Cycling trails in New Zealand's South Island

New Zealand’s South Island has some of the world’s most spectacular and varied mountain biking tracks and trails.

Cycling in this part of New Zealand offers some singularly Kiwi experiences - like packing the bike into a helicopter for a high country adventure, pedalling back through time into gold mining days, or free wheeling in a famous movie location.

While keen cyclists can choose challenging multi-day alpine tracks, there are also many quiet country roads, long coastal trails and dedicated cycling tracks that provide easy riding for the less experienced.

Most tracks are open year-round, but some trails in remote or mountainous regions may be closed for winter months. Multi-day tracks offer a variety of basic and luxury accommodation, cafés and food stops.

Marlborough - outdoor playground

Marlborough - an outdoor enthusiast’s playground on the northern South Island coast - is home to the Queen Charlotte Track.

New Zealand’s most popular ‘great walk’ is also open to mountain bikes from March until November. The 71km track is a two to three day ride for intermediate to experienced mountain bikers, and offers a stunning coastal landscape, diverse native bush and wildlife. It also has comfortable lodge accommodation and a pack carrying service.

West Coast cycling trails

The South Island’s remote West Coast region lays claim to some of the best mountain biking in New Zealand.

In the Oparara Valley - a wilderness conservation area north of Karamea - a major community effort has opened 15km of old logging tracks for walking and mountain-biking.

North of Westport, the Denniston Plateau has some well formed mountain biking tracks of various grades on old mining trails that have been developed by mountain bikers and the Department of Conservation.

Further south and near Blackball, the famous grade 4 Croesus Track is a one-day 38km return track (grade 4) that travels an old mining trail through forest. This trail is for experienced riders prepared for a rough, steep track that’s listed as "mostly rideable". From the high point above the bushline, the return ride is described as "a fantastic ride, becoming quite technical at speed".

The Hokitika hinterland also has a range of trails, including the grade 4 Kaniere Water Race which is a 1 - 2-hour 10km ride that ranges from easy to demanding.

Christchurch - Canterbury trails

Mountain biking adventure and relaxation go hand in hand at Hanmer Springs - in Canterbury hill country north of Christchurch - where cyclists can finish their day on the rugged all-weather mountain tracks of the Hanmer Basin with a relaxing bathe in the hot rock and sulphur pools at the famous thermal springs. There are tracks for all levels of cyclists.

Christchurch city has 100km of hill, forest and coastal tracks with huge panoramic views. Riders on the Crater Rim track in the Port Hills can follow a track around the edge of an old volcano - between a turquoise harbour and snow-capped mountains - and finish off with either a surf or paddle in the sea at Taylors’ Mistake.

Wanaka heli-biking

Lake Wanaka, in the South Island’s southern lakes region, has alpine and heli-biking tours daily into New Zealand’s highest mountain biking tracks that promise adrenalin-pumping action in an impressive alpine tussock country setting. There are tracks suitable for all riding abilities - and plenty of opportunities for quiet contemplation while admiring the spectacular views - but heli-bikers need intermediate skill level and reasonable fitness.

For the less experienced, Wanaka also has easy tracks around the lake and down the braided rivers, including a long off-road ride from Glendhu Bay, around Lake Wanaka, and down the rocky Clutha River to Lake Hawea.

Otago Central Rail Trail

Otago Central Rail Trail, in the central South Island, is New Zealand’s most popular existing cycling trail, and every year thousands of Kiwis and visitors complete the three-day journey through 150km of memorable scenery and gold mining history.

The route follows an old railway line, has no steep hills and many welcoming stop-offs where cyclists can soak in southern hospitality and scenery. Local tour operators organise accommodation, bike hire and bag transfers.

The Clutha Gold Trail from Lawrence offers 73km of grade 2 easy riding on a meandering well-formed trail folllowing the banks of the Clutha River through a spectacular tapestry of landscapes that was once the scene of a major gold rush. The two to four-day ride is a heritage experience showcasing the history of early Maori moa hunters, Roxburgh Dam, and continues on to the Otago Central Rail Trail at Alexandra.

Queenstown alpine runs

New Zealand’s adventure capital Queenstown has mountain biking trails for all skill levels. At Skippers Canyon, the old pack-track offers an historical experience, and Bob’s Peak has a challenging descent.

The Wynyard Express DH track and freestyle area is a favourite with adrenalin junkies that’s become internationally renowned for its freestyle / slopestyle jumps. Take the car to the top, and roller coaster back down the hill.

Real Journeys has launched a guided cycling excursion on the gently rolling western shores of Lake Wakatipu. From spectacular Mavora Lakes, cyclists pass through beech forest and alpine tussock lands to Mount Nicolas and Walter Peak high country farms. Moderate fitness is required but the tour can be personalised for different riding abilities, and runs from November to April. There is also an independent cycling option.

Fiordland world heritage

From the northern Fiordland side of Mavora Lakes park, adventurous cyclists can take on an impressive landscape of mountains, lakes, forest and tussock grassland that is part of the remote Te Wāhipounamu / South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The track is only suitable for summer expeditions but there are three DOC huts on the rough 16km 4WD track that crosses the Mararoa river and Windon Burn, so cyclists have the option of staying overnight.

More information

Otago Central Rail Trail

New Zealand cycleway offers off-road appeal

North Island cycling trails