Cycling NZ's North Island: Wellington Trails

New Zealand’s capital is known for various obsessions and cycling is the newest on its list.

New Zealand’s capital has a reputation for obsessions – coffee, craft beer and the weather, to name a few. In recent years, however, cycling is the new mania that has muscled its way into the mix.

Green movement

Driven by active clubs and lobby groups, excellent cycle shops and the green movement, Wellington has seen massive growth in both urban and off-road cycling. For visitors, this means many more opportunities to explore the region on two wheels.

The trailblazer of this revolution is Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park. Around 30 minutes’ ride from the city centre, this bushy reserve is lined with more than 60 kilometres of single track ranging from easy to expert. At its pinnacle is a lookout with 360-degree views as far away as the South Island.

Built by volunteers and beloved of local riders, Makara Peak epitomises the spirit of enthusiasm and co-operation that has swept through the region, leaving in its wake an enviable bike trail network.

The great swathes of greenery cloaking Wellington’s hillsides are laced with tracks, and while the general topography might suggest climbing is inevitable, there are plenty of rides for the less energetic.

Rimutaka Cycle Trail

The Rimutaka Cycle Trail is one of 22 ‘Great Rides’ within Nga Haerenga, the national cycle trail network. Smooth and well graded, it meanders through the town and country scenery of the Hutt Valley before heading over low mountains into the lush Wairarapa plains. From there the route gets more challenging as it skirts around the wild Pacific Ocean coast.

At 115 kilometres, the Rimutaka Cycle Trail is a 2–3 day ride, with accommodation, meals and transport available. However, it’s easily broken up into sections of various lengths and levels of difficulty.

The first leg is known as the Hutt River Trail and provides an easy 3–5 hour (35km) cruise, starting just 15 minutes’ drive or public transport journey from downtown Wellington. 

Hugging the Hutt River most of the way, the trail boasts open views of the valley’s two cities and suburbs, pretty parks and reserves, and the forested ranges hemming everything in. The ride ends at Upper Hutt where there is return public transport.

The best, however, lies ahead. Known as the Rimutaka Rail Trail, the next 3–4 hour (25km) leg follows an historic railway incline through a densely wooded valley. It’s a gentle climb along even terrain, punctuated by fascinating historical displays and three spooky but fun tunnels. 

After an exhilarating descent from the summit, the trail emerges in the Wairarapa at Cross Creek from where riders can be collected. Shuttle operators will gladly deliver riders to the nearby wine-country towns of Martinborough and Greytown.

Remarkable views

Eager riders returning to Wellington along the Rimutaka Cycle Trail’s rugged and remote South Coast section will eventually reach Pencarrow Head. Atop its windswept point is a lighthouse commanding remarkable views of the treacherous and narrow entrance to Wellington Harbour – high drama on a big-sea day. 

The half-day return ride out to the head from the suburb of Eastbourne is a stunner for scenery, and also pancake flat save for the short clamber up to Pencarrow Lighthouse.

This prominent landmark signals the start of the Great Harbour Way, an almost entirely flat cycling and walking route around the entire perimeter of Wellington Harbour.

Following a mix of cycle lanes, dual-use paths and roads, the clearly signposted 72-kilometre trail is both a popular cycle commuter route and an invigorating way for visitors to come face to face with the elements that make Wellington so special.

For a taster, hire bikes on Wellington waterfront and cruise its wide wharves before heading along the Oriental Bay promenade. 

The classic flatlands tour of Wellington, however, is around the bays. Signposted by the Great Harbour Way and suitable for traffic-savvy cyclists, this ride is rich in history, wildlife, views, sculpture and fresh air.

It will take around 2–3 hours to loop back to Wellington’s central waterfront via Miramar Peninsular and the South Coast bays, but longer if you stop at one of the many fabulous cafes along the way – as you should. Not only are great food and superb espresso essential aspects of the Wellington experience, they’re vital fuel for the two-wheeled tourist. Anyone for cake?

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: