Incredibly beautiful and rich in human history, the Marlborough Sounds is a magical place of deep blue bays, beaches, forest and view-filled ridgelines. The Queen Charlotte Track takes visitors deep into its reaches, revealing many different faces and moods.
Starting in a remote, historic cove in the outer Sounds, the track is also accessible from many of Queen Charlotte’s most popular bays. Sprinkled along them are many memorable campsites, lodges and resorts, breaking this back-to-nature ride up in comfort and style.
But there’s so much more to this journey than just biking, with swimming, kayaking, walking and wildlife cruises just some of the memorable activities in the mix. Excellent transport and a variety of tour options means there’s an adventure for almost everyone.
- magnificent Marlborough Sounds views
- lovely stretches of sweeping trail
- sweet-smelling coastal forest
- overnight stays in memorable locations
- swimming, sunshine, relaxation
- waterside resorts & dining
- bike–cruise–kayak options
- wildlife tours – birds, dolphins & more
- Māori & European history
For seasoned riders, the full 72km trail is best ridden over 2–3 days, taking advantage of atmospheric accommodation and the occasional resort cafe and bar. Luggage transfers allow riders to cycle light.
The trail begins with the scenic boat cruise from Picton to Meretoto (named Ship Cove by Captain James Cook) in the far reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound. After dropping off full-trail riders, boat operators cruise all the way back to Picton, stopping at various bays including Anakiwa (where the trail ends) and returning back to Picton. This enables day riders to choose a section to suit their ability and interests.
Note that the first section from Meretoto/Ship Cove to Camp Bay is closed in the peak summer season (1 December–28 February) when the boat operators drop riders to Camp Bay to start there.
Note that bikers require a private land access pass from Camp Bay north to Anakiwa. This can be purchased from selected operators or directly from the Queen Charlotte Track Landowners Co-operative.
Meretoto/Ship Cove—Camp Bay
28km, Grade 3/intermediate to Grade 4/advanced, 4–6 hours
This is the place where, in 1770, the first sustained contact between Māori and Europeans took place when Captain James Cook set foot ashore. Two memorials to this history make this pretty bay a particularly atmospheric place to start the adventure.
The trail starts with a reasonably gentle climb out of the cove, thanks to a new section of trail opened in September 2019 to replace what was a pretty wicked push up to the saddle. (Thank you, DOC!)
The saddle lookout offers a chance to rest before a reasonably gnarly descent down to Resolution Bay. (Note that riders can start the trail at Resolution Bay to avoid this taxing start.) This section of the track is currently being upgraded and re-routed which will enhance the experience and reduce the difficulty.
It’s another reasonably gentle climb out of Resolution Bay, to reach Tawa Saddle. From there the trail takes in views all the way around Endeavour Inlet. The track is mainly flat and wide, allowing riders to enjoy the forest and birdlife – thriving thanks to pest-trapping efforts – along with various salty seaside scenes and a couple of holiday resorts offering refreshments.
DOC’s Camp Bay campsite and nearby lodges are popular for overnight stops, being well positioned for the following morning’s climb back up on to the tops.
Camp Bay—Torea Saddle
24.5km, Grade 3/intermediate to Grade 5/expert, 4–5 hours
Note: there is plenty of Grade 3–4 riding on this leg, but some gradients on the Kenepuru Saddle to Bay of Many Coves campsite section push it up to Grade 5/expert.
Sidling around ridgelines for much of the way, this section certainly has its ups and downs but rewards riders with magnificent new panoramas at every turn.
The climb from Camp Bay to Kenepuru Saddle is the first of many – totalling 900m in all – and ushers riders on to the ridgeline separating Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. Eatwell’s Lookout is particularly impressive, but it is just one of many on this awesome section.
Onward it goes, passing two DOC campsites and endless other spots to stop and absorb the grandeur. Frequent rests will be welcome: this stretch is often hot and seriously arduous, despite pockets of cooling beech forest.
It’s a bit of a bumpy final run to Torea Saddle where the track meets the short, steep road linking the two Sounds. The right turn leads to Portage where there’s a campsite and a few other accommodation options.
Note that a QCTLC Pass is required for this section.
On-road alternative: riders looking for an easier route can ride the sealed road from Kenepuru Saddle to Portage. The road is quiet and undulating with pretty views.
20.5km, Grade 3/intermediate to Grade 5/expert, 4–5 hours
Note: while this section is predominantly Grade 3, the climb from Torea Saddle pushes it up to Grade 5.
A decent whack of the day’s 600m of climbing is delivered in the fairly brutal first few kilometres; many riders will have to get off and push. This slog will soon be forgotten once back on the view-filled tops.
Along this section the landscape is a patchy but pleasant mix of old farmland and regenerating native bush. The trail eventually dips down and sidles around the top of Lochmara Bay before hitting the final climb over Te Mahia Saddle.
Riders with time and gas in the tank should head down to super-pretty Mistletoe Bay, a great place for a picnic (or indeed an overnight stop).
From Te Mahia Saddle, it’s a relatively easy cruise around Onahau Bay and the Grove Arm, with the trail hugging the shoreline for the last few kilometres – handy if you’re keeping an eye out for your boat.
If you have time, linger a while at Davies/Umungata Bay just shy of the end of the trail. Then again, the ice cream stall at Anakiwa may well be open, and you’ll certainly have earned yourself a refreshing treat.
Note that a QCTLC Pass is required for this section.
Getting back to Picton: in the past, most riders have finished their ride with the boat trip from Anakiwa back to Picton. However, the new Link Pathway provides an off-road cycling alternative back to Picton shadowing the spectacular Queen Charlotte Drive (around 2.5–4 hours/26km). Accommodation along the route makes it possible to spend another night in the area. Note also that the Link Pathway also heads west, through to Havelock (2–3.5 hours/20km).
Experienced local boat operators can help you experience the Sounds magic in many ways, with Picton’s centrally located marina the departure point for range of fantastic day trips – some factoring in wildlife cruises, walking, kayaking or a lazy resort lunch.
Camp Bay—Torea Saddle
24.5km, intermediate-advanced, 4–5 hours
Lots of riding along ridgelines makes for a view-filled day out on this popular section of the Queen Charlotte Track. Eatwell’s Lookout is particularly impressive, but there are many more, along with lush beech forest, some lovely downhill riding, and the option of heading down to Portage for refreshments at the end of the ride. We also recommend a cooling leap off the jetty at Torea Bay while you wait for your boat pick up!
20.5km, intermediate–advanced, 4–5 hours
This is another popular day trip, which starts (we confess) with a fairly brutal climb on to the ridgeline. It’s worth it once you’re on the tops, with the trail then undulating through farmland and regenerating native bush; the short detour down to pretty Mistletoe Bay is highly recommended if you have time, although Davies/Umungata Bay and Anakiwa also offer a chance to get your feet wet.
Anakiwa—Davies/Umungata Bay (return)
4km, easy, 1–2 hours
If you’ve got your own bikes and transport, the Anakiwa end of the track offers a pleasant outing, even if you only go in so far as Davies Bay and back. The path follows an old bridal path though the beech forest to the bay, a pleasant spot for a picnic with barbecue facilities, toilets, camping area and safe swimming beach. This is a great option for younger or rusty riders. Fitter riders can consider pushing further on, of course – some fabulous views open up as the trail climbs around Onahau Bay.
Need to Know
TRAIL STATUS & ALERTS
FITNESS & SKILLS
The Queen Charlotte Track is best suited to reasonably fit, experienced mountain bikers, with much of it grade 3 (intermediate) and some technical sections bumping it up to grade 4 (advanced). There are plenty of flat sections, well-graded inclines and sweeping downhills, but there are also some grunty climbs, technical descents and other tricky bits here and there.
Less experienced riders can still enjoy the trail, with longstanding local tour operators able to tailor trips to suit various abilities and interests.
Boat operators are adept at moving your luggage from place to place, meaning you need only carry what you need for the day in a small backpack. You will be given labels for your pack or suitcase, and on arrival at your accommodation you will find it has magically appeared! In the morning, you simply leave it in a pre-determined place and away you go again.
Note that anyone riding between Camp Bay and Anakiwa needs to buy a QCTLC Track Pass, the proceeds of which go towards maintaining and improving the trail. Passes are $12 for a day, or $25 for multi-day, and can be purchased from selected operators or direct from the Queen Charlotte Track Landowners Co-operative.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike is essential; independent riders should also possess tools and basic mechanical skills.
Officially, e-bikes are not allowed on the private landowner sections of the trail. Riders should note that it’s also very difficult to ride or push e-bikes up some steep sections of trail (e.g. Keneperu Saddle to Bay of Many Coves and the climb from Torea Saddle towards Anakiwa). Responsibility for e-bike use remains with the individual rider.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted, carrying a map will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with timings for boat pick-ups, etc.
Great weather at the top of the South means the Queen Charlotte Track is fantastic at any time of year, although note that the first section from Ship Cove to Camp Bay is closed in the peak summer season (1 December–28 February). Boat operators drop riders to Camp Bay instead.
Boat operators will also alert you to any unusual trail conditions and cautions, but as always: check the weather forecast in advance and pack clothing for all possible eventualities.
FOOD & WATER
Dotted along the track are a few resorts and little shops, most of which offer refreshments of some sort. Be sure to check ahead for opening hours, especially during the winter months when operators run limited services.
In general, however, it is recommended that you carry all necessary provisions including plenty of high-energy snacks. Picton is a good place to stock up. Water supplies are limited, particularly in the peak season due to dry conditions. It is advised that you fill up your bottles from reliable sources before you set off each day.
Cellphone coverage is patchy along the first section of trail, from Meretoto to Camp Bay. From Camp Bay to Anakiwa there is reasonable signal most of the way.
There are toilets at convenient intervals along the trail.
DOGS & HORSES
Dogs and horses are NOT permitted on the Queen Charlotte Track.
Plan Your Trip
One of New Zealand’s oldest and best-loved mountain biking adventures, and close to the popular tourist town of Picton, the Queen Charlotte Track is well set up for visitors. The area gets busy in summer, so be sure to book accommodation, transport and other services well in advance from January through April. Note also that some accommodation winds down in the quieter winter months – a great time to ride with gloriously clear days and fewer crowds.
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Picton is the gateway to the Queen Charlotte Track and wider Marlborough Sounds area. It is commonly reached via the interisland ferry from Wellington, or by road from airports in Blenheim airport 20 minutes’ drive away) or Nelson (2 hours). Christchurch International Airport is around 5 hours drive away.
Picton can also be factored into fantastic road trips around the top of the South, with stops at Kaikoura, Arthur’s Pass, Hanmer Springs, the West Coast, Nelson and Marlborough wine country numbering among the highlights. Nationwide Intercity buses service Picton.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
This trail is very well served by local boat and adventure tour companies offering everything from bike and cruise packages, to freedom and guided tours with meals and accommodation.
Several national bike tour companies offer customised tours of popular South Island cycle trails including the Queen Charlotte, with Christchurch a popular departure point for international visitors.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
Picton has stacks of accommodation for your pre- and post-ride. Dotted along the trail itself are various accommodation options from basic campsites and hostels, to homestays and luxury lodges. As on-track accommodation is limited, be sure to book well in advance for the busy summer season, January through April.