Follow the mighty Waikato River as it wends through changing natural landscapes and a series of handsome old hydropower dams.
This stretch of New Zealand’s longest river is punctuated by elegant dams and tranquil hydro-lakes as it flows through the North Island’s rural heartland, close to State Highway 1. Featuring picturesque scenery, birdlife, industrial architecture and other diverting sights, this journey is further enriched by ecological restoration and community spirit.
The Waikato River Trails comprise five sections ranging from easy to expert, across terrain sometimes smooth and gently undulating, at others steeper and more rugged. Multiple access points and local shuttle services allow for rides of various lengths and levels of difficulty.
The trail sticks close to the Waikato River the whole way, and can be ridden in either direction. Cyclists completing the whole trail can stop overnight in lakeside campsites and lodges, or arrange shuttles to transport them to other accommodation nearby.
There are plenty of day rides. A deservedly popular option starts at Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni, where bikes can be hired for an easy 26km return ride alongside Lake Karapiro. Highlights include an historic pedestrian bridge suspended above a handsome hydropower station, plus regenerating wetlands and peaceful waterside reserves.
The two southernmost sections along the Whakamaru and Maraetai hydro-lakes combine for a memorable one-day adventure. Starting beside the imposing rocky knob known as Mt Pohaturoa, the intermediate-level trail flows through forest and open terrain offering ever-changing views of the lakes and dams.
This trail ranges across grades 2–5 (easy to expert), with each section described in detail on the trail website. Although predominantly wide and smooth, there are stretches of trickier single-track (particularly on the Waipapa section), so riders should plan their ride accordingly. A mountain bike is recommended.
Although well signposted and seldom far from roads and settlements (some with cafes), riders should carry a map, sufficient food and water, basic tool kit and cellphone (although coverage may be patchy). Toilets are located at convenient intervals.
A temperate climate makes this an all-season trail. However, parts of the track can get muddy during winter (June–August), but any fog usually lifts to reveal a clear day. Riders should check the forecast and take appropriate clothing for the conditions.
Based in Putaruru on State Highway 1, the Waikato River Trails Trust provides advice, bike hire, shuttles and luggage transfers, with guided tours also available. At Karapiro, Lake District Adventures also offers bike hire and shuttles, and there’s also bike hire at the welcoming Rhubarb Cafe alongside the trail in Arapuni.
For cycle-friendly accommodation right on the trail, check out Out in the Styx guesthouse near Arapuni, and Lake Maraetai Lodge. There are five road-accessible riverside camps along the route, and other options dotted throughout the surrounding countryside. Cambridge, Putaruru and Taupo are also conveniently close. Accommodation providers partnered with the trail are listed on the Waikato River Trails website.