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Itinerary: Ultimate 7-Day MTB Escape

What’s the point of endless days of hard graft if you don’t have a decent escape planned and looming over the horizon? We unearth the ultimate seven-day ride adventure in the beating heart of New Zealand mountain biking: the trails of the Central North Island. Bring your brave.

Rotorua, New Zealand, is not just a hotbed of mountain biking trails, it’s an actual hotbed – the whole region sits on an active field of volcanoes. If you’re lucky you’ll get to witness a geothermal geyser reach boiling point and spurt a jet of scalding hot water metres into the air. Mud pools and steam vents are littered through town and some rivers run at 35°C-plus with hot waterfalls attracting backpackers in throngs.

But it is not the geology that you’re here for. Ribboned across this wild landscape are some of the finest mountain biking trails in the world. But where do you start? Let’s start at the beating heart of it all – in Whakarewarewa Forest on the outskirts of town. This itinerary captures the ultimate mountain biking holiday for the seasoned rider.

Mates regroup at Skips Hut on the iconic and remote Moerangi Track in Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Photo: Nick Lambert

Get off the grid on the Moerangi Track. Photo: Nick Lambert

Day One: Trail Nirvana

Also known as the Redwoods, Whakarewarewa Forest is a labyrinth of amazing trails – most so buff you could almost ride a skateboard down them. Using a mixture of native, redwoods and pine forest, there are around 160km of trails in the forest with something to suit everyone from the hardcore to the newbie. Best of all, there is a shuttle taking people from the midway point to one of the high points, so if pedaling is not your thing you can still rack up some berm time on the descending trails.

Find Billy T, Split Enz, Huckleberry Hound (if you’re huck ready) and Eagle vs Shark trails and you will have the ultimate initiation to the forest that defined flow. Even if you connect with the shuttle you’ll still be in need of some pampering. Hit the hot pools in town (Polynesian Spa are the perfect après ride remedy) before making a beeline to Eat Streat, where you can find lots of bars and restaurants serving great food and drinks to recount your first day in trail nirvana.

Day Two: Gondola-access Trails

You want to ease into the trails of the Central North Island, so why not start day two with a morning on the gondola and the flowing lines draped down Mt Ngongotaha (don’t try to pronounce that, just ask for directions to the Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park). There are trails to suit most skill levels and they are all downhill. Start easy with Hipster, ride it fast, then step it up through the grades and session the jump lines to Mr Black … just don’t let the Surgeon’s Table end your week early. This is the site of the inaugural Crankworx Rotorua so know that as you hit each berm and ramp, that the world’s best have left their mark (or even their bark) here.

Refuel back in town at Zippy Central Café where you’ll find the most bike-friendly café in the Southern Hemisphere. Don’t be surprised if you run into a few professional riders here – it’s a favourite haunt. 

You’ll need to be fueled up for the afternoon’s ride: an hour ride up to the summit of Rainbow Mountain about 20 minutes’ drive south of town. It’s a flowing climb that begins on Te Ara Ahi – a Grade 2 trail that forms part of the New Zealand Cycle Trails. It soon splits off into a dual-use climbing only trail, Te Tihi O Ruru, with enough raw volcanic energy bursting out of the ground to take your mind off the pinches. You’ll be riding through billowing steam and at times you’ll think you’re on another planet … Mars to be precise. The views from the top are breathtaking, which won’t help you reoxygenate your lungs. From here the Grade 4 descent trail, Te Ranga, will deliver you all the way to Kerosene Creek. This hot creek flows over a small 2m waterfall and into a hot pool. Jump in and soak in the thermal properties of this geothermal treasure.

Day Three: Off the Grid

It’s time to get off the grid. You’ll need to use a local shuttle operator for this one … the Moerangi Trail is 90km southeast of Rotorua in the remote Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park.

A group of riders explore the Jurassic-like flora on a section the Moerangi Trail near Whirinaki, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison

Riders wind their way through the ancient forest of Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park on the Moerangi Track. Photo: Derek Morrison

It’s a 35km trail through ancient native podocarp forest – that’s about as close to being in a Jurassic environment as you’ll ever get. The trail is a Grade 3 with some decent climbs. It is extremely remote and you will need to be self-sufficient and have a good level of fitness to ride it. Allow plenty of daylight as a string of flats could mean a night out in the cold. There are three backcountry huts on the trail and they’re great to explore if you have some time up your sleeve. The trail ends about 30-minutes’ drive from where you started, hence the need for a shuttle.

Once you’re Jurassiced out head to the Pig and Whistle Historic Pub in Rotorua and recharge.

Day Four: History at Pace

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The Pakihi Track is a favourite for seasoned mountain bikers. Photo: Camilla Rutherford

Today is for the history buffs. With a healthy dose of adrenaline thrown in. Opotiki is on the East Coast of the North Island just north of East Cape and it’s home to one of the country’s most exciting cycle trails: the Motu Trails. This trail is actually three parts: Dunes Trail, Pakihi Track and the Motu Road. If you’re a fitness freak or a bucket-lister then ride the whole thing. If you just want the cream then grab a shuttle from town and get them to drop you at the top of the Pakihi Track. Indulge in the history of the Maori who thrived here and the early settlers who tried in vain to break this land as you descend 44km back to town. The trail starts in native bush, before reaching the Pakihi Stream, which it then follows back to the gravel return road. It’s a Grade 4 trail, but only earns that extra notch for the steep drop-offs and bluffs that make it such a thrilling ride and one of the best adventures in the region.

Allow 2-3 hours to ride the trail with a few stops to check out the scenery.Finish your ride with a coffee and meal at Two Fish back in Opotiki, then check the surf – on a good day you’ll find good waves at the Waioeka Rivermouth and the Motu River can be all-time if the swell is macking. If the surf’s not playing the game then get on the road early and take State Highway 2 through the Waioeka Gorge to the surf mecca of Gisborne.

Day Five: Surf and Pedal

Stretch those legs with an early morning surf at Wainui or Makarori – the home of two of New Zealand’s most successful surfers: Maz Quinn and Ricardo Christie. This is one of the North Island’s coolest surf towns and it has some nice local mountain bike trails if the surf is flat. Get back on the road before lunch and make a beeline for the Pan Pac Eskdale MTB Park about three-hours’ drive south on the outskirts of Napier. Here you’ll find a myriad of almost 100km of trails. It’s like a slightly smaller version of Whakarewarewa Forest with everything from buff, flowing, mostly downhill trails to some challenging rooty technical trails. Find Grand Traverse, Mr Whippy and Stingray to warm up and test your mates on Bolt, Rocket and Voltage.

Finish off your day in style by exploring the vineyards and restaurants along the edges of the world-famous Hawke’s Bay Trails.

Day Six: Ride the Rim of an Active Caldera

Just two-hours’ drive from Napier in a nor-west direction will bring you to Lake Taupo – the great big blue bit smack in the centre of the North Island.  It used to be a huge volcano until the big bang (circa 200) obliterated it completely in what was considered by experts to be the most violent eruption in the world during the past 5000 years. All that unrest is deep beneath the lake water at the bottom of the caldera now so all you need to know is that this place is also a silver-level International Mountain Bike Association accredited mountain bike town. It gets that title because of its beautiful lakeside cycle trail: the Great Lake Trail, its geothermally active Craters Mountain Bike Park and numerous backcountry and day rides … and they’re all accessible from the bustling cafés, bike shops and restaurants in town.  

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The Waihaha to Waihora section of the Great Lake Trail is a fun, flowing masterpiece of singletrack. Photo: Derek Morrison

Ride the Waihaha to Waihora section of the Great Lake Trail first and arrange to have a water transfer (with Chris Jolly Outdoors) to Kawakawa Bay where you can complete the trail to Whakaipo Bay Reserve. Allow plenty of time on each leg of this journey to catch your breath and check out the view. If you do still have energy to burn then sneak in a few laps of Craters Mountain Bike Park to finish off your day. If you’d rather ease into an evening exploring Taupo’s bars and restaurants, then use the last of the sunlight to get out on the lake and hunt down a rainbow trout, get up close and personal with Huka Falls on a souped up jetboat or just spin out along the lakefront.

Day Seven: Ride till your Palms Bleed

Back into the heart of it all and the trails of Rotorua, where we’re smashing the shuttle for a day of mass descent. Seek out Corners, Tuhoto Ariki and G Rock trails and you’ll be grinning from ear-to-ear. Tack on Be Rude Not To and Mad If You Don’t and you’ll deserve an early night. But that’s not going to happen on your last night in trail nirvana. Oh no, it’s straight to Eat Streat to wrap your head around the whole experience before a night on the town in the place affectionately known as Rotovegas. Our tip: head to Lava Bar, turn the dial up and kiss goodbye to your dignity. That’s how you bookend such an epic week of adventure.

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Eat Streat ... the place to wine, dine and relive those moments of the week. Photo: Derek Morrison

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Insider Knowledge

Getting there: Fly into Auckland and grab a direct connection to Rotorua Airport, or drive the three hours to Rotorua.

Best time to visit: The trails of the Central North Island are rideable all-year. 

What bike: Bring your own full-suspension 4-6-inch trail bike or hire one when you get here.

Skill required: There are trails to suit all skill levels. Check out www.ridenz.co to tailor your journey to your skill level.

Best party:

Lava Bar, Rotorua: travellers and locals partying like the earth is opening up.

Vertigo Nightclub, Taupo: Great DJs and perfect after a pub meal

Pig and Whistle Historic Pub, Rotorua: a great grub and live music venue

Crankworx after parties throughout Rotorua

Eat Streat, Rotorua: lots of options and craft beer on tap

Mount Maunganui Beach: lots of quality restaurants right on the beach

Cool sidetrips:

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Raft a crazy 7m waterfall in your down time. Photo: Derek Morrison

Kaituna River: raft or kayak off a crazy 7m-tall waterfall – this sort of thing would be illegal in most other countries.

Surf the Points: in any decent swell from the south you can be assured the fabled points of Raglan will be firing – hit that west coast.

Raft the Motu: tack on an extra week and tackle the gorges and rapids of this tempestuous river system.

Skydive Lake Taupo: jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet and aim for the tiny blue dot … that’s New Zealand’s largest lake.

Catch a Marlin: game fishing sound like your thing? Whakatane is the place to blow your guns on a seriously big fish.

Hit the Beach: hang out on the beach at Mount Maunganui and surf Main Beach or hit The Island if you know what you’re doing. 

Drop into a Lost World: seriously, the limestone caves of Waitomo are off the hook … hope you’re not scared of heights.

Check out the trails ...

  • A group of riders explore Craters Mountain Bike Park, Taupo, New Zealand. Photo: DGLT
    Craters Mountain Bike Park is a popular mountain biking network in Wairakei Forest on the outskirts of Taupo. The park features almost 50km of purpose-built Grade 2-5 trails. Using the linked tracks, riders can choose to ride for just a few hours, or take a full day to explore all the trails. Tree cover comes in the form of mostly pine forest, which has created angled and undulating terrain that rides well all-year around with a trail to suit the whole family. Best of all you can ride directly to the park from town if you have plenty of energy to burn. 
  • Riders meet their transport – the Chris Jolly Outdoors water shuttle on the Waihora section of the Great Lake Trail, Taupo. Photo: DGLT
    The Great Lake Trail is a scenic 71km Grade 3 trail that follows the northeastern shoreline of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. The all-weather, all-season trail traverses through native forest providing stunning views across Lake Taupo to the majestic volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. With three distinct sections, the trail has something to suit all fitness levels. 
  • A group of riders pause to soak in the ancient bush of the Moerangi Trail near Whirinaki, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison
    The Moerangi Track is a 35km adventure ride through pristine native forest with historic huts and sections of trail that will bring about an immense sense of accomplishment. The Grade 3 trail will take riders approximately 5-10 hours to ride, and while not technically difficult, the track does traverse some steep bluffs with a few long, grunty climbs. The excellent condition trail leads riders up to 1000m above sea level, before the well-deserved descent of 15km through epic native bush completes the journey. 
  • The lads relax alongside the Pakihi River at the end of the Motu Trail, Eastland, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison
    Motu Trails provides a trilogy of contrasting trails that can be ridden in a loop totalling 93km. The three links offer a range of all-terrain riding, which includes stunning beaches, spectacular native forest and family friendly rest stops. This cycle trail can be ridden all year as a full loop, or can be split into the three shorter sections. As a popular 1-3 day ride, it offers options for all ages, abilities, fitness levels and preferences. 
  • Trek World Racing star Brook MacDonald at home training in Pan Pac Eskdale Mountain Bike Park, Napier, Hawke's Bay. Photo: Derek Morrison
    The Pan Pac Eskdale MTB Park is one of New Zealand’s largest and most highly regarded riding areas. Set on privately owned land, the high points offer sweeping views across Hawke's Bay. There is something for everyone in the 100km network of trails, with purpose-built downhill, cross-country, freeride tracks and gentle rolling trails connected by a backbone of wide, smooth forestry roads. With a variety of trails ranging from Grade 1-5, there is riding for all abilities here. 
  • A rider drops into a root-infested corner on the Rainbow Mountain MTB track in Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo: Nick Lambert
    The mountain bike track on Rainbow Mountain is a 10km, Grade 2-4 technically challenging loop ride about half an hour's drive from Rotorua. The track is characterised by a range of multi-coloured soil surfaces, which are the result of the volcanic soils and geothermal activity in the area. Riders will enjoy passing over the various soil colours, while traveling past the green volcanic lakes, steaming cliff faces, and red and yellow thermal banks. The trail climbs through native trees and past hot thermal pools with their intriguing volcanic flora. And you can even end this ride with a swim under a piping hot waterfall. 
  • Gabby Molloy (left) and Justin Leov chase each other down the Grade 2 Simple Jack trail at the Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park. Photo: Nick Lambert
    Skyline Rotorua is home to the world's first year-round Gondola-assisted bike park, Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park. The gravity park accesses the world-class downhill mountain biking trails on the flanks of Mt Ngongotaha. The 8.5km trail network has a variety of trails with something to suit most skill levels. There are six mostly downhill trails emerging from the top of the gondola, ranging from Grade 2 to Grade 5. Home to Crankworx and UCI World MTB events, Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park, has become a must-do highlight on any traveller's itinerary. 
  • 20120925_CorridorW_GM_0002.jpg
    Whakarewarewa Forest is one of the most established mountain bike networks in New Zealand and has earned a worldwide reputation as one of the best. Also known as the Redwoods, there are more than 150km of trails in the forest that cater for all levels of rider, from beginners, through to family groups and expert riders looking for an extra challenge. From buff flowing trails to fun jump lines and rooty technical singletrack, there is something here for everyone to enjoy. This is the forest that put Rotorua on the world mountain biking map ... come and explore it for yourself.