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A 7-day itinerary exploring the best of Central Otago's cycling & mountain biking trails.

Lake Dunstan Trail

7 days 
                            Road Trips 
                            History & Heritage

A 7-day itinerary exploring the best of Central Otago's cycling & mountain biking trails.

We’ve mixed things up here – some bigger days and some cruisy ones, with options to supersize your ride. Stretch your Central Otago visit to ten days or two weeks, and you’ve got plenty of time explore other places along the way, or throw in a couple of rest days.

We rode ‘hub and spoke’ style, basing ourselves in two locations – Alexandra (days 1–4) and Omakau (5–7). But you could enjoy a similarly fun-filled itinerary staying anywhere in Central Otago, such as Cromwell, Clyde, Ophir and Naseby.


Day 1 – Lake Dunstan / optional Hawksburn Road

Day 2 – Alexandra–Clyde Loop

Day 3 – Matangi Station mountain biking

Day 4 – Roxburgh Gorge & Flat Top Hill

Day 5 – Omakau to Oturehua on the Otago Central Rail Trail

Day 6 – Naseby Forest

Day 7 – Mt Ida Water Race

Winding up above the Bannockburn Inlet on the Lake Dunstan Trail.

Day 1 – A Dunstan Day Out

Discover for yourself why the Lake Dunstan Trail became an instant hit when it opened in 2021.

Cromwell’s lakeside heritage precinct is the perfect place to set off on this Great Ride (41km / 5–8 hours / grade 2–3, easy to intermediate), but not before you’ve had an espresso, soaked up the bygone vibe, and snapped a selfie next to the Clydesdale horse statue.

At Bannockburn inlet, do consider a refreshing dip before winding around to Carrick Winery where you may well get lured in by a tasting or perhaps a proper lunch on their lovely lawn.

It’s popular, so book ahead for the restaurant, although the more casual Pedal and Pour Pizza and Wine Trailer in the garden doesn't require bookings. 

There are yet more refreshments on offer at Coffee Afloat, around the trail’s halfway point, but we’re inclined to push on to the tops so we can soak up the views while we snack.

The hilly bits almost done, the Lake Dunstan Trail flattens as it approaches the Clyde Dam and the township where we recommend Paulina’s Bar for a post-ride pint and chips.

Super-size your ride: We completed a memorable loop by starting in Clyde and meeting the Lake Dunstan Trail at Bannockburn via the Hawksburn Road, a mostly gravel route skirting the Cairnmuir Range with a real ‘back of beyond’ feel and terrific views. It’ll add another 2–4 hours and several steep climbs but you can cut out the meanest one asking a local to shuttle you up to the deer fence near Clyde.

Day 2 – Clyde to Alexandra Loop

So easy you could almost call this a rest day, this cruisy, 21km, 2–4-hour loop between Alexandra and Clyde combines a Otago Central Rail Trail taster with the cruisy River Track taking in some Clutha Mata-au scenery.

With the two towns (and bridges) at each end and lots of other access points, you can jump on this loop in a bunch of different places. We prefer to ride it anti-clockwise, pausing at Earnscleugh Tailings along the River Track for a wander around the moonlike mounds of spoil left by the old gold dredges.

Cafes abound in both towns, our picks being the Merchant of Clyde, and the Courthouse or Industry Lane in Alexandra. All three have scrumptious cabinet food perfect for hungry cyclists. We also highly recommend the manuka-smoked hogget sausage from Tarbert Street butchers in Alex.

Supersize your ride: Alexandra Airport Trail is a local gem, offering an hour or so of entry-level singletrack, just five minutes’ ride from the Rail Trail (around halfway between Alex and Clyde). A small winding climb takes you around the airport’s perimeter, offering elevated views around the Alexandra basin. It’s particularly glorious in the early evening light.

Day 3 – Matangi Station Mountain Biking

Squirreled away behind Alexandra’s iconic clock-on-the-hill is Matangi Station, home to merino sheep alongside 70 kilometres of highly memorable mountain bike trails, just ten minutes’ ride from town.

More than 30 natural trails crisscross this rugged, rocky country, making great use of old pack tracks and goldmining water races. The open landscape is sublime but do be aware of the midday heat in the height of summer.

Make sure you buy your access pass and plan your route lest you find yourself confronted by a ridiculously steep rock-face, drop-off or jump. Yes, there’s plenty of gnar up to a gutsy grade 6, but mere mortals like us found plenty of fun on rides like the Rock Garden, Guts, Larry and Garry and Willow. Follow signs marked with an ‘A’ for a cracking 11km circuit, or ask the locals for a route to suit your skills.

For your cool down, nip down for dip in the Manuherikia River by the Shaky Bridge, or at Lower Manorburn Dam, a few kilometres northeast along the Rail Trail.

Don’t miss: post-ride refreshments in Monteiths garden bar.

Day 4 – Roxburgh Gorge & Flat Top Hill

The Roxburgh Gorge Great Ride is our absolute go-to around Alexandra, with a peaceful, otherworldly vibe to rival the Lake Dunstan Trail.

The full 21km ride from Alex to Roxburgh Dam (grade 2–3 / easy to intermediate; all-day) is a good day’s outing and features a highly recommended 13km jet boat link in the middle – a thrilling way to get your gold rush history delivered.

For a fully self-propelled option, ride the 20km return ride to Doctors Point which dishes up a good portion of the gorge’s most spectacular scenery.

If you’ve got plenty of gas in the tank, detour off the Roxburgh Gorge Trail (around 9km from Alex) and climb up the Sphinx Rock Trail (6km; grade 3, intermediate) before looping around the legendary Flat Top Hill on Purple Haze and Black and Blue (9km; grade 3, intermediate), then whizz back down the same way and back to Alex.

This makes for a bigger day out but we’re confident you’ll see why the Kennett Brother’s declare Flat Top one of their favourite places to ride.

Supersize your ride: The Roxburgh Gorge Trail connects with another Great Ride, the Clutha Gold Trail – a 3–4 day cruise alongside the river and through picturesque rural scenery all the way to Waihola, near Dunedin. If you reach Roxburgh township, be sure to enjoy a Jimmy’s Pie, just one of many amazing specimens you can savour around Otago’s trails.

Jaw-dropping views along the Roxburgh Gorge on the way back to Alex.

Sarah celebrates reaching Flat Top Hill.

Super singletrack riding atop Flat Top Hill.

Sweet switchbacks and bright blue skies on the way to Roxburgh Dam.

Day 5 – Omakau to Oturehua on the Otago Central Rail Trail

While the full, 3–5-day sweep of New Zealand’s original Great Ride is a must-do, there are endless day-ride options to suit pretty much anyone.

Our favourite is the 60km return ride between Omakau to Oturehua, two delightful Central Otago towns with classic big-sky scenery between them. The long but easy trail (allow 4–6 hours) also winds around the schist-lined Poolburn Gorge with two spectacular viaducts and a cool tunnel.

Omakau Domain is a lovely place to stay and has campsites and cabins. It’s also just a 24km return ride to the historic Chatto Creek pub which is big on local memorabilia and boasts a blooming beer garden.

At Oturehua is the extraordinary Hayes Engineering Works, the spiritual home of New Zealand number-eight-wire and a heritage-lovers delight. More local history lives along the road at Gilchrist’s Store, is a veritable time-capsule with its old wares and trinkets alongside ice cream and coffee.

Bike shuttles are easy to find around here, so look them up if you fancy a one-way ride or need rescue.

Don’t miss: two kilometres from Oturehua is the Golden Progress quartz mine, complete with a photogenic poppet head and expansive views across the Ida Valley.

Day 6 – Naseby Forest

Famously ‘2000 feet above worry level’, neat wee Naseby is a cool spot for a day’s mountain biking. The forest on the edge of town sports 52km of mostly easy riding (with some up to grade 5) around water races and other trails upcycled from the old gold rush days, through refreshingly cool forest peppered with peculiar landforms.

Allow enough time to have a good old noodle around old Naseby, noting that it has accommodation options including a leafy holiday park. It has the decided air of yesteryear, with plenty of heritage buildings including the Royal Hotel, along with the recently revived Gold Rush Luge.

Don’t miss: New Zealand’s curling capital, Naseby boasts an Olympic-quality curling centre where you can slide some stones and sweep the ice. In winter, local curlers play on the outside rink where tam o’shanters and home-knit jumpers are de rigueur. It’s a spectacular spectator sport, but don’t be surprised if you get roped in!

Day 7 – Mt Ida Water Race

A new ride for us and one we can’t wait to repeat, the historic Mt Ida water race is located in the Oteake Conservation Park in the foothills of the magnificent Hawkdun Range.

Unless you’re up for a big ride in from Lauder, you’ll need to drive in. We parked at Pierces Gorge, then rode clockwise along the gravel Home Hills Runs Road before looping back to the car along the water race, built way back in 1877. The drive has a couple of minor ford crossings but is accessible for 2WD in good conditions – check in with the locals before setting off.

Going with the flow of the water, surrounded by golden tussock and with extensive views the whole way, this is a fairly easy but seriously scenic half-day (40km) loop through a remote and interesting corner of Central Otago.

Don’t miss: St Bathans, an easy driving detour on this day out. Besides a bunch of fabulous old gold rush buildings including the welcoming Vulcan Hotel, it also sports the surreal-looking Blue Lake, an in-filled open-cast mine that now offers hot-and-bothered riders a pick-me-up cold plunge.

Lee Slater & Sarah Bennett are long-time travel writers, cyclists and sustainable tourism advocates who spend most of the year touring Aotearoa New Zealand in their caravan.

Lee & Sarah's caravan, in Alexandra.