There’s something magical about waterfalls. Whenever I visit a place and discover it has one, I make it a mission to see it. With 250-plus of them countrywide, from dainty trickles to impressive cascading tiers, chasing waterfalls can keep you pretty busy.
It’s a fun pastime, and an innovative way to spend the holidays, especially in the summer when you want to keep cool. It’s not easy to put together a list of the best, because everyone’s opinion and experience are different. Over time, my list will no doubt change and grow to include even bigger, better ones. But for now, here are just some of my favourites, in no particular order, from north to south.
Whāngārei Falls, Northland
This impressive 26m waterfall is located in Whāngārei Scenic Reserve. Part of the Hatea River, it is one of the most popular swimming spots in the area, surrounded by park, native bush and walkways. It’s a must-see, and a lovely place to stop on the way to Northland. Take a walk around the scenic reserve, or park up and enjoy a picnic.
Wentworth Falls, Coromandel Peninsula
It’s well worth the two-hour return walk to see these magnificent falls. Wentworth Valley, just out of Whangamatā is the perfect place to get away from it all. Park at the spacious DOC campground and put on your walking shoes. You’ll be rewarded with a spectacular 50m double waterfall. If you’re game, climb down to the bottom of the falls to appreciate them in their entirety.
Owharoa Falls, Waikato
This stunning staircase waterfall is nestled in the heart of the Karangahake Gorge, and is a series of three waterfalls. Look for the turn-off to Waitawheta Road when travelling through Waikino. While you’re at it, why not go for a walk in one of the many scenic tracks through the gorge and cool off in the swimming hole at Dickey Flat? You can even camp overnight at the DOC campground.
Marakopa Falls, King Country
One of the most impressive waterfalls I’ve seen, Marokopa Falls is hidden in the Tawarau Forest, just a few kilometres from the Waitomo Caves. An easy 10-minute walk through nīkau forest will lead you to this 35m beauty in picturesque surroundings.
Te Wairoa (Wairere) Falls, Bay of Plenty
I’ve always been fascinated with the historic Buried Village, near Rotorua. Back in 1886, the entire village of Te Wairoa was obliterated when Mount Tarawera erupted, wiping out the Pink and White Terraces with it.
As well as visiting the museum and archaeological site, you can also descend the steps down to the 35m waterfall. I’ll not sugar-coat it, the steps are pretty challenging, but it’s fantastic to stand in the spray as the water plunges over the Waitoharuru Cliffs.
Dawson Falls, Taranaki
Dawson Falls, an 18m waterfall, is one of the most popular at Mount Egmont National Park. Easily accessible, this is more one of my husband Gareth’s favourites than mine because dogs aren’t allowed in the area. Minnie and I had to wait in the van while he ran up and down the 20-minute return track. However, this horsetail-shaped waterfall is undoubtedly beautiful.
Maruia Falls, West Coast
So much water. Maruia Falls is one of the most powerful waterfalls we’ve seen. Easily found from SH65, the falls are located on the Maruia River, just a five-minute walk from the parking area on the Shenandoah Highway. A must-see, the falls are a relaxing stop between Greymouth and Hanmer Springs.
Roaring Meg, Otago
The Roaring Meg drops into the Kawarau River, between Cromwell and Queenstown. The water colour is stunning and the view of the river unbelievable. Just off the Kawarau Gorge Road, you can’t miss it, and it is mesmerising. Also walk the ‘Pack Track’, which follows the river and starts at the picnic area across the road.
Waipori Falls, Otago
This multi-step waterfall, also known as Crystal Falls, is well worth a little extra effort to see it properly. The view from the official lookout platform is woeful, and you can’t see anything. But climb your way down to ground level, and you will be amazed at the glorious piece of paradise that awaits. Truly special.
Bowen Falls, Fiordland
Many of the highest waterfalls are in Fiordland and, thanks to its high rainfall, nowhere has more than Milford Sound. At an enormous 161m, Bowen Falls is the highest and most powerful and is one of only two permanent waterfalls in the Sound. While you can see it from the small beach area and walking track at Milford Sound, the best way is to take a boat cruise, where you will be taken almost close enough to touch it.
McLean Falls, Southland
The Catlins is home to many amazing waterfalls, and they are all so different. Perhaps the most splendid is McLean Falls on the scenic Chaslands Highway. To get there, follow an enjoyable and well-maintained bush track for about 20 minutes, where you will be rewarded with a double waterfall, which cascades over dark, mossy rocks and plummets 22m into a deep gorge. Also a popular swimming spot, this waterfall is highly recommended.
Purakaunui Falls, Southland
I couldn’t overlook Purakaunui Falls, also in the Catlins. This pretty spectacle is the most photographed New Zealand waterfall, with its three tiers and beautiful surroundings. Admire from the lookout or climb down and get up close. Only 10 minutes’ walk from the car park, this may be my favourite of all.
Did you know?
According to Land Information New Zealand, this country has 249 named waterfalls and 31 named rapids. Seven of these are called Bridal Veil and no less than 17 include ‘rere’, which means ‘to leap or descend’. In the North Island, only 18 of 130 have non-Māori names; in the South Island, only 15 of 150 waterfalls have retained their Māori names.
Don’t forget the rapids
When visiting the infamous Huka Falls, be sure to check out the nearby Aratiatia Rapids. The rapids are formed when the dam is opened to release the full flow of the Waikato River. In summer, this is at 10am, 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm.
And then there’s Niagara Falls
Yes, New Zealand has its very own Niagara Falls. They can be found in the Catlins. Don’t get too excited though, the name is tongue-in-cheek and it’s probably the smallest waterfall in the world. Even so, it is still worth a stop to say you’ve been and the NZMCA ground there is a popular place to stay.
A torrent of information
For everything you need to know about New Zealand waterfalls, visit waterfalls.co.nz
So many waterfalls, so many treasured memories of beautiful places and adventures — and there’s still so many more to see. What’s your favourite? Email us at [email protected] or comment at facebook.com/mcdmagazine