The trail that inspired the creation of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network, the Otago Central Rail Trail follows the old railway line between Clyde and Middlemarch.
It boasts a truly memorable blend of natural beauty, fascinating history and a series of friendly towns. The classic experience is to ride it over several days, but the trail can be easily broken into shorter rides to suit individual interests and itineraries.
There’s so much to see and do on and near the trail, including spectacular railway bridges and tunnels, abandoned gold diggings, and historic architecture from art deco municipal buildings to rustic farm yards. There’s also plenty of opportunity to taste Otago’s celebrated local flavours in country cafes, wineries and more.
- Central Otago’s striking landscapes
- railway stations, tunnels & viaducts of yesteryear
- rustic remnants of the gold rushes
- seasonal colours – from summer gold to winter white
- spectacular riverside & gorge scenery
- historic Hayes Engineering & Homestead – the ‘home of Kiwi ingenuity’
- stargazing into brilliant night skies
- scrumptious local food & wine
- warm & welcoming hospitality
- high-country farming heritage
- the model planets of the Interplanetary Cycle Trail journey through space
- easy riding, more sights, maximum fun
Cyclists riding the whole trail can start from either end, with shorter trips easily created via various access points along the way. A host of operators make for easy logistics ranging from shuttle transport and luggage transfers, to multi-day independent and guided tours including all accommodation and meals.
There’s so much to see and do on or near the trail, from poking around old gold diggings to visiting New Zealand’s only international curling rink. So it will pay to factor in plenty of free time. This is a journey to savour and best enjoyed as slow as your itinerary will allow.
25km, Grade 1/easiest, 2–2.5 hours
Allow plenty of time to explore historic Clyde before you set off; an overnight stay is ideal as you’ll leave energised and refreshed, and possibly full of delicious food served in the town’s excellent eateries.
The trail is well signposted from the centre of town. A wee way along, the trail crosses its first railway curiosity – Muttontown Viaduct – one of the trail’s only two wooden trestle bridges without stone abutments. (Don’t worry if this fact goes over your head – you’ll likely know your trestles from your tresses before this journey’s over!)
Orchards, vineyards and pasture line the route to Alexandra, the trail’s largest town, from where it heads through old gold diggings and high country farms – home to the world’s finest merino sheep.
Schist outcrops scraggle a landscape cut through by the willow-lined Manuherikia River. This section conveniently ends at Chatto Creek where there’s a charming country pub.
19km, Grade 1/easiest, 2–2.5 hours
The trail continues through the irrigated lower Manuherikia Valley before ascending the sweeping S-bend up Tiger Hill.
At the town of Omakau, riders can detour to a noteworthy old bridge and yet another charming country town, Ophir. It boasts particularly well-preserved mud-brick and stone buildings dating back to the gold rush, including the particularly photogenic Post Office.
Back at Omakau, the trail meanders through a lovely open landscape flanked by the Dunstan and Raggedy Ranges. At Lauder, admire a clutch of rustic old buildings and breathe in the crisp air – said to be some of the purest on the planet.
22.5km, Grade 1/easiest, 2–2.5 hours
As you set off on this easy roll through rugged terrain, spare a thought for the 300 workers who took three years to build the two tunnels and two impressive bridges along the way. Manuherikia No.1 Bridge is first up, from where the trail climbs gradually into the stunning Poolburn Gorge to pass through the two tunnels the cut through sheer schist – 201m and 230m long respectively.
The trail then crosses the 108m-long Poolburn Viaduct before descending past the old Auripo and Ida Valley stations, and Ida Burn Dam where the ancient sport of curling is played when it freezes over.
Oturehua is a veritable goldmine of local history – don’t miss Hayes Engineering Works & Homestead and the totally eye-popping Gilchrist’s Store.
From Oturehua, it’s possible to take the highly recommended detour to St Bathans – worth visiting for its eerie man-made lake (great for swimming) along with a clutch of historic buildings including a crusty pub. It’s a 20k ride to get there, some reasonable hill climbs en route. Bike back to Oturehua for a 40km total detour, or rejoin the trail further east at Idaburn, a 39km total detour. (Local shuttle companies can also transport you there from Oturehua, Wedderburn or Ranfurly if you’re not up for the ride.)
25.5km, Grade 1/easiest, 2–3 hours
The latitude line of 45 Degrees South is the first notable landmark beyond Oturehua, followed the intersection with Reefs Road where a detour may be made to the Golden Progress Mine site and its wooden poppet head.
There are splendid views of the Hawkdun and Ida Ranges as the trail climbs gently to its high point of 618 metres above sea level.
A little further along is the tiny Wedderburn Goods Shed made famous by lauded landscape artist Grahame Sydney. It’s a good spot for contemplation before the cruise downward across the Maniototo Plains.
Before you hit Ranfurly, it’s worth considering a side-trip or overnight stop in Naseby. Around 10km off the trail (a detour not particularly well signposted, so take a map), Naseby is a little winner with its two lovely old pubs, indoor curling rink, unusual swimming dam, and forested MTB trails suitable for all ages.
Another 25km on from Naseby is Dansey’s Pass, a one-horse town well off-the-beaten-track, famous for its rustic hotel. Unless you’re super fit and eager, the distance and nature of the terrain make this detour best suited to driving.
Back on the main trail, this section ends at the sweet little country town of Ranfurly, notable for its art deco architecture and a smattering of serviceable shops and cafes.
32.5km, Grade1/easiest, 3–4 hours
This section offers broad views of the Kakanui Mountains and Ida Range as it heads towards Waipiata, where it’s worth cycling up to the historic cemetery for expansive views of the surroundings.
As the trail leaves the Maniototo Plain, it skirts the sunken depression where Lake Taieri used to be before it was silted up by gold miners. Dunedin’s grand railway station was built from basalt rock from around here.
The trail passes yet another rustic railway shed at Kokonga, then enters the upper Taieri Gorge. This pretty section passes the old Red Dwarf gangers’ hut at Daisybank, and Tiroiti there’s a well-preserved stone bridge with iron trusses. Further along at Price’s Creek is a notable viaduct followed by a 152m-long, fully bricked tunnel.
The trail then enters the open and dramatic country of Strath Taieri Plain, the cone-shaped hills to the east caused millions of years ago by erupting volcanoes. The old gold mining town of Hyde is a popular place to break the journey, with the recently restored railway station a popular meeting point and rustic accommodation dotted around.
27.5km, Grade 1/easiest, 3–4 hours
It’s a gentle roll across the Strath Taieri Plain and its many bridges and culverts. Just south of Hyde Station, a memorial cairn commemorates the site of the region’s worst rail disaster in which 21 were killed, in 1943.
The trail traverses the foothills of the 1400-metre high Rock and Pillar Range with its huge rocky outcrops, before meandering through the valley’s productive farmland to the Ngapuna Station site. In the east is the 700-metre high Taieri Ridge.
The Otago Central Rail Trail finally reaches its end at Middlemarch. Built in 1891, the railway station is still in use as the terminus of the Taieri Gorge Railway, a scenic tourist service between Middlemarch and Dunedin. Running on certain days during summer only, the train caters to cyclists and their bikes, and it is a fitting way to start or finish the Otago Central Rail Trail journey.
The Rail Trail’s proximity to Central Otago’s main highways makes it easy to jump on and off for spectacular day rides, including return rides or loops reducing the need for pre-planned transport. Conveniently located bike hire, shuttle transport and tour operators make logistics a breeze. Here are just a few suggestions.
26km, easy, 3–4 hours
Making use of bike hire in Omakau (where it’s also possible to have a river swim, pre- or post-ride), this popular return ride takes riders through the schist-lined Poolburn Gorge with an optional side trip to historic Ophir.
47km, easy, 4–5 hours
This grand day out starts with one of the trail’s highlights – the Poolburn Gorge – before venturing through two tunnels and across a viaduct. Enjoy lunch at Lauder or Omakau, then cross over Tiger Hill, through Chatto Creek, the follow the Manuherikia River all the way to Alexandra. Tour operators will happily drop you off at Auripo, allowing you to ride at your own pace back to Alex without worrying about a pick-up.
30km, easy, 3–4 hours
Visit Hayes Engineering Works & Homestead and Gilchrest’s Store in Oturehua before heading out to the Poolburn Gorge, through Lauder, and on to Omakau for swim, cold beer or ice cream. Near Omakau, it’s also possible take the short detour to Ophir. If you want to make a bigger day of it, get dropped off at Wedderburn, the highpoint of the Otago Central Rail Trail. It’s pretty much all down hill from there!
20km, easy, 2–3 hours
Enjoy a cafe lunch or wine tasting on this memorable and easy loop along both sides of the river via the Rail Trail and Alexandra 150th Anniversary River Track. (Note that the Anniversary Track is a bit narrower with tighter corners and best suited to experienced riders.)
Hyde Station—Daisybank (return)
25km, easy, 2–3 hours
Historic Hyde Station, complete with old wagons on the siding, is a neat place to start this journey through the Upper Taieri Gorge – tunnels, bridges, Wild West scenery – picnic by the river, then admire the scenery in reverse as you return.
Need to Know
TRAIL STATUS & ALERTS
FITNESS & SKILLS
This is one of the easiest Great Rides, suitable for riders of all ages and abilities; it’s a terrific choice for family groups, and older or rusty riders. It has a smooth, wide surface with some loose gravel in places. There are no especially steep climbs but some inclines are very long, making a degree of fitness desirable.
While the trail is easy, it is long. How far you will travel in one day depends on your level of fitness. When cycling the average speed for most of us is 10km per hour, many people allow 3–5 days. The average walking pace is 4–6km per hour, allow at least 6 days.
TYPE OF BIKE
A hybrid or mountain bike is recommended. E-bikes are also permitted.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although well signposted and seldom far from roads and settlements (some with cafes), a map will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with timings for lunch stops, shuttle pick-ups, etc.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The trail can be ridden at any time of year, with each season coloured with a striking palette. Summer temperatures can reach 35 degrees, making a hat and sunscreen essential along with plenty of water. The weather is generally favourable in Autumn, and in Spring when a warm westerly is common.
Temperatures reach freezing in winter, when some sections may be slower going due to snow cover. The pay off is solitude and simply stunning scenes of snowcapped ranges, plus opportunities for curling, ice skating and skiing (the nearest ski field being Coronet Peak, just over an hour’s drive from Clyde).
Note that many trail-related businesses are closed during the low season, mid May to the beginning of September.
Regardless of the season, temperatures can fluctuate drastically during the course of a day, so be sure to carry clothing to suit a range of temperatures. Be sure also to check the forecast, and ask locals about making the most of prevailing wind directions – they can make a big difference in this wide, open country.
FOOD & DRINK
Cafes, restaurants, wineries and grocery shops stocking pies and ice cream are a major feature of the Otago Central Rail Trail. With good planning, you can hit the best spots at the best time – from morning coffee and brunch, to vineyard lunches and a cold one (or two) at beer o’clock. (Note that some run on limited hours or even close during the low season.)
However, there are long stretches of trail without any food or water, so plan ahead and pack plenty of snacks and drinks.
It is essential to carry lots of water with you, especially on hot summer days. Fill up your water bottles before you leave your accommodation each day, and refill (or purchase more) as you pass through settlements along the trail.
Cellphone coverage is decent for the majority of the trail, but gets weak or non-existent in more remote sections.
Toilets are located at convenient intervals along the trail.
Plan Your Trip
Being New Zealand’s oldest cycle trail, the Rail Trail is very well set up for visitors. It is also deservedly popular, so be sure to book tours, accommodation and other services well in advance for peak season, January–April, and in quieter months (mid May to the beginning of September) when some businesses wind down.
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Alexandra is the area’s largest town, but a Rail Trail adventure can be launched from virtually any of the towns along the route, and popular nearby towns including Cromwell, Queenstown and Dunedin.
Queenstown and Dunedin airports are both around an hour’s drive of the trail. Cycle tour operators offer pick-ups from there, plus Christchurch airport in some instances.
Queenstown and Dunedin are linked by the Central Otago Touring Route, which is a great road trip through this famously beautiful part of New Zealand. Other highways, such as the Southern Scenic Route, offer further exploration of the deep south.
It’s also possible to reach the Otago Central Rail Trail via the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway from Dunedin to Middlemarch. Running on certain days during summer only, the train caters to cyclists and their bikes, and it is a fitting way to start or finish the Otago Central Rail Trail journey.
Nationwide Intercity buses service Alexandra and Clyde, while local shuttle operators service smaller destinations throughout the region.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
This trail is very well served by numerous companies offering everything from bike hire to guided tours.
Casual bike hire is available in Clyde, Alexandra, Omakau, Ranfurly and Middlemarch, but operators can also arrange hire bikes from pretty much anywhere along the trail. To avoid disappointment, it is recommended that you make all bookings for hire, shuttle transport and tours in advance, particularly during peak season (January–April) and the winter months.
Several national bike tour companies offer customised tours of popular South Island cycle trails, with Christchurch and Queenstown popular departure points for international visitors.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
There are more than 100 hotels, motels, lodges, B&Bs and campgrounds located on or around the trail. The trail’s popularity makes it important to book your accommodation well in advance for peak season (February–April).