This trail through the North Island’s rural heartland follows a stretch of the mighty Waikato River as it flows through striking hydro dams, and pools into tranquil lakes.
The trail passes through exotic and native forest, wetlands and pretty recreation reserves. Memorable sights include volcanic outcrops and a gorge, hydropower stations and dams, suspension bridges, and riverside villages with welcoming cafes. The journey is enriched by flourishing native birdlife and vegetation, along with the strong sense of community spirit that surrounds the trail as a whole.
Mostly smooth and gentle with some more challenging terrain, the trail is divided into five sections. Multiple access points make it easy to tailor a ride for most abilities and itineraries, while shuttles, accommodation, cafes and bike hire make logistics a breeze.
- mid-century hydropower dams & power stations
- Arapuni Suspension Bridge – 152m long and over 50m high
- serene riverside reserves with picnic spots & camping
- native plant restoration & flourishing birdlife
- wetland boardwalk
- Pōhaturoa Rock (520m)
- riverside villages with welcoming cafes
- stretches of flowing, forested singletrack
The trail is split into five sections, each named after the lake it runs alongside. The lakes are man-made, formed as the Waikato River pools behind a sequence of hydro dams built between 1924 and 1966. Interpretation panels tell their fascinating stories and much more.
The sections are described here in an approximately north to south direction, although all sections can be ridden in either direction – there are a few ups and downs no matter which way you go!
The whole trail can be completed in 2–4 days, with local bike companies assisting with transport and other logistics. The trails, however, are often ridden as day trips, either one-way or return from various recreation reserves and car parks dotted alongside. (A couple of popular options described in the Day Rides section below.)
Karapiro (Pokaiwhenua Bridge—Arapuni Village)
11.5km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1–2 hours
From the Pokaiwhenua Bridge car park the first half of the trail follows an easy path beside the road, before winding beside Lake Karapiro for the rest of the way to Arapuni.
As the trail nears the village it crosses the Huihuitaha Wetland via 500 metres of boardwalk. This allows riders to pass through the area without damaging this special (and regenerating) riparian habitat.
Even if you’re not heading to Arapuni’s Rhubarb Cafe (highly recommended), it’s essential to experience the knee-wobbling crossing of the Arapuni Suspension Bridge. The bridge was built in the 1920s so construction workers could get to the power station site. At 152m long and over 50m high, it’s one of the longest pedestrian (and cycling!) bridges in New Zealand.
Arapuni (Arapuni Village—Waipapa Dam)
36km, Grade 4/advanced, 2.5–4.5 hours
This is one of the most challenging but varied sections of the Waikato River Trails.
Starting at the village, the trail hugs Lake Arapuni along a particularly pretty stretch of trail to reach Jones Landing, a pleasant recreation reserve.
The trail then joins country roads for around 17km before rejoining the lakeside path. The road section involves a gradual 15km climb, broken around the halfway point by Jim Barnett Reserve – a good place to reset awhile amidst pretty picnic spots, campsites and forest featuring a 1000-year-old tōtara tree.
After descending 2km via a series of switchbacks, it’s largely easy riding along the lakeside to Waipapa Dam. Along the way is the thrilling 82m-long, 42m-high Mangarewa Suspension Bridge.
Waipapa (Waipapa Dam—Mangakino Lakefront)
19km, Grade 4/advanced, 2–3 hours
This remote, fun section undulates in a generally uphill direction, with the occasional steep section giving it its Grade 4/advanced rating.
The trail follows custom-built singletrack and flowing forestry trails through a mix of exotic and regenerating native bush.
Note that once on the trail, there’s no way off, except at Maraetai Dam where it joins the road for the last 3.5km to the pleasant lakefront reserve.
Maraetai (Mangakino Lakefront—Whakamaru Dam)
12km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1–2 hours
This moderately technical leg is mostly an easy ride, but the occasional steep section and tight corner ramp it up to Grade 3 (intermediate).
It starts by climbing gently towards Whakamaru Dam with lovely views along Lake Maraetai.
Around the midway point is a graceful, 70m suspension bridge crossing the Mangakino Stream. This leafy part of the trail has been beautified even further by the thousands of trees planted as part of the Waikato River restoration project.
Whakamaru (Whakamaru Dam—Atiamuri Bridge)
23.5km, Grade 3/intermediate, 2–4 hours
The southernmost section starts at Whakamaru Dam, although many riders actually start at the nearby Dam Cafe in the village.
The trail follows the lake edge, initially passing through Lake Whakamaru Reserve – a popular summer camping spot planted with magnificent mature pine trees.
Around midway, bluffs rise dramatically from the lake providing a stunning backdrop, while just shy of Atiamuri, is the magnificent and culturally significant Pōhaturoa Rock, lifted by volcanic forces and weathered by the elements over the millennia.
The trail ends at the Atiamuri Bridge car park, a common pick-up or drop-off point for shuttles.
The Waikato River Trails can be split into a variety of day ride options; here we describe some popular ones including return rides avoiding the need for pick-ups or drop-offs.
Arapuni—Lake Karapiro (return)
23km return, intermediate, 2–3 hours
One of the most popular rides is the half-day return trip from Arapuni Village, starting with coffee or brunch at Rhubarb Cafe and lofty Arapuni swing bridge. Although Grade 3 and undulating, the trail is suitable for most abilities.
24km, intermediate, 2–4 hours
This return ride is thoroughly enjoyable in either direction, with the bonus of easy parking and a cafe at each end. You’ll earn your coffee and cake on the occasional steep section, but the ride is mostly gentle with lovely views along Lake Maraetai, a graceful 70m suspension bridge, and the feel-good factor of the Waikato River restoration project plantings. Local cycle tour companies can sort you out with bikes.
Need to Know
FITNESS & SKILLS
The Waikato River Trails sections range from intermediate to advanced. While most it is wide and smooth custom-built track, there are some steep sections with tight corners and big drop-offs, as well as on-road sections (especially on the Arapuni and Waipapa sections) where extra care is needed. Overall the trail is best suited to reasonably fit cyclists with some off-road experience.
TYPE OF BIKE
A mountain bike is recommended. E-bikes are also permitted.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted and frequently passes within sight of roads and villages, carrying a map will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with timings for shuttle pick-ups, etc. An overview map and individual ones for each section can be downloaded from the official trail website, where the latest track status and updates can also be found.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The region’s temperate climate makes this an all-seasons trail, although parts of it can get muddy in winter (June–August). Riders should, however, always check the forecast and pack clothing appropriate for the conditions. A hat and sunscreen are essential in the summer months.
FOOD & DRINK
It’s possible to get basic groceries and refreshments in the villages along the way, namely Arapuni, Mangakino and Whakamaru where there are taps to fill your water bottles. We recommend, however, that you carry plenty of snacks and drinks to keep you fueled up; this is especially important out of peak season when some cafes and shops run on limited hours.
Cellphone coverage is reasonably reliable on the Karapiro, Whakamaru and Maraetae sections. It gets patchy beyond there, particularly on the Arapuni and Waipapa sections.
Toilets are located at the villages and recreation reserves along the trail.
Plan Your Trip
The Waikato River Trails are located in the middle of the North Island, conveniently close to State Highway 1, the city of Hamilton, and the popular tourist towns of Rotorua and Taupō where there’s lots more great riding to be had. There are small-scale but helpful services all around the trail; it will pay to book advance for both the busy summer period, and the quiet winter months when some businesses run on limited hours.
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The Trails can readily be accessed from State Highway 1 through the middle of the North Island, with the closest towns Putaruru and Tokoroa. Hamilton, Rotorua and Taupō are also close by, all of which have regional airports. Auckland airport is around 2–3 hours drive away.
Various scenic highways through the middle of the North Island take in many major sights – such as Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves – along with other notable cycle trails including the Great Lake Trail, Timber Trail and Rotorua’s famous Redwoods.
Nationwide Intercity buses service all the towns along State Highway 1, while smaller shuttle operators provide local services.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
Casual bike hire is available on the trail in Arapuni and Mangakino. Based in larger towns close to the trail are shuttle operators who can provide bikes and transport, with some offering tour services such as luggage transfers and accommodation bookings.
Several national bike tour companies also offer guided and other package trips on central North Island trails, with Rotorua, Taupō and Auckland popular departure points.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
Cyclists can stop overnight in lakeside campgrounds and lodges along the trail, or arrange shuttle transport to other accommodation nearby.
Note that the villages on the trail relatively small with limited visitor capacity, so it will pay book in advance regardless of the time of year.
There are also council-run campsites along the river: Jones Landing, Little Waipa Reserve, Dunham’s Point Reserve, Whakamaru Recreation Reserve or Mangakino Lakefront Reserve.
The nearby State Highway 1 towns of Putaruru and Tokoroa have a wider range of options. The popular tourist hubs of Rotorua and Taupō (both within an hour’s drive) may appeal to riders looking for more adventure around the middle of the North Island, but be sure to book in advance for accommodation there during peak season (January to March).