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Waikato River Trails

The 80m-long Mangarewa Swingbridge on the Waikato River Trail is 42m above the valley floor. Photo: Nick Lambert

The Waikato River Trails follow the meandering riverbanks of the mighty Waikato River, taking in native forest, wetlands teeming with wildlife, historic landmarks and volcanic formations. The 103km of off-road trails travel south as it heads upstream alongside New Zealand’s longest river. With hydro dams, suspension bridges and exhilarating downhills, there is plenty for all mountain bikers to enjoy.

This Grade 3-4 trail is an intermediate/advanced off-road experience that encompasses riding for all abilities with everything from family friendly sections right through to some more challenging stretches. All riders will enjoy travelling across the towering dams, suspension bridges and long wooden boardwalks. 

The Waikato River Trails consists of five distinct sections.

Watch: A local's guide to cycle trails in the Waikato

Karapiro (Arapuni to Pokaiwhenua Bridge car park)

One of the most popular and easiest sections on the Waikato River Trails, this intermediate Grade 3 section, is just 11.5km long. It is mostly done as an out-and-back ride from Arapuni. Most people park in Arapuni and ride up the trail to Little Waipa Reserve before heading back. Relax and unwind after the ride at the Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni – a popular post ride stop.

Arapuni (Arapuni to Waipapa Dam)

This section now follows country roads on the western side of the river. The old trail on the other side is now permanently closed except for Arapuni Dam to Jones Landing (4km), and Waipapa Dam to the Mangarewa suspension bridge (10km). There's no through-route but these advanced Grade 4 sections do make great day rides or walks! Starting at the Arapuni suspension bridge, there's 2km of cycle trail before joining pleasant, mainly sealed country roads on the way to Waipapa Dam – the route is well signposted. There are some steep, long climbs, but riders are rewarded with lovely views over the river and rural Waikato, plus a fun downhill along Waipapa Rd to the Dam to finish off.

Waipapa (Waipapa Dam to Mangakino Lakefront)

This remote, fun section undulates in a generally uphill direction, with the occasional steep section giving it its advanced Grade 4 rating. The 19.3km trail follows custom-built singletrack and flowing forestry trails through a mix of exotic and regenerating native bush.

Maraetai (Mangakino Lakefront to Whakamaru Dam)

The 12.3km Grade 3 Mangakino Lakefront to Whakamaru Dam section is one of the best sections of the Waikato River Trails. Around the 5k from the Lakefront is the 70m suspension bridge crossing the Mangakino Stream and continues and winds right up to the Whakamaru Dam. And as an added bonus this section has a café at both ends; the Bus Stop Café at the Lakefront and The Dam Café at the Whakamaru Village.

Whakamaru Dam to Atiamuri

Riding this Grade 3 26km section of the trail will reveal some of the best scenery of the entire ride. The trail ends (or starts) at the Atiamuri Village.

Keep an eye out for signs and interpretation panels along the trail as they offer stories from an area steeped in history. With much of the trail traveling through New Zealand’s farming and forestry heartland, you will find yourself far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The towns and villages of Cambridge, Putaruru Arapuni, and Mangakino offer accommodation options along the Waikato River Trails.

Gallery: Waikato River Trails

Insider Tips

  • Start from the Atiamuri end for a mostly down river ride right into the heart of the Waikato.
  • Pick off sections and take your time to make the most of this trail’s riverside meanderings. 
  • Rhubarb Café is not open on Mondays & Tuesdays.
  • Check out the historic suspension bridge downstream from the power station in Arapuni. The 152m-long bridge was built in the 1920s to allow access for workers in the village to the power station site.

Getting There 

The Waikato River Trails are best accessed from Hamilton – a one-and-a-half hour drive from Auckland Airport (112km) or Taupo – a three-and-a-half hour drive from Auckland Airport (264km). The northern trailhead starts at Lake Karapiro 32km from Hamilton and the southern trailhead begins at Atiamuri 39km from Taupo. 

Tell Me More

The Waikato River Trails form part of the Nga Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trail, for information on the trails we recommend visiting NZCycleTrail and the Waikato River Trails website.

Want to explore more of this region? Visit the Hamilton & Waikato Tourism site and explore Taupo at Destination Great Lake Taupo.

 

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