New and tempting sections are still opening on The New Zealand Cycle Trail (Nga Haerenga), an exciting Government initiative that will link existing and new cycle tracks all over NZ.
The finished trail will stretch 3000km and will showcase the very best that our country has to offer, from easy coastal rides with beautiful scenery of dunes and sea, to gnarly technical descents through alpine valleys, or through native bush, with streams and swing bridges to cross. There is also much of our history to discover along the way, as rides may follow old railway lines, coach roads or Maori trails. Take The Hauraki Rail Trail through the Karangahake Gorge for example, and you’ll glimpse gold-mining relics and ride through old mining tunnels.
The New Zealand Cycle Trail is still a little way off completion: Check Nga Haerenga’s website to see which sections of the Great Rides are currently open. While the Great Rides are multi-day affairs, you can choose a section that suits your abilities for an amazing day ride, and head back to the comfort of the bach at the end of it.
We’ve put together a taster of tracks throughout New Zealand, with eight ‘Great Rides’ that have already been completed by Nga Haerenga topping the list. Then there are lots of other favourite rides, and finally a few of the mountain biking parks we love to hurtle about in. It’s by no means comprehensive, but will give you some idea of what’s out there, with links to more detailed resources.
We’ve included tracks for extreme mountain bikers, those suitable for children and beginners, and plenty in between. If you’re really adventurous, you might want to try helibiking, and explore the mountains at the same time. Don’t try this at home!
You don’t have to treat cycling as a sport, of course. There are alternatives, like cycle tours of wineries in most of the main wine regions – Marlborough is a favourite, probably due its gentler terrain. Matakana and Hawke’s Bay are also popular. If you’re planning a ride of more than a couple of hours though, it pays to put in some practice. A track like New Zealand’s best-known bike trail, the Otago Rail Trail, is a popular holiday activity for families, but you still don’t want to attempt it before racking up a few hours in the saddle beforehand.
And if cycling’s not cycling unless you’re decked out in lycra, go ahead. We won’t laugh. But you don’t have to spend a fortune on gear. Waterproof clothing and protective shoes and gloves are a good start, and chances are you can rent a bike and helmet from the local bike/sports shop. Some baches also have mountain bikes available for use.
Eight Nga Haerenga ‘Great Rides’
Dunes Trail, Opotiki, Photo credit: Motu Trails
The Motu Trails trilogy is a great way to explore the remote and beautiful coastline, dunes and native conservation forest of the East Cape. The Dunes Trail takes you along the coast (easy, family ride, 10km). The same path was cut by early Maori travelling to gather kai moana and later colonial military tracks, mentioned by a local missionary. Motu Trail heads inland to Matawai (medium grade, some hills, 77kms) following the old Coach trail. You can see the historic remains of an old rail bridge, halfway between Matawai and Motu. The Gisborne to Moutohora Rail line opened up the isolated East Coast to the rest of the country in 1917 and closed in 1959. The Pakihi Track takes you deep into beautiful conservation forest and bush, along gullys and rivers and over swing bridges. It’s grade 4, but all downhill or flat, just a bit narrow, with steep drop-offs to the river, so don’t ride too fast round corners. (Check for trail closures: Pakihi Track was closed on Nov 30/2015 )| Where to stay: Opotiki District
The Waikato River Trails stretch 100km along New Zealand’s longest river. From Atiamuri to the upper end of Lake Karapiro the route takes in five lakes, four hydro dams and some cute villages. You’ll ride through native and exotic bush, see some amazing rock formations, and marvel at glorious lake and river views. There are 5 distinct sections, ranging from the easy grade 2, 13km stretch between Mangakino Lakefront and Whakamaru Dam, to the tougher grade 4, 34km section around Arapuni. Pick one as a day ride or go the whole hog and do the lot! | Where to stay: Waikato
The Hawke’s Bay Trails are a network of mainly flat trails running for 187kms around Napier and Hastings. Cyclists can choose between the Landscape Ride, the Water Ride and the Wineries Ride. There are lots of easy, flat sections suited to families, or those after a relaxed day ride with coastal views, or those who fancy a cruisy ride with wineries along the way. This might be the perfect way to introduce your children or beloved others to the joys of cycling, with the prospect of a lovely vineyard lunch, or a splash around in Napier’s hot salt water pools afterwards, to tempt them along. | Where to stay: Hawke’s Bay
Ruapehu to Whanganui
The Mountains To Sea cycle trail runs from the Central Plateau to the coast at Whanganui. The trail is 317 kms long, taking 4-6 days to ride. The Ohakune Old Coach Road is a great section to use as a day ride. If you get a lift to Horopito, you can do it as an enjoyable 15km ride, taking 3 hours, with stops to take photos, and read the interesting signs about the history of the railway and coach road along the way. Wonderful scenery and forest, fascinating history and railway viaducts make this a unique ride. The trail finishes in Ohakune.
Another superb section of the Mountains to Sea trail is the Bridge To Nowhere, an adventure ride down the Mangapurua Track down to the Bridge To Nowhere, built in 1936 and now surrounded by bush. The trail finishes 3kms further on at the Mangapurua Landing, where a jet boat, pre-booked, can take you to Pipiriki. This ride is best done in summer, and takes 5-7 hours generally. Check Nga Haerenga’s trail page to see if any sections are temporarily closed. | Where to stay: Central Plateau
The 38km Dun Mountain Trail begins in Nelson and follows the route of New Zealand’s first railway line. It’s an intermediate trail, with a long, gentle climb to Coppermine Saddle, then a 10km, grade 4 downhill. There’s forest, an alpine region, and a stretch of the Maitai River to ride along before heading back into Nelson. | Where to stay: Nelson
The newest NZ cycle trail, the 4-day West Coast Wilderness Trail takes you from Greymouth to Hokitika, through majestic rainforest, mighty rivers, wetlands with views of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. The trail is almost complete and open to cyclists, with some detours onto the road, while the remaining track is being constructed. Be one of the first to experience it! | Where to stay: Westland district
Central South Island
The 64 km-long St James Trail is a challenging trail suited to experienced riders only, with the central grade 4 advanced section requiring river crossings. It’s best to ride between November and April. You’ll be rewarded with iconic scenery, including spectacular river valleys, high-country lakes, grassland valleys and beech forest. It’ll take you roughly 10 hours, but there are four huts along the way, so you can stay a night or two. A delicious drawcard for tired muscles: stop off for a soak in the Hanmer Springs hot pools on the way home! There is a new family-friendly 15km loop, the “Homestead Run” starting from the St James Homestead - great for those who don’t have the time or experience to tackle the full trail. | Where to stay: Hanmer Springs
Aoraki/Mt Cook to Oamaru
Stretching more than 300 kms, the Alps 2 Ocean Trail takes you from snowy peaks, through alpine scenery, with highlights of clay cliffs, golden tussock landscapes, the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki, down to Oamaru and the Pacific Ocean. The trail is generally easy and suitable for families. It takes 4-6 days to complete, or you could base yourself at a bach in Twizel, Lake Tekapo or Lake Ohau and do day rides. The Alps 2 Ocean Website has updates on trail conditions, and advice. | Where to stay: Mackenzie District or Waitaki District
Some of our other favourite rides
Otago Rail Trail
Opened in 2000, the Otago Rail Trail covers 150 kilometres of what was formerly the Otago Central Railway line. You can do it in three days, but most people take four (it’s also walkable, which takes five). The track’s suitable for children and older people and it’s free - but you do need to book, especially during holidays. Accommodation is available in most of the small towns along the route.
More info | Where to stay: Central Otago
There are loads of great trails around Queenstown, you could explore the wineries of Gibbston Valley, or the Arrow River Trail. You can book a tour with Around the Basin Bike Tours, or just hire bikes from them, with the bikes delivered handily to your door.
Tiropahi Tram Track, Charleston, West Coast
Bottle Lake Forest Park, Canterbury
Bottle Lake Forest Park, photo: Trailsource, via Flickr Creative Commons
Little River Rail Trail, Christchurch
Takaka Hill: Rameka Track, Nelson
Wakamarina, Blenheim, Marlborough
Karori Wildlife Sanctuary Loop, Wellington
Cape Palliser, South Wairarapa
Waitarere Forest, Manawatu
Coastal Walkway, New Plymouth
Northwestern Cycle Route
Kerikeri Historic Trail, Northland
Mountain Bike Parks
Sandy Point Mountain Bike Track, Invercargill
Queenstown Bike Park, Queenstown
Steep trails with great scenery. Catch the gondola up for 500m of vertical lift then hurtle down by bike. Hammy’s track is a good one to start with. Gondola bike season runs from 4th September 2015 to 8th May 2016, weather permitting.
More info | Where to stay: Queenstown
Port Hills Tracks, Christchurch
Some of the country’s best mountain bike tracks, with over 130km of trails of varying difficulty. We suggest going in to the forest from the Waipa State Mill entrance and asking the friendly folk at Mountain Bike Rotorua for trail advice. There’s a shuttle pick up there too, so take some cash and you can get a lift up to the top and ride down on glorious trails such as Billy-T, Split Enz or Corners. The Waipa Store Cafe is right there too; set up in an artfully decorated shipping container, it has great food and coffee, very welcome after your ride.
Whirinaki Forest Mountain Bike Tracks, Taupo
Wairakei MTB Park, Taupo
Eskdale Mountain Bike Park, Hawke’s Bay
Whataupoko Park, Langford Fallon Reserve, Gisborne
Te Miro Forest Mountain Bike Track, Waikato
Whitianga Bike Park, Coromandel
Woodhill Forest, West Auckland
Glenbervie Forest, Whangarei
For more detailed information, discussions and advice from the experts, take a look at these sites:
- www.nzcycletrail.com - The New Zealand Cycle Trail (Nga Haerenga) - official website
- www.bikenz.org.nz - BikeNZ has road, mountainbike and BMX sections
- www.mountainbike.co.nz - Has links to MTB Clubs around NZ, Kennet brothers guidebooks and blog
- tracks.org.nz - Track guides and status updates for mountain biking and trail running
- Motu Trails Trust - Track info including interactive maps and historical background.
- West Coast Wilderness Trail - for updates on track maintenance and attractions in the area
- PureTrails New Zealand - South Island-wide cycle tour operators, providing package tours of the trails with full vehicle support