Winding around the north-western corner of New Zealand’s largest lake, this intermediate, all-seasons trail features lush forest and wetlands, waterfalls, beaches, a volcanic gorge and ever-changing views from elevated lookouts.
This trail threads around the edge of Lake Taupō – the massive crater formed through one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in history. It’s a landscape of spectacular gorges and waterfalls, lush native forest and strange rock gardens. Headlands and outcrops afford amazing views over the lake and Tongariro National Park’s volcanoes, while beautiful bays offer picture-perfect picnics and swimming.
The trail is divided into three sections, all easily accessible from the pretty lakeside settlement of Kinloch, a short drive from Taupō. Ride all three over two or three days or pick individual rides according to your fitness, experience and available time. Shuttles and a boat taxi can help you piece it together.
- spectacular gorges, ravines & waterfalls
- epic views of Lake Taupō & Tongariro National Park
- flowing singletrack on free-draining, all seasons terrain
- beautiful, tranquil bays
- native forest, wetlands & rock gardens
- swimming & picnic spots
- water taxi ride on the big blue lake
- pretty Kinloch’s cafes & waterfront park
- colourful, all-seasons riding
- fun family options
The trail’s three sections are commonly ridden as individual day rides. Full trail riders commonly complete it over 2–3 days from west to east.
The westernmost section, Waihaha, requires both a shuttle drop-off and boat pick-up. The other two sections – the Kawakawa and W2K – can be combined for a 33km end-to-end ride, with the option of adding in the awesome 9.5km Headland Loop.
Kinloch is the main transport hub for adventures on the trail. Transport logistics may seen tricky but do not be deterred. This trail offers some spectacular riding and is well worth the effort and outlay.
30km, Grade 3/intermediate, 4–5 hours
The start of the Waihaha section is 40 minutes’ drive from Kinloch at the Waihaha River car park off SH32. It ends at remote Waihora Bay, requiring a water taxi to rejoin the Great Lake Trail at Kawakawa Bay or return to Kinloch.
If you have your own transport, the best way to tackle this section is to park in Kinloch and organise for a shuttle to drop you off at the track start; the boat taxi will then drop you off back at Kinloch. Riders without transport should ask a local bike tour operator to sort their shuttle and the boat. Whatever you do, don’t let the logistics deter you – this is considered by many riders to be the best day out on the trails.
Seriously fit and eager riders can make the logistics easier by self-driving and riding the trail as a 60km return trip. Another option is to cut the ride short after 13km by cycling up a farm track (Waihaha Road) back to Western Bays Road.
The first half of this exhilarating ride follows the Waihaha River high above a pretty gorge cloaked in native bush. Rocky outcrops command grand views over the volcanic landscape, with the spectacular Tieke Falls a major highlight.
The second half of the ride is equally scenic as it meanders around the lake edge. Highlights include rocky ravines, cliff-top lookouts across the lake to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, the mysterious Echo Rock, and the trail’s descent alongside Kotukutuku Stream with its gushes and waterfalls.
The trail ends at Kotukutuku Landing in tranquil Waihora Bay where you can go for a refreshing dip while you wait for your boat.
Note that a popular option from here is to get dropped off by the boat at Kawakawa Bay, for the lovely 10km ride through to Kinloch.
19.5km, Grade 3/intermediate, 2.5–3.5 hours
The start of the Kawakawa to Kinloch section is at the Orakau car park off Whangamata Road, 20 minutes’ drive from Kinloch. Self-drivers are advised to park at Kinloch and get dropped off.
The first 10km to Kawakawa Bay also makes a nice short ride, suitable for family groups and inexperienced riders, ending in a fun water taxi trip back to Kinloch.
It’s also worth noting that combining this K2K section with W2K sections gives the longest continuous ride on the Great Lake Trail – 33km of awesome riding with an optional 9.5km on the Headland Loop to take it to the next level.
From the car park, the trail winds virtually downhill all the way to the lake on flowing singletrack, passing through wetlands and regenerating forest and over boardwalk and ravines.
Beautiful Kawakawa Bay marks the halfway point and is a great place to stop for a snack and a dip in the lake’s clear waters. There’s also a shelter and campsite here, which makes bike-packing an option for riders prepared to carry their tents and equipment.
It’s a 3km-climb via switchbacks to get out of the Bay. Then it’s a long, flowing descent towards Kinloch with plenty of eye-popping views across the lake to the western bays.
The Kinloch Store is a good place to refuel with ice cream, snacks, and wood-fired pizza in summer; the Tipsy Trout next door also serves meals and cold beer.
13–22.5km, Grade 3/intermediate, 2.5–3.5 hours
The popular W2K section can be ridden in either direction but – despite its name – is most commonly started in Kinloch. From there the options are either to ride to Whakaipo Bay (13km) and return to Kinloch via water taxi or shuttle (Whakaipo Bay has a basic DOC campground and is accessible by road); ride as far as the top of the headland and circuit the popular Headland Loop (20km in all); or ride to Whakaipo Bay and back (26km) with the option of adding in the Loop (9.5km).
From the Kinloch marina, the track climbs steadily through native bush onto the headland to meet the aptly named Headland Loop. This 9.5km trail is optional but, with stunning views out to Tongariro National Park and the Kaimanawa Ranges, it would be a shame to miss it!
Where the Headland Loop track rejoins the main trail it’s is a fast and flowing descent to pretty Whakaipo Bay, popular with swimmers, picnickers and boaties. Return the same way or await your water taxi.
Once again, this ride sees you finish in Kinloch where you can enjoy an ice cream or a meal, and watch the comings and goings on in the marina.
Each section of the Great Lake Trail makes a great half-day to full-day ride, depending on your fitness and ability. If you’re visiting from out of town, ask local bike tour and shuttle operators which ride they recommend for you.
If you’ve got your own bikes and transport and would like to avoid using local transport, these return rides are for you.
20km, intermediate, 2–3 hours
This is a really popular ride for people for independent cyclists. Kinloch’s lakefront park, next to the marina, is a pleasant place to get a coffee before you set off, and there are toilets and a playground for the kids. Older children will enjoy this ride – it’s a good one for testing skills and pushing the boundaries, especially when it comes to hill climbs and winding singletrack.
Orakau car park—Kawakawa Bay (return)
20km, intermediate, 1–1.5 hours
Starting at the Orakau car park off Whangamata Road (20 minutes’ drive west of Kinloch), the ride to Kawakawa Bay and back makes a lovely outing for family groups and inexperienced riders. It’s a super-gentle downhill all the way to the lake on flowing singletrack, while the friendly gradient also makes for an easy return journey after you’ve enjoyed picnicking and swimming at the beautiful bay.
Kinloch—Kawakawa Bay (return)
20km, intermediate, 2–4 hours
Starting from Kinloch, the K2K Track offers a lovely short ride to Kawakawa Bay and back. However, an exciting new section of trail – due to open in mid 2019 – will give riders the opportunity to ride a new 30km loop from Kinloch to start of the Orakau section to pick up the K2K section through Kawakawa Bay back to Kinlock. Watch this space!
Need to Know
FITNESS & SKILLS
Overall, the Great Lake Trail is smooth, free-draining and flowing, but moderate hill climbs, high cliffs, loose rocks and mud in some places make it most suitable for people with some mountain biking experience. Fit children over 12 should manage just fine. The trails are shared so riders should keep an eye out for walkers, especially on K2K and W2K sections out of Kinloch.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike is recommended. E-bikes are also welcomed.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
There are giant maps and information boards at the start and end of each section, all of which have good on-track signage. Carrying a trail map, however, will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with timings for transport pick-ups, etc. The map can be purchased from local bike shops and the Kinloch dairy.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The lake’s surroundings and nearby mountains are subject to a wide variety and often quickly changing weather conditions, so be sure to check the forecast in advance and pack clothing for all possibilities. The trail serves up terrific riding all year round, thanks to free-draining pumice soils. Winter can be particularly stunning when the air is crystal clear and Tongariro’s volcanoes are blanketed in snow.
DROP-OFFS & PICK-UPS
The trail’s remoteness and non-continuous nature mean that a shuttle and/or water taxi will likely be required. Riders with their own transport are best to park in Kinloch and organise shuttles to pick them up from there. The Waihaha section requires a boat transfer at the Waihora Bay end to link up with the Kawakawa section or to take riders back to Kinloch. All shuttles and boat transfers need to be pre-booked.
FOOD & WATER
Other than Kinloch where there are a couple of places to get food supplies and meals (it will pay to check ahead for seasonal opening hours), there’s no food and drink along the Great Lake Trail. Riders should therefore be entirely self-sufficient and carry plenty of water and more than enough to eat.
There is good coverage close to Kinloch on the W2K and Headland Loop; it gets patchy beyond that.
There are toilets dotted in convenient places along all trails.
Plan Your Trip
The popular resort town of Taupō is well served by transport, accommodation and other visitor services, and is therefore a logical base for Great Lake Trail adventures. There are other options closer to the trail, particularly in and around Kinloch.
The Lake Taupō gets busy during the summer season (December–March), so book well in advance if you wish to visit during this time.
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Taupō is the main gateway to the Great Lake Trail, with the trail’s hub of Kinloch around 20 minutes’ drive away. Taupō’s airport connects it to regional New Zealand; Auckland International Airport is less than five hours' drive away.
Taupō also lies on various scenic driving routes around the middle of the North Island, taking in such destinations as Ruapehu and Tongariro National Park, the Forgotten World Highway and Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, and the legendary cycle trails of Rotorua’s Redwood Forest (just an hour’s drive away). The amazing Timber Trail Great Ride is also just over an hour’s drive.
Nationwide Intercity buses link Taupō with destinations further afield, while smaller shuttle operators provide local services.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
Bike hire, shuttles and the water taxi are run almost entirely from Taupō. Fluctuating seasonal demand and the remoteless of pick-up/drop-off points makes it essential to book these services well in advance.
The cycle tour scene runs pretty hot around the middle of the North Island, thanks to the close proximity of the Great Lake and more than 100 kilometres of other trail around Taupō, along with the Timber Trail, Mountains to Sea, Rotorua’s Redwoods and the Motu Trails (particularly the legendary Pākihi). Local bike companies will happily provide advice, guiding, transport and other tour services.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
Taupō has a wide range of accommodation both in town and around, all close to cafes, a supermarket and other visitor services. Kinloch has a respectable range of (predominantly homestay) options, too, but limited capacity makes it essential to book space in advance, the earlier the better if you plan to ride in peak season (December–March).
There are two back-to-nature campsites in Kawakawa and Whakaipo Bays (restrictions apply).