I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clay Cliffs in Omarama are crowned ‘New Zealand’s Most Surprising Destination’ one day. Happy to take the reins on this one guys! Let me know if there’s another hidden gem waiting to be discovered: @jessssbrien
This natural area hidden in the South Island of New Zealand really needs to be seen to be believed.
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When I shared an instagram story of my day trip adventure to the clay cliffs I received numerous messages along the lines of, “wtf?! That exists IN NEW ZEALAND?!” It really does look otherworldly or like you’ve arrived in a smaller Utah.
I’ve traveled along State Highway 8 countless times (like 40 million times roughly) and I have never once looked over my right (or left) shoulder to see the Omarama Clay Cliffs. Apparently, according to my Mum, you can see them from the highway just out of Omarama. I still haven’t seen them from the road yet. We will just have to take Mum’s word for it...
Nestled on private farmland off Henburn Road are these majestic towers and pinnacles of clay and gravel. The information board in the car park describes this area as, “a classic example of ‘bad-lands’ terrain.”
There you have it. Badlands terrain is formed by rain and wind erosion and while they don’t know for sure how long this process takes, they think that this style of erosion has been happening for over 2 million years! I can’t stop using exclamation marks! That’s the sort of vibe visiting this area gives you!
The information board goes on to say, “the grey and white sandstone and claystone were formed in an ancient lake that once existed here, and the yellow and brown layers are gravel conglomerate with silt layers, deposited by an ancient river.”
In front of these natural beauties runs the active Ostler Fault zone. It has a slip rate of around 1-2mm per year which has also shaped the cliffs into what we see today.
One thing is for certain - the pictures don’t do this place justice.
(But with that being said, you are 100% going to want to take a lot of pictures and videos!)
Turn onto Quailburn Road off State Highway 8 just outside of the little township of Omarama. After about 3.5kms turn left on Henburn Road. Henburn Road is a gravel/unsealed road so drive to the conditions. Follow the signs for Clay Cliffs. Due to the Clay Cliffs being on private land there’s a cost of $5 per car and you can put your cash in the honesty box at the gate. And whatever you do... Don’t forget to close the gate!
Once at the car park it’s a 10 minute walk on an easy pathway to the centre of the cliffs. From then you are on your own to explore to your fitness level and heart’s content.
From Queenstown - 185kms / ~ 2hr 35 mins
From Wanaka - 130kms / ~ 2hrs
From Omarama - 15kms / ~ 20 mins
From Twizel - 37kms / ~ 40 mins
From Mt Cook Village - 101kms / ~ 1hr 30 mins
From Tekapo - 95kms / ~ 1hr 20 mins
From Fairlie - 137kms / ~ 1hr 50 mins
From Christchurch - 321kms / ~4hr 20 mins
WHAT TO BRING
Cash for the gate
Sturdy footwear (my friend Molly (@mollyspink.creative) did conquer the Clay Cliffs in Birkenstocks although she doesn’t recommend it!)
Backpack (if you want to go exploring into all the nooks and crannies of the cliffs you will need your hands to help, so bring a backpack to put your belongings in)
Please note: in New Zealand it is illegal to fly a drone on private property without the owner’s consent.
WHERE TO STAY
Due to the coronavirus, I have found myself back at my parent’s farm near Fairlie for the foreseeable future, which means I’m lucky enough to have the clay cliffs an easy drive away. (Ha, imagine telling 15 year old me I would one day say I was “lucky” to live in Fairlie! But it’s true. I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in the world.)
The Clay Cliffs are easily accessible from:
Click for more information on accommodation options in each area
check out Summer Camping at Mt Cook & Lake Hāwea for tips on camping at the DOC site at Mt Cook
And of course, there's always the option to stay in a campervan!
I have a detailed post about NZ Campervan Hire that you can check out for more information.
And there you have it: the Omarama Clay Cliffs. A must see for all South Island roadtrips! But remember, like everywhere you travel, no matter how corny it is...
Take only photos and leave only footprints.
Especially on private land.
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Geo information sources: https://www.geotrips.org.nz/trip.html?id=448