New Zealand’s original Great Ride follows an old railway line through beautiful, big-sky country with the bonus of legendary hospitality.
The trail that inspired the creation of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network, the Otago Central Rail Trail offers a classic blend of natural beauty, fascinating history, friendly towns, along with fantastic local food and wine. Riders should allow at least four days to complete the whole trail between Clyde and Middlemarch, but it can easily be broken into shorter rides to suit riders’ itineraries and interests.
Following the path of the former railway route between Clyde and Middlemarch, the Otago Central Rail Trail offers easy riding through ever-changing scenery. There are plenty of diverting sights both on and near the trail, including eerie tunnels, unusual bridges, abandoned gold diggings and stacks of historic buildings in styles from agrarian to art deco.
Cyclists completing the entire trail can start from either end, taking advantage of well-oiled support crews comprising lodges and cafes, shuttle and cycle tour operators. Luggage transfers make the riding even easier.
The Rail Trail can also be split into shorter sections of various lengths. Auripo to Omakau is a popular day ride, taking riders through the schist-lined Poolburn Gorge with an optional side trip to historic Ophir. Among many other day trips are many return rides and loops, reducing the need for pre-planned transport.
The official Rail Trail website lists many popular itineraries including trips specially tailored for families and budget-conscious travellers. There are also suggestions for riding the trail in winter, when snows create striking vistas and there are opportunities for curling and ice skating as well as skiing around Queenstown.
View trail map here.
This is one of the easiest New Zealand Cycle Trails, a grade 1 cruise with a smooth, wide surface and almost entirely flat gradient with the occasional long incline.
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.
The trail can be ridden at any time of year, with each season coloured with a striking palette. Central Otago’s temperatures are extreme – hot and dry in summer, to icy in winter. Regardless of season, it is vital to check trail conditions as well as the forecast, and take appropriate clothing.
Numerous local companies offer services from bike hire to guided tours. These include Altitude Bikes, Bike It Now, Cycle Surgery, Big Sky Bike Adventures, Off the Rails, Shebikeshebikes and Trail Journeys. Most offer customised itineraries combining the best of Central Otago’s trails, as well as transfers from Queenstown and Christchurch. Guided trips departing from Christchurch are offered by Adventure South and Pure Trails New Zealand.
There is plenty of accommodation near the trail around the main centres of Clyde, Alexandra and Ranfurly, and other small settlements and surrounding countryside. Accommodation providers partnered with the trail are listed on the New Zealand Cycle Trail website. Other popular bases within 90 minutes’ drive include Dunedin, Cromwell, Wanaka and Queenstown.