The New Zealand Cycle Trail Story

It’s well over a decade since the first of the New Zealand Cycle Trail’s 23 Great Rides opened. Since then, the trails have proven to be not only a fantastic way to explore the country but have also enhanced local communities by creating jobs, promoting health and recreation, and fostering conservation projects.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail’s genesis dates back to a government ‘jobs summit’, early in 2009.

The idea was to build a network of world-class cycle trails that would not only provide a safe and sustainable way to explore New Zealand’s special places, but also generate lasting economic, social and environmental benefits for surrounding communities.

The Otago Central Rail Trail was a major inspiration for the New Zealand Cycle Trail. The country’s first major off-road cycle touring route, opened in 2000, it repurposed a disused railway as a multi-day trail passing through a series of out-of-the-way towns. Revitalising a quiet corner of the South Island, it had also become the second-largest income earner after farming.

With this success in mind, the government committed a $50 million fund to create a continuous touring route running the length of the country.

This funding was matched by an additional $30 million from councils and local organisations, many operating at grass-root level. The Department of Conservation and other key stakeholders were also brought in to help plan the way forward.

It soon became apparent, however, that building one continuous route across the two islands was not only too ambitious, it also would bypass many of New Zealand’s most interesting places.

Restoring and extending established pathways made more sense, enabling cyclists to visit significant historic and cultural sites while traversing some the country’s most impressive landscapes. Long-established rides could also be brought into the Great Ride family, such as the Otago Central Rail Trail and the Queen Charlotte Track.

Many follow old pathways forged by early explorers and travellers, hence the official Māori name – Ngā Haerenga, ‘The Journeys’. Echoing the significance of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the premier trails in the network would be named the Great Rides.

The first sod of new trail was turned by former prime minister John Key late in 2009. Since then some of the world’s best trail designers and builders, alongside local contractors and volunteers, have bush-bashed, benched, sidled and switch-backed their way through an incredible range of terrain.

Almost 15 years later, the New Zealand Cycle Trail is now 23 Great Rides strong and totals more than 2800km – mostly off-road and showcasing the very best of New Zealand’s landscape, environment, heritage and culture.

Many also venture through less visited regions and can be ridden year-round, encouraging visitation in out of the way places outside of peak season. In 2018, more than 1.3 million trips were taken on the Great Rides by an estimated 400,000 trail users.

Capitalising on the increased access into wild places are a wide range of conservation projects, such as wetland regeneration, native replanting and pest-trapping.

In addition, more than 20 Heartland Rides have also been created and improved.  Predominantly following scenic, backcountry roads, they contribute to the long-term objective of connecting the Great Rides with the rest of New Zealand. The dream of a nationwide cycle touring route is alive and well.

Government funding of the trails is ongoing, as is the support of communities through council funding and significant contributions from local clubs and organisations, often volunteers.

Such support has spurred yet more ideas, more energy, and more enthusiasm for cycling in general. There seems no end to the trails being planned and built around the Great Rides. Throughout New Zealand, there are more people on bikes, more urban cycleways, more bike-sharing schemes, bike parking and other cycling infrastructure.

The Kennett Brothers – the tireless and influential trio who have helped propel mountain biking for three decades – continue to push the New Zealand cycling experience to the fore. Their Tour Aotearoa, a challenging bikepacking odyssey from Cape Reinga to Bluff, traverses 75% of the New Zealand Cycle Trail.

Alongside all this activity has come the hoped-for economic development through ever-growing demand for cycle-related services – from food and lodging, to bike tours and shuttles. Key cycle trail businesses have formalised their association with the New Zealand Cycle Trail via its National and Official Partners programme, working together to deliver a world-class riding experience for local and visitor alike.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail now occupies an important place in New Zealand’s tourism landscape, particularly in the area of sustainable travel, with riders able to see New Zealand with a light carbon footprint and contribute to smaller, out of the way communities through the money they spend.

There has never been a better time to ride a bike in New Zealand, but we hope this is just the beginning.