Linking the heritage towns of Cromwell and Clyde, this trail offers close survey of landforms shaped not only by nature but also the gold miners and dam-builders who toiled here during the last two centuries. Following in their footsteps, world-class track builders have constructed clip-on boardwalks, an 86m suspension bridge, and impressive rock walls.
Riders are richly rewarded with fine food and wine too, not only at Cromwell, Bannockburn and Clyde, but also at Cairnmuir Gully where there’s a floating cafe on the lakeshore – a unique and unforgettable place to take a refreshment break.
- Cromwell Gorge’s lake & mountain scenery
- fascinating pioneer & gold mining history
- boardwalk sections around craggy bluffs
- the 86m-long, 29m-high Hugo suspension bridge
- handcrafted rock walls
- Clyde Dam – New Zealand's largest concrete hydro-dam
- Bannockburn's world-class wineries
- two charming heritage towns – Cromwell and Clyde
- floating cafe and burger bar on the trail
This Great Ride's official start point is at Cromwell Heritage Precinct (as indicated by the 0km marker), giving a ride distance of 41km, with local shuttles transferring riders and bikes to the start or finish. There's also a 16km section of trail that traces the pretty Lake Dunstan shore from Smiths Way to the Cromwell Heritage Precinct. While this isn't officially part of the Great Ride, it does make an excellent short ride.
Note that the most challenging and remote part of the trail is between Cornish Point and the Dunstan Arm Rowing Club, where some trail sections are narrow in places (1.5m) with steep drop-offs. Check out this great safety video to see whether this trail is right for you.
There is a total of 580m climbing between Cromwell and Clyde, with most of the ascents gentle but steady. Riders should be capable of riding the full distance, and be confident biking off-road on grade 3 (intermediate) trails. Find out more about trail safety, riding skills and equipment in the Need to Know section.
At Clyde, the Lake Dunstan Trail links with New Zealand's original Great Ride – the Otago Central Rail Trail. The Roxburgh Gorge Trail (and in turn the Clutha Gold Trail) is also easily accessed at Alexandra, reached from Clyde via the Rail Trail or via the Millennium Track on the other side of the Clutha Mata-Au River.
Cromwell Heritage Precinct—Bannockburn Bridge
7km, Grade 2/easy, 30 minutes
From the Heritage Precinct, the trail follows the Kawarau arm of Lake Dunstan to reach Bannockburn Bridge. There are impressive views across to the Bannockburn vineyards, through which the trail will soon head once it crosses to the other side. The landscapes peculiar forms and unusual lines are clues to the goldmining and hydropower history around here.
Before heading onward, it’s possible to detour up to the historic Bannockburn Hotel, or down Felton Road where there are a bunch of top-notch wineries.
Bannockburn Bridge—Cairnmuir Gully
11.3km, Grade 2–3/easy–intermediate, 1–1.5 hours
After crossing the Bannockburn Bridge, the trail heads around to a pretty Bannockburn Inlet where there is picnic area (with designated swimming area), car park and toilet – a good point of return for a short, family-friendly day ride.
The trail then climbs out of the inlet to Carrick Winery which welcomes cyclists for wine-tasting and dining. before continuing towards Cornish Point, passing more vineyards and olive groves along the way.
From Cornish Point, the landscape changes dramatically to rocky bluffs as the trail heads into the Cromwell Gorge. This section includes the first of the remarkable boardwalks built into the bluffs – get off and walk if you’d rather. There’s no shame in that, and you’ll increase your chances of spotting the pick-axe stuck in the rock wall.
This section also passes under the amazing Cairnmuir Slide, a terraced stone face engineered to protect the river from a major landslide that could overwhelm the Clyde Dam downstream. The other engineering landmark here are 13 drainage tunnels drilled in the into the hillsides to prevent landslips.
If you smell coffee as you approach Cairnmuir Gully, you are not mistaken. Coffee Afloat is parked up on the lake most days from mid-morning to mid afternoon serving coffee, scones and burgers. There are toilets here.
Cairnmuir Gully—Halfway Hut
8.4km, Grade 2–3/easy–intermediate, 1–1.5 hours
This section requires the most attention and skill as there are narrow undulating sections with steep drop-offs. Take extra care and remember that the trail is two-way – expect to meet riders or walkers travelling in the opposite direction, and get off and push your bike if necessary.
Getting out the gully requires the trail’s biggest climb – 130 vertical metres up the aptly named Cairnmuir Ladder. Fear not: the expertly designed switchbacks ensure the a reasonably gentle but steady climb. Be sure to admire the painstakingly stacked rock-walls around here.
The trail’s highest point is marked by the trig point, 324m above sea level and 130m above the lake. It’s a fairly exposed point that cops a fair bit of weather, but with luck you’ll have perfect conditions to admire the views.
After an exhilarating downhill, the trails reaches the impressive Hugo suspension bridge, 85.5m long and 28.6m high. A steep, walkable alternative is available for those with a fear of heights.
The trail then shares a 4WD track closer to lake level before reaching a section of trail that was the toughest to build and virtually all hand made. It includes more boardwalk sections, a narrow trail that includes a switchback up with amazing hand-stacked rock walls before you reach the storyboard overlooking Halfway Hut.
Halfway Hut—Dunstan Arm Rowing Club
10.7km, Grade 2–3/easy–intermediate, 1–1.5 hours
Just past the historic Halfway Hut viewpoint is a series of switchbacks with tight corners and a decent climb/descent. From there it's mainly plain sailing to the Dunstan Arm Rowing Club, except for some short, tricky, grade 3 riding around Jackson and Byford Creeks, and Annan Gully.
On this section, there are plenty of picnic spots to stop at and enjoy the lakeside.
Dunstan Arm Rowing Club—Clyde Heritage Precinct
3.5km, Grade 1/easiest, 0.5 hours
Not far from the rowing club is Burton Creek Recreation Area, a pretty campground with million-dollar views of the lake and Clyde Dam. Constructed between 1977 and 1992 as one of the then prime minster’s ‘Think Big’ projects, the 100m-high, 490m-wide concrete structure is New Zealand’s third-largest hydro-dam.
The trail follows the road uphill past the dam and turns left off the road to descend down to the Clutha Matau-Au Riverside track and Clyde Bridge.
Cross the bridge to reach Clyde. Riders carrying on to Alexandra can stay on the true right of the Clutha Mata-au River and follow it downstream via the pretty, family-friendly Millennium Track (12km).
The historic town of Clyde marks the southern end of the Lake Dunstan Trail and the western end of the Otago Central Rail Trail. It’s a lovely place to base yourself for Great Ride adventures with a wide range of quality accommodation, and great shops, cafes and restaurants. Bike hire, shuttles and tours are also available here.
The ultimate Lake Dunstan Trail experience is the full, one-way journey from Cromwell to Clyde (41km) using local shuttles to transfer bikes and riders. However, it’s possible to enjoy shorter rides on the trail, a few ideas for which follow here.
Smiths Way—Cromwell Heritage Precinct
16km, Grade 1/easiest, 1–2 hours
From the Smiths Way car park off SH6, the road through to Wānaka, this easy trail meanders along the edge of Dunstan to Cromwell. It’s a lovely outing on bike or foot, with stupendous lake and mountain views, pretty picnic areas and swimming spots.
Beyond the settlement of Pisa Moorings the trail crosses the 45th Parallel on its way to Lowburn where there are toilets and a car park. It then arcs around the lake to reach Cromwell where it dips under the highway bridge and continues along the shoreline to reach Cromwell Heritage Precinct, a great place to park up and explore the boutique galleries, shops and cafes. Get dropped off at the Smiths Way car park and bike back to town, or start from Cromwell and turn it into a 2–4 hour, 32km return ride.
Cromwell Heritage Precinct—Bannockburn wineries (return)
16km or more, Grade 2/easy–intermediate, 1.5–3 hours or more
From Cromwell it’s an easy ride to Bannockburn’s world-class cellar doors and winery restaurants. After crossing Bannockburn Bridge, 7km from the Heritage Precinct, cycle up to village and the Felton Road vineyards, or continue along the trail up to Carrick Winery and other vineyards dotted in the hills around Bannockburn Inlet. There are options for a vineyard lunch and stocking up on a few bottles; local shuttles can provide rescue if you’ve overindulged. Pick up a wine map from around town to plot your route.
Clyde to Jackson Creek/Hydes Spur (return)
20–23km or more, Grade 2/easy–intermediate, 2–3 hours or more
A satisfying ride can be had from the Clyde. A good leg-stretch is the 10km ride (20km return) to Jackson Creek and Jackson Buttresses, or a little further to Hydes Spur (23km return) which is at the top of the climb with terrific views back down to the Clyde Dam.
TRAIL STATUS & ALERTS
For current trail status and any alerts – such as temporary track closures and detours – check the trail website.
FITNESS & SKILLS
This trail is generally smooth and mostly wide, however, there are some narrow sections with steep drop-offs that require extra care. The trail is mostly grade 2 (easy) with some gentle hill climbs and tricky bits that push it to grade 3 (intermediate). It is suited to riders of average fitness; although some riders may wish to push up some of the steeper climbs.
TYPE OF BIKE
A mountain bike is recommended. E-bikes are also permitted and available through most bike-hire companies. E-bikers should ensure that batteries have sufficient capacity and charge for the day’s riding and, if staying in local accommodation, check that they can be recharged there.
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 here.
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.
As trail transport does not run to a scheduled timetable, any shuttles should be arranged in advance direct through operators or local i-SITE visitor centres.
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. Some sections can be exposed to high winds so check weather alerts.
FOOD & WATER
Food and water are readily available in Cromwell and Clyde. When they’re open – and do check if you’re keen – you can also get refreshments at the Bannockburn Hotel and nearby wineries, and Coffee Afloat around the trail’s midway point. (Bigger groups are advised to ring Coffee Afloat before they set off, as this helps with their logistics.) Long stretches without food and water mean that riders should be self-sufficient and carry more than enough for the journey, noting that in the summer months the heat makes ample water supplies essential.
Cellphone coverage is pretty reliable the whole length of the trail. Some network coverage is patchy in places, but text messages will usually get through.
There are toilets in Cromwell and Clyde and at various points along the trail including Bannockburn Inlet, Cairnmuir Ladder (near Coffee Afloat), Halfway Hut, and Dunstan Arm Rowing Club.
DOGS & HORSES
Dogs are not permitted between Cornish Point and Dunstan Arm Rowing Club. Horses are not permitted on the Lake Dunstan Trail.
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, December–April. In the winter months – which is still a great time to ride – some businesses run on limited hours.
Cromwell and Clyde are the obvious bases for a Lake Dunstan ride. Other nearby towns with cycling trails on tap include Alexandra, Wānaka and Queenstown.
Queenstown airport is 45 minutes’ drive from Cromwell, and an hour to Clyde. A series of scenic highways thread through this part of the South Island, including the Central Otago Touring Route stretching between Queenstown and Dunedin (via Cromwell) via the Maniototo. Other highways, such as the Southern Scenic Route, offer further exploration of the deep south.
Nationwide Intercity buses service Cromwell and Clyde. 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 Cromwell and Clyde. However, it is recommended that you make all bookings for hire, transport and tours in advance, particularly during peak season (December–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.
There is plenty of accommodation in Cromwell, Clyde and Alexandra, all of which make great bases for Central Otago cycling adventures. The region's popularity makes it advisable to book accommodation well in advance for peak season (January–April).