This challenging high-country ride rewards with soaring peaks, alpine meadows, beech forest, tranquil lakes and crystal clear rivers.
This is a remote mountain biking experience through an historic high-country station, once one of New Zealand’s largest cattle and sheep farms. Now designated St James Conservation Area, it can be explored on this demanding but unforgettable journey enriched with stunning alpine vistas, mountain beech forest, and vast grassland valleys dotted with rustic farm buildings. The ride can be readily combined with a visit to Hanmer Springs, a relaxing spa town.
The St James is most suited to fit, experienced mountain bikers, the most eager of whom can complete the trail in one long (6–9 hour) day. A two-day trip, stopping overnight in campsites or one of three huts, will allow greater appreciation of the scenery. Less experienced riders or those with insufficient time to complete the whole trail can get a great taste of it on the 15km Homestead Run loop.
The full trail is best started at the Maling car park, as in this direction there is more downhill overall and the prevailing wind is usually more favourable. A steady climb to Maling Pass, the highpoint of the trail (1308m), is followed by a steep descent through alpine meadows and beech forest to the Waiau Valley floor.
Following the river downstream, riders can detour to pretty Lake Guyon for a refreshing swim and an overnight stop in the Department of Conservation hut. Further down the Waiau Valley, after the spectacular Saddle Spur Bridge, the trail becomes more challenging with rocky, uneven sections, grunty climbs, tricky descents and thorny matagouri bushes to dodge. Around the trail’s mid-way point, Pool Hut is another overnight option.
Scotties Hut is a good spot for a rest before knocking off the last section. From here the track becomes easier and smoother, and after a steady climb to Peters Pass it’s a leisurely downhill through Peters Valley to the trail end at the historic St James Homestead.
The full trail is only suitable for fit, experienced mountain bikers, for while the first and final sections of the trail are grade 2–3 (easy–intermediate), the middle leg features some grade 4 (advanced) terrain requiring river crossings and bike carrying in places.
Although the trail is signposted, riders should carry a map as well as a cellphone although coverage is limited. It is therefore recommended that a personal locator beacon (PLB) be carried. Riders should take ample food, and while water is readily available it must be boiled, filtered or treated before drinking.
The best time to ride is from November to April, but regardless of the time of year riders should check in with the local Department of Conservation office for the latest track conditions and weather forecast, and let someone know their intended route and return date. Temperatures can drop and rivers rise quickly in this alpine environment, so riders should bring sufficient food and equipment for an unscheduled overnight stay.
Bike hire and shuttles are available from Hanmer Adventure based in Hanmer Springs. Shuttle services are also available from St James Journeys. One-day guided tours including bike hire are offered by Natural High of Christchurch.
Riders staying on the trail can choose from one of three very basic Department of Conservation huts or numerous wilderness camping sites. All equipment and food must be carried in. The resort town of Hanmer Springs makes an excellent stop either before or after, with a wide range of accommodation as well as a popular spa pool complex.