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The 22 Great Rides

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December 2020 Issue

With a combined distance of 2690km and taking up to 70 days to ride, New Zealand’s network of cycle trails is a fantastic recreation asset and a chance for trampers to travel at a different pace. Which will you choose?

Twin Coast Cycle Trails, Northland / Grade 1-3, 87km, 2 days

From the Bay of Islands to the Hokianga Harbour, Pou Herenga Tai is an excellent trail for beginners. The relaxing route follows a mixture of rail trail, cycle paths, boardwalk and country roads, and although it’s possible to complete in a day, riders would do well to enjoy the array of detours, from a soak in Ngawha Springs to the ancient Wairere Boulders, its heritage sites, Northland hospitality and the subtropical climate.

Hauraki Rail Trail, Waikato / Grade 1-2, 173km, 4 days

Showcasing picturesque Waikato, this trail follows historic railway lines through the old gold hotspots of the north east. Beginning on the Shorebird Coast (Miranda), the trail links Kaiau with Thames, Paeroa, Te Aroha, Waihi and Matamata, taking in coastline, gold mining relics and impressive gorges. It’s mostly flat and generally enjoyed over 3-5 days, but it’s possible to take it section by section or to combine it with further riding in the Coromandel area.

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Crossing the Mangakino Suspension Briedge on the Waikato River Trail.

Waikato River Trails, Waikato / Grade 3-4, 103km, 4 days

This trail tells the story of New Zealand’s longest river as it winds through native forest, riverside towns and hydropower infrastructure. It can be ridden in a day, or can take up to four, stopping at the trail’s many cafes and viewpoints. It’s divided into five sections, with terrain for every ability, and plenty of landscape features to keep things interesting, including wetlands, lakes, hydropower stations and dams. Riverside campsites make this a shoo-in for summer adventures.

Te Ara Ahi, Rotorua / Grade 2-3, 47km, 1-2 days

Also known as ‘Thermal by Bike’, Te Ara Ahi explores the geothermal wonders of Rotorua and serves as a link between Whakarewarewa, Te Puia, Waimangu, Wai-O-Tapu and Waikite Valley Thermal Springs. Riders can explore the region’s attractions, including the higher octane Redwoods Mountain Bike Park, Lake Okaro wetland and Rainbow Mountain. It’s an easy one-day ride, but is best enjoyed over a weekend with a bit of pocket money in hand.

On the Motu’s Pakihi Track. Photo: Studio Zag

Motu Trails, Bay of Plenty / Grade 2-4, 121km, 3 days

Whether you’re after single track thrills or easy seaside riding, you’ll find it on the Motu Trails. It comprises Dunes Trail, Motu Road Trail and Pākihi Track, which create a loop from Ōpōtiki and offer coastal scenery, inland roads and forests off-the-beaten-track. Those seeking further adventure can tack on the Rere Falls Trail which links to Gisborne.

The Hawke’s Bay Trail offers easy riding. Photo: Hawkes Bay Trails

Hawke’s Bay Trails, Hawke’s Bay / Grade 1-3, 200km, 4 days

If you’re worried about bike fitness, the leisurely Hawke’s Bay Trails may be the launching pad you need to get into the cycle trail game. The extensive network is mostly flat as it follows dedicated cycle paths and country roads to over 50 highlights, including world class cuisine, art deco architecture and wildlife. Stretching from Bay View to Clifton,  the whole 200km network can be completed in a long weekend, or new sections can be ticked off with every visit.

Great Lake Trail, Lake Taupō / Grade 3, 83km, 1-3 days

This trail skirts the northern rim of Lake Taupō and is an all-seasons adventure divided into four sections starting from Kinloch. From purpose-built mountain bike trails, to family ride options, there are trips suitable for all abilities, and enough versatility to keep things interesting. There’s a mix of waterfalls, beaches, gorges and native forest, with plenty of spots to grab a bite or to stare in awe at the distant Tongariro National Park. Best of all, a refreshing swim is never far away.

On the gnarly coastal section of the Remutaka Cycle Trail. Photo: Tim Bardsley Smith

Remutaka Cycle Trail, Wellington/Wairarapa / Grade 1-4, 115km, 2-3 days

Beginning in Wellington, this cycling classic circumvents the Remutaka Range via an historic railway line before culminating in a joyride along the rugged southern coastline. The diverse trail takes in the Hutt River, Māori settlement sites, native forest and farmland, whilst providing real excitement for experienced riders. Those after a slower pace can enjoy the more leisurely section to Maymorn, explore the numerous galleries and cafes or take a detour to Wairarapa’s renowned wineries.

Bush-enclosed single track on the Timber Trail. Photo: Timber Trail

Timber Trail, Pureora Forest Park / Grade 2-3, 85km, 2 days

Without the hard work of environmentalists in the 1970s, the gorgeous podocarps of this trail would have been felled to the cry of “timber!”. Thanks to their foresight, however, mountain bikers can count themselves lucky to ride through this central North Island wilderness. It follows the paths of old logging roads and purpose-built single track, to cross some of the longest and highest swingbridges in the country. A range of lodges and campsites provide accommodation for all comfort levels.

Riding the viaduct on the Mountains to Sea. Photo: Mountains to Sea

Mountains to Sea, Ruapehu and Whanganui / Grade 3-4, 231km, 6 days

This is the North Island’s longest Great Ride and it may also be its most challenging. It begins on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu and winds its way west to meet the Whanganui River which is followed to the Tasman Sea. It goes through two national parks covering volcanic landscapes, sheer gorges and rolling hills. History buffs will enjoy the historic infrastructure, including the famous Bridge to Nowhere in Whanganui National Park and numerous railway viaducts and tunnels.

Sound views on the Queen Charlotte Track. Photo: QCT Inc/Richard Briggs

Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough / Grade 3-5, 72km, 2-3 days

This is New Zealand’s longest continuous single track (and also one of its best) and takes riders deep into the Marlborough Sounds. It’s a challenging track that requires technical riding experience – especially after rain – though sections are accessible from many of the Sounds’ campsites and lodges for the casual rider. There is lush forest, numerous swimming coves and accommodation ranging from roughing it to lavish lodges.

Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, Nelson/Tasman / Grade 2-3, 177km, 1-4 days

If there’s one sure way to attract riders, it’s including the word taste in the trail name. From Nelson, this trail loops around the Tasman region, taking in the coastal towns of Mapua, Motueka and Riwaka and reaching inland to follow the Motueka River. There’s scenery, hops, wineries and fresh produce, that will take serious willpower to pedal past the many pit stops en route.

From Nelson to the Richmond Range tops on the Coppermine Trail. Photo: Virginia Woolf Photography

Coppermine Trail, Nelson/Tasman / Grade 3-4, 43km, 4-6hr

This day ride leaves from the heart of Nelson, making it one the most accessible alpine rides in the country. Riders enjoy a consistent but gentle uphill to Coppermine Saddle, before the real fun begins on an exhilarating downhill ride on a technical Grade 4 section through rock gardens and bush. You could start the day with a coffee and finish it with a beer, while enjoying easy-access wilderness and panoramic views of Tasman Bay for just half a day’s work.

Expansive tops on The Old Ghost Road. Photo: Hage Photography

The Old Ghost Road, West Coast / Grade 4-5, 85km, 2-4 days

The Old Ghost Road is a legendary feat of community ambition and engineering tracing an old gold mining route between Lyell and Seddonville. The 85km trail is built for advanced riders and is sure to get the adrenalin firing on its fast technical turns and twists. It’s rideable over a weekend, but there’s enough interest to warrant a slower journey of four days. Highlights include expansive tops travel, rushing rivers and waterfalls and flourishing wildlife.

West Coast Wilderness Trail, West Coast / Grade 2-3, 136km, 4-5 days

Renowned for its road trips, the wild West Coast is better explored at a slower pace. From its beginnings in Greymouth, this easy trail leaves SH6 behind for an inland excursion, taking in Kumara, Kawhaka Pass and Lake Kaniere before rejoining the coast at Hokitika and finishing at the old gold town of Ross. It’s an unforgettable adventure, from colourful pubs, pioneering stories, pristine wilderness and the snow-capped Alps.

St James Cycle Trail, Canterbury / Grade 2-5, 59km, 1-2 days

Not to be confused with the St James Walkway – a tramping staple – this is a challenging ride through stunning high country. It follows a once important travel route for Māori and shifts between easy and expert grading along river valleys and lakeside and through beech forests and flats of the conservation area. Riders can stay in three rustic DOC huts or at numerous campsites, or enjoy the well-preserved lodgings of yesteryear.

Alps 2 Ocean, Canterbury and Otago / Grade 2-3, 311km, 6 days

For sheer scale and grandeur, Alps 2 Ocean is the pick of the bunch. Beginning at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, the 311km trail sidles past Lake Pukaki to follow braided rivers and open country to the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru. Done all at once, it’s an epic journey encompassing New Zealand’s biggest landscapes, though it’s just as easily enjoyed in sections, and there are plenty of detours en route for those wanting more – including an alternative route beginning at Lake Tekapo.

The short and sweet Roxburgh Gorge Trail. Photo: Tourism Central Otago/Tim Bardsley-Smith

Roxburgh Gorge Trail, Otago / Grade 2-3, 21km, 1 day

This one is the shortest Great Ride, but also one of the most spectacular. The 21km trail connects Alexandra and Lake Roxburgh Hydro Dam via the Clutha River, winding past heritage sites and through native forest. The gorge is the star of the show, with its eroded bluffs rising steeply from the turquoise Clutha River. A wide gravel path makes this an excellent choice for beginners.

Otago Central Rail Trail, Otago / Grade 1, 152km, 5 days

The one that started them all, the Otago Central Rail Trail is perhaps the most recognisable cycle trail in New Zealand. It follows the old railway line between Clyde and Middlemarch and mixes history with vibrant Otago scenery. Must do’s include visiting abandoned gold diggings, exploring historic railway bridges and tunnels and indulging in the region’s local wineries and cuisine.

The Clutha Gold Trail. Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Clutha Gold Trail, Otago / Grade 1-2, 73km, 2 days

Here is Aotearoa in its infancy; a time of early Māori settlement, the beginnings of rail, and gold rushes that transformed the region for industry. The easy trail follows the Clutha River between Roxburgh and Lawrence, steering riders through Central Otago’s rural beauty. It’s suitable for beginner riders and can be easily combined with the short Roxburgh Gorge Trail.

The Queenstown Trail, Otago / Grade 2-4, 130km, 4 days

This is New Zealand’s most popular Great Ride, linking Queenstown, Arrowtown and the Gibbston Valley in a multi-day adventure that caters for all abilities. It’s surrounded by the area’s stunning mountain ranges and gets riders away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist town, across everything from country lanes to cycleways. There’s plenty for adrenalin junkies, from bungees to jetboats, but for those taking it slow it’s hard to beat the generous scenery, cafes and vineyards along the way.

Southland’s Around the Mountain trail includes historic towns like Kingston. Photo: Tourism Central Otago/Tim Bardsley-Smith

Around the Mountains Cycle Trail, Southland and Otago / Grade 2-3, 186km, 3-5 days

There’s easy riding here with some majestic scenery as the trail loops around the stunning Eyre Mountains. Riders can enjoy the Mavora Lakes, a ride on Lake Wakatipu’s TSS Earnslaw and a taste of hospitality in the historic towns of Mossburn, Lumsden, Athol and Garston. With ample shuttle and accessibility options, riders can customise their ride to suit any itinerary.

How difficult are the rides? 

Before committing to a cycle trail, make sure you’re up for the challenge.

Grade 1 (Easiest)

Suitable for riders of all ages and abilities. Tracks will be smooth and wide, and inclines will be gentle. E-bikes, touring bikes, hybrid bikes and children’s bikes are generally suitable.

Grade 2 (Easy)

Suited to riders with limited experience and recommended for bikes with medium to wide knobbly tyres. Off-road sections are wide and smooth with gentle climbs, and no difficult sections. E-bikes are suitable.

Grade 3 (Intermediate)

Suitable for regular cyclists with good fitness. Children over 12 years old should be fine. A mountain bike is needed for off-road sections, and E-mountain bikes are suitable. Road racing tyres are generally not suitable. Off-road trails can be narrow, with steep hills and small river crossings. Surfaces may be loose and uneven. On-road sections may have moderate traffic, hill climbs and gravel.

Grade 4 (Advanced)

Advanced trails are suitable for experienced cyclists with a high level of fitness. E-bikes are not permitted for off-road sections, which are narrow and steep, with unavoidable obstacles.

The trail surface includes loose sections, rocks and tree roots and mud is likely. Some walking will be required. On-road trails have moderate traffic, large inclines and possibly gravel.

Grade 5 (Expert)

Suitable for experienced riders with excellent off-road skills and high fitness. A full suspension bike is recommended. Off-road trails will include long, steep climbs, tough descents, rocks, roots, river crossings and dangerous drop-offs.