Tunnel Beach (Dunedin)

A short walk near Dunedin, featuring a natural sea arch and a hand-carved tunnel through the sandstone leading to Tunnel Beach. The small beach is surrounded by high cliffs and is not suitable for swimming.

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 obviously 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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…

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…and explore some of the caves that extend a fair way into the cliffs.

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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.

Location End of Tunnel Beach Road, south of Dunedin
Distance 2.2km return.
Grade Easy. 140m ascent.
Season/s All year except September/October (lambing season). Low tide recommended.
Map/s Interactive topographical map [AllTrails]
Download topographical map (A4, 1:9K) Map [PDF]
NZTopo online map
GPS Route PlotaRoute map with option to download GPX / KML file
Resources

 

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