Five New Zealand Great Rides for mountain bikers

New Zealand is caught up in a mountain-biking explosion, with new tracks being created and old tracks reworked at a rapid rate of knots.

New Zealand is caught up in a mountain-biking explosion, with new tracks being created and old tracks reworked at a rapid rate of knots. Leading the charge are 23 Great Rides making up the New Zealand Cycle Trail and, while not all dish up thrills to satisfy the rock-hoppers and speed freaks, there’s still plenty of tough stuff and single track if you know where to look. 

Many follow old pathways forged by early Māori and pioneer settlers, still rugged around the edges, while new purpose-built tracks tend to be flowing with friendly gradients. Some traverse remote wilderness, while others feel like a world away but have hot showers, warm beds and cold beer. Here are five recommended rides to fire you up.

Motu Trails, Bay of Plenty

Located in the blissfully beachy eastern Bay of Plenty, the Motu Trails are three distinct routes traversing the coast and penetrating deep into remote backcountry. They can be ridden as day rides or combined for a fairly hard-core two-day loop overnighting in rural accommodation.

The hub of the trails is the small coastal town of Opotiki, starting point for the Dunes Trail offering an irresistible blend of freewheeling and beach time. Fitter cyclists can venture along the peaceful, hilly Motu Road that runs from the ocean to the rugged hinterland.

The real mountain biking magic, however, is found on the Pakihi Track – a legendary 44km journey along a century-old byway twisting and turning through native forest. Its remoteness, occasional narrows and steep drop-offs make it suitable only for advanced mountain bikers, and lucky folks they are, too.

Length: 1–3 days / 91 km

Great Lake Trail, Taupo

Skirting the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake, close to downtown Taupo, this trail boasts a bedazzling mix of lush forest and wetlands, waterfalls, beaches, plus panoramic views of Tongariro National Park’s triple volcanoes. 

Most of the trail is smooth and cruisy, but some grunty hill climbs make it intermediate grade. The whole ride can be spread over two days, or broken into shorter sections of various lengths and difficulty, and using shuttles or a water taxi.

A deservedly popular option is the W2K Track, starting at pretty Kinloch and climbing around a bushy headland between Whangamata and Whakaipo Bays with the option of tagging on the Headland Loop. Lovely bush, the blue lake and some fun, flowing track make this one of the best rides in the central North Island. 

Length: 1–2 days / 71 km

Mountains to Sea, Ruapehu

Mt Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest mountain, in the heart of the volcanic plateau, signals the start of this gnarly adventure through Tongariro and Whanganui national parks all the way to the Tasman Sea.

It’s a journey rich in natural and cultural heritage. Special sights include an old cobbled road, Māori meeting houses, magnificent viaducts, and the isolated Bridge to Nowhere with its sorry tale to tell. Off-the-bike activities include kayaking and a jet boat ride down the bluff-lined Whanganui River. 

Each leg is distinct and quite remarkable, but combined they create an unforgettable epic. Ohakune’s Mountain and Old Coach Roads are an awesome day option for intermediate riders, while toughies should hone in on Fisher’s Track, a legendary downhill, or the Mangapurua, a serious mission through spectacular wilds. Prepare to be amazed.

Length: 1–6 days / 317 km

Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough Sounds

This classic mountain biking adventure leads riders through the Marlborough Sounds, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful waterways. 

The journey starts with a scenic boat cruise from Picton to historic Ship Cove in the outer reaches of Sounds, from where the trail skirts around bay after bay, linked by saddles and ridges topped with stupendous viewpoints.

Offering a mix of intermediate and advanced riding, the whole track can be completed over 2–3 days by fit riders, or broken into shorter, leisurely sections with the assistance of regular water taxis. They also ferry luggage between memorable overnight stops including nature campsites and seafront lodges, with resort lunches, kayaking and hiking all on the cards.

Length: 1–3 days / 70 km

The Old Ghost Road, West Coast

If you’re in search of the ultimate backcountry mountain bike ride, look no further than the Old Ghost Road on the South Island’s wild West Coast. But you’ll need to be fit, skilled and well equipped to tackle it.

Officially opened in December 2015, this is New Zealand’s longest single-track, which resurrects an old gold miners’ route between the ghost town of Lyell in the Buller Gorge and Seddonville near the coast. With expertly built track and comfortable sleeping huts in an environment dominated by ancient rainforest, rocky mountain tops and a rugged river gorge, this really is the cutting edge of cross-country riding.

The full trail is remote and challenging, and takes at least two days. However, return trips from both ends are richly rewarding, with scenery and stories in spades.

Length: 2–4 days / 85 km