Cycling NZ's North Island: Waikato River Trails

The Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river, flowing 425km from its Lake Taupo source to the outlet into the Tasman Sea.

Walking and cycle paths follow it for much of its journey through rural heartland, including the Waikato River Trails, one of New Zealand’s 22 ‘Great Rides’. 

At times smooth and gently undulating, at others steeper and a little rugged, the 100-kilometre trail has something for cyclists of most abilities, and can be easily bitten off in chunks.

It also offers much more than picturesque scenery, for the mighty Waikato River flows through eight dams to power nine hydroelectric power stations, generating 13% of New Zealand’s electricity. 

Fascinating heritage

Dams and powerhouses stand testament to this waterway’s fascinating industrial heritage, none more so than those of Arapuni, the ideal setting off-point for the Karapiro section of the Waikato River Trails. Bike hire is available at Rhubarb Cafe, as is scrumptious food and espresso that will fire up the engines.

The 26km-return ride traces the shore of Lake Karapiro, along a wide and well-graded path that begins at the spectacular Arapuni Suspension Bridge. With a span of 152m, this is one of New Zealand’s longest, built to facilitate construction of the adjacent hydropower station in the late 1920s.

The bridge affords a grand view of the starkly simple but beautiful powerhouse, nestled into the bushy gorge below. An interpretative display here is typical of the Waikato River Trails, the signage being excellent throughout and leaving little room for navigational mishaps.

Karapiro trail

The Karapiro trail takes in varying river views as it dips in and out of different types of vegetation, from regenerating forest to farm fringe. A section of boardwalk traverses Huihuitaha Wetland, one of many riparian restoration zones – more than 30,000 native trees have been planted since the trail opened in 2010. 

Another notable feature along this stretch is Little Waipa Reserve, a lovely riverside park and campground. Four similar reserves are dotted along the Waikato River Trails, providing multiple access points for cyclists, and pleasant overnight camping for tenters and motorhome travellers. 

Accommodation, supplies and vital services are available in the nearby rural towns of Tirau, Tokoroa, and Putaruru – home to the Waikato River Trails office. As well as advice and bike hire, they offer shuttle services to get riders and bikes from A to B. 

Transport is required for the Whakamaru and Maraetai sections, which combine for a 36km one-way ride along two consecutive hydro-lakes. This is a varied and memorable day out for riders of reasonable fitness.

It begins at Atiamuri, the southern end of the trail less than an hours’ drive from the resort town of Taupo. Mt Pohuturoa (520m), an ancient rock steeped in Maori history, overlooks the starting blocks from where the trail flows through pine forest with plenty of lake views.

Riders making an early start will get the best of any crystal clear lake reflections, broken intermittently by birds as they skim and skedaddle their way across the limpid water.

Prolific birdlife

Prolific birdlife along this section ranges from paradise ducks, swans, crake, herons and shags, to forest-dwelling fantails, bellbirds, quail and soaring hawks keeping a beady eye on proceedings.

This first 24km along Lake Whakamaru is arguably the most scenic stretch of the Waikato River Trail, with oft-changing vistas enhanced by brief climbs to lookout points. 

Sweeping corners, undulating terrain and tree roots require a reasonable degree of effort and vigilance overall, for which reward awaits at the homespun Dam Cafe in Whakamaru village. A cuppa and a toasted sandwich in the sunshine will see riders right for the second leg of the trip.

Beyond Whakamaru Dam the next hydrolake is Maraetai. Not only much shorter at 12km, this section of trail is wider and smoother, and gently hilly the whole way to the pretty Mangakino Lakefront Reserve.

The 70-metre-long Mangakino suspension bridge is a highlight, as are big-sky views thanks to extensive breaks in the lakeshore pine forest. Extensive weed control and new planting is a heartening sight here, and will see the banks of the Waikato continue to flourish in the years to come. 

Background: New Zealand Cycle Trail

In May 2013, the New Zealand Cycle Trail was named as one of the best cycle trails in the world at the International Trails Symposium, hosted by American Trails in Arizona. 

A network rather than one single route, The New Zealand Cycle Trail is a series of multi-day off-road trails and touring routes throughout New Zealand offering 2,500km of riding through outstanding landscapes.

A complete list of the New Zealand Cycle Trails and associated accommodation and providers is available at: www.nzcycletrail.com