Keen to explore the South Island this summer? Here are seven great secret spots that are all free to visit, including short nature walks to historic lighthouses, river crossings by punt, caves, coasts and cycle trails. Plus make sure you check out our extended lists of other free things to do in the South Island.
Cape Campbell Lighthouse, Marlborough
The classic black and white striped lighthouse at Cape Campbell sits atop distinctive white cliffs that rise from Clifford Bay. The lighthouse was made famous by its starring role in the 2016 film The Light Between Oceans. It’s a popular spot for picnics and camping, but the lighthouse can only be reached at low tide on a walk along Marfells Beach. The light here was first lit in August 1870, though the original wooden tower was replaced by a cast iron one in 1905. Fun fact: Camp Campbell is one of just three striped lighthouses in New Zealand – the others being Dog Island Lighthouse in Foveaux Strait and the red and white striped Cape Palliser Lighthouse in Wairarapa.
Riuwaka Resurgence, Nelson
The Riuwaka Resurgence – Te Puna o Riuwaka – is the spot in Nelson’s Kahurangi National Park where the Riuwaka River emerges from marbled depths of Tākaka Hill. With deep, clear pools set in incredible rock amongst moss and ferns, coming across the stunning spring is like discovering a fairyland. Easily accessible, the first five minutes of the walk to Crystal Pool are wheelchair-friendly. After that, the walkway continues to a viewing platform overlooking the spring where the river emerges at a brisk 9ºC year-round. The Riuwaka Resurgence is considered wāhi tapu by local Māori who believed the waters had powerful healing properties, so to respect that you should not eat or swim here. Find Riuwaka Resurgence Walkway at the end of Riwaka Valley Road, 16km north of Motueka.
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, Canterbury
Find Cave Stream Scenic Reserve on the banks of Broken River near Castle Hill in Canterbury’s Selwyn District. Choose from one of two short walks that lead to the remarkable limestone caves from the carpark. If you’re feeling adventurous, bring torches (two per person are recommended for safety reasons) and explore the pitch black 594m passage between the cave entrances, but be prepared to get wet! The water can get up to chest-height on an average sized adult – and significantly deeper after rain – so it’s not recommended for kids. If you’re not into spelunking, the intriguing karst landscapes alone are worth a visit, with sculptural limestone formations and photogenic ‘rillenkarren’ – water grooved rocks.
Tuapeka Mouth Ferry, Otago
Did you know that you can cross the Clutha Mata-au River by punt? At the small settlement of Tuapeka Mouth, a 25 minute drive from Lawrence, you’ll find this unique ferry service that has been operating since 1896. The Tuapeka Mouth Ferry is a floating platform big enough to fit a couple of cars that's attached to pontoons. Several times a day, depending on river levels, the punt shuttles from one side of the river to the other using an overhead cable system to resist the current. The best part? Catching a ride on the punt is free.
Mount Crichton Loop Track, Queenstown
Looking for a Queenstown day trip away from the crowds? The Mount Crichton Loop Track is a lovely walk that takes in gold-mining relics, native bush and a pretty waterfall on a well-formed 6.4km track. You’ll walk alongside Twelve Mile Creek through variations of red beech and mānuka forest, with views across to the pretty Lake Dispute. Take a short diversion to discover the historic Sam Summers Hut, built from local stone by gold prospector Sam Summers in the 1930s. Pick up the Mount Crichton loop trail from the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy, 12km from Queenstown.
Lake2Lake Cycle Trail, Fiordland
Explore the lakeside surrounds of Te Anau and Manapōuri on the scenic Lake2Lake Cycle Trail. This easy five hour ride traces the Lake Te Anau shoreline before following the eastern bank of the Waiau River to Lake Manapōuri. Soak up the lakeside serenity from the Grade 2 gravel trail. Highlights along the 28km route include views of the Kepler Mountains, lovely beech forest, the power of the Waiau River at the Te Anau control gates, and a peek into the edge of Fiordland National Park. You can cycle there and back in a day, book a return shuttle to your starting point at the Te Anau Department of Conservation Visitor Centre, or make a loop of it by returning via Golf Course Road.
Gemstone Beach, Southland
Gemstone Beach is a fossicker’s dream: a beach that looks like it’s made of coloured jelly beans. Ocean-smoothed stones in a huge range of hues are washed and glossy from the waves. There are pieces of red jasper, green epidote and pale quartz. Amongst the multi-coloured pebbles, semi-precious stones can often found here too, including garnet and even small nuggets of gold. Gemstone Beach is not suitable for swimming though, with wild waves and dangerous currents. Lucky there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the shoreline; the search for the perfect pebble is strangely addictive.