Top 10 Sunrise Locations NZ

Top 10 Sunrise Photography Locations in NZ

New Zealand is blessed with being an island country that has an incredible 15,000km of coastline - the 10th largest coastline of any country in the world. So it's not hard to come up with a list of top 10 New Zealand sunrise locations since there are plenty of amazing places along the coast to watch the sunrise. But even inland there are some equally magical places to watch the day dawn - beside quiet lakes, overlooking hills and atop great mountains, and each with its own unique scenery to quicken the heart and captivate the soul.

cathedral cove pastel sunrise

Watching the sunrise isn't everyone's cup of tea I know - for nearly half the year it means giving up precious sleep as the sun appears over the horizon while most people are still sleeping blissfully unaware. That's the photographer's life though - if you want great light you have to be prepared to sacrifice more than a few zzzzzz's for it.

I have seen some pretty amazing sunrises in some popular New Zealand locations and in some very off-the-beaten track spots. My list of top 10 NZ sunrise locations is sure to be different to yours and that's OK because it's unique to my photographic journey thus far. Here are my favourite places to greet the day:

1. Nugget Point

Keep driving an hour and a half south of Dunedin, NZ's most southern major city, and you're feel as if you must be getting pretty close to the edge of the earth. And the morning I captured this sunrise at Nugget Point, I really did feel like I'd reached the end of civilisation. Walking out to the lighthouse, I was skeptical of getting much of a sunrise as the forecast was for 100% chance of rain and the cloud was really low, apart from this thin sliver of light on the horizon. I watched as I walked and could see the cloud being up-lit from the light of the coming day, and skepticism turned to hope as I realised that this sunrise could really catch fire - which is exactly what happened. The sky lit up with the most incredible colour that spread across the sky above the lighthouse, reflecting in the sea below and even at one point creating a rainbow into the sea. The colour was so intense and lasted such a long time that I wondered if it would ever end. And then the rain that had been threatening and closing in closer all morning finally arrived just as the colour began to die away. By the time I got back to the car it was pouring - I often think the most vivid sunrises herald bad weather on the way and this morning was no exception. I can't think of a more amazing location to have had such incredible light.

Nugget Point Fiery Sunrise

nugget point lighthouse sunrise

nugget point lighthouse pastel dawn

2. Tasman Lake at Mount Cook

The morning I spent here watching the amazing dawn glow amongst the icebergs of Tasman Lake is still high on my list of favourite photography moments ever.  It was easily one of the stillest, coldest mornings I've been out with my camera and I have photographic evidence of my camera bag freezing over as it lay on the rocks during my expedition, it was at least -3 degrees Celsius. Seeing the first light of day hitting the peak of New Zealand's tallest mountain (Mount Cook) long before it reached down into the valley where I was standing in awe is a moment I'll not easily forget. The still waters of the lake created the most incredible reflections of the peaks above, and the icebergs floated peacefully and soundlessly in the lake with only the odd sound of a piece of ice breaking off or an avalanche high up in the mountains coming down to break the tranquility. I'll admit it was very hard to leave this place and I'm absolutely itching to go back.

dawn tasman glacier mt cook

sunrise tasman lake mount cook

reflections tasman lake mount cook nz

3. Mount Maunganui

Forcing your body up the short, sharp incline to the summit of Mount Maunganui (otherwise known as Mauao) before dawn guarantees that you'll be plenty wide awake by the time you reach the top approximately 20 minutes later. And if you are lucky enough to capture the beautiful light that heralds a new day in the Bay of Plenty, even better. The golden sands of the beach below stretches out for miles as far as the eye can see, while in the other direction you can see up the Coromandel coast as far as Waihi Beach and Bowentown. And as much as I love being down at beach level to catch the amazing sunrise reflections in the sand as the waves pass to and fro, there's something special about seeing the sun appear over the horizon from up this high.

sunrise mount maunganui summit

colourful dawn mount maunganui

4. Cathedral Cove

I have been lucky enough to capture sunrise here on 3 different occasions, helped by the fact we can stay with friends who have a beach house about an hour's drive away. Every time I've been has been better than the last so I can't wait to see what my fourth visit might have in store for me whenever  it is that I can next go. The walk to Cathedral Cove is about half an hour in the dark from the carpark so unless you're OK with the possibility of hearing strange noises in the bush in the dark along the way, you may want to bring a friend! Climbing down the last set of stairs to the beach is a moment of huge anticipation even when it's still pitch black, and if you time your visit right and get there early enough, you might even be lucky enough to catch the Milky Way rising over the Cove which is a truly impressive sight.

cathedral cove dawn

sunflare cathedral cove seagull

mares leg cove sunrise coromandel

milky way cathedral cove coromandel

pastel dawn cathedral cove

sunflare mares leg cove coromandel

Save some space on the memory card for the walk back along the track when it's light since the view is stunning out to the islands that form part of the Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve  and it's sure to distract you from the fact it's all uphill!

5. Mt Taranaki

Watching the sun appear above inversion cloud that lay below the peak of Mount Taranaki was a spine tingling moment. The circumstances that brought me to this spot were a last minute adventure with some girlfriends to try and capture a sunrise at Pouakai tarns. We made the trek in the dark and arrived at the hut after midnight to find there were no beds left. After spending a night sleeping (if you could call it that) on the hard wooden floor of the hut for a few hours listening to the wind howling outside, we made the short walk up the track with few expectations. Imagine our surprise when Mount Taranaki was in full view, with an amazing layer of inversion cloud hovering beneath. We didn't get the sunrise reflections at the tarn we were hoping for as the tarns lay under the cloud so it wasn't worth the extra walk, but oh what a morning it was to be up above those clouds on top of the world.

mount taranaki sunrise inversion cloud

mount taranaki dawn tussock cloud

mount taranaki sunflare tarn reflections

6. Lake Tarawera

This place is easily my favourite sunrise spot within driving distance of home, it's just manageable at an hour and a half to get there although catching a summer sunrise here does make for an extremely early start to the day. Lake Tarawera is one of those engaging places with so many awesome vantage points with its hundreds of jetties and bays that it's easy to visit a different spot each time and come away feeling like you've visited somewhere completely new.

purple dawn tarawera jetty

lake tarawera clouds sunrise

lake tarawera dawn long exposure

colourful sunrise lake tarawera jetty

autumn sunrise lake tarawera

clear sunrise lake tarawera

This lake is famous in New Zealand as the scene of one of our worst natural disasters when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, killing 120 people and burying the world famous pink and white terraces. These days it's so still and tranquil here in the early morning that it's hard to believe it could have ever been the scene of such devastation. Standing on the jetty watching the light work its magic while the water laps quietly below is a pretty heavenly feeling, and it's somewhere I know I'll return to time and time again.

7. Castlepoint

I've only ever been to Castlepoint once and it was when I was just starting out in photography - it was the middle of winter and there was a bitter wind blowing up at the lighthouse but you wouldn't know it from the peaceful pink sunrise that spread over the horizon. Castlepoint is high on my list of places to get back to, it's a little harder now I live at the other end of the island, but one day I'll just have to jump in the car and go. I’m yet to climb up to the top of Castle Rock to get the famous view back down to the lighthouse so that’s a must as well.

castlepoint pastel sunrise

8. Rolling Waikato hills

The first image below is one of my favourite images... ever. And proof that not every sunrise has to be full of amazing clouds and colour to be magical - in this case green and gold and blue hues are just as lovely as pastel pinks and fiery reds. On this morning I found myself up in the foothills of Pirongia with a view over the rolling hills of the Waikato complete with golden light filtering through and sheep grazing on the hillside. To me it was one of the most classic Kiwi rural scenes I’ve ever come across. I loved it so much I printed it in A0 size and have it on my wall at home. Every night when I roll my back out on my foam roller before bed, I lie and look at this scene - it sure makes for a relaxing end to the day.

best waikato sunrise

best waikato sunrise views

rural nz classic sunrise waikato

9. Moody Milford Sound

While some might argue this is technically a better sunset location than sunrise, I think it’s equally beautiful at both ends of the day. And while you might wonder why I would include it here when the sunrise was rather grey and moody, Milford Sound is in Fiordland after all - the rain capital of New Zealand, so chances are you might get a sunrise just like this when you visit. Even if you do, there’s nothing quite like standing before the mighty Mitre Peak and seeing the incredible mirror image of the mountains appearing in the tranquil waters of the Sound as the light of day comes forth. Knowing you are simply miles from anywhere in this remote valley really made me stop and think of what it must have been like for the early explorers coming upon this scene - they must have been shrieking and yelling in utter delight - well I know I would have anyway!

moody milford sound dawn

milford sound reflections

moody milford sound sunrise

10. That Wanaka Tree

Like many photographers, I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this tree before I visited it. I would see shots popping up on Instagram all the time and wonder what power it held that everyone was so mad keen on taking photos of it. I did have to admit that it looked so different in each shot though, as if it was able to exert a certain magic on the photographer to capture it in a unique and different way. The morning I visited with my photographer friend Laurie, we arrived way before dawn, hoping we could get some shots of the tree under the stars. There was a fine layer of high cloud around that meant the stars were barely visible, but instead it created an amazing moon halo in the sky overlooking the tree - a sight you don’t get to see every day! Before long dawn’s light started to appear on the horizon and colour began to take over the entire sky. Purples gave way to pinks, reds to oranges and before long the whole sky was ablaze. Even long after the colour faded, the lovely view was spellbinding and I found it hard to tear myself away. It’s safe to say I’m definitely a Wanaka tree convert!

moon halo lake wanaka

before dawn lake wanaka

pink sunrise lake wanaka tree

rippled reflctions at wanaka tree

I'm sure you will have your own list of spots in NZ where a sunrise has wowed you and if there’s a spot you think should definitely be in the top ten, then leave me a comment below!

To view more images or to purchase prints, visit Meghan Maloney Photography


  1. When you finally plan that return trip to Castlepoint, let me know. I may be able to sort you some accommodation ;o)


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