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Discovering dirt on the Lake Dunstan Trail

Cantilevered sections of trail on the newly-opened Lake Dunstan Trail. Tourism Central Otago - Ross McKay

A day ride on the newest addition to the cycle trail network reveals jaw-dropping views and an adventurous ride for all abilities. By Kerensa Clark

With the opening of the nearly 58km Lake Dunstan Trail, central Otago has cemented itself as the country’s number one destination for cycling. 

The trail leads riders (and walkers and runners) alongside the picturesque Lake Dunstan and with numerous drop-in or out options, riders can plan their trip to be as long or as short as they like.

I rode the trail recently and was blown away by the scenery and immaculate trail design. I prefer secluded and wild trails when mountain biking, but the Dunstan Cycle Trail provides a mix of challenging riding as well as the opportunity for a more leisurely pace. Boarded tracks hug the sides of sheer cliffs, swingbridges and cantilevered platforms make for interesting travel. Sections of trail with alluring names like ‘Cairnmuir Ladder’ snake their way upward and epic views greet riders around every corner. 

Hugo Bridge. Photo: Kerensa Clark

South of Cromwell, the trail winds its way along the foot of the Cairnmuir Mountains, which plunge steeply into Lake Dunstan. The view is one thing you cannot get away from; it is simply outstanding with jaw-dropping vistas everywhere. There’s a surreal juxtaposition of colour between the lake’s aquamarine waters and the burnt-orange rocky surrounds. 

The trail’s engineering is also impressive. It took two years to complete and will eventually become part of a network of linked central Otago cycle trails. It will make this area the place for cycling adventures.

The consideration of local history is also evident, with information boards peppering the trail, sharing stories of the gold-mining era in days of old, with names such as ‘Pick-axe Bluff’ and ‘Halfway Hut’.

My ride started at Cornish Point, approximately 14km further along the trail from Cromwell. With more time, the Historic Precinct would be an ideal start point due to better parking and access to toilets (not to mention good coffee). There is also ample parking near Bannockburn Bridge. 

Looking back down Lake Dunstan from one of the many high points. Photo: Kerensa Clark

The trail is pristine: smooth, wide, well-constructed and is suitable for riders of all fitness levels. Signage is ample and clearly communicates distances between landmarks. There is even a floating café at the Cromwell end of the Cairnmuir Ladder; a welcome sight for those heading back from Clyde or, as Coffee Afloat owner Jolanda Foale asserts, it’s a good spot to turn around for those unwilling to tackle the zig-zags up ‘the ladder’ when riding from Cromwell.

I ride a regular bike but the bike of choice, based on the riders I encountered, is an e-bike. The Dunstan Cycle Trail is perfect terrain for e-bike riders: it’s wide, well-groomed and the hills would be a piece of cake with the added pedal power. 

While I rode a there-and-back trail, there are transportation options for one-wayers. For those extending the journey, there is also bike hire options and near-trail accommodation at both Clyde and Cromwell. 

Hugo Bridge. Photo: Kerensa Clark

Section-by-section on the Lake Dunstan Trail 

1. Smith’s Way to Cromwell Heritage Precinct, 16.4km

This part of the trail is flat and runs alongside Lake Dunstan via Pisa Moorings to the Cromwell Heritage Precinct. There are numerous cafes here, making it a good pitstop. This is also an alternative starting point.

2. Cromwell Heritage Precinct to Bannockburn Bridge, 6km

Leaving the precinct, the trail leads to Bannockburn and crosses the lake. This section is relatively flat and there are numerous vineyards along this section. 

3. Bannockburn Bridge to Cornish Point, 7.3km

From the Bannockburn Bridge, the trail follows the Kawarau arm of Lake Dunstan to Cornish Point. This is a relatively flat and very scenic section.

4. Cornish Point to Clyde, 25km

The final section to Clyde is on a compacted cycle trail, with some exhilarating narrow cantilevered trails and suspension bridges. There are five bolt-on sections along this track with the Third Bluff Bridge stretching 200m. This is the most challenging section of the trail and includes two epic climbs. For less uphill, ride the trail in reverse from Clyde.

Useful information for those planning on riding the trail

  • Coffee Afloat is moored at the Cromwell end of the Clutha arm of Lake Dunstan, near the start of the Cairnmuir Ladder. Eftpos available.
  • Toilets are dotted along the trail, but take toilet paper.
  • There is no water along the trail apart from access to some small streams.
  • Take a puncture repair kit and cycle tool kit.
  • Narrow sections, particularly between Cornish Point and Hydes Spur, require care, riders should stay to the left and reduce speed on downhill sections.