The South Island’s Top Trails for the Pedalling Enthusiast
So much scenery and so little time. The South Island of New Zealand is truly a place to indulge in nature. One great way to get away from civilisation, challenge yourself and see more sights quickly is by cycling the South Island’s bike trails. Trails range from the easy and breezy around picturesque lakes to mighty missions in the mountains! Choose from the best bike trails on the South Island from the list below, and remember, day rides of the trails are an awesome option if you don’t want to peddle on a multi-day mission.
Different Grades of Cycle Trails on the South Island:
A good place to start in choosing a bike trail is picking one to suit your ability and fitness. In New Zealand, the difficulty of bike trail is marked by grades, which are as follows:
- Grade 1: Wide and smooth trails that are easy for all riders.
- Grade 2: Same as grade 1 but add some hills.
- Grade 3: It starts to get tough! These tracks are only suitable for mountain bikes.
- Grade 4: Brace yourself, these tracks are for experienced mountain bikers only.
And if your trip includes visiting the North Island, be sure to also check out the 10 Best Bike Trails on the North Island.
1. Great Taste Trail
Named for its route through the fertile lands of vineyards and orchards, along with its artisanry delights, the Great Taste Trail is a must for any foodie. The trail is perfect for those looking to make the most of the sunny Nelson Tasman region with scenic views of Tasman Bay, the Waimea Estuary and the Western Ranges. On the other hand, riders looking for a tough challenge should look to the Coppermine Trail in the same area. Cycle hire and transport can be organised with Kiwi Journeys. Find out more about the Great Taste Trail and Coppermine Trail in our guide to Mountain Biking in Nelson Tasman.
Length: 200km (124 miles), 1-4 days.
Grade: 2 and 3 – Having a bit of mountain biking experience is a big help on this trail.
Location: Nelson Tasman.
2. Queen Charlotte Track
Bike along historical bays like Ship Cove Meretoto to luxuriant coastal forest and mountain rims revealing unmatched views of the Marlborough Sounds. Day rides of the iconic Queen Charlotte Trail can be achieved with water taxi transport, or cycle the entirety of this enchanting trail and stay in a choice of scenic campsites to luxurious waterfront lodges. Find out more about the trail in our guide, Mountain Biking in Marlborough or The Ultimate Guide to the Queen Charlotte Track.
Length: 71km (44 miles), 1-5 days.
Grade: 3 and 4. Following improvements to the trail in 2019 it is now significantly easier.
Location: Picton, Marlborough.
3. Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Starting at New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook, and finishing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Oamaru, the South Island’s longest bike trail wanders through a world heritage national park, tussock lands, limestone cliffs and glacial lakes. There are a series of rewarding day sections of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, while cycling the complete 5-6 days journey through (arguably) some of the South Island’s best scenery is an unforgettable experience.
4. Queenstown Trail
This trail is strategically placed to showcase the best of the Queenstown area, such as the Gibbston vineyard district (also known as the Valley of Vines), the historic gold-mining village of Arrowtown, the peaceful shores of Lake Hayes, and the adrenaline-filled Queenstown. Bike hire and transport to the Queenstown Trail can be organised by Around the Basin Bike Tours and Going Blue Queenstown.
Length: 138km (86 miles), 1-4 days.
Grade: 2 and 3 – The average level rider will be able to take on this trail, but any lower level will have a hard time.
5. The Old Ghost Road
This is a tough one! In fact, this bike trail is one of the hardest in the country. Nonetheless, The Old Ghost Road is so unique that it attracts many avid peddlers! Riding partly on alpine ridges, partly in native rainforest, and partly in a valley filled with peaceful lakes, this West Coast trail on a resurrected gold miners’ route might just leave you breathless for different reasons… Learn more about this legendary bike trail in our guide, Mountain Biking on the West Coast.
6. West Coast Wilderness Trail
This trail is unique in its conception, as it links old tracks, water races, logging tramways and old railway lines from the West Coast’s iconic mining era. History is not the only thing the West Coast Wilderness Trail has going for it, as it is the best trail to tackle if you are looking to immerse yourself in the wetlands, lush rainforests, pristine rivers and rugged beaches that make up the West Coast of New Zealand. Find out more about this easy-going ride in our guide to Mountain Biking on the West Coast.
7. Otago Central Rail Trail
The Otago Central Rail Trail is the jewel of the Otago region. The trail follows the disused railway from Clyde to the township of Middlemarch through stunning mountainous and rocky landscapes. The ride is actually very easy. The difficulty lies in its length, but with so much to see along the way like a viaduct, river gorges, tunnels and historic towns, you cannot go wrong. If you don’t have the four days minimum required to tackle this trail, check out the 12 Super Scenic Cycle Trails in Otago for shorter days rides on the trail.
Length: 152km (94 miles), 1-5 days.
Grade: 1 – This is the easiest ride on the South Island.
Location: Central Otago.
8. Roxburgh Gorge Trail
Totally isolated from the rest of the region and from civilisation altogether, the trail follows the rocky Roxburgh Gorge for most of its course. The Roxburgh Gorge Trail takes you through a dry and deserted landscape far from your typical New Zealand landscape. A section of the trail has to be done by boat, so be prepared and look into booking it ahead. Find out more in our guide to Mountain Biking in the Catlins and Clutha District.
Length: 21km (13 miles), 1 day.
Grade: 2 – This is quite an easy one. If you know how to cycle, you’ll be fine.
Location: Alexandra, Central Otago.
9. St James Cycle Trail
This is the perfect mountain biking trail for those not so used to cycling but still looking for a challenge. Some technical parts make the St James Cycle Trail really fun, but most of it is an easy ride through the best of New Zealand’s high country. Bask in the landscape of a historic high country farm in vast valleys of braided rivers and surrounded by mountain peaks. What’s more, you can finish in the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools as a well-deserved reward!
Length: 59km (37 miles), 1-2 days.
Grade: 3 and 4 – Average riders will enjoy the few challenging parts of this ride.
Location: Hanmer Springs, Canterbury.
10. Clutha Gold Trail
The jewel of this track has to be the exquisite Beaumont Gorge. Accessed after kilometres of dense native forest, the gorge leads to a historic railway trail that makes this whole ride of the Clutha Gold Trail very easy to follow. Old mining settlements are also spread along the route, while charming rural villages are a treat to discover with their famous pies, refreshing stonefruit, wild thyme and world-class wine. Learn more about yet another beauty in Central Otago in the 5 Best Bike Trails in Alexandra & Clyde.
Length: 73km (45 miles), 2 days.
Grade: 1 and 2 – An easy ride with very little challenge.
Location: Roxburgh, Central Otago.
Stick to the Trail: Use the NZ Great Ride App
Free and made in New Zealand, the Great Rides App is specially designed for the NZ Great Rides biking trails, i.e. all of the rides featured on this list of the best bike trails on the South Island! Once you download a trail, the app works fully offline. It is GPS enabled to help you orientate yourself along the trails and includes all the official NZ Great Rides trails plus a few extra tracks. The app is also regularly updated to include new trails such as the Paparoa and even some hiking tracks such as the Heaphy Great Walk. Additionally, check out its companion app, the Great Hikes App, for New Zealand’s hiking trails.
More About the Best Bike Trails on the South Island
That’s it for our list of the best bike trails on the South Island of New Zealand. For more cycling shenanigans, check out our other useful guides:
- 10 Best Bike Trails on the North Island
- The Best Mountain Biking Regions in New Zealand
- 10 Best Family Bike Rides in New Zealand
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in Mountain Biking in New Zealand: A Complete Guide.