It’s not all flow trails and bike parks, but the effort you put in rewards you tenfold on a West Coast mountain biking holiday. The dramatic landscapes lend themselves to all sorts of terrain and trail types – from snaking single-track along alpine ridges, to the satisfying tyre-crunch of beech leaves on forest trails.
And while the ‘Coast is now firmly on the map as a backcountry riding destination, there are some shorter, unexpected mountain biking surprises hiding in the hills near charming gold rush era towns.
Here are two of the top backcountry mountain bike adventures, with a handful of shorter rides thrown in for good measure.
A long-forgotten gold miners’ road brought back to life by modern day pioneers
The Old Ghost Road is a must-do backcountry adventure for confident mountain bikers. At 85 km, it’s also New Zealand’s longest stretch of single-track – ranging from fast and flowy to tight and technical.
But what really makes the purpose-built trail are the West Coast landscapes it traverses: sheer-sided valleys cloaked in misty forest, roaring rivers and tumbling waterfalls, and vast views from alpine tops. It’s a three to four-day ride, and carrying all your own gear provides a small insight into the lives of the 1900s founders of the settlements en route, whose rusty relics still sit trailside.
There might be ghost towns galore (four to be precise), but eerie silences are less common thanks to the native birdlife flourishing off the track. A predator control programme started during the trail build and riders can spot tomtits, kākā, kea, whio/blue duck, kererū, rifleman, weka and even the great spotted kiwi.
Birdsong gives way to the dramatic open tops of the Lyell Range on day one, as you climb to 1200 metres above sea level. In low visibility the ridge sections are just as thrilling, as you ride through the mist and clouds to scenic Ghost Lake Hut, where a roaring fire awaits. (Alongside a communal hut, there’s private sleepouts and even outdoor bucket ‘showers' at both Ghost Lake and Specimen Point huts, the two most common overnight stops for mountain bikers.)
Day two the fun really begins as the trail mainly descends for the next few hours on snaking single-track, punctuated by a gnarly rock garden, a short ridgeline and the infamous Skyline Steps, an engineering marvel you’ll need to master carrying your bike for. Then there’s the vast Earnest Valley, followed by towering podocarp forest with a fern-covered floor en route to Specimen Point Hut – the perfect overnight stop, with its grandstand views over the Mohikinui River’s surging white waters.
The last leg joins back up with the original gold miners’ trail alongside an impressive gorge, enhanced by modern-day engineering with suspension bridges connecting sheer faces alongside the roaring river.
Complete your adventure at the trail-end Rough and Tumble Lodge. Soothe your tired muscles in the bush shower with views of the roaring Mokihinui river. Share stories and a well-deserved pizza and beer with fellow adventurers on the sunny deck or by the blazing open fire.
● 85km/3-4 days/grade 4-5 (advanced)
● Trailheads: Lyell/Seddonville
● The Old Ghost Road traverses rugged and remote terrain. Good fitness and MTB skills are required, as well as all-weather gear.
● Book your huts via the Old Ghost Road website
From historic gold mining tracks to mountaintops, rainforest and the beach in just two days.
It might be New Zealand’s newest Great Walk, but the Paparoa Track is fast making its name as one of Aotearoa’s greatest backcountry rides. The first to be specifically constructed for all year use by walkers and mountain bikers, this well-drained 55-km trail explores varied landscapes and terrains – from a dramatic limestone gorge, to lush coastal forests and alpine tops, where views expand out over the Paparoa National Park.
Built as a memorial to the 29 miners who lost their lives in the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster, you’ll also follow the footsteps of early gold miners and West Coast settlers. Day one starts with the historic Croesus Track, one of the finest surviving examples of an old miners’ track. It’s steep, slightly rough, and winds through podocarp and beech forest, with glimpses of Blackball Creek through the trees (look out for rare blue whio bobbing in the water).
Stop for lunch at Ces Clark Hut, before passing through alpine scrub and tussock and emerging onto the main ridge of the Paparoa Range. On a clear day you’ll be treated to views usually reserved only for the most adventurous mountaineers: the backbones of the Southern Alps stretching all the way to Aoraki Mount Cook. Moonlight Hut will be your abode for the night, a modern DOC hut complete with heating, gas cookers and running water (and of course, more incredible views).
Day two, the final day for mountain bikers, winds along a steep escarpment and then alpine forest, before descending through ancient podocarp forest under towering cliffs. When it reaches the Pororari River, it sidles along a spectacular gorge before descending through beech and northern rātā. For the last section, mountain bikers ride over a low saddle into the Punakaiki River valley, where they are rewarded by deep-green pools and towering limestone bluffs graced by nikau palms and punga.
● 56km/2 days/grade 4 (advanced)
● Trailheads: Blackball/Punakaiki
● The trail along the ridge tops is exposed, be prepared to encounter changeable weather conditions at any time of the year.
● Top tip: take the high road with a heli-drop on to the track, and ride downhill back to Punakaiki in time for a sunset meal on the beach.
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If you’re more up for a shorter blast on the trails than a multi-day mission, you’ll find plenty of options on the West Coast.
Stunning scenery and relics of the past meet an array of trails
Not a well-known mountain biking hub by any stretch, Reefton’s trails are one of the West Coast’s best-kept secrets. Old tram lines and pack tracks cut by early adventurers form the base of today’s trails, close to the historic and hospitable gold mining town of Reefton. These vary from easy gravel trails and smooth single track, to technical backcountry rides.
Confident riders should check out the 14km Kirwan’s Track, which takes you up to 1,000 metres for great views, before dropping into some technical descents. Another challenging day ride, the Big River tracks take you past relics of the region’s gold mining past as you ride through regenerating native bush and beech forest. Continue past the Big River 4WD track for some flowing, gentle downhills.
For a gentler ride, Waitahu Valley is an easy 7km stretch through stunning beech forest and alongside more mining era remains. The Lookout Track (grade 2/easy) takes you on a steady but smooth climb to the best views of the ‘town of light’.
Transformed early 20th-century mining tracks make the perfect all-season riding destination
High up on the misty Denniston Plateau, 600 metres above sea level, a group of Westport mountain bikers have been busy. New Zealand’s largest producing coal mine now lies dormant, but there are new seams popping up above ground in the form of an exciting trail network.
Start with the Quarry circuit, a quick and gentle 3km introduction to the type of terrain to be expected. If you enjoy it, there’s plenty more in the same vein – all grade 2 or 3 and no longer than 10km. The sandstone surface grips well in both wet and dry weather, making it a great all-weather riding spot, while the rocky tracks make the most of the area's interesting natural features.
But what really makes the experience is the alpine ambiance, arresting views, mining relics and seeing how challenging conditions have shaped these dramatic landscapes high above the Tasman Sea. Well worth the detour off the Great Coast Road on any West Coast mountain biking holiday.