One of New Zealand’s most visually spectacular and intriguing day rides, this trail follows the Clutha Mata-au River past eroded bluffs and old gold workings set amidst graceful willows, native shrubs and fragrant thyme.
Stretching between Alexandra and Lake Roxburgh Hydro Dam, the easy Roxburgh Gorge Trail offers a striking snapshot of Central Otago’s heritage and natural history – in all its captivating forms, shapes and seasonal colours.
The otherworldly gorge was scoured by the mighty Clutha Mata-au River, a primary pathway for early Māori moa hunters who traveled from mountains to sea in their mokihi (reed canoes). Then came the gold rush, which left an indelible mark on the landscape in crumbling ruins, and the fragrant thyme cloaking sheer hillsides amidst native gardens of kanuka, kowhai, mountain cottonwood and broom.
- rugged bluffs and rock forms
- schist huts & other gold rush relics
- the impressive Roxburgh Dam
- striking seasonal colours
- easy riding with gentle climbs & flowing descents
- jet boat tour through remote reaches
- birdlife including kārearea, the native falcon
- interesting vegetation, from wild thyme and willows to rare native plants
- charming Alexandra town
- extra adventures on the adjacent Clutha Gold Trail & Otago Central Rail Trail
Allow 5–6 hours for the full journey between Alexandra and Roxburgh Dam, which combines 21km of riding with a 13km jet boat leg. Not only exciting, the boat trip is also a rare chance to see the many special sights hidden deep in the gorge.
It’s easy to explore Roxburgh Gorge without the boat trip. Simply do a return ride (or walk) from either end as described in the Day Rides section below.
The trail is just as enjoyable ridden in either direction; shuttle operators often encourage a drop-off at Roxburgh Dam and return ride to Alexandra as this takes the pressure of riders to meet a final pick-up.
Eager mountain bikers might also like to note that the Roxburgh Gorge Trail provides access to the bike trails of Flat Top Hill Conservation Area via the Sphinx Rock trail that starts 1km before Doctors Point jetty. Trail maps are available from Alexandra’s bike shops and i-SITE.
10km, Grade 2–3/easy–intermediate, 1–2 hours
The trail starts at the Clutha-Mata-au River near Alexandra’s Blue Bridge. Stranded in the river alongside it are the remaining piers of the original suspension bridge, built in 1882. Weathered relics of a bygone era, these monumental pillars are an apt gateway to the journey ahead.
The trail passes through a forest of silver poplars now covering Frenchman’s Point, formerly rich gold deposit workings. It then enters the narrow Roxburgh Gorge, flanked by bluffs up to 350 metres high. Suddenly, you’re in another world.
The wide, smooth trail passes Ketts Gully with its massive stacked rock walls, sporting several old rock bivvies and huts. The trail keeps meandering gently towards Butchers Creek, an old gold-mining site marked by the water races, fashioned from stone, used to channel water to the sluicings.
The trail continues winding through the gorge, climbing a zigzag to access The Narrows, an ancient rock slide where care is required to negotiate the narrower trail section and boardwalk. The contrast of blue water, grey schist, purple thyme, willows and poplars – green or gold depending on the season – is a feast for the eyes.
Take as much time as your timetable allows, because Doctors Point appears all too soon. This is the pick-up point for the 13-kilometre jet boat trip bridging the missing link.
The 45-minute boat tour down river is a highly memorable way to delve deeper into the gorge’s history. You’ll see the extensive sluicings at Doctors Point, the site of the 14 Mile electric powered dredge and its generator plant, and other hidden sights such as Mrs Heron’s mud-mortar cottage. Local jet boat drivers revel in retelling these riveting stories of the gold miners of yore.
Shingle Creek jetty—Roxburgh Dam
11km, Grade 2–3/easy–intermediate, 1.5–2.5 hours
Disembarking at Shingle Creek jetty, riders pass an old hut and some hotel ruins then commence a gentle climb up to Elbow Creek, a haven for native flora, each bend offering a different view of the river below.
The river slows and widens as it forms Lake Roxburgh, the waters of which drive the power station ahead. With pretty islets in the lake and broad views of the surroundings, this is a lovely but quite different stretch of trail.
A series of switchbacks lead to a fitting finale, the impressive Roxburgh Hydro Dam lookout. Opened in 1956, it’s the largest concrete gravity dam in New Zealand and reportedly powers up to 200,000 homes.
The trail ends at Commissioner’s Flat car park, starting point of the Clutha Gold Trail that can be followed for an additional 9km or so to reach Roxburgh township.
The ultimate Roxburgh Gorge experience is a full, one-way journey with the jet boat tour bridging the middle section. But, richly rewarding return rides can be completed from each end, both boasting memorable sights and scenery.
Alexandra—Doctors Point (return)
20km, easy–intermediate, 2–3 hours
Start with coffee in Alexandra (where there’s bike hire), then head over the bridge to begin this easy ride down to Doctors Point and back. This narrow section of the gorge is seriously strange but incredibly pretty. Sights along the way include towering rocky outcrops, old stone water races and huts, patches of purple thyme, and graceful willows lining the swirling blue waters.
Roxburgh Dam—Shingle Creek jetty (return)
22km, easy–intermediate, 2–3 hours
Exploring the wider, lower gorge where the Clutha Mata-au River backs up to form stunning Lake Roxburgh, this lovely ride features a few challenging ups and downs (many via masterfully built switchbacks) alongside open views of what is a stunning Central Otago landscape. Bike hire is available in nearby Roxburgh village, a 9km ride away via the Clutha Gold Trail; the two legs combine for a lovely day out.
Need to Know
FITNESS & SKILLS
This trail is smooth and wide, mostly grade 2 (easy) with some gentle hill climbs that push it to grade 3 (intermediate). These should prove no trouble for averagely fit riders and a leisurely push for those who wish to walk. In all, this trail is suitable for riders of most ages and abilities.
TYPE OF BIKE
A mountain bike is recommended. E-bikes are welcome; note that boat companies impose a surcharge to carry them onboard.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted, carrying the official map will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with timings for boat and shuttle pick-ups. The map can be downloaded from the trail website, which also provides the latest trail status and updates.
BOAT & SHUTTLE TRANSPORT
As trail transport does not run to a scheduled timetable, any boat tours or shuttles should be arranged in advance direct through operators or local i-SITE visitor centres.
TRAIL TAG & PASSPORT
The Roxburgh and Clutha Gold Trails were created with the generous support of many people, including landowners and volunteers. You can make your own contribution to the trail by purchasing the official Trail Tag ($25/50 person/family for 12 months, or $10 per person for one day). Additionally, the super-cute Trail Passport ($15) is full of stories and pinpoints places of interest where you can fill your passport with pencil-rubbings at several brass plaques. Both Passports and Tags can be purchased at local i-SITES or bike tour companies.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
Central Otago is a fantastic year-round cycling destination, with the colour palette changing dramatically through the seasons. In late spring the hillsides are covered in the purple of flowering wild thyme, and in late summer and autumn the celebrated Central Otago green and gold colours contrast with the brilliant blue sky, dry hillsides and schist outcrops.
The climate is extreme, like that of Continental Europe, with hot dry summers and freezing winters. In summer, riders should pack a sun hat and sunscreen (as well as plenty of water), but also preferably a lightweight top for fuller sun protection on high UV days. In winter, multiple layers and gloves are recommended, even if the skies look reassuringly blue.
FOOD & WATER
This ride goes through a remote gorge with no food or water. Riders should therefore be self-sufficient and carry more than enough for the journey, noting that in the summer months the heat makes ample water supplies essential. Alexandra and Roxburgh township are the closest places to stock up.
There is some cellphone coverage at the far ends of the trail, after which it ranges from patchy to non-existent.
There are toilets at both ends as well as the two jetty sites, Doctors Point and Shingle Creek.
Plan Your Trip
Central Otago is a popular holiday destination, and well set up for visitors. Be sure to book tours, accommodation and other services well in advance for the busy summer season, January–April. In the winter months – which is still a great time to ride –smaller towns wind down, with some businesses running on limited hours.
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Alexandra is the area’s largest town, but a Roxburgh Gorge adventure can be launched from various nearby towns such as Clyde and Cromwell, but also from wee towns along the adjacent Clutha Gold Trail (shadowing SH8 through the Teviot Valley), such as Roxburgh, Millers Flat and Lawrence.
Queenstown airport is just over an hour’s drive from Alexandra; Dunedin around 2.5. Stretching between Queenstown and Dunedin are a series of scenic highways through beautiful ‘Central’ and ‘The Maniototo’ – with plenty of options for getting on cycle trails along the way. Other highways, such as the Southern Scenic Route, offer further exploration of the deep south.
Nationwide Intercity buses service Alexandra and towns along the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold Trails; smaller local shuttle operators service smaller destinations and tailor trips to visitors needs; many also offer transfers to and from Queenstown.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
This trail is very well served by numerous local companies offering everything from bike hire to fully packaged guided tours. Casual bike hire is available in Alexandra and Roxburgh village. It is recommended that you make all bookings for hire, transport and tours in advance, particularly during peak season (January–April).
Several national bike tour companies offer customised tours of popular South Island cycle trails, with Christchurch and Queenstown popular departure points for international visitors. Queenstown’s operators are particularly adept at running tours on the Roxburgh Gorge and other Central Otago trails.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
There is plenty of accommodation in Alexandra, a charming town that makes a great base for all sorts of Central Otago explorations. There are many other options nearby in Clyde, Roxburgh and Cromwell. Other popular bases within 90 minutes’ drive include Queenstown and Wanaka. Central Otago’s popularity makes it essential to book accommodation well in advance for peak season (January–April), particularly along the ever-popular Otago Central Rail Trail and close to Queenstown.