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Best Cycle Trails

Whether you are into hopping on your bike for a meandering, fun pedal or are a passionate cyclist looking to seriously challenge yourself on extreme terrain, New Zealand is the go-to destination. Scenery of the stunning kind, roads outside of the city which range from quiet to totally empty of traffic and 1001 wonderful things to do along the way; these are enough to get most people excited when considering taking to two wheels.

This is New Zealand – the land which always seems to have something up its sleeve for all comers. Here, it takes the possibility of great cycling up a notch to present pedal heaven. The New Zealand Cycle Trails (NZCT - once called the New Zealand Cycleways) are a government initiative which by working in cahoots with councils and charitable trusts developed an incredible network of cycle routes from the top to the tail of New Zealand. Within this umbrella are tons of 'Great Rides' and a heap more 'touring routes'. The Great Rides tend to be dedicated cycleways where you won't have to fight it out with cars and lorries (in other words off road) and they also tend to run you through some of the most scenic places you could hope to find. The touring routes tend to be the links which connect the Great Rides but they have also been especially picked with the cyclist in mind – low traffic volume and heaps of scenic appeal.


Add on to all these goodies the older established cycleways such as the Otago Rail Trail or the cities such as Christchurch which has a long established 200km+ of cycle lanes and cycle-friendly facilities and you really need to know little more before you add cycling to your must-do list in New Zealand. The bottom line is New Zealand has literally thousands upon thousands of kilometres of cycleways, many of them set aside just for you, the cyclist.


You could just hop on your bike and set off from just about anywhere in this glorious country and be rewarded with lots of lovely but there are without doubt those cycle trails which really tip the scales into the realm of fantastic. We have covered some, but by no means all, of those here.


Bike Trail Grading

There is a standardised system for grading in New Zealand which makes things nice and easy when choosing a trail or route. Simply find the ones which match your own level of experience, skill and fitness and then you're set to take them on, confident you've not overstretched yourself while resting assured you won't hit nasty surprises somewhere on route.


Grade 1 – Trails suitable for all which feature wide tracks and easy going, both off road with unchallenging surfaces (which might be firm gravel) and on-road with low traffic volumes.

Grade 2 – Think Grade 1 with some gentle-climb hills thrown in.

Grade 3 – Things are going to get a little more challenging here and you won't be able to take them on unless you have a mountain bike. Off-roading tracks might be narrow and might include steep drop-offs and/or small river crossings and some surfaces might have obstacles such as rocks and roots and some looser sections. On-road parts might have slightly higher traffic volumes.

Grade 4 – Experts and experienced riders only with good levels of fitness. Expect steep climbs, narrow trails, sheer drops to the sides and many obstacles. Riding surfaces can be very poor and traction might be so challenging walking is required.


If you want to know which of the NZCTs fall into each of the grading categories above check out which lists all of the possibilities.


Cycle Experiences and Companies

If there is something you have always wanted to do New Zealand is the place to come. Here there are companies by the thousands ready to help you experience everything from learning a new skill such as climbing or surfing to helping you tick unique experiences off a bucket list such as diving with great white sharks or skydiving. Where the great outdoors is concerned there is always someone somewhere willing to help you achieve your fun at any level. Total newbie or already accomplished in whatever is your leisure pursuit of choice – here there are experts and professionals who can help you experience something safely for the very first time or guide you expertly to your next level.


So of course where cycling is concerned this is also true. You choose your level of immersion – a few hours following a wine trail or a route of historic landmarks on flat roads to multi-day tours traversing mountain ranges and territory as extreme as it comes. Everyone is invited – from those who haven't sat in a bike seat since they were a kid to hardcore kamikaze mountain bikers with lots of pedal-time under their belt.


Quite what kind of company will be best for you will depend on what kind of experience you want. Some of the companies offer cycling tours covering both long and short trips all over the country. Others dedicate themselves to being experts on just one cycle trail or region in general. Others yet may aim themselves at a more specific niche market such as those looking for the historical/food and drink/nature themed cycle tour or specialise in only low, medium or high skill level cyclists. Then there are those which offer multi-activity tours with cycling as an integral part such as Flying Kiwi.


This company, which has earned itself awards and recognition from the likes of National Geographic and other international travel industry bodies, offers short trips to those extending over 28 days. The cycling aspect – which is totally optional – is suited to all fitness and experience levels and covers options from the few kilometres road jaunt kind to all day marathons traversing all kinds of terrain and which include NZCT routes. You can choose to use the company's own bikes and equipment or bring your own along.


Another cycle tour company which have scooped heaps of industry awards and tends to elicit rave reviews from a stream of satisfied customers is the New Zealand owned and operated Haka Tours. Perfect for those who enjoy things on a more intimate level, this small-group adventure company offers mountain bike trips ranging from 5 to 16 days and include downhill, single track and back-country choices covering both the North and the South Island of NewZealand.


The Tracks – A Few of the Best

The following are listed in their general entirety and measured from beginning to end of their trails. However, bear in mind, all of them can be broken down into smaller bite-size pieces and with a few more hardcore exceptions, all of them tend to have a section or sections more suited to the beginners or less supremely fit. So, don't disregard them out of hand before checking them out further, just because here they are listed as above your experience level.


Many of the trails have their own dedicated website which is often crammed with all kinds of comprehensive facts and figures and practical details as well as heaps of great info for what you can see and do along the way. They will also give details of camp-sites, huts and other accommodation on route for multi-day journeys.


Alps to Ocean Trail – South Island

Length: 312 km

Duration: 6 days

Difficulty level: Beginners to intermediates – Grade 2 and 3

Cycle tour companies: Natural High and Adventure South



This cycle route which begins at Aoraki Mt Cook – the country's highest mountain - is not especially hard but it is very long. At 312 km this trail is the South Island's longest. Expect stunning glacial and mountain scenery including lakes, braided rivers and snow-capped peaks at the beginning as well as beautiful national park lands, dramatic cliffs and finally the Pacific Ocean as your finish point.



The Queen Charlotte Track – South Island

Length: 71 km

Duration: 2 to 3 days

Difficulty level: intermediate to advanced/Grade 3 and 4

Cycle tour companies: Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, Wilderness Guides



New Zealand's natural glory gets no better than this anywhere. Once just for walkers, the Queen Charlotte Track which joined the NZCT scheme in 2013, will take you and your bike through the breathtaking colours, serenity and scenery of the Marlborough Sounds, taking in secret coves, historic bays, verdant forest and flora and fauna aplenty.


The Timber Trail (formerly the Central North Island Rail Trail) – Waikato, North Island

Length: 87 km

Duration: 2 days

Difficulty level: experienced beginners to intermediate/Grade 2 to 3

Cycle tour companies: Tread Routes


The main theme of this easy to intermediate ride is the ancient forests you will pedal through but the major fun and adventurous parts come by way of the swing-bridges – all eight of them – which you will ride across en route. Views from these tend to be stunning.


The Old Ghost Road – West Coast, South Island

Length: 80 km

Duration: 2 to 3 days

Difficulty level: Tough! Advanced riders - Grade 4

Cycle tour companies: Sacred Rides Website:


If you like your mountain biking intense and far from civilisation this might be the one for you. Widely accepted to be one of the toughest trails in New Zealand, this relic-strewn historic gold-mining route regularly gets described as both wild and awe-inspiring and involves ridge riding, some forest and a serene lake section.


Otago Central Rail Trail – Otago, South Island

Length: 150km

Duration: 2 to 3 days

Difficulty level: Easy as it gets – Grade 1

Cycle tour companies: Adventure South and Trail Journeys



If you want to take on a long ride which is all off-road but don't want anything requiring too much skill or exertion the Otago Central Rail Trail is a great choice. Following the old Otago Central Railway route, you will meander your way past, through and across old historic gold-mining villages, country pubs, rugged scenery, swing-bridges, forests, wetlands, volcanic rock formations and........well a little of everything really. There are some great off-trail shoots to take which lead to all kinds of adventure and tucked away gems.


The Motu Trails – Eastland, North Island

Length: varies from 10km to 67km – 120km in entirety when linked

Duration: Short jaunt to 3 days

Difficulty level: Easy, intermediate and advanced – Grades 2 to 4

Cycle tour companies: Adventure South Website:


A wonderful take-your-pick option for riders of all levels, the Motu Trail is made up of 3 separate sections, each with their own title. There is the short and easy, fun beach dune section known as the Dune Trail. There is the partly non off-road and spectacular Motu Road Trail which goes up one level (quite literally too – to 750m high) and is 67km long. Then there is the advanced part known as the Pakihi Track which is 21km long and features riding with stomach-lurching side drop-offs.


Dun Mountain and Tasman Cycle Loop – Nelson, South Island

Length: 43km

Duration: 1 day

Difficulty level: intermediate to advanced – Grade 3 to 4

Cycle tour companies: Gentle Cycling Co., Trail Journeys and Wheelie Fantastic Cycle Tours Website: None specific but all details on the NZTC website -


There are some great views up for grabs as you climb your way to the 1129m peak of Dun Mountain and of course the great thing here is that the way home via a loop trail is all downhill. In fact, this track features one of the longest downhill mountain bike sections you'll find anywhere in New Zealand. If things aren't difficult enough for you take a detour on the Codgers Trails – part of the first section – and enjoy some extreme challenges aimed at the experts and the hardcore.


St James Cycle Trail – Canterbury, South Island

Length: 66km

Duration: 1 to 2 days

Difficulty level: Easy to lower level intermediate – Grade 2 and 3 Website: None specific but all details on the NZTC website -


Fancy some mountain biking fun but well aware you're no expert? No problem. Head along to Canterbury and get pedalling on the St James Cycle Trail – the first of the Great Rides to open. There are a few bits which offer something in the way of challenges so you're not going to be bored and there are tons of treats in the high-country, wonderful scenery category. Do things the right way round and your journey will finish in Hanmer Springs where you can soak away the aches and pains of your achievement in the hot pools.

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