6 Epic Cycling Trails in New Zealand

Passing through ancient forests and by alpine lakes, through wine regions and along miles of coastline, and with thermal pools for soaking tired muscles, these bike trails feature the very best of New Zealand’s diverse terrain and natural beauty.

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Fall colors on the Dunstan Cycle trail, Central Otago, New Zealand. Photo © Jane King

I love exploring new places on my bike and New Zealand’s landscapes were made for cycling adventures. With an ever-growing network of well-designed cycle trails for all levels, off-the-beaten-track scenic beauty is never far away.

North Island

Twin Coast Cycle Trail – Northland

Riding from the Bay of Islands on the east coast to the Hokianga Harbour on the west coast allowed me to get a feel for Northland’s rich history, culture, and diverse range of scenery. Passing through historic towns, rolling farmland, dense ancient forests, native bush, and wetlands from one stunning coastline to another is a real immersion into this sub-tropical terrain.

The trail is 54mi (87km) and divided into four sections. The first is spectacular and a popular out-and-back day-ride. Starting at the Opua Marina, the flat trail winds along the coast before taking the route of an old railway line, affording great views as you ride over the longest curved suspension bridge in the Southern Hemisphere to Kawakawa, an arty town.

The next section requires a bit more effort with a gradual climb to Kaihohe – I made time for a soak in the historic, geothermal hot pools at Ngawha Springs. Kaikohe to Okaihau takes you along the rail trail through a 260ft/80m tunnel (which I found a little too dark for my liking – take a torch or use your cell phone for the pitch-dark middle section) and then skims the Omapere Lake shore to Okaihau.

The last section is downhill through country roads and farmland, along a river and then a long section of boardwalk to Horeke. Bikes are easy to hire from Pahia and Top Trails run a shuttle at 3pm each day from Horeke or Opua.

The Hawke’s Bay Trails

The Hawke’s Bay region is wine country. The area’s generous sunshine hours, beautiful rural countryside, coastline, and excellent food and wine make it an awesome place for a leisurely bike tour.

A bike trail near Hastings in the Hawke's Bay wine region of New Zealand.
A bike trail near the town of Hastings. Image credit: Getty Images / tristanbnz

The trail network weaves between towns, wineries, riverbanks, rural countryside, and coastline – from Bay View, north of the Art Deco town of Napier, to the rugged coastline of Cape Kidnappers. The 111mi (180km) of trails are easy to navigate with clearly defined rides and loops that are generally 2 to 4 hours in duration on easy, mostly flat trail.

Most are half-day rides and it’s possible to explore the network self-guided. The trails are themed and have four different focuses: Landscape, Coastline, Wine, and Water.

The popular wineries ride near Hastings is great fun and explores the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa region wineries. I loved being able to take my time and cruise along the relatively flat trail, taking in all the scenery. The highlight for me was the oak-lined avenue, which reminded me of my home country, England, and the pretty riverbank. With lots of wineries – some with café and restaurant dining options – it’s a great day out. Hiring a bike is easy with multiple bike and e-bike hire operators offering pick up and drop off options. Some of the wineries offer bike hire as well.

Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua

It’s difficult to talk about bike riding in New Zealand without mentioning Whakarewarewa Forest, south of Rotorua, home to some of the world’s best mountain bike trails. For mountain bikers who love flowing, single-track trails, you’ll want to spend at least a day riding in the forest. For me, it’s a mediative place. The ginormous redwoods and the lower-level canopy of native ferns create a unique two-tiered combination. The acoustics in the forest are unique, too. I don’t know what deadens the noise, but birdsong sounds so clear, I sometimes just stop to the side of the trail and listen.

Low ferns and tall trees in the Whakarewarewa Forest near Rotorua, New Zealand.
The Whakarewarewa Forest. Image credit: Jane King

A favorite with advanced local riders is at Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve – a technical 6mi (10km) loop 16mi (26km) south of Rotorua on SH5 towards Taupo. The trail got its name from the multi-coloured soil sections which are a result of the minerals in this fascinating geothermal region.

It’s a challenging ride involving a lung-busting, steep climb to the summit viewpoint where you’re rewarded with views of the surrounding lakes and rolling volcanic hills. Then for the technical downhill over rocks and roots past geothermal features to the base of the hill, where a unique opportunity awaits – Kerosene Creek. I highly recommend a soak in this geothermally heated creek by a 6.5ft (2m) waterfall. I enjoyed sitting on some rocks in the stream right next to the waterfall, all the while pondering how crazy it seemed that hot springs fed into the cool water of the creek. I felt grateful that I was able to experience this quirky feat of nature – there aren’t many places on the planet you can do this.

The trail then continues back through native bush to the car park. The track will be slippery after rain, so be cautious and check the conditions before you ride. There are plenty of bike hire options in Rotorua.

South Island

The Dunstan Cycle Trail

Less than an hour from Queenstown in the Central Otago region of the South Island, this new 34mi (55km) trail is a point-to-point route that cuts through spectacular, mountainous, rocky terrain as it winds its way around Lake Dunstan, and alongside the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers. I was super excited to be riding the trail shortly after it opened in May 2021. Cruising along the pristine, well-groomed trail surfaces, I felt like I was on a brand-new ride at an amusement park.

A cyclist rides along the Dunstan Cycle Trail in Central Otago, New Zealand.
Halfway to Cromwell on the Dunstan Cycle Trail. Image credit: Jane King

The trail links the historic towns of Cromwell and Clyde as it passes old goldmining sites and settlements as well as the famous Bannockburn vineyards. The stories of Maori and European settlers who made this harsh landscape home are told on interpretive panels along the route – they’re well worth stopping for.

This is a well-groomed trail that you can ride in either direction. Most people ride from Cromwell or Bannockburn and finish in Clyde (famous for its hydro-dam). Shuttle transfers can be booked with Bike It Now, and both towns have great cafes and restaurants.

Much of the trail has been blasted out of steep schist rockfaces that are traversed via suspension bridges and ingenious architectural boardwalks that cling to the edge of the hillsides. I was exhilarated riding along an elevated platform that felt to me like it was floating above the shimmering blue and turquoise hues of the clear water below.

There are a few decent hills and switchbacks, but the trail designers were relatively kind with their gradients. Top tip – there’s barista coffee and treats available from a boat café, moored half-way. Check opening hours to avoid crying onto your handlebars.

Alps 2 Ocean

The Alps 2 Ocean is a great trail if you want to experience a diverse range of South Island scenery on a challenging multi-day ride, and is the longest continuous cycle trail in New Zealand.

Starting below the snow-capped Southern Alps and ending in Oamaru, a historic town on the Pacific Ocean, this 190mi (306km) trail offers views of mountains, lakes, tussock-lands, braided rivers, and vineyards.

The official start is from the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, in view of New Zealand’s highest mountain (12,316ft/3,754m) which means taking a helicopter to cross the Tasman River. I recommend starting further down the trail in Tekapo which is easier logistically, and kinder on the environment.

Lupine flowers bloom along the Alps 2 Ocean bike trail, South Island, New Zealand.
Lupines bloom along the Alps 2 Ocean trail. Image credit: Jane King

The Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail is officially divided into nine sections. It pays to note it is not all off-road trail – there are some sections of road riding. It’s possible to divide the itinerary based on the distance you would like to ride each day – just don’t forget to pre-book a transfer from wherever you finish. There are a variety of operators offering luggage transfers and a range of guided tours.

If you’re not keen to ride the full trail, I would recommend riding anywhere between Lake Pukaki, Lake Ohau, and Omarama. These sections combine the best scenic vistas with the least amount of road riding and have good accommodation options.

Ohau Lodge is bursting with old-school Kiwi character and is a great place to stay, eat, and relax, with epic views of surrounding mountains and Lake Ohau. Sitting on the deck watching the sunset with a view towards Mt. Cook while sipping a beer was a highlight for me. The hot tubs at Omarama are amazing for relaxing your muscles after a long ride – they’re private and landscaped with mountain views.

The Old Ghost Road

Following an old gold-mining route across remote wilderness in the northwest of the South Island, The Old Ghost Road is 53mi (85km) and can be ridden over 3 to 4 days. Starting at Lyell in the Buller Gorge, the trail heads north to the Mokihinui River. It’s an advanced and challenging ride with steep climbs through beech forest, exposed sub-alpine ridgelines with steep drop-offs, and technical sections. The views of the mountains and forests are out of this world.

Depending on the distances you’re happy to ride each day, there are four well-equipped hut options. Backcountry hut facilities in New Zealand are generally sparse, with bunkbeds, mattresses – if you’re lucky – and water. The four huts you can book on The Old Ghost Road have bunkbeds with mattresses, gas cooking facilities, pots and pans, plates, cutlery, and there’s even a coffee plunger. The water supply is rain-fed as you would expect in such a remote area. There are transfers and vehicle relocation operators to get you on your way once you’ve finished this epic ride. Happy trails!

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