Top day rides of the South Island

Published 2020-12-11

All of Aotearoa’s Great Rides can be sliced and diced into various day rides – return trips, loops using back roads and connecting trails, or one-way missions with the assistance of a shuttle. Local tour operators are standing by to support you with transport and riding advice, but also with hire bikes (including e-bikes) for those without their own wheels.

Queen Charlotte Track

Summer’s a lovely time to explore Queen Charlotte Sound. See it on the water and on two-wheels by catching a water taxi to Mistletoe Bay for the bike ride to Anakiwa. It’s a relatively easy 2–3 hours through beautiful beech forest with amazing water views and the chance to swim at Davies/Umungata Bay (2km from the end), or at Anakiwa where you can also treat yourself to an ice cream before catching the boat back to Picton. The track’s official partners can help with transport, tours and bike hire. 12.5km, 2–3 hours, grade 3/intermediate
 



Looking out across Queen Charlotte Sound (Richard Briggs)


 
Tasman's Great Taste Trail

This 177km trail serves up a smorgasbord of delicious day rides. Nelson to Mapua is a classic, taking in Waimea Estuary and Rabbit Island scenery along the way. The Mapua ferry is a neat way to finish the trip, as is a meal, beer or a spot of shopping in the waterside village. 35km, 2–3 hours, grade 2/easy

Also popular, the Stoke to Brightwater section heads inland across the pretty Waimea Plains, with five wineries to visit just a hop away. Have a cuppa in Brightwater and visit the memorial to atom-splitter Ernest Rutherford before returning to Stoke. 28km return, 2–3 hours, grade 2/easy

Eager riders can continue on to Wakefield through what is a particularly pretty section of trail.



Estuary boardwalk riding on the Tasman's Great Taste Trail (Virginia Woolf Photography)



Coppermine Trail, Nelson

Widely rated as one of country’s greatest day rides, the Coppermine is also our most accessible alpine MTB adventure thanks to an relatively easy up from the edge of Nelson city. It’s pretty awesome on the rocky tops, from where it’s an exhilarating descent into sweet-smelling beech forest and a meandering river trail. Round off your ride by refuelling in Nelson’s terrific cafes, restaurants and bars. 43km, 4–6 hours, grade 3–4/intermediate–advanced



The thrilling downhill from the Coppermine Saddle (Virginia Woolf Photography)



St James Cycle Trail

Magnificent high country complete with soaring peaks, broad river valleys and rustic farming heritage are hallmarks of this wilderness mountain bike adventure. While the full 59km can be ridden in one day by super-fit riders (and E-MTBers), the Homestead Run Loop offers an excellent and pretty easy taster. It starts at the rustic old Homestead – 13km from Hanmer Springs – then heads up the beautiful Peters Valley to Peters Pass where there are great picnic spots overlooking Waterfall Stream. The trail then turns to follow the Edwards Valley, then Tophouse Road to close the loop back at the Homestead. 15km, 2–3 hours, grade 2/easy



The Homestead Run Loop – a memorable day out (bennettandslater.co.nz)



The Old Ghost Road

If you’re short on time or haven’t managed to book into the huts, fret not. It’s still possible to experience the legendary Old Ghost Road on in-and-out rides from Lyell to Lyell Hut (36km return, 4–5 hours, grade 4/advanced), or Seddonville to Specimen Point Hut along the mighty Mokihinui River (34km return, 4–6 hours, grade 4/advanced).

Of course, there’s also a helicopter option up to super-scenic Ghost Lake Hut, 1200m above sea-level, from where you'll get 30km of superb singletrack down through primeval forest full of birdlife and the odd rusty relic from gold rush times. Get the fascinating backstory by reading Spirit to the Stone – Building the Old Ghost Road. All proceeds go to trail maintenance.



Swing bridge waaaay above the mighty Mokihinui River (Jonathan Kennett)


West Coast Wilderness Trail

Starting in Hokitika, this easy, two-hour ride takes in several of the trail’s biggest highlights starting with West Coast Scenic Waterways, which runs boat cruises and kayak trips on Mahinapua Creek – a real treat for nature-lovers that’s well worth factoring into your day. The trail then ventures deep into a scenic reserve via the history-rich Mananui Tramline before arriving at the West Coast Treetop Walkway, a fun way to see this rainforest landscape from on high. Either return the same way or via the rural road through Rimu, or be collected by shuttle. 15km, 2 hours, grade 2/easy



Cycling along the old Mananui Tramline (bennettandslater.co.nz)


Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

New Zealand’s longest Great Ride offers day trips to suit riders of almost any age or ability. One of these is the leg from Lake Tekapo to Twizel, taking 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. 54km, 4–5 hours, grade 2/easy 

The A2O also has a brand new section: 16km of dedicated off-road trail between Sailors Cutting and Benmore Dam. Numerous viewpoints and resting spots with picnic tables offer a chance to pause and soak up the scenery. 2–3 hours, grade 2–3/easy–intermediate



Crazy colours and clouds from the Tekapo B Power Station (bennettandslater.co.nz)


Otago Central Rail Trail

The Rail Trail’s proximity to main highways makes it easy to hop on and off for spectacular day rides. Making use of bike hire in Omakau (where it’s also possible to have a river swim, pre- or post-ride), the popular return ride to Auripo heads through the schist-lined Poolburn Gorge with an optional side trip to historic Ophir. 26km, 3–4 hours, grade 1/easiest

Another great option starts at Oturehua where you can visit Hayes Engineering Works and Gilchrest’s Store before riding out to Poolburn Gorge, through Lauder, and on to Omakau for a swim, cold beer or ice cream. 30km, 3–4 hours, grade 1/easiest

Make a bigger day of it by starting further along the trail at Wedderburn, famous for its iconic goods shed.



Poolburn Viaduct and classic Central Otago landscapes (James Jubb)



Roxburgh Gorge Trail

One of New Zealand’s most visually spectacular and intriguing day rides, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail follows the Clutha Mata-au River past eroded bluffs and old gold workings set amidst graceful willows, native shrubs and fragrant thyme. 21km, 1 day, grade 2–3/easy–intermediate

The full experience involves a thrilling jet-boat tour bridging the middle section, but richly rewarding return rides can be had from each end: Alexandra to Doctors Point (20km return, 2–3 hours, grade 2–3/easy–intermediate); or Roxburgh Dam to Shingle Creek (22km return, 2–3 hours, grade 2–3/easy–intermediate)



Cycling from the Roxburgh Dam end of the trail (Tim Bardsley-Smith/Tourism Central Otago)



Clutha Gold Trail

Winding along the Clutha Mata-au River between Roxburgh and Lawrence, this easy trail is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the stunning rural and riverside scenes of Central Otago’s Teviot Valley. For a great day out on the trail, do the return ride between Roxburgh village and Miller’s Flat. Be sure to wander around Roxburgh town (where bikes can be hired) and if time allows – and the weather is favourable – consider a swim in Pinders Pond along the way, and factor in finish-line refreshments at the Miller’s Flat pub. 42km, 4–5 hours, grade 2/easy



Easy riding besides New Zealand's most voluminous river (Tim Bardsley-Smith/Tourism Central Otago)



Queenstown Trail

Wine lovers are guaranteed a grape day out on the Arrowtown to Gibbston Valley ride which dishes up a delicious mix of vistas and vineyards as it meanders along the picturesque Arrow River, zig-zags across five bridges, and cuts down country lanes to the Kawarau Bridge bungy jump where you can pop your cork with the big bounce. Then you’ll be ready for a glass of bubbles or Pinot Noir (and perhaps a winery lunch) in the Gibbston ‘Valley of Vines’. Trail partners offer hire bikes and shuttle transport. 23km, allow 5 hours, grade 2–3/easy–intermediate



Checking out the view from Edgar Bridge (Destination Queenstown)



Around the Mountains Cycle Trail

You don’t need to go all the way around the mountains to immerse yourself in these amazing southern landscapes. One recommended day trip is the return ride between Lumsden and Five Rivers, which traverses lush countryside via the old railway line with scenes of the Oreti River. It finishes at Five Rivers’ fine cafe and art gallery. 28km return, 3–4 hours, grade 1–2/easiest–easy 

Athol to Kingston is another cruisy option. If you can, visit Athol’s lovely gallery before heading off on the trail, which soon meets the graceful wooden suspension bridges nicknamed the Golden Gates. Beyond the wee town of Garston, the trail passes historic Fairlight Station and down an ancient glacial moraine before finishing in Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. 30km, 2.5–3 hours, grade 1–3/easiest–intermediate



Beautiful backdrop on the way from Garston to Kingston (bennettandslater.co.nz)