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The Waikato Region is rural New Zealand's heartland, and the Waikato River Trails wrap around a path that takes in the beauty of the land, historic landmarks, and fascinating volcanic rock formations. The trails roll through farmland, native bush, exotic forest, and open reserve, and includes boardwalks through wetlands and extended views of lakes and rivers. This is one of the more challenging of the Great Rides, suitable for those with a bit more mountain biking experience.
Discover historic dams, hydro-lakes, and suspension bridges passing high above the river. The region's history is sign-posted along every leg of your journey! The trails offer a unique cycling experience alongside New Zealand's longest river, providing an off-road, grade 4 (advanced) mountain biking experience. The sections alongside the Whakamaru, Maraetai and Karapiro Lakes are however easier, grade 2 rides. The Waikato River Trails are easily accessed off State Highway 1, and are only a short drive from Taupo, Tauranga, Rotorua, or Hamilton - but the experiences you gain on these trails connect you with nature at its best.
The trails can be ridden in either direction, but are described below following the journey of the river's water, based on a suggested 3-day itinerary.
Atiamuri Trail Head to Mangakino (35 km)
The trail starts with a grade 3 route along to Dunham Point Reserve (about 12 km) on Lake Whakamaru, and onwards to the Whakamaru Dam (at 23 km). This includes boardwalk sections through wetlands with awesome birdlife, as well as views of the towering volcanic hill of Pohaturoa. There is also a staircase to descend at Ongaroto, providing some good views of the lake.
From Whakamaru Dam, the trail gets easier as it skirts along Lake Maraetai, over the 70 metre long suspension bridge over Mangakino Stream and on into the small settlement of Mangakino. There are various accommodation options here, as well as bars and restaurants to top off a great day.
Mangakino to Jim Barnett Reserve (40 km)
Leave the comforts of Mangakino behind, for the toughest day of the trail! You'll enter a section of undulating single track among native and exotic forests, most of which is not too technical, but which can certainly work the quads. This will take you down river to the Waipapa Dam, where you cross onto the eastern river bank. From here, things get even tougher. For starters, you have a large set of steps to climb, with the only reward being the views and photos from the top. You have another 9km to get to the Mangarewa Suspension Bridge. A little further on you have the final challenge of the day, a long climb up to Waotu South Road. Warm down with a road section through to Jim Barnett Reserve.
There is camping available at the reserve, or alternatively, you can arrange shuttle collection (in advance) to take you to one of the nearby accommodation options. Sleep well, knowing tomorrow will be easier.
Jim Barnett Reserve to Pokaiwhenua Bridge (28 km)
Start the day with a nice easy road ride, predominantly downhill, down to Jones' Landing back on the river. Check out the incredibly pink hues of the ignimbrite rock columns generated by the areas volcanic origin. From here it is only 5 km to Arapuni Village, a scenic section taking you past the Arapuni Dam and it's adjacent swing bridge. Head along to the village, where the bike-friendly Rhubarb Cafe has a tastly selection of snacks. You're well and truly on the home stretch now, as you head along Lake Karapiro with some more boardwalks and wetlands on the way in to Little Waipapa Reserve. An easy roadside trail takes you the last 5km out to the trail head.
You are now well aquanted with the mighty Waikato. Keep an eye out on the developments on the Te Awa River River Ride just downstream, where a further 70km route is being developed, which will eventually get you right through to Ngaruawahia!