Clyde — Middlemarch (1-5 days, 152km)
Steeped in history, this pioneering cycle trail offers a 152km scenic journey into the Central Otago heartland.
Named after the old railway line, built between 1891 and 1907, the Otago Central Rail Trail is New Zealand’s original ‘Great Ride’.
It travels through big-sky country where cyclists traverse ever-changing dry and rocky landscapes, high-country sheep stations, spectacular river gorges, tunnels and viaducts.
There are over 20 townships located on and off the trail. Take the opportunity to meet the locals with their still-present pioneering spirit and take detours and side trips to places such as old abandoned gold diggings left over from the gold rush and the country’s only international curling rink.
The Central Otago climate is characterised by hot summers, cold winters and low rainfall. The autumn landscape is renowned in these parts for the kaleidoscope of browns, golds and reds.
You should allow at least four full days to bike the trail – more if you want to do some exploring off the trail. If you’re after a shorter ride, there are numerous townships located along the trail where you can start or end your ride. As a well-established cycle trail, there are plenty of places to stop for refreshments and accommodation.
RIDING THROUGH HISTORY
The Otago Central Railway was once an economic lifeline for the Central Otago region. Built to connect Dunedin with Central Otago, a thriving gold-mining area, the track took 16 years to complete and was finished in 1907.
It truly is a testament to human endeavour – the detailed workmanship of the stone bridges and tunnel facings along the trail have stood the test of time and the mountains still bear scars of the races, built back in the 1860s to bring water to the long-gone gold mines.
Steam trains chugged along this railway line for 83 years, but once the roads were improved and the gold rush was long over, the line was officially closed in 1990 and the railway tracks removed, leaving a long, relatively flat path through Central Otago.
Nowadays, the Department of Conservation and the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust manage the trail, and there is no charge for using it.
As you ride along it you’ll see countless reminders of the railway and associated gold rush, including long, dark tunnels, trestle and stone bridges, abandoned gold diggings and remains of mining machinery, old stone and mudbrick dwellings and preserved gold-mining settlements.
The Otago Central Rail Trail was established in 1994 and officially opened in 2000 by the Governor General Sir Michael Hardie Boys. In 2012 it became part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail.
RIDING THE TRAIL
If you’re planning to ride the entire Otago Central Rail Trail you can start your ride in either Middlemarch or Clyde.
The trail is 100% gravel (a bit rough in places) is well-signposted and free maps are readily available. For $10 you can buy a special Rail Trail Passport and have it stamped at towns along the way, to prove you rode the entire trail.
You should allow at least four full days to bike the trail – more if you want to do some exploring off the trail.
If you’re after a shorter ride, there are numerous townships located along the trail to start or end your ride.
Access to the Otago Central Rail Trail is free.
CLYDE TO ALEXANDRA, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 8KM
Make sure you visit the historic Clyde township before you start at the railhead for the trail. This section is flat and a good way to get settled in the saddle. The main feature is the wooden Muttontown Viaduct.
The trail is a couple of kilometres from the retail and service part of Alexandra so if you need to shop there do allow time. Alexandra is the largest town on the trail and is fully serviced.
ALEXANDRA TO CHATTO CREEK, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 17KM
Heading north, this section follows the Manuherikia River which flows south to join the mighty Clutha.
The trail traverses the farming area of Galloway and is completed at New Zealand’s best small hotel (2013) at Chatto Creek, which also has New Zealand’s smallest operating post office.
CHATTO CREEK TO OMAKAU, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 12KM
Ride up Tiger Hill on a sweeping rise crossing the state highway twice. Enjoy the views and the ganger shed information boards along the way. Then you have a straight descent into Omakau, a town with most services.
A side trip to historic Ophir and the 1880 suspension bridge is worth the additional few kilometres.
OMAKAU TO LAUDER, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 7KM
Past newly established dairy farms and more intense irrigation, Lauder has accommodation, a hotel and a café. It also has a NIWA weather base.
LAUDER TO OTUREHUA, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 21KM
There is a gentle rise north into the Poolburn Gorge with its two tunnels. Then it is a straight ride up the Ida Valley past historic Hayes Engineering. This is a popular day trip section of the trail.
Oturehua boasts Gilchrists general store, which is still set out as it was 100 years ago, and a hotel.
OTUREHUA TO WEDDERBURN, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 12KM
Immediately you are offered a diversion to Golden Progress Mine where there are gold-mining remains and a stamper battery.
Then it is a slow climb out of the Ida Valley to the highest point of the trail before you start swinging east into the Maniototo. Wedderburn has pub food and accommodation. A popular diversion is to St Bathans.
WEDDERBURN TO RANFURLY, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 14KM
Easy riding east across the open Maniototo Plain to the second biggest service town on the trail. Consider a diversion to Naseby to try indoor curling or mountain bike tracks.
RANFURLY TO WAIPIATA, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 8KM
Easy downhill ride to small rural township with hotel and some accommodation. Great fly fishing available in the Taieri River.
WAIPIATA TO KOKONGA TO TIROITI TO HYDE, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 24KM
The trail now leaves the Maniototo through the upper Taieri Gorge, following the river. Kokonga and Tiroiti have accommodation available and some nice picnic sites.
Flat, easy riding with a viaduct and tunnel makes this section a perfect one-day taste-tester. Hyde has accommodation and fuel.
HYDE TO MIDDLEMARCH, (GRADE 1 EASIEST) 28KM
An easy downhill ride south, unless a southerly is blowing, into the Strath Taieri valley. The Rock and Pillar Range is on your right.
The end of the trail is also the terminus for the Taieri Gorge Railway. A walk around New Zealand’s only inland salt lake to the south of the valley is a nice time-filler.
The Otago Central Rail Trail begins/ends in Middlemarch and Clyde.
Getting to the Otago Central Rail Trail can be an experience in itself.
- From Dunedin, you can take a two and a half hour train trip travelling the historic Taieri Gorge Railway to start your ride at Middlemarch.
- It is one hour drive from Queenstown through spectacular scenery and vineyard country to Clyde, if you want to start your ride there.
Shuttle transport is also available enabling you to begin or end your cycle journey almost anywhere along the trail.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is a Grade 1 (Easiest) trail that follows an old disused railway line. There are no especially steep climbs but some inclines are very long, making a degree of fitness desirable. Be prepared for some loose gravel in places.
There are over 100 hotels, motels, lodges, B&Bs located on or off the trail. Note that it pays to book your accommodation well in advance, especially if you’re planning to ride during the peak season (February-April).
There are toilets are available at regular intervals along the trail.
You can experience four seasons in one day on the Otago Centrail Rail Trail, so carry clothing sufficient to cope with a range of temperatures. Be sure to apply sunscreen if you’re cycling during the summer months.
If you’re planning to ride during the cooler months, take care to check the availability of services before you start and bear in mind that you will have a shorter riding day. There could be snow on some sections of the trail at times.
MOBILE PHONE COVERAGE: Coverage is good in the open plains but limited to non-existent in the gorges and tunnels, and limited sometimes during bad weather.
DRINKING WATER: Please buy water as many local schemes have limited capacity and are funded locally.
The Central Otago region is a year round destination for mountain bikers – every season offers a different experience.
Late summer and autumn are popular times to ride, when the temperature has cooled and the glorious shades of gold, orange and red are emerging, contrasting against brilliant blue skies.
The region enjoys a a continental climate of temperature extremes.
Summers are mainly hot and dry with temperature averaging from 10 – 30+ ̊ C. While it’s mostly T-shirt and shorts weather, it’s a good idea to have an extra lightweight layer to cover up from the sun during the hottest part of the day. The UVI (ultra violet index) is often high making sun hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, and water bottle essential everyday accessories.
Winters are cold and still with temperatures ranging between -6 – 15 ̊ C. Frequent freezing overnight temperatures cast an almost permanent frosty veneer across the land. Snow covers the surrounding hills and mountains for much of the winter and occasionally falls and lies on the lower lying valleys. Fog can linger but usually clear blue skies break through by mid-morning. The days are short with daylight hours from 8am until 5pm from mid June until mid July.