Top 10 MTB spots
Photo:Looking out to Tasman Bay from the top of Codgers, Nelson
'Here it's strange if you don't goof around in the mountains or oceans.'
New Zealand is widely regarded as one of the best countries in the world to ride a mountain bike, thanks to a winning combination of mountains, vast unpopulated areas, and an outdoor culture that supports (and funds) recreation, and that isn't suffocated by red tape and health and safety.
The UK for one could learn a lot from its distant cousin. Mountain bike clubs are funded by the state and influence policy while building and maintaining networks of trails.
This is helped by a culture where outdoor recreation is engrained. Here it's strange if you don't goof around in the mountains or oceans, and people care about what you do rather than what you own.
When people think of mountain bike destinations in NZ they think of Queenstown and Rotorua, and for good reason, but there are many other gems in both islands.
I'm not claiming to have ridden everywhere, I could do another trip solely spent in zones I ran out of time for, but I ticked off a fair number of spots both large and small.
Before I get into my favourite riding areas and attempt to pick 10 from a long list here are the candidates:
Makara Peak, Mount Victoria, Belmont Park, Dirt Farm, Te Mata, Wairoa Bike Park, Skyline Rotorua, Redwoods, Rainbow Mountain.
Victoria Park, Halswell Quarry, Port Hill, Christchurch Adventure Park, Craigieburn, Deans Bank Track, Cardrona Bike Park, Sticky Forest, Isthmus Peak, Skyline Queenstown, Seven Mile, Coronet Peak, Ben Lomond, Easby Park (Richmond), Nelson (Codgers, Maitai, Sharlands, Dun Mountain Trails, Fringed Hill), Kaiteriteri MTB park.
A few that got away (I'm sure there are more)
The Wairoa Gorge, Alexandra, Old Ghost Road, Bike Glendhu and Dunedin (although I walked a couple tracks).
Also in New Zealand reflections:
Top 10 MTB spots in New Zealand
Otaki (near Wellington), North Island
I was buzzing driving out of Wellington for the first time and to a bike park I had exclusive shuttle access to. Tim was incredibly welcoming and charismatic and it was clear his heart was in it. He sounded excited as he described the tracks he was shuttling me to and I soon discovered why.
There was no shortage of jump tracks with unique features, including a gap jump into a tight downhill berm that continued underneath the gap - appropriately named Toilet Bowl.
Sky Burial, the pro level jump line, consists of 17 jumps and step-downs that start on the large side of average and get out of hand further down the hill. This was the craziest line I’d seen outside of FEST series.
After ending up in the bushes on my first run then making the first two features clean I wanted more, but unfortunately Tim was late to a meeting and had to shoot. Just to be sure the sky sent a reminder and rain bucketing down as we left the trails. I knew I’d be back and I left feeling hyped - this was the most fun I’d had on a bike since Whistler.
Other track highlights include Green Room, which is a bit like a downhill BMX track and takes time to learn the best lines, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Borderline - a natural very steep technical trail. Since I was last there a bunch of new tracks have also sprung up, which you can check out on the Dirt Farm website.
It would be nearly five months until I returned, with five days to pick up where I left off. Unfortunately Autumn wasn't giving me a break and it was wet the entire time. With clay dirt this is a place you really need to be dry, especially for the jump trails I was here for. Hopefully I'll be back someday.
Hastings, North Island
I love finding hidden gems - a spot with barely any information about it that happens to be more or less on your way way to somewhere else you think 'yeah sweet I'll check it out, be nice to break up the drive'.
There are only a handful of downhill tracks here, but they're on a large hill with views of the ocean from the top, and the trails are accessible via smooth tracks and a road so it's surprisingly quick to get back to the top.
For a spot that's barely on the map a lot of money and time has gone into building the trails, which flow well and are a lot of fun. I was particularly surprised to find a Grade 6 'expert' trail with lots of hips, drops and a sizeable road (path) gap that felt wild. Definitely not your standard public trail centre kinda track.
The mellow lower part of the hill is littered with rollers, jumps and gaps that flow well and let you carry a decent pace.
Despite the overgrowth (due to a lack of traffic) the advanced trail was so much fun I had to squeeze in another visit before heading to Rotorua just to session it.
Rotorua, New Zealand
The bike park doesn't have the best rep among Rotorua locals, and yes Redwoods in incredible (we'll get to that), but I really enjoyed riding here - especially at the start of the season.
The runs are short for a bike park but are fast paced and there's a mix of flow trails and tech - although neither end are pushing boundaries. But that's cool, and with the speedy gondola and minimal queues meaning sub ten minute laps you can do one hell of a power hour here.
I visited Rotorua twice. The first time was near the start of the summer season in December, the second time was near the end of the season in March after a particularly dry summer. In December the trails were smooth and fast, but when I returned for Crankworx they were blown out with a deep carpet of dust.
To be fair you need rain to repair trails so the state they were in was probably unavoidable, but it's worth pointing out that the dry summer didn't have this affect on Redwoods. The gondola isn't cheap either, and unlike Skyline Queenstown, you can't pedal up the fire roads since the land is privately owned.
If you fancy a break from pedalling you'd be hard pushed to find a smaller effort to shred ratio.
Rotorua, New Zealand
I'd place Redwoods in the top three mountain biking destinations in New Zealand. The area is so huge that it takes a while to become familiar with the huge network of trails across all of it's zones, and then you discover the bike park, and then some of the many secret trails...
The variety of trails, from downhill national race tracks, to jump flow trails, to technical singletrack, is hard to beat. On top of that an uplift bus runs every day during most of the year to take you to the start of a bunch of tracks if you're feeling lazy, time restrained or just want laps of the downhill track.
The grading is soft, which is where the secret trails come in, but there are tracks that ride well all year round in all conditions.
Rotorua locals don't know how well they've got it.
Video - flow trail
Christchurch Adventure Park
Christchurch, South Island
Having spent a few weeks in Christchurch, I checked out all the mountain bike areas in the area, including the infamous Victoria Park and Port Hills, hitting up all the classics.
A lot of these local trails either felt janky and very 'local', or just weren't very exciting. Perhaps it would have been a different story if I had a local to follow but then if that what it takes for a trail to be good, then it probably isn't very good right?
Conveniently a friend I was staying with worked at the bike park and in return for making some promotional videos I got free bike park access, but that's not why I included it in this list.
As you can see from the photo above there are a lot of raw steep rock rolls and rock gardens, as well as flow trails and some nice gaps and jumps. The highlight for me though were these tech sections that felt consistently wild and somewhat unique.
An hour or so drive from Christchurch are the ski fields and beautiful mountains of Craigieburn. I had a few multi-day visits here, where I pitched up at the Mistletoe flats campsite.
Some of the tracks have signs but most do not, so finding and linking together the numerous and sometimes far between trails involves a degree of exploration. It took a couple of visits, many thousands of feet of climbing, and a long time being lost until I knew my way around the mountains and trails in the area.
The climbs were some of the longest and most gruelling I'd experienced in New Zealand; from the main road at the very bottom of Mt Cheeseman to the scree slopes at the top is six miles. Away from the fire roads I rarely saw anyone else, and you can explore above the trails on footpaths and beyond for some truly raw riding.
Not that you need to - the mountain bike trails are some of the best on the island. From flow and jumps on Dicksons DH to the steeps of Cockayne Alley and exposure on Edge Track, there is plenty to lap until your legs can't take any more.
If you enjoy adventure, aren't afraid of literally climbing mountains on your bike and appreciate solitude and views then Craigieburn should be at the top of your list of mountain bike destinations in New Zealand.
Cardrona Bike Park
Let's get the bad out the way first - the drive and the exposure to weather. Neither should be a surprise given this is New Zealand's highest bike park, but are easily overlooked nonetheless. I sure did, thinking I'd have time for at least half a day by the time I set off from Wanaka, only a stone throw away. Little did I know Google doesn't take into account the 11 mile dirt road to the park from the main road, which you ain't exactly gonna be driving at 120kmh.
By the time I did make it to the lift, frustrated by the length of the drive and reduced ride time, it hit me how much colder and windier it was up here despite it being a pretty nice summer's day. So when you plan your visit leave much earlier than you think is necessary, check the weather (especially wind) forecast, and grab a couple extra layers.
One last thing - don't bother with Boundary Rider, the expert level enduro trail starting above the main lift. Maybe things have changed since January 2019 when I visited, but if they haven't you'll spend most of your time lost and confused. If the trail still exists and you're following someone who knows where they're going then go for it though, just be prepared for some big exposure and trucking over big rocks.
My favourite track combination was Dirtstar DH to Long Black, a black/double black downhill race track that shoots straight down the mountain taking you over rock gardens, drops and jumps. Since my visit a new pro level jump line has opened, which looks really good. You can also do one of the longest official descents in New Zealand from the top of the main lift to the main road way below the bike park, which looks like a must do.
Despite my intentions I didn't end up returning, but I blame Queenstown for sucking me in and being tight on fuel money for that. My advice would be to arrive early on a stunning day, do the epic descent to the bottom and check out all of the main trails to find your fave. Do all that and you'll have a great day. Even after my short session with various mishaps I left feeling hyped.
I almost didn't include this in the list, but that's because I don't like being predictable rather than how I feel about the park. Queenstown is no doubt the most touristy place in New Zealand, and this is the most well-known bike bike in the southern hemisphere.
Surprisingly the bike park is rarely busy. Most people who ride the Gondola don't have bikes with them, and the bike park was often empty at the end of a nice summer's day, which feels strange if you've been to the Alps or Whistler. It does provide the perfect time for sessioning lines and sections of track though.
There are a lot of steep and technical tracks with some pretty wild lines to compliment the usual flow trails you'd expect at a bike park. There are also a few enduro style trails starting above the lift, including Squid Run, the infamous Salmon Run, and plenty of unofficial trails if you know where to look. You can also head across to Wynyard, or climb higher to Upper and Lower Link, an even to the top of Ben Lomond and over the other side of the valley if you're feeling adventurous. No-one will stop you pedalling up the fire roads either if the steep price of the lift pass is too much.
Made famous by the trail Rude Rock, and a national downhill race track, is another South Island gem just a stone throw from Queenstown.
I found it nice to get away from the hustle of Queenstown every now and then. It's much quieter here and when you go beyond the start of Rude Rock up to Coronet DH and Slip Saddle you'll seldom see anyone.
I did my usual thing of exploring the whole area and all of the trails, before learning many of them are overgrown and not really worth the bother. It's a shame so many people are lazy and unadventurous, as more of the trails in the area would be in a ridable state if they had more traffic.
The majority of people do a few uplifts of Rude Rock and call it a day, with a few pedalling up to Slip Saddle - a steep and technical (double black diamond) trail I rated as one of the best tracks in New Zealand.
Coronet DH is only worth riding in the weeks after a race weekend - since it starts even higher up the mountain so succumbs to nature between races when the chair lift isn't running. I guess nobody got time to pedal all that way up.
Rude Rock is mellow but super fast once you learn which blind corners you don't need to brake for, and I also enjoyed Zoot Track just after it. Skippers, which heads down the other side of the valley, is worth scoping out but the climb back to the main road up Skippers Canyon Rd isn't one you'll want to repeat. I also checked out Devils Creek track but, apart from the views from Mount Dewar (1310m), it's not worth the fight through the overgrowth.
A couple laps of Rude Rock and Zoot Track followed by a run down Slip Saddle is the one. Since I was there a new black diamond track, Pack Track and Sack, has been added to the network, which looks very promising too. Coronet Peak is also an awesome place to be at the end of a day when the sun drops.
Yes I saved the best till last.
The quality and volume of trails in Nelson totally blew my mind, quite a feat considering I’d ridden in Whistler, the Alps, the Scottish Borders and the rest of New Zealand. This has to be one of the most densely packed areas of grade A mountain bike trails in the world.
The tracks were the longest I’d encountered outside of a bike park and there was so much variety: from some of the steepest and rockiest trails I’d ever ridden, to smooth loamy single track.
There are national downhill race tracks with large jumps (Kaka DH, FDH and Broken Axe), crazy off-camber 15 minute long enduro trails (Putakari), savage rock rolls, mellow and fast flow trails (Turners), and tracks best described as a rollercoaster (DiVAS).
On top of that, there was huge variety within each track, such as Broken Axe with its super steep rocky sections, large jumps and flowy woods section.
Ten days and nearly as many full days riding later I was still discovering mind-blowing trails and my limits were constantly being pushed. The process of looking down section of track terrified, pin balling down first time, dialling it in, then doing full runs faster each time was addictive.
I was hooked. After every run I’d think of where I could hold off the brakes for longer and take better line choices. The tracks were so good they sparked a fire in me to try harder each time and take more risks; and it was rare for me to ride all out.
It seemed impossible to get bored of the riding here. I was only held back by my legs taking me back to the top. The stoke at the end of each lap propelled me up the first part of the climb before the ache in my legs returned. I was doing back-to-back days with 5-8k feet elevation without a second thought; I’d never pushed myself so hard day-after-day.