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The great thing about cycle trails is that they offer an awesome way to experience New Zealand’s natural wonders – be it the stunning native bush and history of the Timber Trail ride, the spectacular views of Lake Taupo from the Great Lake trail, the rugged remoteness of the Old Ghost Rd or the vineyards in the Hawkes Bay or Queenstown trail. The trails offer a great way for the keen mountain biker to combine their love of cycling with their love of exploring.
Thankfully in the 20 years that I have been mountain biking in New Zealand the trails have changed a lot. Where once we rode forestry trails and sheep tracks, now we are spoilt for choice with over 20 NZ cycle trails covering the North and South Island and mountain bike parks springing up all over the place.
All the cycle trails are very well set up, with accommodation on the trail and shuttle operators who know the rides (and are usually keen cyclists themselves), so they always have some great local tips. CLICK HERE for a free printable map of New Zealand’s Cycle Trails.
The Timber Trail – Central North Island, NZ
We’ve been mountain biking with our kids since they were 5 and 8 and we were regular visitors to our favourite mountain bike park. They did their first cycle trail when they were 8 and 11.
The Timber Trail is an 82km 2-day ride in the Pureora forest, about one hour south of Te Kuiti. We had ridden it a couple of times before we tried it with the kids, so we knew that the grade would be OK – we just needed to train them to be able to cover a bit more distance. Lucky I enjoy the training as much as the ride itself so we have our kids pretty well trained (well they can ride a good distance – are kids ever well trained?!).
This family-friendly cycle trail has something for everyone, with stunning native bush, spectacular suspension bridges and a lot of history about forestry in New Zealand in the early 1900s . The logistics of the trail mean that it needs to be broken into two days (approx 35km per day), as there are no places to get picked up along the trail apart from the official mid-section. My son’s only complaint was that some of the trail was a bit flat and boring, but when we got to the end the first thing my daughter asked was what trail were we doing next.
The Great Lake Trail – Taupo, NZ
Later that year we headed for Taupo (also in the central North Island) to do a section of the Great Lake Trail.
We rode a 25km section of the trail known as the Headland loop from Whakaipo Bay to Kinloch (W2K) with the kids, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The section of the trail we rode is a steady climb uphill for about half an hour and you are rewarded at the top of the hill by stunning views out over the lake towards Kinloch. The views just get more stunning as you ride further around the headland, with the most amazing view across the lake of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. You really get a sense of the full size of New Zealand’s largest lake – Lake Taupo, which is awesome. Fun fact – Lake Taupo is actually the crater (caldera) of a blown apart volcano which was formed thousands of years ago and was one of the most explosive volcanoes in all of history.
We have ridden the complete Great Lake Trail with our friends and it is all an achievable grade, but the really family friendly thing about this trail is that it can be ridden in lots of smaller sections – talk to a local shuttle operator about the logistics to suit you and your family.
The Waikato River Trails – Waikato Region, NZ
One of the things I love about cycling is that the ability and enjoyment transcends the generations. So we were delighted when my 77-year-old uncle, who had recently taken up mountain biking, decided to join us on our next cycle trail.
We hadn’t heard much about the Waikato River Trails so we weren’t sure what to expect. However, we were pleasantly surprised and impressed by the trails’ ever-changing scenery & terrain – stunning river views, vibrant native bush, boardwalks through wetland, rugged cliffs, impressive dams and more lakes than I knew existed on the Waikato River, not to mention a great lunch at the pub in Whakamaru.
We rode the two southern sections – approximately 36km – from Atiamuri to Mangakino. Even though there had recently been heavy rain and it had been a wet winter, the trail was in great condition and I highly recommend giving it a try.
The Queenstown Trail – South Island, NZ
The NZ cycle trail network continues in the South Island, where we enjoyed a 25km section of the Queenstown Trail from Frankton to the Kawerau Bridge, with a shuttle back to our car.
The track is very well made and mostly downhill with three relatively small hills to climb. There was a bit of bike pushing for the kids (make that bike pushing for the adults), but nothing too major. Some highlights from that section of the trail include riding over the restored Shotover River bridge, riding through farmland alongside the Kawerau River and watching the jetboats go past, and the Arrow River suspension bridge (it’s a long way down to the river!).
When we rode the trail didn’t have any distance markers so unfortunately we did feel like we were rushing a bit to meet the shuttle, as we had no idea how much further it was to the end. Of course the solution to this problem is get to dropped off at the bridge and ride back, but the trail would be slightly more uphill.
There are over 120 kilometers of trails to enjoy in the Queenstown area so there is something to suit everyone, including trails that take in the local wineries (maybe do those ones without the kids!).
Mountain Bike Parks in New Zealand
While I love the New Zealand cycle trails, sometimes you just want the fun and logistical ease of whizzing around a mountain bike park.
If you’re looking for a world class mountain bike park you cant go past Rotorua – over 130 km of trails with something to suit everyone and a shuttle bus to get you to the top of the hill if downhill riding is more your thing. Rotorua also just happens to be the home of bubbling mud, thermal activities and geysers, along with a multitude of other ways to entertain yourself and the kids. Check some of them out here.
There are also many mountain bike parks scattered all over the country – we have enjoyed great riding in Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, Kaiteriteri at the top of the South Island, Hamner Springs near Christchurch in the central South Island, and of course there are several mountain bike parks in Queenstown. So allow a little (or a lot) of extra time on your next New Zealand road trip and add some mountain biking to your itinerary!
Tips for Riding Cycle Trails with Kids
The local shuttle operators are very knowledgeable on the trails so if you have an queries they can always help you out.
While we have never had to use it, we have ridden with a rope and an old inner tube to use as a home-made bike bungee in case little legs get tired.
Parts of the trails don’t get any cell phone coverage, so you need to be prepared for anything – much like anything else with kids but without the back up of essential services.
Invest in the best gear you can afford for your kids so they can get the most out of the experience, e.g cycle shorts for cycling. We wouldn’t want to ride without cycle shorts so why would our kids? Keep an eye out for sales, and save money by buying unisex colours and styles that can be handed down. You could also suggest to friends and relatives that they buy cycle gear for your kids’ birthdays or Christmas presents instead of toys.
Just like adults children will have different riding abilities, so to make it more fun for everyone I find it helps if the adults take it in turns riding with each of the kids.
And like anything with parenting, mountain biking with kids is going to have its highs and lows. Parts of it may push your patience to the limits, but in the end mountain biking with my children are some of the best experiences I have shared with them. Read more about our Cycle Trail adventures HERE!
Charmaine| Buzzy in the Burbs
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