A legendary feat of trail-building has resurrected an old gold miners’ route between the ghost town of Lyell and sleepy Seddonville on the West Coast, passing through a series of remote landscapes bursting with strange and beautiful sights.
See sheer-sided valleys cloaked in forest and strewn with earthquake debris. Admire alpine tarns, tumbling rivers and waterfalls. Take in vast panoramas from rocky tops. And all on predominantly purpose-built track ranging from fast and flowing to tight and technical. This may well be the ride of your life.
Staying overnight is a big part of the Old Ghost Road experience. The trail’s huts and tent sites are set in spectacular locations, from mountain high to valley low, with sunsets, starry skies and birdlife just some of the special sights to admire.
- remote, untouched backcountry
- rivers, waterfalls, misty magic
- native birds & unique plant-life
- awe-inspiring rock forms
- huts & tent sites in stunning locations
- rusty relics with stories to tell
- lots of bridges, rocky ridges & epic steps
- jaw-dropping top-of-the-world views
- varied, exciting singletrack
Separated by mighty mountain ranges, the Old Ghost Road’s trailheads are Lyell Historic Reserve on the Buller Gorge (SH6), and the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge, 4km inland from the tiny town of Seddonville on the northern West Coast. Due to the trail’s gradient, a south to north route from Lyell to Seddonville is strongly recommended. Allow 2–4 days depending on your fitness.
It’s also possible to do an ‘in-and-out’ overnight ride from either end, which simplifies transport logistics. How far you go will obviously depend on your fitness and itinerary. Day rides (including heli-trips) are also possible.
Before you go, read the rollicking tale of the trail’s history and unlikely construction, Spirit to the Stone, available from the Old Ghost Road website.
Lyell car park—Lyell Saddle Hut
18km, Grade 4/advanced, 3–4 hours
It’s hard to believe it now, but during its 1870–80s heyday Lyell was a thriving gold town lined with shops and pubs. It was then that the building of a road between Lyell and Mokihinui (near Seddonville) began, with construction starting at both ends. The end of the gold rushes and seemingly impassable terrain spelled the end of the effort, and so the story begins…
The trail climbs gently into the thickly forested Lyell Valley via the original dray road, passing relics of the olden days along the way. It crosses two massive earthquake slips, scrambles through rocky fords, and offers increasingly impressive views as it winds up a total of 765m to Lyell Saddle Hut – 875m above sea level.
Lyell Saddle Hut—Ghost Lake Hut
12km, Grade 4/advanced (with one short section of Grade 5/expert), 2.5–4 hours
As the trail continues upwards it passes a broken anvil where the original old road builders gave up the ghost. Little did they know that more than a century later a local crew would pick up the gauntlet and cut the track all the way up to the exposed Lyell Range tops.
It’s a bit of a slog through the forest to reach the bushline, but beyond it the world seems to open up to infinity. Is this an amazing place to ride, or what?
The trail cuts across the face of Mt Montgomery and a highpoint (1280m), all the while affording truly incredible views. Eyes popped, mind blown, its time to descend back through stunted alpine forest to reach Ghost Lake Hut.
Ghost Lake Hut—Stern Valley Hut
13km, Grade 4/advanced (with some Grade 5/expert sections of trail), 2–3 hours
Many riders may find themselves somewhat psyched out by the descent etched out below the hut, but they ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s a four-kilometre cluster-ruck of rock gardens, tight turns, slippery bits and an energy-sapping pinch to reach the spectacular Skyline Ridge. Just when you think you’re going to fall off the edge of a cliff, you encounter the Skyline Steps – the engineering marvel down which you carry your bike.
Riders already feeling a bit knackered can console themselves with the fact that the run into Stern Valley is a fun, snaking and gravity-assisted affair.
Stern Valley Hut—Goat Creek Hut
14km, Grade 4/advanced, 2–3 hours
The trail soon enters the Earnest Valley, quite the sight with its soaring peaks, alpine gardens and tarns.
Arguably the valley’s most spectacular sight, however, is the Boneyard – a massive field of rocks crushed and scattered by seismic forces. Undeterred, the Old Ghost Road cuts a zig-zag track right through the heart of it – an unlikely and slightly unnerving place to ride a bike, one thinks.
Having climbed through the rock garden to Solemn Saddle, the trail now breaks into the headwaters of the Goat Creek catchment, and flows downhill to the Mokihinui River’s South Branch and Goat Creek Hut.
Goat Creek Hut—Specimen Point Hut
11km, Grade 4/advanced, 1.5–3 hours
This section weaves through towering podocarp forest with a fern-covered floor, birds twittering here and there.
At Mokihinui Forks – where two branches of the Mokihinui River meet in a turbulent swirl – a hut provides respite from the sandflies should you wish to take a break. From here, though, it’s only 3km to Specimen Point Hut – a terrific spot for an overnight stop with its grandstand views over the Mohikinui’s surging white waters.
Specimen Point Hut—Northern Trailhead
17km, Grade 4/advanced, 2–4 hours
Following the old-timer’s trail, this last leg hugs the side of an impressive gorge, crossing bridged streams and the unsettlingly named Suicide Slips, and passing the occasional gold mining relic.
The finish line is at the Rough & Tumble Bush Lodge where the kitchen and bar may well be open.
Awe-inspiring return rides can be had from both ends, allowing riders to use their own transport and ride in (and back out) as far as they wish. The Old Ghost Road Trust offers one-day ride packages, including a heli-bike option.
Lyell car park—Lyell Saddle
36km return, advanced, 4–5 hours
With Lyell car park lying right beside SH6, a major road to the West Coast, this is an easily accessible day ride for those with their own bikes. Before you begin, set off on foot to find the old cemetery, hidden in the bush. On the persistent, 765m climb up the old dray road, enjoy the sight, smells and sounds of the forest. Spot relics left behind by the old goldminers, and marvel at the massive earthquake slips. Soak up the views from Lyell Saddle Hut – 875m above sea level – before planting your feet and free-wheeling pretty much the whole way back down the hill.
Northern Trailhead—Specimen Point Hut
34km return, advanced, 4–6 hours
Following the footsteps of the old gold miners as they determinedly worked their way inland, this end of the trail takes in the glorious Mokihinui Gorge with its twists and turns, and tumbling waters. Specimen Point hut is a lovely spot to rest awhile before you return the way you came. From Oct–April, the Rough & Tumble Bush Lodge at the trailhead is open (10am–5pm) for refreshments including beer and pizza – perhaps the classic mountain bikers diet!
Need to Know
FITNESS & SKILLS
The Old Ghost Road is a long and challenging grade 4 (advanced) single-track suitable only for fit, experienced riders. The terrain is varied, with plenty of narrow and rocky sections, large obstacles, and stomach-churning drop-offs. Riders are required to dismount in some parts. As for the rest… well, let’s hope you’ve got your flow on because there’s some pretty sweet riding in between!
TYPE OF BIKE
A high-quality, ship-shape mountain bike is absolutely essential, as are tools and good mechanical skills. In accordance with New Zealand Cycle Trail policy, e-bikes are not permitted on trails graded 4 and above. Responsibility for e-bike use on the Old Ghost Road remains with the individual rider.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted, a map is essential to track your progress and locate huts and other landmarks. A detailed topographical map will help you identify the various mountain ranges, etc, adding even more interest to long-range views.
BOOKING HUTS & CAMPSITES
You can read about the trail’s huts, sleepouts and campsites below in the Plan section; it is also well detailed on the Old Ghost website where you can easily make online bookings. Bookings are essential and should be made well in advance – the trail’s popularity means that spaces fill up quickly (particularly for peak season, October to April), and there is unlikely to be a space for you should you turn up unexpectedly.
WHAT TO BRING
As you are heading deep into the wilderness, it is essential that you carry all necessary gear with you and a personal locator beacon (PLB) is strongly recommended. The trail website has a useful What to Bring checklist for both overnight and day riders.
FOOD & WATER
Bring more than enough food for your planned ride duration, just in case it takes longer than you expect. (Westport is a good place to stock up.) Water is available at the huts as well as various streams.
The weather in these parts is changeable, particularly around the Southern Alps and high country, which may also be blanketed in snow in winter and at other unseasonal times. It is vital that visitors check the forecast and track conditions before they set off, and take warm clothing and wet weather gear regardless of the forecast. In summer, a lack of shade makes a helmet visor and sunscreen essential.
BEST TIME TO RIDE
The trail is open all year but can be subject to heavy rain, cold temperatures and snow on elevated sections, even in summer, so appropriate clothing is vital.
There is no cellphone coverage other in some patchy spots between Lyell and Ghost Lake. It is recommended that riders carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) – available for hire from Habitat Sports in Westport – and let someone know their intentions before they set off.
There are toilets at every hut site – as marked on the official map.
Plan Your Trip
In a relatively remote and sparsely populated part of the South Island, the Old Ghost Road takes riders even further off the grid. It is therefore essential to make all the necessary hut, transport and other arrangements in advance – the earlier the better to avoid disappointment in peak season (October to April).
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The Old Ghost Road’s hub town is Westport, which has an airport served by local airline, SoundsAir. Other airports within a three-hour drive are Nelson, Blenheim and Hokitika, and Christchurch International Airport around 5 hours' drive away. The Picton ferry terminal is three hours away by road.
Scenic driving routes link all these places to the Buller region, home of the Old Ghost Road. Westport is served by nationwide Intercity bus services as well as smaller local shuttle operators, some of whom provide transport direct to the trailheads.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
The southern trailhead (most popular start point) is at Lyell Historic Reserve, on SH6 in the Buller Gorge, with the northern trailhead 3.5km inland of the West Coast town of Seddonville. Both are approximately 45 minutes’ drive from Westport (therefore 1.5 hours between the two).
The Old Ghost Road Trust offers adventure tour packages – including heli-bike options – for a range of appetites and budgets.
Trailhead drop-offs and pick-us are offered by several local shuttle companies; some offer tour packages including accommodation, bike hire and more.
Vehicle storage and relocation services are also available and best organised through the individual transport operators listed on the Old Ghost Road website.
Several nationwide bike tour companies offer guided and other package trips on the Old Ghost Road and other New Zealand trails, with Christchurch a popular departure point for South Island itineraries.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
For most riders, staying in the trail’s backcountry huts is a big part of the adventure. Basic but in amazing locations, they have all the necessaries including mattresses, water supply, a log-burner and toilets, plus enough cooking equipment (including gas hobs and cooking fuel) and crockery and cutlery so that you don’t need to carry your own.
Four locations (Lyell Saddle, Ghost Lake, Stern Valley and Specimen Point) have a further two ‘summer sleepouts’ near the main hut, each with two double bunks (accommodating four people). These share use of the main hut’s facilities.
These four locations also have a tent site each, accommodating up to two people. Users must be entirely self-sufficient, with only a water source and composting toilet available.
All these huts, sleepouts and tent sites must be booked in advance via the Old Ghost Road website: the trail’s popularity means there is limited room for anyone who turns up unexpectedly, and it’s a long way to the next motel.
There’s two other older, pre-existing huts on the trail (Goat Creek and Mokihinui Forks). These huts are basic and cannot be booked – bunks are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
There’s a pleasant DOC campsite at the Lyell trailhead, which is handy if you want to make an early start on day 1.
At the Seddonville trailhead you will find the Rough & Tumble Lodge, operated by the Trail Trust. A few kilometres further on is Seddonville township where there’s a charming little campground and the homely Seddonville Hotel.
There’s plenty more accommodation off the trail, in Westport and throughout the Buller region.