After my unexpectedly pleasant walk the previous day to Sandymount, this afternoon’s walk is a little underwhelming. It’s not that the scenery is boring, more that it’s a very busy walk (over 100,000 people visit Tunnel Beach each year). There are people everyone and the dreaded selfie sticks are out in force… it’s one of the most popular hikes in the Dunedin area. Fortunately there is plenty of parking at the end of Tunnel Beach Road, where a very good track leads down towards the coast through private farmland.
It doesn’t take long before the sea arch comes into view; a few sea stacks are visible behind it along the dramatic coastline.
There are better views of the sea arch as you get closer – a couple of people standing on top give you an idea of the scale.
From the top of the arch there’s a great view of the rugged coastline. (It’s very windy on top, and care is needed to avoid getting blown off the rock! There have been some serious injuries from visitors falling off the rocks).
You can now see Tunnel Beach, directly below and surrounded by high cliffs. Named New Zealand’s best hidden beach by Stuff travel writer Brook Sabin in 2019, it can’t really be seen until you’re right above the cliffs.
The beach is accessed via a tunnel that was hewn by hand through the rock in the 1870s, at the instruction of politician John Cargill, son of William Cargill (founder of the Otago settlement). Concrete steps were added when the tunnel was opened to the public in 1983. The tunnel was dug, supposedly, so that the Cargill family could have a private place to bathe. There are numerous references to one of Cargill’s daughters drowning at the beach – but no evidence has been found to support this (“The Legend of Tunnel Beach” is one of seven myths addressed in the book The Heading Dog who Split in Half)
Nevertheless, the beach is very rough and has a rip, so swimming is not recommended. It’s best to visit at low tide, when the beach itself is exposed and you can explore the high cliff walls…
…and explore some of the caves that extend a fair way into the cliffs.
In short: spectacular coastal scenery, and a good walk for kids as it’s quite short, and it’s fun exploring the beach (at low tide). But given the choice, I’d go for the relative seclusion of the Sandymount walk.
Accommodation near Tunnel Beach
We stayed at Allans Beach Farmstay on the Otago Peninsula, in one of two rustic cottages. They are basic but comfortable, and just a stone’s throw from Allans Beach in a secluded location. Perfect if you want to escape and get back to nature – but not so convenient if you prefer to eat out, as it’s a 30min drive into Dunedin. There’s a wide range of accommodation in Dunedin and on the Otago Peninsula, which is known for its wildlife.
More information on Tunnel Beach
- Peter Janssen, Excellent Short Walks in the South Island, p.151
- Stuff.co.nz – New Zealand’s best hidden beach
- The Legend of Tunnel Beach” – one of seven myths addressed The Heading Dog who Split in Half
- DOC Tunnel Beach Track web site
- DOC Dunedin walks brochure [PDF]
- NZ Topomap – Tunnel Beach
Best hikes of Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula
There are 46 hikes on the very useful DOC Dunedin walks brochure alone – the top Dunedin and Otago Peninsula hikes which I’d recommend if you can’t do them all are: