Hey look, I made a punny. No, but in all seriousness, I never expected that one of my favorite parts of New Zealand would be its rocks. The rock formations here could convert even city slickers into geologists. That’s probably why they filmed the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy here. From boulders to pillars, here’s a list of rocks you won’t want to miss on your New Zealand road trip.
1. Putangirua Pillars (North Island, Aorangi Forest Park)
The Putangirua Pillars are a perfect example of fluted erosion They were made famous from their debut in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. However, they’re actually one of the least visited LOTR filming locations in New Zealand. I suppose that’s because it’s in an isolated area and you have to hike out to it. Tyler and I didn’t find the hike itself difficult, but keeping to the trail was challenging at times. There weren’t clear trail markers the entire way, so we found ourselves just following the stream, trying not to lose our way.
The pillars shoot high up in the air, and the best way to appreciate them is from above. There are two trails you can take, one to the foot of the pillars and the other to a lookout. I’d recommend the longer lookout trail, unless you have a drone that you can use to see just how big these pillars are. The lookout hike should only take between 2-4 hours max, while the hike to the foot is even shorter, maybe one hour. When near the pillars, keep in mind that you’ll be walking on loose stones and probably sliding around a bit. Also, the pillars are very crumbly because they’re constantly eroding from the elements. Be careful when you walk near them, because pieces often break off and fall. You don’t want to be standing under it when it does.
2. Castle Hill (South Island, Arthur’s Pass)
We almost skipped seeing these limestone rocks because it was a little out of the way. I’m so glad we didn’t! As we pulled into the parking lot off the highway, I saw a group of boulders perched on a hill, looking out on the mountains behind them. From a distance, the boulders seemed modest and unassuming. However, as I walked down the path, I quickly realized my mistake. They are totally and completely majestic- making Castle Hill an apt name. They’re also massive and carry this palpable, stately energy.
As I walked near them, I realized they reminded me of the grandmother willow in Pocahontas. It seemed like they would come alive and share their ancient wisdom with me at any moment. And I’m not crazy. This really is a feeling that others perceive as well. The Dalai Lama described it as the “spiritual center of the universe” when he was taken here back in 2002.
Long ago, “the limestone geology was [considered] sacred due to the eons of creatures whose remains had built up the rock since the beginnings of time, and who were seen as ancestors. Prominent leaders were buried here, including Rakaihautu, the ancestor who first explored and occupied the South Island about 850AD.”1 The Ngāi Tahu or Maori people also viewed this as a sacred place and came here for food gatherings.
The hill that we had to climb to reach the rocks was pretty steep and a bit slippery because of loose rocks. Not to mention it felt slightly dangerous when the wind picked up. And I mean it picks UP here. I was almost blown off the hill! Bring your grippiest shoes and try to scale one of the boulders for the full hands-on experience.
3. Moeraki Boulders (South Island, Koekohe Beach)
If your brain functions like most humans, then you probably enjoy symmetry. Well, you’re in luck because Moeraki boulders will give you the satisfaction that can only come from seeing a very symmetrical sphere- naturally made of course. There are 50 moeraki boulders sitting on the shoreline of Koekohe Beach, with the largest spanning 3 meters and weighing 7 tons. These concretions began forming as early as 60 million years ago at the bottom of the ocean. As time passed, the coastline eroded and the boulders emerged. However, the Maori have a different legend for how the boulders came to be. They believe the Āraiteuru, the canoe that first brought their ancestors to New Zealand, crashed on shore. During the crash, calabashes (gourd), sweet potatoes and eel baskets were flung onto shore and turned to stone.
While I can’t deny that this is a tourist destination, you won’t regret coming here after you see all the incredible photos your iPhone captured. These rocks are so photogenic even a toddler could achieve Nat Geo status. You’re asked to pay money to enter the beach, but no one monitors that… so you can decide whether to pay or not based on your own moral compass.
Just down the road you’ll find another important destination, the Moeraki Lighthouse. This lighthouse is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Walk out to the lighthouse around 3-5pm and see them nesting on the side of the cliff or walking along the beach. There are also incredible sea and cliff views which make the sunset here that much more memorable.
4. Petrified Forest (South Island, Curio Bay)
What’s the oldest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on? Do you remember? If you visit Curio Bay’s Petrified Forest, you will always remember the answer to that question.
Once upon a time, New Zealand was just a small part of a big land blob called Gondwana. During that time, the area that is now Curio Bay was home to a number of active volcanos. The forest nearby was submerged in volcanic mud and debris, then silicified over millions of years until the conifers’ wood became a fossilized rock.
The ancient conifers date back to the Jurassic period, 180 million years ago. When the tide is low at Curio Bay, you can walk out onto the tidal pool area and see these long rock trees, logs, and stumps. There are a few stumps exposed so clearly that you can see their growth rings. Some of them look so much like wood still, that I even scraped their surface just to see if anything would come off. Of course, it felt like a rock because it’s a fossil and I’m an idiot.
5. Lion Rock (North Island, Piha Beach)
Lion Rock sits on Piha Beach, a beautiful and famous surfing area in the North Island just 40 minutes from Auckland. The Maori people gave it this name because of the way the waves part as they hit the rock.
You can climb to the top of the rock to see beautiful ocean views and the statue of Ngati Tangiaro Taua, a Maori ancestor who frequented this spot. If you decide to do the climb, be very careful of your footing because a number of people have been killed or seriously injured after falling off the edge.
If you stay on the beach on a clear night, you’ll be astounded at the incredible Milky Way and starry sky. Unfortunately, you’ll also be bothered by sandflies.
6. Cathedral Cave (South Island, Waipati Beach)
I love caves, so this was the sight I was most looking forward to seeing during our visit to the Catlins. To my dismay, Cathedral Cave is privately owned, and those terrible human beings (I’m just kiddingggg) only open the cave to the public during high season (October-May). I believe this may be because of the tide, so I can’t blame them.
It costs $5 for your visit, and you can only go during low tide. Since there’s usually no cell service in the Catlins, I would look up the tidal times (which you can find here) before your visit. The walk out to the cave takes 30 minutes, and the site says you might see wildlife like penguins or sea lions nearby. I hope you’ll be impressed by size of the cave, because it’s nearly 30 meters/100 feet tall! For more interesting info about it, read this.
7. Nugget Point (South Island, Balclutha)
Nugget Point is a lighthouse in the Catlins that dates back to 1870. It has characteristic rocks, or islets, dotted in front of it. It’s become quite a popular tourist destination in the Catlins because of the iconic sunrise and photogenic rock “nuggets”. If you’re lucky, you may spot wildlife like the rare, Yellow-Eyed Penguin, fur seal or humpback whale. If you’re even luckier, you’ll see marine fossils like worms and bivalve shellfish from the Jurassic Period.
An hour’s drive down the shore, there’s another lighthouse at Waipapa Point (a great place to spot sea lions!). There are numerous lighthouses in the Catlins area because 48 shipwrecks have occurred here since 1840, with one resulting in devastating losses. In 1881, the SS Tararua hit a reef near Waipapa Point. Sixty four women, children and men drowned in the freezing cold water.
Do you love the photography pictured here? It was all done by my incredible brother, Tyler.
Feel free to check out his work [click here] and support him by purchasing a print!