Cycling NZ's South Island: Clutha Gold Trail

One of New Zealand's Great Rides, the Clutha Gold Trail follows one of the country's longest rivers through a landscape with a rich history.

The Clutha Mata-au River is the longest in the South Island, flowing 338 kilometres from mountains to sea. It’s also one of New Zealand’s richest, brimming with distinct landscapes and attractions as well as a colourful history spanning Maori moa hunting to gold rushes and hydropower generation. Following the river, the Clutha Gold Trail offers a chance to explore all this and more.

One of the New Zealand Cycle Trail’s 22 Great Rides, the 73-kilometre trail wends between the small rural towns of Roxburgh and Lawrence. It’s smooth, gentle and easy-going, readily broken into short rides or completed in 2–4 days with an array of accommodation options and baggage transfers. Inspiring scenery, peaceful surrounds and authentic hospitality make this a journey to savour.

The Clutha Gold Trail begins at the foot of the Roxburgh Hydro Dam, within two hours’ drive of both Queenstown and Dunedin. Above the dam is the end of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, a day trip through a crazy, hidden world. The two can easily be linked, and share glittering beginnings.

Gold was first discovered in Otago in 1861 at Gabriel’s Gully, a stone’s throw from the Clutha. Prospectors soon lined the riverbanks of Central Otago, pitched up in canvas towns or sheltering in schist huts, hoping to strike it rich in tough and treacherous conditions. Many men would die before the rush was over three years later, leaving only a dogged few still on the job.

Along the Clutha Gold Trail, such flinty tales are retold in a series of information panels. The first introduces the Roxburgh Hydro Dam, a monument to a young country’s ambitions, before leading riders off downstream towards Roxburgh township.

The trail skirts the east side of the Clutha Mata-au that runs strong, swift and blue, while to the west are the round, bald peaks of the Old Man Range. It’s a dramatic backdrop to Roxburgh, home to just 500 or so and most famous for fruit orchards and Jimmy’s Pie Shop which both provide welcome sustenance for visiting cyclists. 

From the town bridge, the Clutha Gold continues to Pinders Pond, a rare opportunity to take a cooling dip safely away from the Clutha’s powerful flow. Next up is Millers Flat, little more than a clutch of cottages, grocery shop, pub and charming old campground. It began life as a stop on the local branch railway line to Dunedin, closed in 1968. 

The trail follows the disused line down to Beaumont – a handy pick-up point with a car park and pub – and trundles onward to Lawrence. Along the way it passes rickety goods sheds and other relics of the railway including Big Hill Tunnel. The trail has breathed new life into this spooky but endearing old gem.

Throughout the trail’s changing scenes are many other interesting sights. At one point in the river it’s possible to spot a sunken gold dredge, its old timbers holding up against the current. Elsewhere, short tracks lead off to Horseshoe Bend Bridge, an impressive pedestrian suspension bridge built in 1913, and the Lonely Graves that commemorate the kindness of strangers. 

The Clutha Gold Trail ends where it all began, at Lawrence, Otago’s first gold rush town. A rewarding walk can be had around its modest town centre, and honest country cooking enjoyed at a welcoming cafe.

Well-oiled cyclists will happily complete the 73-kilometre ride in two days, but starting on the Roxburgh Gorge Trail upriver is a must-do if time allows. For the ultimate two-wheeled adventure, however, add in the Otago Central Rail Trail that joins Roxburgh Gorge at Alexandra. This cruisy 150-kilometre journey through legendary ‘big sky’ country is the Great Ride that put New Zealand cycle trails on the world map.

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: