most memorable experiences, leaving a lasting impression of the awesome power and beauty of Mother Nature. For those wanting an extra special experience, the falls can also be viewed via helicopter, allowing a view of the glacial river in the hills above which feed the mighty waterfall.
How to get there?
Milford Sound is reached via State Highway 94, an amazing scenic road through the mountains which takes 2 hours from the closest town of Te Anau or 4 hours from Queenstown.
Giants Gate Falls
Not far from Milford Sound, on the world-famous Milford Track is a waterfall which only a fraction of the visitors to the region are lucky enough to visit. Located 2 hours hike from the end of the usually four-day Milford Track, Giants Gate waterfall is cunningly disguised by the surrounding cliffs, only revealing itself from directly ahead as the track crosses a bridge over the river below. Standing at 30m (100ft) high, the falls appear out of thin air from the thick native bush above before falling to a crystal-clear pool below. It’s a great swimming spot for those prepared to brave the water that most likely started the day as snow and a perfect picnic spot for lunch. The contrast of the emerald water against the lush green forest makes for spectacular photos. The falls are also a haven for some of our rare native bird species, such as the cheeky Weka and the Whio/Blue Duck which are only found in the clean mountain water in these remote locations.
While the waterfall is a real highlight for those who hike the entire 35-mile (53km) Milford Track, there is the option to visit the falls as part of a day hike from the end of the trail, where a few lucky visitors each day are allowed to head in early before the multi-day hikers. With our exclusive permits and relationship with local authorities, our groups are some of the lucky few who get to enjoy this exclusive experience. With a glorious morning to explore the Milford Track, a lunch stop at the falls makes a perfect halfway point before returning to the trailhead to continue our New Zealand adventure. This is an excellent option for those wanting to get a taste of the Milford Track without doing the full four-day walk, with this section offering a great sample of the stunning scenery and of course, topped off by a visit to Giants Gate.
Hidden in native bush and only discovered a little over 100 years ago, Mclean Falls is one of the hidden gems of the lower South Island, residing in the rarely visited Caitlins area on the southeast coast. Halfway between the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill on the Coastal Highway, it is a roughly 3-hour drive from Queenstown or 2 hours from Dunedin and as a result is off the main tourist itinerary for most. A tiny sign leads to a gravel road and with only a small car park at the end, starting on the track most visitors will have no idea what lies hidden ahead
Covered in ancient native forest, the track stays under the canopy as it follows a small stream before reaching a beautiful 20ft (6m) high waterfall many mistake for Mclean Falls. But this is just the entrée as after a further 5 minutes the majestic falls finally reveal themselves. Mclean’s Falls is in two very different sections, the first, a shear 20m (70ft) drop from the valley above into a pool before entering a second cascading section of steps which cause many to ask if it is in fact manmade. Framed by impossibly dense bush it's easy to see how this unique waterfall went undiscovered for so long, and often having it to yourself makes it a truly serene experience for anyone lucky enough to visit. While a long way out of the way of other more popular sights, anyone who makes the journey to Mclean Falls will also be rewarded with the many other sights that make the Caitlins region a favourite of many locals. Known for its incredible wildlife such as seals, sea lions and penguins, as well as its cliffs, beaches and forests, it’s only a matter of time before Mclean Falls and the Caitlins become the next hotspot for visitors to New Zealand.
Thunder Creek Falls
Joining the South Island’s West Coast to the Central Lakes District of Wanaka and Queenstown, the Haast Pass Highway is an incredible scenic road which allows visitors to witness the amazing change of scenery found on either side of the Southern Alps Mountain range. Situated almost exactly halfway along the road (1-hour drive from Wanaka and Haast), Thunder Creek Falls is one of the rare waterfalls in New Zealand that doesn’t require a detour or long hike to visit, making it a favourite spot for almost everyone making the journey along the Haast Pass.
The water from Thunder Creek Falls begins its journey 1000m (3300ft) above in the mountains before finally exploding from the forest and into view. The main falls is 28m (100ft) high and is amazingly symmetrical as it flows into a pool and then into the raging Haast River below. Visitors can walk down to the edge of the river to get amazing views looking up at the falls, with the glistening rocky face either side having been polished by thousands of years of water and framing the falls perfectly. After heavy rainfall the falls and river create a deafening roar and offer visitors a glimpse into how nature has formed this unique landscape. Visiting the West Coast is often an unexpected delight for many visitors as one of New Zealand most unpopulated regions, leaving thousands of acres of pristine wilderness to be explored. It’s a region we visit on all of our two-week New Zealand hiking tours, always including a stop at Thunder Creek on our way.
Located in the Central North Island, the Tongariro National Park is a dual UNESCO World Heritage site and home to active volcanoes as well as the famous Tongariro Crossing. Two hours' drive south of Taupo, it is a must visit for any visitors to the North Island and a very popular spot, particularly in the summer season. The small village of Whakapapa is the gateway to the most popular sights of the National Park but a few miles down the road lie the spectacular Tawhai Falls which somehow manage to sneak under the radar for most visitors who unwittingly drive straight past on their way to Whakapapa.
Only a short 10-minute walk from the main road, Tawhai Falls are a 13m (40ft) waterfall which flows through a lava valley created by eruptions of the nearby volcanoes, some as recently as 10 years ago. The unique red rock the region is famous for makes the emerald water even more impressive as it fills the stunning pool below. Location scouts for Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings movies found this spot and it now appears as “Gollum’s Pool” in the third installment of the movies. While the whole area is still volcanically active, the 30 years since the last major eruption has allowed native bush to reclaim the area and make for a stunning walk through the forest before Tawhai Falls appears, with the snowcapped volcanoes in the background adding to the unique grandeur of the landscape. The track allows for multiple perspectives of the falls and the surefooted can even head down to the pool's edge, although the best views are offered slightly down river where the falls continue their journey.
These waterfalls amongst others are real highlights of any trip to New Zealand, often conveniently located perfectly to break up a long drive or offering a fair reward for taking the scenic route as you explore this magical land. New Zealand’s waterfalls have a habit of popping up where you least expect them and offer great insight into the forces and processes which have and still are shaping the landscape that makes our country a nature lovers paradise.
If you’re interested in exploring our beautiful landscape for yourself, with local experts to show you otherwise overlooked highlights like many of these incredible waterfalls, then our New Zealand hiking tours might be for you. If you’d like to find out more grab a copy of our FREE BROCHURE or get in touch with the team here in Arrowtown. We’d love to help you plan the adventure of a lifetime.