The Coppermine Trail is one of New Zealand’s most accessible alpine mountain bike rides, all the more memorable for its relatively easy up, exhilarating down, amazing rocky tops, sweet-smelling beech forest, and meandering river trail.
Starting amidst Nelson’s cafes and pubs, this amazing day ride heads directly into spectacular hill country via Codger’s Mountain Bike Park and a long, consistent tramway-line climb up the Dun Mountain Walkway. Broad panoramas of Tasman Bay and the rocky tops of Coppermine Saddle are just some of the rewards. Others are the brilliant 10km downhill through rock gardens and bush, and the leisurely pedal back to Nelson via the pretty Maitai Valley.
The technical Grade 4 downhill section makes the full loop best suited to fit, experienced singletrack riders, but intermediate-grade riders can enjoy a loop around the lower Codgers tracks or a return-ride via the Dun Mountain Railway to Third House or Coppermine Saddle.
- vast Tasman Bay & Kahurangi range panoramas
- thrilling 10km downhill singletrack
- the crazy geology of Coppermine Saddle (878m)
- early industrial history along New Zealand’s first railway
- Codgers Mountain Bike Park
- gentle climb through pretty forest
- evocative information panels
- pre-ride cafes & post-ride pubs
- Maitai Valley’s swimming holes & picnic spots
- proximity to other cycle trails including the Great Taste Trail
From Nelson i-SITE the full loop is 43km, shortened to 38km if you start and finish at the Brook St trailhead (as described here), around 15 minutes’ ride from the centre of town. Allow 4–6 hours, or a full day if you’re the sort of person who likes to linger over their lunch or photograph the odd rock.
Brook Street—Third House
11.5km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1–2 hours
The trail begins in the lower reaches of Codgers MTB Park, a fun place to ride with trails to suit most abilities.
This section of the trail, known as the Dun Mountain Walkway, soon joins the old tramway, a narrow gauge, horse-drawn operation that is considered New Zealand’s very first railway. It was used to transport chromium copper from hillside mines – hence the name ‘Coppermine’.
The old tramway line makes for a steady but gentle climb around the flanks of Wooded Peak, aptly named for its cloak of regenerating and mature beech forest. The views back towards Nelson, Tasman Bay and faraway ranges become evermore impressive as you progress.
Third House, the basic shelter at 660m above sea level, is an atmospheric place to rest with the possibility of a weka wandering in.
Third House—Coppermine Saddle
6km, Grade 3/intermediate, 30 mins–1 hour
As the trail undulates upwards, the landscape begins its drastic transformation from bushy to bald, before long ushering riders on to an exposed ridge with stunted manuka and other hardy plant life. Welcome to the so-called mineral belt, studded with strikingly coloured rocks.
At Windy Point – which probably will be – the trail continues as singletrack for a couple of kilometres before reaching the trail’s highpoint, Coppermine Saddle (878m). New views of the Maitai Valley and Richmond ranges are revealed around these parts, which combined with its rugged beauty make it a pretty awesome spot to stop for lunch (weather permitting, of course).
Coppermine Saddle—Maitai Dam
9.6km, Grade 3–4/intermediate to advanced, 30 mins–1 hour
Get ready to rumble, because this is a wild ride of fast-forward, kick-ass corners and the odd bit of rock-dodging. Expect watery eyes, white knuckles and an ear-to-ear grin. Recent track work has smoothed out some wrinkles on this wonderful downhill and added in some lovely berms.
Yes, it is rugged, but if you’re a solid intermediate rider, this should be achievable for you. There are a few gnarly surprises and drop-offs, so you can always dismount and walk when the going gets too tough.
Around three quarters of the way down, the gradient eases and the track undulates towards Maitai Dam. Open stretches of flowing track offer a chance to open up the throttle a bit (whoo hoo!), but be aware that this is a dual-use track.
After crossing the Maitai South Branch Bridge, note a left turn on to a walking track signposted to the Maitai Caves. This is a worthwhile side trip if you don’t mind locking your bike to a tree or walking with it for the half an hour each way. The stunning caves are well worth the side-trip.
Maitai Dam—Brook Street
11km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1–2 hours
The final section of the Coppermine Trail parallels Nelson’s water pipeline on a cruisy, bush-lined trail on a ledge above the river. After around 4km, at Smiths Ford, the trail joins the quiet Maitai Valley Road.
Tired riders can simply follow the road back to Nelson, while those with gas left in the tank can follow the only marginally harder Maitai Valley Walkway – you can follow this all the way back to the i-SITE, or detour into the backstreets to close the loop back to the Brook Street trailhead. A map or Google will get you there.
Note that from Maitai Valley Motor Camp), super-fit and ambitious riders can head back to Brook Valley via the Groom Creek ‘shortcut’ (taking around 30 minutes) that climbs over Tantragee Saddle (182m) and provides the opportunity to finish with one of Codgers MTB Park’s downhill trails (such as Crazy Horse or Firball).
Riders not quite up for the full Coppermine Trail experience can get a great taste of the city’s southern foothills on various alternatives on and around the trail.
Maitai Valley Walkway
Distance & time varies, easy
Starting at Nelson i-SITE where there’s bike hire, this meandering riverside trail can be ridden in and back as far as you like, with opportunity to admire pretty gardens, and linger in Maitai Valley’s recreation area where there’s picnic spots, swimming holes and playing fields. Detours to the Queens Gardens and the Centre of New Zealand walking trail are also recommended. For a longer ride, consider heading all the way up the valley to the Dam where (near the South Branch Bridge), a walking trail leads to the stunning Maitai Caves – a worthwhile adventure if you don’t mind locking your bike to a tree or walking with it for the half an hour each way.
Codgers Mountain Bike Park
Nestled in Nelson city’s southern foothills, this neat MTB park has a wide range of mountain bike trails, from easy meandering singletrack for beginners and families to enjoy to full on double black downhill trails best left to the experts. The trails are based around three hills, with the summits rising to approximately 400m.
Brook Street—Third House (return)
23km, intermediate, 3–4 hours
This is a satisfying, half-day option for riders who are fit but not confident on rougher mountain bike tracks. It combines a substantial but fairly gentle climb with the fun descent back down again, with great views, beautiful forest, birdlife, and more. Third House is a lovely spot for a picnic, too. If you’ve still got puff when you get there, it’s worth continuing up for another few kilometres to Windy Point, or even Coppermine Saddle, for even more spectacular views.
TRAIL STATUS & ALERTS
For current trail status and any alerts – such as temporary track closures and detours – check the trail website.
FITNESS & SKILLS
The ride to the Coppermine Saddle is Grade 3 (intermediate), while the rocky downhill section from to Maitai Dam is grade 4 (advanced) but followed by a relatively easy grade 3 (intermediate) meander back to Nelson. The ride is most suitable for reasonably fit, experienced mountain bikers.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike (preferably full suspension) is essential for the rugged and remote terrain of the Coppermine Trail; riders should ideally have basic mechanical skills and carry a tool kit, too.
E-bikes are permitted on the trail although consideration should be given to sufficient battery charge, and the skills and strength to manoeuvre these heavier bikes over obstacles and across narrow bridges. Riders should also be capable of completing the ride in the event of battery failure
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted and not particularly far from central Nelson as the crow flies, carrying a map will enhance the experience by pinpointing landmarks and assist with ride timings. The Coppermine Trail map can be downloaded from the trail website, which also provides the latest trail status and updates.
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.
Riders may also wish to consider hiring a personal locator beacon (PLB), and let someone know their intentions.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The Nelson–Tasman region is blessed with balmy summers and bright, mild winters, making for great riding at any time of year. This trail, however, passes through an alpine environment where the weather can change quickly. Be sure to check the forecast and carry clothing for every possibility. In summer, a lack of shade around the upper part of the trail makes a helmet visor and sunscreen essential.
Note also that extreme rainfall and wind can cause temporary trail closures due to washouts, slips and fallen trees. Any current trail alerts will be notified on the trail website.
FOOD & WATER
Sufficient food and water should be carried to last the entire day. Supplies are readily available in Nelson city, as is post-ride refreshment in a local pub.
Cellphone coverage is good close to the city, and at several points on the climb to Coppermine Saddle, Third House being one point. Once past Third House coverage is very poor, including the section along Maitai Valley Road.
There are toilets at convenient intervals including Third House and Coppermine Saddle.
DOGS & HORSES
Dogs are permitted at the Codgers MTB Park end of the trail up as far as Four Corners, and then in the lower Maitai Valley reserve. Dogs are NOT permitted elsewhere on the trail.
Horses are NOT permitted on the Coppermine Trail.
A popular holiday destination for both New Zealanders and overseas tourists, the Nelson region is well set up for visitors. It will pay to book travel and accommodation well in advance for the busy summer season, December–March. Visitor services wind down slightly in the winter months, but this is still a fantastic time to ride with plenty of sunshine and crystal clear air.
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Nelson's busy airport provides regular connections to regional New Zealand.
Nelson is also less than two hours’ drive from the ferry port of Picton via the extremely scenic Queen Charlotte Drive, but it’s fair to say that the whole top of the South Island makes for a brilliant road trip. Marlborough wine country, Kaikoura marine life, Golden Bay, plus three national parks (Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes) are just some of the highlights that can be factored in.
Christchurch, with its international airport, is a terrific place to launch a road trip, being around six hours’ drive from Nelson via Kaikoura and Blenheim, or the beautiful Lewis Pass.
Nelson is well served by nationwide Intercity Buses. Small destinations can be reached via the region’s public bus network, and smaller shuttle operators offering customised trips.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
Riders tackling the Coppermine Trail can tap into a raft of helpful cycle-related services catering to the nearby Tasman's Great Taste Trail and other rides around the region. They offer everything from bike hire and transport, to fully packaged independent and guided tours factoring in off-the-bike activities such as hiking in Abel Tasman National Park.
Several national bike tour companies offer customised tours of popular South Island cycle trails including Tasman's Great Taste Trail, the West Coast Wilderness Trail and Queen Charlotte Track, with Christchurch a popular departure point for international visitors.
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Nelson has stacks of accommodation options, including holiday parks in both the Brook and Maitai Valleys for those who want to be right on the trail.
The Nelson–Tasman region gets particularly busy December through March, so be sure to book well in advance for this season; also be aware that some providers close down in mid-winter due to low demand.