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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 Waikato River with a vista around every corner. The 100km trail travels south as it heads upstream alongside New Zealand’s longest river. The trail takes in native forest, wetlands teeming with wildlife, historic landmarks and volcanic formations. Depending on your skill level, fitness and affinity for wildlife watching the trail can take between 1-4 days to complete.

This Grade 2-3 trail is an off-road experience that encompasses riding for all abilities with everything from easy 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 Grade 2, with a few short Grade 3 hills, is just 13km 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)

The 34km section from Arapuni to Waipapa Dam is considered to be the toughest. A new 5km section of trail opened between Arapuni and Jones’s Landing in 2015, which has meant this section of trail is a Grade 3 right through. There is an on-road alternative along Arapuni Road, Darby Road and Lake Arapuni Road, should you prefer a less intensive ride. From Jones’s Landing the trail to Waipapa Dam involves a mix of on and off-road riding.

Waipapa (Waipapa Dam to Mangakino Lakefront)

From Waiapapa Dam you will need to cross the dam itself where you will pick up the blue marker posts leading you through to Mangakino Lakefront. This 20km section is Grade 3 and has several steep little hill pinches.

Maraetai (Mangakino Lakefront to Whakamaru Dam)

The Mangakino Lakefront to Whakamaru Dam is one of the best sections of the Waikato River Trails. An easy Grade 2, the 13km-long trail winds right up to the Whakamaru Dam, where you will find a nicely located café. 

Whakamaru Dam to Atiamuri

Riding this 25km section of the trail will reveal some of the best scenery of the entire ride. The trail has recently been upgraded to Grade 3. The trail ends (or starts) at a small parking area beside Ongaroto Road, only 100 metres from State Highway 1.

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 of Cambridge and Putaruru both 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.
  • 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 here and explore Taupo at Destination Great Lake Taupo.

 

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