St James Cycle Trail – Tramping on Wheels

Length: 64 – 90 km
Time: 6 hours to 2 days
Grade: sections of grade 3, 4, and 5

The first of the New Zealand Cycle Trails was opened recently, just north of Hanmer Springs, and if you love the great outdoors, you will certainly love this trip. It is a 64 km point-to-point ride, or, if you don’t mind an hour of gravel road riding, you can easily make it a 90 km loop.

Although fit people manage to ride the trail in a single day, we decided a leisurely pace would give us time to really explore the St James area. Before your trip, make sure you get the Department of Conservation pamphlet St James Conservation Area. It includes a map of the trail and lots of useful information.

Our group of four started from the St James Homestead and cycled 26 kilometres up Tophouse Road to the Maling Pass car park, just in time for the official opening ceremony. After some rousing speeches and applause, 40 bikers headed over Maling Pass (1308 m), an easy climb followed by a massive downhill. The views of the Waiau Valley and snowy Spencer Mountains are simply stunning.

Down in the valley, the old 4WD track soon changed into a brilliant new cycle trail, leading to the lovely Lake Guyon, where there is a small hut open to the public. That only took us a few hours, so we decided to push on to Pool Hut, another four hours away. This part of the track was challenging in places and involved some five to ten minute ‘foot cycling’ sections. A new bridge across an impressive gorge near Saddle Spur, gives great views of the fast flowing Waiau River.

Pool Hut is not the most salubrious bunkhouse, so we pitched out tents close by, had a tasty dinner and went for a short walk to the second large swing bridge over the Waiau. Surrounded by high mountains, with not another person in sight, we kicked back and relaxed, talking about anything and everything until the evening light faded, slowly revealing a million stars.

The following day we faced four hours of biking to return to our cars at the St James Homestead (11 km from Hanmer Springs). There are a couple of steep climbs that see most people pushing their bikes, but both offer a reward of great views and gentle downhills. There are also dozens of stream crossings. En route, an historic musterers’ hut provides a glimpse back to the farming days, and reminded us how lucky we are that the station is now managed for conservation and recreation.

After the ride, we had plenty of time to relax in the hot pools at Hanmer Springs and soon found ourselves planning a return trip to St James. This really is a great ride, and there are plenty of other trails to explore in the area as well.