Cycling the length of New Zealand

Eleven days into Tour Aotearoa, the formidable 3,000km cycling route that spans the length of New Zealand, you’ll reach the Timber Trail. This North Island cycle route runs through a slice of primeval forest, saved from logging by a handful of conservationists in the 1970s.

It’s like cycling in a green temple. Unusual podocarps – types of native conifers – rise like columns; the ferns beneath look so ornate that they could have been carved.
Despite its rough paths and impenetrable vegetation, the Timber Trail wants you here.
This is a remote area of North Island, 36km from the nearest town and over four hours’ drive away from Auckland. Yet, even here, the forest’s valleys are spanned by dozens of purpose-built swing and suspension bridges. Despite its rough paths and impenetrable vegetation, the Timber Trail wants you here.

It takes a great deal of effort to erect this kind of infrastructure in such a remote area of the country. But the Tour Aotearoa is full of carefully maintained trails like this; over the last decade, New Zealand has heavily invested in making life fun for cyclists.

Story of a cycling route

In 2009, struggling with recession and unemployment in the wake of the global financial crisis, the New Zealand government proposed a national cycle trail to reinvigorate small towns across the country. Research had found that only two percent of visitors to New Zealand used a bike. For Kiwis themselves, figures were low too; New Zealand is historically a nation of trampers (hikers), not cyclists.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail was created, designed to link up the best pre-existing routes in the country to form a national network of trails.

The idea was that cycle tourism would breathe new life into rural economies – cyclists spend longer, and spend more than other travellers.

And it’s worked: by 2012, mountain biking in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest was five times more economically valuable than timber in the area. On the Great Otago Trail, one of the original cycling trails, tourists on bikes bring in money at a rate second only to farming. When cycle tourism replaces other more intensive forms of industry, it can only be a good thing for the environment.

Since 2009, bike fever has grown apace. Between 2021 and 2022 the number of cyclists on the ‘Great Rides’ (dedicated cycle ways in scenic locations) over the course of the year leapt by 10 percent, passing the two million mark.

Connecting villages

The New Zealand cycle trails have opened up areas of the country once seen by very few. Kumara on South Island’s west coast had gone from mining town to close to ghost town in the 20th century. When the cycle trails were proposed, its last shop was going to close. The rising popularity of the West Coast Wilderness Trail has seen the town open new accommodation and restaurants to cater to stopping cyclists.

Some 91 percent of New Zealanders who live near the trails agree that the cycle rides have increased the profile of their area; for many they’re a source of local pride – and income. Local businesses have expanded, and hotels and shops opened – thanks to pedal power.

Restoring nature

Creating and maintaining cycle trails involves a surprising amount of tree planting. Trees are great for providing shade and windbreaks for cyclists and prevent path erosion. They’re not bad for New Zealand’s native birds, either.

Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park in Wellington planted a native tree for every metre of cycling track it created. Cycling tour operators may also plant trees on behalf of their travellers. Look out for the cabbage tree, popular as an ornamental tree in Europe, which provides a vital food source to New Zealand’s birds.

Conservationists have been able to use the cycle trails to access more remote areas, where they have been able to plant tens of thousands of native trees, and flax and rushes in wetland areas. Trees restore the riverbanks by reducing erosion. There’s now trees along the Waikato River, North Island, thanks to the Waikato River cycling trails down 104km of its banks. Swing bridges between valleys keep cyclists from disturbing any wildlife near the watercourses, and new barriers alongside rivers protect them from agricultural run-off.

The trails have also made New Zealand’s vendetta against pests easier. You might spot funny-looking boxes as you cycle. These are pest traps, set up to catch stoat, rats, hedgehogs, weasels and ferrets. Whilst these are welcomed in other parts of the world, most mammals are not native here and some species have damaged the native bird populations.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Extreme adventure or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Cycling the Tour Aotearoa

They wouldn’t be impressed if you cycled east to west – so north to south you must go!
The Tour Aotearoa (‘a tee a roa’ – the Māori name for New Zealand) was designed by the Kennett brothers: two mountain bikers, authors and trail designers. Roughly three quarters of its route uses the official New Zealand cycle trails.

There’s an annual brevet (a timed cycling event) every February, but the tour route is open all year around. For those who don’t want to race, guided holidays along the route are the way to go. Soak it up in your own time – the whole country, or just North or South Island.

North Island, South Island, or both?

You can do the North Island Tour Aotearoa on a guided tour that loosely follows the route. The North Island version of the tour is a cool 1,590 km from Cape Reinga lighthouse to Wellington, the capital, and is completed over a 22-day trip.

The South Island version of the tour is a mere 1,410km journey from the town of Picton to the town of Bluff, completed over a 20-day odyssey. A full tour of both islands takes 41 days. The general consensus of riders is that North Island’s hills are more gruelling than those of South Island. If you’re interested in a slightly shorter ride, consider a 620km circuit around Marlborough's wine country at the top of South Island.

On North Island you’ll start with a beach ride, before cycling through Auckland, swinging by Hobbiton, and taking on the remote Timber Trail. The one problem with only doing North Island? When you reach the end you’re going to stand looking out across the Cook Strait, convinced that South Island is calling you to continue.

South Island is known for its many dramatic landscapes: the beautiful Southern Alps run down its length, sporting lakes and glaciers, whilst its wet and wild west coast has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. At the bottom of the island, you’ll roll through Southland farmland to reach the trail’s end at Bluff, the island’s southernmost settlement.

North Island Highlights of the Tour Aotearoa

90 Mile Beach

North Island starts with a showstopper – an 85km ride on the sand along the beach. This leg of the trip is carefully planned around the tide – but you can’t plan for a headwind, so pray that the weathervane swings in your favour, or you’ll be in for a blustery start. Over your right shoulder, the Tasman Sea accompanies you for the full 85km.

Timber Trail

Whizz over bridges in the Timber Trail’s green temple, where some of New Zealand’s last remaining virgin podocarp forest survives and thrives. When you stop, the bird life is noisy, bold behind a thicket of leaves. The terrain is tough – but without these bridges, it would be a whole lot tougher.

Waikato River Trail

New Zealand’s longest river now has a cycle trail along it, which takes in the man-made lakes along its length. The river flows south to north, like the Nile – but you’ll travel it north to south, of course, unless you’re very lost.

Bridge to Nowhere

Not the only evocatively named landmark in this wilderness area: the “Bridge to Nowhere” is gateway to the “Valley of Abandoned Dreams”, named after a failed farming settlement. Chuck your bike onto a jet-powered boat and roar up the Whanganui River to the trail head, then cycle over the mysterious bridge.


Auckland is a popular part of the Tour Aotearoa for Kiwis; if you have any family and friends in the country’s most populous city, tell them to come out and cheer you on. City cycling isn’t for everyone, though – which is what the support wagon is for – you can always hitch a lift instead.

South Island Highlights of the Tour Aotearoa

West Coast Wilderness Trail

South Island’s ‘wild west’, often as wet as it is wild thanks to weather off the Tasman Sea, was once a land of coal and gold mining, and is still home to extraordinary natural landscapes. The locals – known as ‘coasters’, will be happy to see you stop by.

Lake Wakatipu

A scenic lake in a country full of scenic lakes, Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s longest. You’ll cross it by boat with your bike – one of a few carefully-chosen ferry crossings on the trip. Drink in the views as you rest; a mountain range called The Remarkables runs along the lake’s south-eastern shore.

Maungatapu track

A meaty mountain biking track with a macabre history, this steep road into the Maitai Valley was once terrorised by roaming bushrangers. It’s now only a terror on the legs – but the reward is a smooth cycle down to the city of Nelson on Tasman Bay, and a swim stop.


By the time you reach glacier country on South Island, you might think your trusty bike can cycle up just about anything. But though you can ride into this area, famous for the beautiful Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, getting up close to the ice itself is best done by other means.

Best time to go

Small group trips to cycle across North or South Island tend to depart in the Austral summer: November, January, February, and March. This coincides with the peak tourist season in New Zealand. Cyclists should prepare for heat – it can be thirty degrees or more, but the average for this time of year is the low twenties. Luckily, cyclists find that they generate their own breeze!

If you want to cycle the whole of New Zealand there are small group trips departing in November and February. Start dates are very specific. The first leg of the North Island route is along a beach and can only be done on days when the tide is out in the morning so that you can complete the day before nightfall.


You need to be an experienced cyclist to do this very long-distance off-road trip.

The route tries to follow paths rather than roads wherever it can. The terrain can be rough; there will be rocky tracks where you’ll have to navigate large boulders – and the going can be wet. New Zealand has a path grading system, with 1 being the easiest, and 5 being very rough, or ‘extreme’. Sometimes you’ll have to push your bike – over bridges, rocky ground, or uphill. You might take a tumble or two.

Hardtail mountain bikes – which have suspension at the front – are the recommended bike for the terrain. You can bring your own bike or hire one.

Electric bikes are available. Going electric gives you that extra boost of power on the trail – they can help even out the playing field if you’re travelling in a group of mixed ability cyclists. Though they can make cycling long distances – and especially going uphill – easier, you will still need good technical cycling ability on the rougher trails.

Trips feature groups of no more than 14, so you won’t overwhelm the small villages where you stop – or disturb the wildlife.

You’ll stay in a mix of places – motels and hotels, lodges – even holiday park cabins – depending on where you are on the route; options can be limited in rural areas.

What does fully supported mean?

You’ll get a support vehicle driving behind you or near at hand whenever the terrain allows, meaning that you can get help if you get a puncture, or can just throw your bike in the van for a bit and have a rest – there’s a reason they call it a ‘sag wagon’!

Your support team will also go ahead of you on the route to set up picnic lunches. Cycling is very hungry work, after all. In your ‘rolling buffet’ you’ll stock up on sandwiches, as well as useful fuel like boiled eggs and bananas (preferably consumed separately). You’ll get breakfast every morning before you set out, and a big evening meal – lamb shanks and a massive glass of wine, please.

That’s all you need – oh, except to pray that you never get a strong southerly wind.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mountain Bike Mt Cook] [Intro: Johnragla] [North Island, South Island, or both?: Vera & Jean-Christophe] [90 Mile Beach: ShakyIsles] [West Coast Wilderness Trail: Shellie]