Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill is one of the best road trips on the South Island. Dunedin is the second-largest city on the South Island, and Invercargill is the fourth largest – which is why this road trip is so popular!
What makes this road trip one of my favorites though, is the scenic route that includes stops in the stunning and wild Catlins region. Of course, you could go the quicker route along the highway, but with so many amazing attractions to see in the Catlins, why would you?
There are loads of great towns, viewpoints, and beautiful waterfalls to stop off at along the way. From the very photogenic Nugget Point Lighthouse to McLean Falls and the chance to see one of the rarest species of penguin in the world at Curio Bay! I just love the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill – it’s filled with some of the best things to do in New Zealand!
In this blog, I list 16 of the best stops on the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill as well as other important information so you can easily plan your trip!
About the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill (via the Catlins)
Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins is a 243 km (151 miles) journey that takes approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes to complete without stopping. With that said, I recommend allowing two full days to fully immerse yourself in this beautiful part of the South Island. Spend a night at either Kaka Point (near Nugget Point Lighthouse) and/or Curio Bay. Both are around halfway and are stunning places to spend the night.
Of course, if you don’t have the time you can drive this route in one day stopping at many of the attractions. Just be sure to allow at least 8 to 10 hours and be sure to skip some of the stops.
This road trip follows along State Highway 1 (SH1) in the beginning and then onto Southern Scenic Route, which is the road through the Catlins region. This stunning road passes along the coast as well as some inland regions in the Catlins Forest Park.
It rains a lot in this area of New Zealand, particularly in the winter season. During rain, the roads may be slippery, especially on the Southern Scenic Route. Be sure to drive to the speed limit and be careful on the sharp corners.
Of course, you can take a faster route from Dunedin to Invercargill, which is 204 km and takes 2 and a half hours. However, this route avoids the Catlins region and many of the best stops, so I really don’t advise doing it unless you are in a hurry!
Related read: Another great road trip is the one from Queenstown to Dunedin.
Best Stops between Dunedin and Invercargill
Dunedin isn’t your first stop but rather your starting point on this epic road trip. Although a large city, many people consider Dunedin to be one of their favorite cities in New Zealand, and for me, it’s easy to see why. The city is very historical and is filled with Victorian-style buildings. In fact, the city of Dunedin has a distinct Scottish heritage (a lot of locals are of Scottish descent). The best example of this influence is at Larnach Castle, which is well worth a visit.
Dunedin also has a large student population, and as a result, there are a lot of quirky restaurants and Cafes in the CBD. Check out The Good Earth Cafe and Morning Magpie for great food and coffee! If you’re a beer fan, then head to Emersons Brewery in the CBD.
On top of that, Dunedin is surrounded by gorgeous landscapes and plenty of fun things to see and do. Take a trip to Tunnel Beach to see the gorgeous coastline and take a short hike. Or, take a drive/walk up Signal Hill for an epic view of the city. Another area worth visiting in Dunedin is St Clair Beach for some lunch or dinner at one of its seafront eateries and the chance to see sea lions on the beach itself. It’s also one of the most popular surf beaches in the area and popular with both beginner and intermediate surfers.
Did you know – The steepest street in the world is right here in New Zealand. Baldwin Street, just outside Dunedin CBD, is a fun place to visit and take fun photos.
Where to stay in Dunedin
There are lots of awesome hotels in Dunedin to choose from, including:
538 Great King Motel – this 4-star motel is within easy walking distance to the city. The rooms are clean and comfortable and there’s a guest laundry on-site.
Distinction Dunedin Hotel – once a post office, this hotel is historic and charming but has recently been upgraded. It has a restaurant and bar on-site and the rooms are luxurious. Also, a cool feature is that you can choose to dine privately in one of the original vaults of Dunedin’s former Post Office.
On Top Backpackers – just a few minutes walk from many of Dunedin’s attractions. With its very own Cafe & Bar with 19 pool tables, it is a fun, comfortable, unique, bright, and sunny Hostel with a relaxed vibe. You can choose from shared dorms, single and double rooms with shared facilities, or our deluxe double private rooms with en suite.
Related Read: Coming from Christchurch? Read my blog about the best stops on the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin!
2. Lake Waihola
Lake Waihola is a short drive from Dunedin CBD is New Zealand’s most inland tidal lake. It’s popular with locals and water sports fans with fishing, kayaking, and water skiing being some of the most popular things to do here. You can catch big perch and brown trout in the lake and it’s quite a large lake at 9 square kilometers.
Stop here on your way out for a quick break and make use of the picnic tables and view. There is even a small playground for the kids. Since this is the beginning of your trip, grab a coffee at Lake Waihola Cafe & Bar to enjoy too.
3. Whale Fossil Lookout
Only 15 minutes down the road from Lake Waihola is Whale Fossil Lookout. Here, you’ll find lovely views of Lake Waihola and the surrounding farmland.
The little steel building here displays some whale and dolphin fossils that are said to be between 24–34 million years old. These fossils were, in fact, found in the limestone quarry nearby. You can also read lots of information about the area and fossils so it’s a great learning experience and one the kids will enjoy.
This is only a quick stop and I usually allow only 10 minutes here.
4. Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point Lighthouse is one of my favorite stops on the road trip from Dunedin to Invercargill. This gorgeous lighthouse is so photogenic, especially at sunrise or sunset. In fact, it’s one of the most recognizable lighthouses in New Zealand.
From the parking lot, it is only a short walk to the lighthouse that’s well maintained. Along the way snap some photos and enjoy the epic views of the steep cliffs and small islands. But beware, it can be very windy here.
Nugget Point is a short drive from the nearest town of Kaka Point which is a popular town to stay in when exploring the region. There’s a famous surfing beach here as well as a few restaurants and Cafes.
Just 800 meters before the Nugget Point Lighthouse parking lot, be sure to visit Roaring Bay Penguins & Seals Observatory for the chance to see some rare yellow-eyed penguins (also known as Hoiho). It’s a 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the small observatory but be aware seeing the penguins is rare.
For the best chance, you need to arrive either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the penguins are going out/coming back from hunting. I myself spent 2 hours here one night from 6 pm to 8 pm and saw nothing. However, you are very likely to see New Zealand Fur Seals here.
Nugget Point is probably the most popular attraction in the Catlins area, and to many, it is considered one of the best short hikes on the South Island.
Important: Do not walk down from the observatory to the beach. this is a very important area for this rare penguin.
5. Jack’s Blowhole
A 3 km walking track will take you to a viewpoint where you can watch the waves crashing into the caves and bursting out through Jack’s Blowhole. The blowhole sits 200 meters inland from the ocean and is 55 meters deep, 144 meters long, and 68 meters wide.
The area looks out to Penguin Bay and although Jack’s Blowhole is the name of the attraction, I find the views of the ocean more impressive than the blowhole itself.
Be sure to keep your young ones close as there are some parts of the trail that get very close to the edge. Even with the fence, I would be cautious.
6. Purakaunui Falls
Purakaunui Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Catlins – that’s because it is a spectacular three-tiered cascading waterfall. And believe me, it looks pretty impressive, especially after heavy rainfall!
The waterfall is located around 25 minutes from Jack’s Blowhole or around 11 kilometers south of Owaka. From the parking lot, it’s a short and easy 20-minute walk via the Purakaunui Falls Walk to the viewing platform. The track is suitable for the whole family and is even wheelchair-friendly to the top platform.
7. Matai Falls/ Horseshoe Falls
Matai Falls, at first glance, may not be as impressive as nearby Purakanui Falls. Still, this 10-meter fall is surrounded by deep green moss and native trees, making it incredibly photogenic. Matai Falls is one of my favorite waterfalls in the Catlins region. Nearby, you can also visit Horseshoe Falls so you really get to see two waterfalls along one short trail.
The walking track into the falls leads to an old railway track that actually connects Owaka to Tahakopa Township. However, stay on the main trail and walk to the waterfalls. It’s all signposted and only takes around 15 minutes each way.
8. Florence Hill Lookout
Florence Hill Lookout is another quick stop on the trip from Dunedin to Invercargill only 11 kilometers from Matia Falls. From this viewpoint, you can enjoy epic views over Tautuku Beach and there are also a few information boards with interesting facts and maps of the Catlins. They explain just how important the Catlins natural area is and you’ll learn a lot about the region.
Be sure to get out of your car and stretch your legs a little at Florence Hill Lookout. If you walk to the left, there is a small island in the ocean that gets hammered by waves. It makes for a great photo. Just up the road, you can also park up at Tautuku Beach car park and take a stroll. The beach isn’t great for swimming because of the large waves and dangerous currents but perfect for a peaceful walk.
If you’re staying nearby, Florence Hill Lookout is also a popular place to see the Southern Lights. Of course, you do have to get lucky to see them!
9. Cathedral Caves
One of the most unique stops on the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill is Cathedral Caves. These Caves are only accessible (and the gate only open) at low tide, so be sure to check tide times beforehand. The walk to the Caves from the parking lot takes you through native forest, and the view at the end of the track will take your breath away.
After you get to the beach, you can explore the caves and get some really cool photos. I found it to be so peaceful here, and Cathedral Caves are a sacred place to Maori people.
There’s a $10 NZD entrance fee payable at the gate per vehicle and the caves close in May and open again in October. This attraction is managed because of its significance to the Maori people, so please be respectful.
10. McLean Falls
This towering 22-meter waterfall is complemented by the bright green moss-covered rocks that surround it. The falls are huge and actually made up of two or three waterfalls. Combined, they make for some pretty spectacular photos and those who want to can venture a little further up the falls for a closer look. Just be cautious, the rocks are slippery!
It’s a short and easy 20-minute walk from the parking lot to reach the falls and the track is flat and is suitable for the whole family.
11. Koropuku Falls
Koropuku Falls is almost a hidden gem in the Catlins. The track into the falls was actually developed by locals (not the Department of Conversation like other tracks in the area). So as you can imagine, this is a very special place to locals.
The falls are 10 meters high and remind me of some of the waterfalls I visited in Bali (very lush and quiet). It’s a 20-minute return walk into the falls and finding the parking lot can be difficult. Be sure to add its location to Google Maps and lookout for a small parking lot on the side of the road. Blink, and you’ll miss it!
12. Curio Bay
An absolute must-stop on your drive through the Catlins is Curio Bay. This small coastal town also makes for a great place to stay if you plan on breaking up your road trip.
My favorite things to do in Curio Bay is to see the 180 million-year-old petrified forest and complete the Curio Bay Penguin Walk. On the Penguin Walk, you may be lucky to spot yellow-eyed penguins and keep your eye on the water, as you may spot dolphins. Locals will tell you that the best time to spot the penguins is at dusk when they are coming back from a day of hunting. I myself never got to see them, but you might!
The petrified forest is located on a small reef that can only be accessed at low tide. You can literally see old stumps and trees that look like rock. There’s a lot of information boards about the forest and how they form – it’s so interesting!
During the day relax at Porpoise Bay or take a walk up to the Curio Bay Cliffs.
There’s also a Café in the Visitor Center called the Tumu Toka CurioScape, as well as an excellent holiday park. The Curio Bay campsite has powered sites as well as communal indoor facilities featuring a nice kitchen, lounge room, and hot showers. It is a great place to spend a night if you’re traveling in a campervan or with a tent. You can even bump into Blue Penguins walking around the campsites at night!
13. Slope Point
One of the best things to do on the South Island is to visit Slope Point – the most Southerly point in New Zealand’s South Island. From the parking lot, you’ll walk through a farmer’s field to the coast before turning left and walking along some cliffs to Slope Point.
There is a sign showing you the southernmost area and you can get a cool photo as well as see the towering cliffs and rough seas. There is no railing here so be careful and keep kids away from the edge. Also, it gets very windy here so be prepared!
14. Waipohatu Waterfalls Track
Waipohatu Waterfalls Track is a lovely 6 km (loop) walking track that takes hikers through stunning native rainforests. It’s a moderate trail, so some level of fitness is required and it can get very muddy after rainfall (bring hiking boots!)
You will come across two waterfalls on this track – the Upper and Lower Waipohatu Falls. The upper falls are my personal favorite but overall I really enjoyed the trail and “jungle-like” scenery. This is an excellent track for bird-watching. You may even spot the rare Kiwi here as it’s a registered Kiwi track!
This is certainly a stop for those who have more time because you need 2 to 3 hours to hike the trail.
Fortrose is a small town built on the Mataura River that has a surprising amount of fun things to do. The most southern golf course on the South Island is located here – the 9-hole Tokanui Golf Club is well-worth playing if you’re a golf fan. Also, the shipwrecked Ino Steamship can be seen at Fortrose Harbour at low tide – which is a pretty cool sight and popular with photographers.
The Fortrose Cliffs are an epic photo opportunity but don’t get too close to the edge as they’re super-steep! The rugged cliffs and the crashing waves below are a sight to behold, especially on a windy day.
If you want to spend the night here, there’s a great freedom camping spot at Murray Terrace Reserve outside of town. It is one of my favorite freedom camping spots in New Zealand that’s right on the beach.
In the town of Fortrose itself, there’s the Fortrose Cafe and Tokanui Tavern for food.
All things must come to an end and this road trip from Dunedin finishes in New Zealand’s most southern city – Invercargill. As NZ’s fourth-largest city on the South Island, there is loads to do here!
One of the top attractions is the free-to-visit Queens Park, a great family-friendly park in the CBD and home to an animal park, kids playground, aviary, and very photogenic gardens.
Vintage car fans (and car fans in general) will love their time in Invercargill. While in town, you must pay a visit to Bill Richardson’s Transport World, a huge automotive museum on Tay Street. Also, Classic Motorcycle Mecca, which houses the largest collection of motorcycles in New Zealand, is very popular with tourists, so be sure to book early.
Something unique you can try your hand at is to operate heavy machinery such as bulldozers, excavators at mini excavators at Dig This on Otepuni Avenue. I myself have not given it a go, but then again, I used to work in construction!
A 10-minute drive away is the stunning Oreti Beach. This famous beach was the filming location for the movie ‘The World’s Fastest Indian,’ about local hero Burt Munro’s life. This beach is also a road, in that it’s one of the only beaches in New Zealand that you can drive on.
For food in Invercargill, you can’t go wrong with The Auction House, Elegance at 148 on Elles or Louies Cafe and Tapas Bar.
If you have even more time, Invercargill is where the ferry to Stewart Island leaves from. This small predictor-free island is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a wild kiwi. Their population numbers on the island outnumber humans, so it’s your best chance of seeing one that isn’t behind a glass panel.
Another thing to do on Stewart Island that attracts a lot of visitors is the Rakiura Track. This 32-kilometer trail is usually completed over 2 to 3 days and many people refer to it as one of the best hikes in New Zealand. As a Great Walk, you do need to book huts and campsite in advance so be sure to do so!
Where to Stay in Invercargill
Invercargill is not a big city by any means. In fact, choosing an area to stay, is relatively easy with the majority of the hotels on Tay Street. For me personally, I love to stay anywhere around Queens Drive and the Invercargill Station. From here, you are close to Queens Park, have access to Bill Richards transport World and the best of downtown Invercargill.
Another great thing about Invercargill is the hotels in the city are very reasonably priced. For that reason, there are only two budget categories.
For budget/mid-range travelers, the Bella Vista Motel Invercargill Is a great hotel in this area. Not only is it cheap, but it comes with great reviews and I have personally stayed at this hotel before. It’s clean, comfortable and they offer a nice breakfast for around $10 extra.
If you want something a little more upscale, then the Victoria Railway Hotel is the top choice. This beautiful hotel is set in a historic building offering a 4-star stay for a price that I find very reasonable. They also have an on-site restaurant that serves delicious food!
Within the price range of these two hotels, you’ll find plenty of options in Invercargill.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (QUEEN5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
I hope this blog helps you make the most of your Dunedin to Invercargill road trip. I’m sure you’ll agree taking the longer, scenic route through the Catlins is well worth it! Whether you stop at just one or all of the above stops, the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill is sure to be a road trip to remember.
If you did find this guide helpful, check out more of my road trip blogs in New Zealand. Or, browse around and check out some of the most popular regions such as Queenstown, Wanaka, and Glenorchy! I have so much for you to read, but most of all, help you plan your trip!