This 5-day bicycle ride arguably takes in some of the finest scenery anywhere in New Zealand.
With the sun on your side, you’ll pedal past the gorgeous lakes of Wanaka and Hawae as you glide downhill from the Haast Pass towards the resort town of Wanaka.
Then there are the mountains to admire at every turn, not to mention waterfalls, charming pubs, the adventure capital Queenstown and the rugged wilderness leading up to the Mavora Lakes.
There’s little not to like here, unless you run into bad weather, in which case many of the best views may elude you. Cross your fingers and hope you get a good look at this beautiful corner of New Zealand.
Duration: 5-6 days
Terrain: A few good climbs, punctuated by plenty of rivers, waterfalls and gorgeous mountain views. There’s some dirt road riding too.
Accommodation: You’ll have to camp around the lakes but everywhere else there’s the option of a bed for the night.
Highlights: Scenery leading up to Wanaka and Queenstown and the Mavora Lakes
Lowlights: Not many, though bad weather can be trying if you’re so unlucky to get it.
Be sure to bring: Fat tires for the dirt section.
Section 1 – Haast to Cameron Flat DOC Camping (70km)
Accommodation: Haast (all types), Pleasant Flat DOC (camping NZ$6/pp, 45km from Haast) and Cameron Flat DOC (camping NZ$6/pp and 70km from Haast)
*GPS data logged with the QSTARZ BT-Q1000
For the first 45km, the road twists and turns but stays fairly level, with the river bubbling along on one side and the mountains rising up on the other side. It’s beautiful in the early morning as the sun is just breaking over the hills.
The Pleasant Flat recreation area (shelter, picnic tables, toilets) is your last chance to chill out before the big climb. Once you leave and cross the bridge, the hard work begins. Of the last 10km to Haast Pass, the first 3km are by far the toughest. You may have to walk your bike. After this initial strenuous ascent, things level out a lot and the final summit is easily tackled.
Down the other side, you’ll quickly reach the Cameron Flat DOC site, where you can camp or just take a break before continuing to Makarora.
Section 2 – Cameron Flat DOC Camping to Wanaka (80km)
Shops: Makarora, Albert Town, Wanaka
Accommodation: Makarora (camping, hotel), Boundary Creek Scenic Reserve DOC (NZ$6/pp), Kidds Bush DOC (6km off Highway 6, on a small road by The Neck pass), Lake Hawae (camping, hotel), Albert Town (domain site NZ$7/pp, B&B), Wanaka (all types)
Hope for a sunny day when you wake up because under blue skies, this must be one of the most scenic rides in all of New Zealand.
The road from Cameron Flat campsite continues largely downhill, through Makarora where you’re first greeted by a hotel and camping ground with mediocre and vastly overpriced food and then a second cafe and campsite a few hundred meters on. We didn’t try the second cafe but it’s worth a punt. Don’t stop at the first one unless you’re desperate.
Your descent continues at a good pace, offering stunning views of Lake Wanaka, and the Boundary Creek campsite and picnic area is easily reached, before the road turns up again for the climb to The Neck – a narrow strip of land between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawae. Stop to take the obligatory photo at the lookout point and then cruise downhill again, soaking in the incredible scenery.
The remaining distance to Wanaka is politely described as undulating but be warned that the undulations are rather large! The hills are steep but in low gear you should be able to chug up to the peak and then zip down the other side, hopefully gaining some momentum for the next ascent.
Albert Town is the community just before Wanaka and if you’re on a budget, consider setting up at the domain here, where a forested area for tenting and toilets can be yours for NZ$7/pp. Alternatively, the Lake Outlet Holiday Park is the cheapest in town and is immaculately maintained with a good kitchen and hot showers. It’s set right on the shores of the lake and is very tranquil.
Being a resort town, Wanaka has plenty to keep you busy. A nice two-wheeled diversion is to ride the gravel path along the lakeshore. This is one route to the Lake Outlet Holiday Park but the path is a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, regardless of where you’re staying.
Section 3 – Wanaka to Queenstown (70km)
Shops: Wanaka, Queenstown
Accommodation: Wanaka (all types), Cardrona (holiday cottages), Queenstown (all types)
*This GPS graph also shows the TSS Earnslaw crossing and the first 7km of the road to the Mavora Lakes
Most cars take Route 6 to Queenstown, avoiding the beautiful but twisty road that runs through the Crown Ranges and the former goldmining town of Cardrona. This is, of course, all the more incentive for cyclists to take the ‘slow route’ and you’re sure to see a few racing cyclists if not fellow tourists heading the same way.
To reach the road, go through downtown Wanaka, past the tourist bureau and shops and out the other side until you see the left turn for Cardrona. This scenic drive is also marked by a brown sign showing a miner on horseback, holding a pickaxe.
After an initial hill as you leave town, the road climbs almost imperceptibly towards Cardrona, the only real population centre before Queenstown. The most important stop here is the historic Cardrona Hotel, depicted in a Speights poster. Soak in the atmosphere inside over a coffee or a beer, depending on your inclinations and the time of day. Signs by the village green tell about some of the area’s past.
The climb starts in earnest from Cardrona, with the toughest section just 2km before the peak. It’s challenging stuff but it’s not as steep or backbreaking as what you experienced starting up the Haast Pass.
At the top, you’re rewarded with a superb peek into the valley below and then an awesome downhill run that comes as close as anything in the Southern Hemisphere to the descents found in Europe’s Alps. A series of switchbacks leads down to Route 6, which by now is quite busy for the final 19km into Queenstown.
It’s easy to think that Queenstown is nothing but hotels as you enter the city. In fact, it’s much more with swish restaurants and a huge concentration of adventure activities like bungy jumping and jet boating. If you’re into action and have some cash to spend, you’re going to love this place. Otherwise, you might want to consider heading straight for the next section of the trip, a rural road with virtually no one in sight.
Section 4 – Queenstown to Mavora Lakes (55km)
Accommodation: Queenstown (all types), Mavora Lakes (DOC Camping, NZ$5/pp)
After the excesses of Queenstown, the peaceful ride across Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand’s third largest lake) and the ensuing wilderness couldn’t be more of a contrast.
You get across the lake on the TSS Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamer that’s been ferrying sheep and men over the water since 1912. A one-way cruise is NZ$29, plus NZ$5 for your bicycle (leaves every 2 hours from 10am to 6pm) and tickets are available from numerous vendors on the waterfront. But first, stock up on provisions for 2-3 days, remembering that you could be stuck in the middle of nowhere if there’s bad weather.
Disembark at the Walter Peak farm station, pushing through the hoardes of tourists, past the sheep paddocks and onto a dirt road. From here on in, you’ll only see a handful of cars a day and their numbers will probably be matched by fellow cyclists.
Most people choose to start this route with the 10am sailing from Queenstown but you can equally go late in the day and camp just about anywhere along the road. An ideal spot is about 7km from the Walter Peak farm, where the road approaches the lake shore. Roll your bike down the hill and set up in the grassy field, just by the water.
The route to the Mavora Lakes climbs gently at first and then more steeply around the 26km mark, until you reach an altitude of about 800 meters. From here it’s a mostly downhill run to the well-signed turnoff to the lakes and the DOC campsite. As this is a fairly short day, you may get in early enough and with plenty of spare energy to get a fire roaring in the fireplaces. There’s lots of dead wood around and baked potatoes never tasted so good as when theye’re done over the coals! Or just go for a pleasant stroll around the north and south lakes. With ample supplies, this would be a great tramping base for a few days.
Section 5 – Mavora Lakes to Lumsden (70km)
Shops: Mossburn, Lumsden
Accommodation: Mossburn (caravan park), Lumsden (Pohutukawa caravan park, NZ$13/pp, various motels and farmstays)
The road continues its descent from the lakes, with very few uphill exceptions, although the condition of the road is worse than the day before with more loose gravel so it may take you a bit longer to make progress.
There’s a fork in the road about 22km into the day, with one direction heading for Te Anau (45km further on) and Milford Sound and the other towards Mossburn (32km away).
We went to Mossburn, reaching the paved road around the 32km mark. The final distance to Mossburn is quickly covered and aside from picking up a few provisions, there’s little to hold your attention here.
The next place to stop is in Lumsden, where you’ll find a pub, a post office and a library with free internet access. The campground is nice enough with lots of flat grassy pitches and a cozy kitchen but unfortunately we found the staff rude and wouldn’t rush back.