The Very Best DOC Campsites in the South Island
Living in New Zealand, we’re incredibly fortunate to have somewhere with such varied and spectacular landscapes to call home. However, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) takes things further by providing hundreds of very affordable campsites in perfect locations throughout the country. Here is a list of our favourites in the South Island.
Mavora lakes - Fiordland
Without a doubt the biggest campsite we’ve ever been to, DOC states there are 60 tent sites but there is easily space for hundreds. Situated beside the Mavora lakes and Mararoa River, this campsite has plenty of private spots tucked among the trees.
There are also a bunch of worthwhile tracks through the beech forest to explore and if it’s warm enough, stunningly blue water to swim in. Finally, for Lord of the Rings fans, it also has several filming locations around the campsite to find and reenact.
Though there is a very long gravel road to reach the campsite, it is definitely worth it, especially if you have the time for a longer stay.
Directions: From SH94, an hour and half from Te Anau. Between Mossburn and Te Anau, turn off at Centre Hill or Burwood Station, then follow the gravel road for 39 km. More details here.
Homestead Campsite - St Bathans, Otago
We first discovered this one on a tour of the classic Otago and that’s exactly what we found. Being a bit out of the way and down a gravel road means you can count on it being pretty quiet. Set in a wide open valley with hills covered in tussock, the campsite itself is on an old homestead, the only remaining trace being a square formation of tall pines that provide a bit of shelter and some ideal sites to set up camp.
The highlight of the site is certainly the proximity to St Bathans, an old gold mining town complete with its original gold office. It would be difficult to excuse a stay at Homestead without a swim in the Blue Lake and a beer at the old Vulcan Hotel.
Directions: There are a couple of routes into St Bathans but the easiest is to take the sealed road off SH86 from Becks. Continue a couple of kilometres past St Bathans on the gravel road and there will be a turn on your left with a sign for Homestead Campsite. More details here.
Moetapu Bay Campsite - Marlborough Sounds
In stark contrast to Movara lakes, Moetapu Bay is a beach campsite with an almost tropical feel. Set relatively early on in Marlborough Sounds, it makes a good starting point for any trips going deeper in.
The road doesn’t lead directly to the campsite and requires a very short walk to haul your gear (which helps deter any campervans and less determined campers). The tiny size of the campsite (about 3 tent sites) also means you will be able to enjoy plenty of private beach space. If you’re game enough for a night time swim, you will sometimes be lucky enough to enjoy an incredible light show of phosphorescence in the water.
Directions: Turn into Kenepuru Road off Queen Charlotte drive and then into Moetapu Drive, One you reach the campsite sign, follow the track down 200m to the beach and campsite. More details here.
Hawdon Shelter - Arthurs Pass, Canterbury
Conveniently located just a couple of hours from Christchurch, yet far enough down a gravel road that it doesn’t get too crowded, Hawdon Shelter is a huge campsite with a bunch secluded corners where you can tuck into the mature beech trees to get out of the wind.
This is the sort of place to experience alpine New Zealand, surrounded by mountains and alpine forest. Ideal for those last minute weekend camps.
Directions: 24km south of Arthurs pass on SH73, Turn off onto the Mt White Road, you can then easily follow signs to the campsite. More Details here.
Slab hut Creek - Reefton, West Coast
There aren’t many DOC campsites with a pizza oven, but this is one of them. Tucked beside Slab Hut Creek at an old gold mining site, this is a quiet idyllic spot surrounded by West Coast bush. It certainly ticks all the boxes of a perfect camping spot.
For those wanting a chance at striking gold, there is still a fair bit of gold to be found in Slab Hut creek. And if you don’t happen to own your own gold pan, it’s worth going for a trip into Reefton for a beer at one of the West Coast's classic pubs and renting a gold pan and shovel from the Reefton Information Centre.
Directions: On SH7, 10km South of Reefton you can turn off onto Slab Hut Creek Road which is just a short drive to the campsite. More details here.
Lake Tennyson - Molesworth Station, Canterbury
Like most of the other campsites on this list, Lake Tennyson has a pretty long gravel access road, and like the others, it’s definitely worth it. Right in the middle of Molesworth Station beside Lake Tennyson, it offers some amazing views of the surrounding mountains. Just behind the campsite there is a small hill that takes you on a great short walk perfect for spectacular views of the lake and tussock covered hills at sunset.
Directions: From Hanmer, follow the Clarence Valley road, then turn onto Tophouse Road which turns into Waxrau-Hanmer Springs Hydro Road, Follow this until the signposted turn off for Lake Tennyson. It’s a long gravel road but still fine for a 2WD. More details here.
Deer Valley - Lewis Pass, Canterbury
Another idyllic spot right beside the Lewis River with a few good clearings where you can set up camp and sleep to the sound of the river. It is an easy spot to get to and fairly close to Christchurch so it can get busy with people stopping for the night.
This is definitely worth it for a weekend trip where you just want to sit by the river and enjoy the stars at night.
Directions: Turn off SH7 20km east of Springs Junction. The sign does appear quite suddenly and is easily missed. More details here.
Purakaunui Bay - Catlins, Otago
Photo Credit: DOC // Cheryl Pullar
Another spot that needs a few days camp to justify the distance but well worth it once you get there, this campsite is right on one of New Zealand most beautiful beaches with huge cliffs rising out of the water.
There are plenty of sites here that allow you enough peace and quiet to make the most of your camp. Once you’re set up, it’s worthwhile going exploring as it’s not uncommon to see a few seals out on the beach.
Directions: Turn off SH1 at Balcutha. Drive south to Ratanui turnoff. Turn into Purakaunui Falls Road and follow to Long Point Road, then go down Purakaunui Bay Road to the very end. More details here.
Kohaihai Campsite - Karamea, West Coast
Located at the Karamea end of the Heaphy Track, Kohaihai has plenty of highlights that make it a great spot; a long sandy beach with great lagoon, the Kohaihai River and a truly unique slice of New Zealand bush which is full of Nikau Palms.
This is a popular spot so it can get pretty busy, but the surroundings make it all worth it. The sandflies can also be a major challenge, but easily remedied by heading to the beach and spending the evening around a campfire.
Directions: North of Karamea at the very end of Council Road. The last few kilometres are gravel. More details here.
Totara Flat Campsite - Milford, Fiordland
Located in Fiordland National Park this campsite offers great views and easy access to the Eglington River. It's sheltered by thick beech forest that allows you to find your own private spot.
A real bonus at this site is that DOC has set up dedicated areas where you can have a campfire which isn’t all that common. Should you get a fire going, we recommend trying out our recipe for beer damper on a stick.
Directions: On Milford Road, 50km north of Te Anau. A very short road in on the river side of the highway. More details here.