New Zealand’s highest mountain – Aoraki/Mt Cook – is just one unforgettable sight on this epic journey from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean.
Braided rivers thread through broad, glacier-carved valleys. Turquoise hydro-lakes nestle into the golden tussock of open high country. And bizarre, limestone rock forms litter rolling green farmland. If you’re looking for natural grandeur, this ride will deliver it.
Along the way, small towns and settlements provide atmospheric accommodation, friendly pubs and cafes, and easy access to shuttles and other services. There are plenty of off-the-bike activities, too, including wine tasting, penguin spotting, glider flights, star gazing, and soaking in hot tubs under incredible skies.
- New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook (3754m)
- Mackenzie’s turquoise lakes & golden tussock
- Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park walks
- intriguing hydro-dams & power stations
- craft breweries & Waitaki wine country
- limestone wonders including Elephant Rocks
- spectacular night skies in Tekapo & beyond
- country towns, pubs, cafes & shops
- Omarama’s alfresco hot tubs
- Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct & penguins
The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail (A2O) is divided into nine sections. A wealth of cycle-friendly visitor services make it possible to ride the whole trail pleasurably in 5–7 days or tailor a shorter ride to suit all levels of ability.
Aoraki/Mt Cook—Braemar Road
35km, Grade 2/easy, 3.5–4.5 hours
The trail starts at White Horse Hill Campground, 2km north of Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, offering riders the chance to soak up the stunning mountain scenery before setting off down a glacier-carved valley. It’s just over 7km to Mt Cook airport where a short helicopter-hop transports bikes and riders across the Tasman River to Tasman Point/Jollie River car park. The helicopter trip, which should be pre-booked ideally, is subject to weather and trail conditions (visit the A2O website for more details).
The trail is a little bit lumpy as it winds alongside the Tasman River’s braided waters, which eventually empty into the surreal blue of Lake Pukaki.
After 10km of lakeside trail, Jollie car park marks the start of a 17km gravel section to Braemar Road. Several creek crossings will keep you on your toes, but should not detract from the spectacular views of Aoraki/Mt Cook, towering above various ranges dominating the skyline in almost every direction. You wanted alps? You got ‘em!
Note: if you wish to avoid the helicopter crossing there are several alternative starts: Lake Tekapo (below), Tekapo B Power Station, or Jollie River car park.
Lake Tekapo—Twizel (alternative start)
54km, Grade 2/easy, 4–5 hours
The A20’s alternative start takes in the striking contrasts of the Mackenzie Country’s surreal blue lakes and canals, surrounded by golden tussock land and bound by majestic mountain ranges.
Leaving Tekapo township, the trail heads off on gravel tracks past Tekapo A Power Station, and on to the long but rather lovely Tekapo Canal Road, closed to vehicle traffic.
The big vistas just keep on coming as the road passes a salmon farm and reaches Tekapo B Power Station – one of the grandest lookouts along the whole A2O. The trail then drops down to Lake Pukaki and meets Hayman Road where riders join the Aoraki/Mt Cook section of trail following the shoreline to Pukaki Dam and across the tussock-covered flats to Twizel.
42km, Grade 2/easy, 4–5 hours
The trail follows a quiet country road along the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki, with notable flora and fauna, and Tekapo B Power Station among the highlights. All eyes, however, will likely be latched on to Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps, all the way down to the bottom of Hayman Rd where an off-road trail heads towards Pukaki Dam.
On the other side, riders will have their sights set on the laid-back little town of Twizel, an oasis of green streets amidst the desert-like Pukaki Flats.
Twizel—Lake Ohau Lodge
38km, Grade 2/easy, 3–4 hours
The next leg of the A2O heads out on a pretty country road to reach Loch Cameron at the 6km mark – a great place for a swim if time and temperature are on your side. Just ahead, across the canal bridge, a straight easy pedal leads to the edge of Lake Ohau.
The Ben Ohau Range dwarfs all and sundry as you follow the lake foreshore across Ohau Weir and onward along the lake towards Lake Ohau Village and its lodge – perfectly positioned for post-ride refreshments.
Note: there is no way across Ohau Weir when it is in flood, so be sure to check the Alps2Ocean website for updates if the weather’s been wet.
Lake Ohau Lodge—Omarama
45km, Grade 3/intermediate, 4–6 hours
It’s a gentle 6km warm up to Freehold Creek. The next section is as grunty as the A20 gets, with a 300m climb to conquer over a generous 5km – you should still be smiling at the top (Tarnbrae High Point), especially with the views from 900m above sea level.
Take care on the steep winding descent through golden meadow to quintessentially rural Quailburn Road, passing an historic woolshed along the way, and the turnoff to see geological wonders, the Clay Cliffs (14km return). From the SH8 junction, Omarama (with its soothing outdoor hot tubs) is just a few miles away.
35km, Grade 2 & 3/easy & intermediate, 3–4 hours
It’s a whole new world after Omarama. Over Chain Hills, it’s a big Welcome to the Waitaki Valley with its big blue hydro lakes and little country towns.
Leaving Omarama riders head east down the Waitaki Valley, following the off-road Trail to the top of the Chain Hills 5km away. From here, the trail descends beside State Highway 83 then follows the edge of Lake Benmore to Pumpkin Point (10km). It continues along the lake edge on to Sailors Cutting Scenic Reserve (13km) – a popular boating, fishing and camping spot.
Next up is the spectacular new section of off-road trail that follows the beautiful Ahuriri arm of the lake to Benmore Dam (29km). This section is grade 3 (intermediate) and narrow in places with steep drop-offs. Extra care is required especially when it's windy. View-filled picnic spots en route offer a chance to pause and soak up the scenery.
From the Benmore Dam car park, follow the trail for 6km to Otematata for a rest and recharge.
If you're heading on to Kurow (38km away), cross over the dam and cycle along Te Akatarawa Rd down the North side of Lake Aviemore.
44km, Grade 2 & 3/easy & intermediate, 3.5–4 hours
Form Otematata, head back to Benmore Dam, first along the sealed pathway beside Loch Laird, then the gravel track beside the lake. Follow Loch Laird Road up to the dam – it's a steep road and the last 800 metres is a bit of a grind!
Even those without a keen interest in mid-century industrial architecture should find the dam pretty damn interesting. It's NZ's largest earth dam and holds back 1.5 times more water than Wellington Harbour! Follow the road along the shores of Lake Aviemore (swimming and camping possible) to the Aviemore Dam. Yes, another dam.
From across the dam, the off-road trail passes through the Wharekuri ghost town and the ruins of its hotel built in 1865 before dropping down to follow the shoreline of Lake Waitaki. You’ll pass the Waitaki Dam (yes one more) – the first to be built on the Waitaki River and the last to be built largely by pick and shovel. Construction started in 1928 and the workers camps and local community of the time are considered to be the birthplace of the modern world’s social-welfare system.
It's 8km of trail to Kurow – a sweet little town with a gem of a museum and notable for producing former All Black captain Ritchie McCaw. Try some of the locally produced wines while you're here. This may be the centre of New Zealand’s smallest wine-producing region but their award-winning drops punch way above their weight.
28km, Grade 3/intermediate, 2–3 hours
This section follows a smooth shingle path down the Waitaki Valley, traversing ancient alluvial plains and crossing three side rivers (flood detours in place). This is the heart of Waitaki wine country – tricky, unpredictable, often utterly sublime; taste it where you can.
The trail then hugs the highway as it gets closer Duntroon, taking a minor detour to Takiroa Māori rock art site along the way. There are riverside and wetland scenes along the final few kilometres to Duntroon.
54km, Grade 3/intermediate, 5–6 hours
It’s just 7km from Duntroon to one of the A2O’s strangest sights – the huge limestone boulders scattered across a grassy paddock, aptly named Elephant Rocks although mammoths and even hippos may well be imagined.
More limestone oddities crop up as the trail leads onward on- and off-road through bucolic farmland to Rakis Railway Tunnel. The trail then hops on and off the railway line through the dots of Windsor, Enfield and Weston, and on to Oamaru.
The town’s magnificent public gardens are a fine prelude to the grand finale of gargantuan Victoria warehouses overlooking Oamaru Harbour and the Pacific Ocean.
Multiple access points make it easy to tailor a day trip to suit riders of almost any age or ability, with Tekapo, Twizel and Omarama particularly good bases for exploration.
77km, grade 2/easy, 6–8 hours
With an early morning drop off at Aoraki/Mt Cook village, you’ll have time for a look around the Visitor Centre and a coffee in the cafe before heading off on your unforgettable day trip – complete with a short but exciting chopper hop across the Tasman River.
54km, grade 2/easy, 4–5 hours
Many people would argue that this is an equally stunning alternative to the Aoraki section. Starting on the edge of lovely Lake Tekapo, it takes in golden tussock land, surreal blue canals, and one of the trail’s best lookouts – Tekapo B Power Station overlooking Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps.
38km, grade 2/easy, 3–4 hours
Take time for dip in Loch Cameron and linger alongside Lake Ohau before heading to Lake Ohau Lodge for a pick-up. The earlier you get there, the longer you can ‘recuperate’ in the lodge bar, although you can always start there instead and bike back to Twizel, taking pressure off your shuttle pick-up timing.
45km, grade 3/intermediate, 4–6 hours
With a shuttle drop at Lake Ohau you can enjoy the stupendously view-filled climb up and over Ruataniwha Conservation Park to Omarama, with the option of a (decent-sized) detour to the freaky Clay Cliffs.
TRAIL STATUS & ALERTS
FITNESS & SKILLS
The Alps 2 Ocean Trail is graded 2–3 (easy to intermediate). Those attempting the full trail should be reasonably fit and experienced, but there are plenty of ride options for beginners or rusty riders.
The trail varies from canal paths, quiet country roads (where stock and vehicles may be present) and old railway line, to smooth gravel bike track and a little bit of rougher stuff, with significant hills and steep drop-offs.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike is the best option for the remoteness and terrain, however, touring and hybrid bikes with knobbly tyres should also handle the terrain; e-bikes are permitted. Riders should ideally have basic mechanical skills and carry a tool kit.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Not only is this trail is well signposted, but major landmarks such as mountains and lakes also make it easy to keep heading in the right direction. However, carrying a map will insure against wrong turns, help time your ride for pick-ups, etc, and identify points of interest.
You can also download the awesome Great Rides App to see where you are on the trail. It's free, works offline and has heaps of useful information, including trail descriptions and photos, trail services, food and accommodation.
ALTERNATIVE START POINTS
If you’re riding the full trail and wish to avoid the helicopter crossing of the Tasman River, there are several alternative starts: Lake Tekapo, Tekapo B Power Station, or Jollie car park,
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The weather in these parts is highly changeable, particularly around the Southern Alps and high country. It is vital to check the forecast and track conditions before you 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. In winter, snow makes the scenery even more magical but may make some of the trail impassable.
FOOD & WATER
Food and drink is readily available in towns along the trail. Small ones, however, have little more than a dairy (grocery shop) or cafe, with opening hours varying according to season. Larger towns – namely Tekapo, Twizel, Omarama and Oamaru – cater well to visitors all year round with a respectable range of outlets including ethnic restaurants and brewery bars.
However, the Alps 2 Ocean features long stretches of trail without any food or water at all, so it is important to plan ahead and carry more than sufficient for each day’s ride, especially outside of peak season when the cafe you thought would be open could actually be shut.
Cellphone coverage ranges from perfect to patchy, depending on the area, so cannot be relied upon the whole way. Wi-fi is offered at cafes, accommodation and other service points.
There are public toilets at regular intervals.
DOGS & HORSES
Dogs are NOT permitted on the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, except where the trail follows public roads and along the old railway line between Weston and the Waireka Saleyards.
Horses are NOT permitted on the trail.
The major hubs for A2O adventures are Twizel and Oamaru, but the trail covers long distances and reaches many small, out-of-the-way places with varying levels of service. Good forward-planning is therefore essential to ensure smooth logistics and ensure maximum enjoyment of its special places and experiences – from overnighting in rural accommodation to soaking in Omarama’s al fresco hot tubs.
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There are three major airports within 2–4 hours’ drive – Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown – linking to the Mackenzie and Waitaki regions by seriously scenic highways.
Nationwide Intercity buses service the trail’s main towns including Tekapo, Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, Twizel, Omarama and Oamaru. Local shuttle operators service smaller destinations throughout the area.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
Bike hire, shuttles and luggage transfers are available through numerous local companies. Tekapo, Twizel, Omarama and Oamaru are the primary hubs, but services can be arranged from almost anywhere.
Several national bike tour companies offer both guided and independent trips on the Alps 2 Ocean and other New Zealand trails, with Christchurch and Queenstown popular departure points.
All trail services should be booked in advance, the earlier the better if you plan to ride in peak season (December–April).
Find bike hire, transport & tours
There are plenty of accommodation options spread through the visitor-friendly towns of Lake Tekapo, Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, Twizel, Omarama, Otematata, Kurow and Oamaru, all of which lie on the trail. More accommodation is scattered on or near the trail in wee towns and pretty rural settings.
Be sure to book well in advance during peak season (December–April), and be aware that some providers close down in winter due to low demand.