Cycling NZ's South Island: Nelson Trails

In a nation vying for the crown of world’s best cycling destination, Nelson goes for gold by offering so many rides it’s hard to know where to start.

In addition to a heavenly combination of great weather and well-developed trails, the South Island region ices its cycling cake with splendid scenery and welcome pit-stops such as wineries, breweries, cafes and art galleries.


Nelson city has emerged as one of New Zealand’s most cycle-friendly places to visit and live. For travellers, a series of six urban rides provide safe, scenic routes to popular attractions such as Founders Heritage Park, Tahunanui Beach and the Maitai River swimming holes. A range of bikes can be hired from the UBike caravan near the i-SITE visitor centre. 

On the city fringes are numerous mountain bike tracks, suitable for beginners through to super-fit experts. Just ten minutes’ ride from the centre of town, Codgers Track offers a brief and relatively easy introduction to Nelson’s off-road terrain.

Connecting with Codgers is Dunn Mountain Trail, a hard ride softened by a moderate climb following a well-graded historic tramline route. As well as interesting relics, this celebrated trail features eye-popping, ever-changing scenery – from an alpine rock garden to faraway views of big, blue Tasman Bay. 

Nelson offers some truly great rides, but they’re only the tip of a region-wide iceberg, growing every year. A noteworthy new addition is Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, one of 22 ‘Great Rides’ within Nga Haerenga, the national cycle trail network. 

The Great Taste Trail

Looping far and wide between Nelson city and Motueka – the region’s second-biggest town – the Great Taste Trail is a clearly signposted pathway passing through picturesque countryside dotted with small villages, and along the sparkling Tasman Bay coastline. Few other New Zealand cycle trails are so generously endowed with scrumptious food and drink. Nor are they this easy: it’s mostly wide and flat, with a couple of heartier climbs for eager riders.

The trail can easily be broken into short sections and picked up at various points, to form a circuit or connect with return shuttle transport. Tours are also widely available, both guided or self-directed. 

For a grand day out from downtown Nelson, head toward the wineries around Brightwater, or to Rabbit Island recreation reserve where you can catch a ferry to Mapua, a popular place for waterside dining.

Well set up for travellers, Motueka makes a great base for cycling adventures. Explore the township on a short, easy loop taking in the buzzy high street and waterfront, or discover more Great Taste Trail country further afield. This richly fertile area is a bountiful fruit bowl, laden with orchards, berry farms and hop gardens. Fresh produce stalls abound.

The Great Taste Trail continues through to Kaiteriteri, a holiday hotspot and gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. This intensely scenic leg follows a coastal cycleway before cruising the sweeping curves of Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park. The gentle hill-climb rewards with spectacular Tasman Bay views.

Three national parks

The Nelson–Tasman region boasts three national parks, all of which offer cycling opportunities. The most famous of these is Kahurangi National Park’s Heaphy Track, considered New Zealand’s ultimate off-road ride by many a Kiwi mountain biker. A reasonably hard-core single-track taking 2–3 days, the trail takes in the diverse and endlessly interesting landscapes of this legendary 78-kilometre ‘Great Walk’. Cyclists can only ride the track from May to September, when hiker numbers are low.

The Heaphy Track is accessible from Golden Bay, an hour’s drive over the hill from Motueka. A small region big on farming, art, and alternative lifestyles, the Bay is heaven for cyclists. Not only does it have plenty of quiet, flat roads with glorious mountains-to-sea scenery, it’s the location of several notable mountain bike rides, including some rough ‘n’ tough fun stuff up at Canaan Downs (as seen in The Lord Of The Rings) and the Rameka, a technical and epic cross-country downhill. 

Cycling destination

Further inland, Nelson Lakes National Park is growing in stature as a cycling destination. Easy rides can be enjoyed around St Arnaud township, Mt Robert Road, and the Conservation campsites at Kerr and West Bays, while nearby are the Teetotal Trails offering options from easy to advanced. Exciting new tracks are planned around the foothills of the St Arnaud Range.

New Zealand has gone bike-mad, off the back of scenery that just begs to be seen on two wheels. This is great news for travellers, because there’s simply no better way to see more and do more, in a healthy, sustainable way.

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: