This popular touring route offers cyclists a remarkable high-country wilderness experience complete with craggy mountains, beech forest, beautiful open tussock lands as well as remote campsites and backcountry huts.
The trail connects St Arnaud (the main gateway to Nelson Lakes National Park) with Hanmer Springs via the original stock route between Marlborough and Canterbury. It passes through two working farms – Rainbow Station, which is privately owned, and Molesworth Station, managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
This is a remote and challenging ride, with an alpine pass and total lack of services to contend with. The thermal resort of Hanmer Springs is a wonderful way to finish, or at least stop to recharge before tackling the St James Great Ride or head back to Blenheim via the Molesworth Muster. Hanmer Springs also links to both Kaikoura and Christchurch via the Hurunui Trail Heartland Ride.
The trail starts approximately 9km east of St Arnaud at the Rainbow Road turn-off on SH63. The trail starts with a sealed section of road that winds its way to the Old Rainbow Homestead and tollgate where you will pay the $5 fee during the open season. Note that outside of the open season, landowner permission is required to ride this trail. The DOC website has details.
St Arnaud—Coldwater Stream
46km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1 day
Beyond the old Rainbow Homestead and tollgate the Rainbow experience really begins. The trail fords a number of streams and crosses a bridge over the Wairau River before entering ‘Hell’s Gate’, a scenic narrow gorge. You’ll find Coldwater Stream campsite just above the gorge and the boundary between Rainbow and Molesworth stations is just a little farther on from there.
The turn-off to the Sedgemere Sleepout is located just after the trail recrosses the Wairau (57km from St Arnaud) – it’s a few hundred metres down a side road off the trail. A short detour past the sleepout car park will provide you with a spectacular view over several high country lakes.
Coldwater Stream—Hanmer Springs
69km, Grade 3/intermediate, 1 day
The track climbs gently into true alpine country to reach the rustic musterers’ shelter, Island Gully Hut. From there it’s another 6km or so in granny-gear to reach the highest point on this route – Island Saddle (1347m) – also the boundary between Marlborough and Canterbury.
Not far from Island Saddle, a further detour (3km) will take you to Lake Tennyson, a scenic lake formed by a glacial moraine dam – an ideal spot for a picnic.
This scenic high-country glacial lake sits in a beautiful, isolated spot at the headwaters of the Clarence River on the eastern fringe of the Nelson Lakes National Park. You can go camping and fishing here.
Approaching Hanmer Springs there is a three-way intersection before Jacks Pass on the northern side. If you’re keen for more cycling, continue left here on to the Molesworth Muster Trail through to Blenheim. You might want to stop in Hanmer to restock supplies first, though.
Heading right down Clarence Valley Rd, you’ll enjoy a long downhill into the Hanmer Springs township and a soak in the famous hot thermal springs.
A helpful source of information about this ride, and other Heartland Rides, is Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails by the Kennett Brothers.
Need to Know
ACCESS & CAUTIONS
Access to Rainbow Road is seasonal and can be closed due to heavy rain or fire risk. The best time to ride is when it’s open to public access (from Boxing Day to Easter Monday). While access can be obtained outside of the open period, cyclists are advised against riding this trail during winter or after heavy rainfall.
You cycle this route at your own risk, so safety is your responsibility. Plan your ride in advance, go well equipped and please respect the rights of the landowner.
Access through this land is a privilege, not a right, so please keep to the trail and do not venture on to farmland. Leave gates as you find them and respect stock and property. Be prepared to encounter both livestock and vehicles at any point along the trail.
The route consists of approximately 20% sealed road and 80% gravel road. The road is not regularly maintained so expect rough sections of road with loose gravel, large stones/boulders and corrugations. There are a number of river and stream crossings which may be as high as knee deep after heavy rain and there can be wash-outs and slips through the 'Hells Gate' gorge section.
Traffic volumes are very low however this road is used to access the Rainbow Ski Field from St Arnaud and lake Tennyson from Hanmer Springs so riders should keep left and be prepared for other traffic and animals on the road at any time.
FITNESS & SKILLS
Riders attempting this Heartland Ride should have a high level of fitness and some bikepacking experience in remote areas with limited services. The Island Saddle climb is long and steep and reaches a high point of 1347m above sea level, which can experience snow at any time of the year. Riders should be self-sufficient and carry a PLB in case of emergency.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike is essential for the remoteness and terrain; e-bikes are permitted, although there’s nowhere to charge between St Arnaud and Hanmer Springs. Riders should ideally have basic mechanical skills and carry a tool kit.
St Arnaud is in the Upper Wairau Valley, 85km from Nelson or 131km from Picton (via Blenheim). Hanmer Springs is 134km north of Christchurch. Bus services are available to and from both destinations.
There are three basic campsites and three backcountry huts along the trail. See DOC’s website for more information.
FOOD & WATER
There are no shops in between towns on the Rainbow Trail, so you will need to carry all of your supplies.
Drinking water is scarce along the route. Some huts may have water supplies, although this is not assured in spells of dry weather. There are many clear streams along the way.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although this trail is easy to navigate, the sheer scale of this country makes it essential to carry a map and make careful decisions at all junctions.
The alpine nature of this area makes it 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.
There is no cellphone coverage on this trail.
Toilets are located at campsites, huts and shelters.