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Guide to Some of the Best Mountain Biking in New Zealand: Wairoa Gorge and Nelson

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Photo: Sven Martin

Sunset overlooking Nelson harbour. Photo: Sven Martin

The coastal port city of Nelson has a strong cycling culture, and is said to be home to some of the best mountain biking in New Zealand, including the infamous Wairoa Gorge, a private bike park built by American billionaire Ken Dart.

Nelson is a small city that has a lot to offer, and as I recently discovered, is a great base for a mountain biking trip. Located on the northern tip of the south island of New Zealand, Nelson boasts more hours of sunshine annually than anywhere else in New Zealand. Sounds like a good start!

Compared to the soaring alps of the south island, Nelson’s hills can look a little on the small side, but don’t let them fool you. They’re bigger than they look! Covered in native bush, these steep hills reach upwards of 1000m high, and once you’re on the trail this quickly becomes evident.

Not only does Nelson have great riding, Nelson itself is a small but thriving city with great food and drink, amazing beaches, national parks, and incredible scenery. It can be a struggle to pack everything in here, but hopefully this guide will help to streamline your decision making a little.

Wairoa Gorge

Wairoa Gorge is first on many mountain bikers’ list of Nelson destinations. The Gorge is a much fabled place with an interesting history and is often spoken about using phrases such as “best riding in New Zealand.”  I certainly heard this one a few times.

Wairoa Gorge is a spectacular location. Photo: Ben Karalus

History

The trails at Wairoa Gorge were financed by Ken Dart, an American billionaire, heir to his father’s business Dart Container Corporation, America’s largest producer of styrofoam cups. Dart has been linked to the Global Conservation Mountain Bike Club, an enigmatic and exclusive mountain biking club that aims to build trails on private, pristine properties for the act of conservation using sustainable trail building techniques. A quick Google search of these guys doesn’t bring much up, but does link to a defunct Facebook page based in Nelson, NZ.

Dart purchased the land at the Gorge and trail crews started work in 2010, working for a solid three years until 2013. Dart reportedly threw around $40 million into the trails here, and seeing the place, I can believe that. For several years, the park was totally closed to the public; it was a plaything for the wealthy, opening only for the occasional race. Then in 2016, it was opened to the public as a shuttle operated bike park, and in 2018 it was announced that Dart was gifting to land to the public, to be managed by the DOC (Department of Conservation). Some say this was always his plan. Others say that the long helicopter ride from Wellington airport — he couldn’t land his private jet in Nelson — and prolific sandfly population made him lose interest in the place. Either way, the public and the mountain biking scene has benefitted!

The experience at the Gorge is like no other, starting with the shuttle. Photo: Ben Karalus

Experience

The Gorge is a destination like no other. The drive in takes visitors down remote gravel roads for about 45 minutes before arriving at the gates. This is true backcountry New Zealand, and you really get a sense of that. We left our cars at the bottom of the Gorge for the day, near the Wairoa Gorge lodge, a beautiful wooden cabin/bunk-house with all the mod-cons. From here, we received a slightly ominous briefing: no riding alone and the first and last riders of the group are to carry radios at all times. This place is out there and the risks are real, with gnarly trails miles from the nearest road and no cell phone service.

The shuttle vehicle is a massive 4WD truck with a trailer. We hopped on and were driven around 800 vertical meters up the side of the gorge to Irvine Hut, the base for the day.

With a wood stove and cooking facilities, it makes a nice refuge if you feel like sitting a lap out. We strap on the radios and are told we get around six shuttle runs, with a break for lunch. Times are tight and you need to make sure you don’t miss your ride up the hill. The first lap is from Irvine hut, and subsequent shuttles will take you to the top skid site.

Natural-feeling with plenty of tech, there’s plenty here to keep riders interested. Photo: Ben Karalus

The trails

The Gorge has around 70km of hand-built singletrack through mostly natural beech forest, descending around 1000m per lap. That’s a lot of vertical, and you feel it. These trails are LONG. The trails range from grade 2 to 5, and while there’s something for most people, it definitely isn’t for beginner riders, and even intermediate riders might struggle a little. With the length of the trails here, there’s plenty to keep most people interested for a few days.

From the top, Benched As and Bermed As are some nice easy trails to get started on with plenty of flow, some nice corners, and not a lot of technical features, though there are some log skinnies etc. that riders can take. From here mountain bikers can choose either a red or a blue trail to the bottom including Quattro which is a similarly fun, benched-out blue trail. Despite being blue trails, nothing here feels very bikepark-like. It’s all very natural feeling.

Some trails such as Alaskan Pipeline have some fun, and very tricky features. Photo: Ben Karalus

On the second run, the shuttle goes almost to the very top, which opens the options up a bit more. Creamed Rice is a good step up; it’s still a blue trail but a bit more narrow and technical. There are a couple of grade 2 trails from the top too, for the more intermediate riders, including PG Rated and No Pressure. To make things a bit more interesting, Jumanji is a rooty tech-fest which can be ridden into the bottom of Creamed Rice. Despite the tech, it also flows really well and can be ridden at speed.

The lower part of the hill splits into essentially two sections: the light side and the dark side. The dark side is named this way because of the thick black mold that grows on the trees, and because it doesn’t get a lot of light and as a result is quite wet and slippery. The dark side, including Red Line and DMT, is pretty gnarly and technical, and the trails are narrow, resulting in some hairy riding in places! The other side of the park is more benched out and open and includes trails such as Kurtology and Free Range.

The Gorge has a real variety of trails mostly through dense New Zealand forest. It’s truly a special place unlike anywhere else I’ve ridden. If you want a taste of a real VIP bike park with an incredible mix of burly trails, this place is for you.

There are fun flow trails at the Gorge too. Photo: Ben Karalus

Pricing

In terms of the cost, it’s $99 NZD for a day’s riding in the gorge, and you must be a member of NMTBC (Nelson Mountain Bike Club). If you’re not a member, that’s an another $45, and also gives you access to a bunch more trails in the general Nelson area that I’ll outline below.

Getting there

The Gorge is about an hour south of Nelson. Driving south on State Highway 6, you turn off left in Brightwater at the sign for Wairoa Gorge and follow the road until you reach the gate. There’s approximately 40 minutes of gravel road, so be prepared to take it slow if you don’t have a 4WD. The bike park is signposted, so although there’s no phone signal, it’s not too hard to find.

A lot of the riding in Nelson is through dense native Beech forest. Photo: Sven Martin

Nelson trails

In addition to Wairoa Gorge, Nelson has a host of trails ranging from beginner to advanced, mostly set in native beech forest. A lot of the riding around Nelson is easily accessible from the city, and often doesn’t require driving. This is awesome for post-ride food and beers in some of Nelson’s excellent food and drink establishments.

You do need a NMTBC membership to ride most of Nelson’s trails ($45 for an individual membership). This provides access to a wide and diverse trail network, and pays to keep the trails maintained. Members of other NZ-based clubs may be affiliate members, so it’s worth getting in touch to find out.

Codgers MTB park is a small purpose-built bike park at the Brook Valley end of Nelson. Tucked away at the back end of the city, it’s still only a short ride from town. Codgers is operated by the council and NMTBC. It’s regularly maintained and is a great trail network, with a lot of trails packed into a small area. It’s mainly comprised of fun intermediate trails such as P51, a fun, flow trail packed with berms and small jumps. The climb up Codger’s is wide with a mellow gradient, making it easy to smash out laps and a great place for intermediate riders to practice their skills while advanced riders just have a blast.

The Dun Mountain loop is a big ride with some epic scenery. Photo: Sven Martin

Codgers can also be used as the start for a number of other trails. The Dun Mountain trail is a 38km ride that takes riders into the Nelson backcountry. It’s mostly wide doubletrack and isn’t technically difficult, but involves a lot of climbing, summiting at around 900m and with around 2000m of total climbing for a big day in the office. Not for the casual cyclist, it is important to bring plenty of supplies, but prepare for a day of great riding and amazing views.

Sharing the very start of the Dun Mountain trail, you can also climb up Fringed Hill. This hill towers over Nelson; at around 800m high, the climb starts at sea level and finishes at the very top with little relent. It’s a big one, but totally worth it.

From here there’s the choice of a few different ways down. First is Te Ara Koa, a new benched-out, blue-graded trail with a fairly natural feel to it. It has some small features but is mostly fun and flowy to ride. Dropping down 700m, this is a long trail and you definitely get your money’s worth.

Next, FDH is a black diamond trail which NMTBC uses to host some of its downhill races. However, the trail is rideable on a trail bike as it’s not crazy technical.

Every now and then, the trails in Nelson open up to amazing views, not that there’s often time to look at them. Photo: Sven Martin

The other option from the top of Fringed Hill is a bigger, more technical loop. Starting on Black Diamond Ridge (the name hints at the difficulty), the trail follows the bush-covered ridgeline for a couple of kilometers. The trail is full of undulations, technical root sections, and punchy climbs. Just as you think you’ve reached a sweet downhill, the trail points back up again.

Sunshine Ridge follows, and dishes up more of the same; the undulations are slightly longer, but none the less still hard work. These trails are a real technical challenge to ride, and if you can clean all of it you’re doing pretty damn well!

The reward is Peaking Ridge, a jewel in the crown of Nelson’s trail network. A black-diamond trail, it’s for advanced riders only, as it’s steep in places, technical, and full of roots. Following the ridgeline down the hill, the trail descends quickly, and for those that like a technical challenge, it’s an absolute screamer of a trail. Peaking Ridge offers the sort of descent that’ll have your thighs burning at the bottom, wishing for an uphill section to move your legs a little.

From the bottom of Peaking Ridge, there’s the option to ride back to town using the end of the Dun Mountain trail, or to climb to the top of 629, another downhill trail. The climb up to 629 is absolutely savage. 629 is a steep trail that starts off quite natural feeling with steep sections, roots, and rocks. Crossing over a fire road, the trail turns into a real downhill track. The bottom half is a mix of crazy steep rock gardens and flatter benched-out trail with lots of flow. All rideable on a trail bike, it is pretty burly, but a must-ride for more advanced riders.

There are a number of other hills around Nelson that contain dozens more downhill trails including Maitai, Kaka Hill, Marsden Hill, and others. These trails are also all rideable out of Nelson and can be linked together into bigger rides. There’s so much here that it’ll keep most riders happy for days on end. Nelson is an enduro rider’s paradise.

There’s atmosphere in Nelson by the bucket load. It’s like nowhere else. Photo: Sven Martin

Other nearby riding

Just outside of Nelson is Kaiteriteri bike park. Kaiteriteri offers a mix of riding for all abilities from families to advanced riders, and is easy to get to. Just along the coast from Nelson, it’s close to the world-renowned Abel Tasman national park and other trail areas including Canaan Downs and the Rameka.

Within a few hours drive of Nelson are a bunch of multi-day trails (some of them are Department of Conservation Great Walks) including the Heaphy track, the Old Ghost Road, and the Queen Charlotte track. You’ll need to be prepared for these with plenty of spares, sleeping bags etc. and some of the huts on these routes book out weeks in advance, so it’s worth being organized. You may also need transport to/from the start/end of these trails.

There are shuttles available for 629 and Peaking Ridge (this misses out Black Diamond and Sunshine Ridge) from Gravity Nelson, as well as a bunch of other trails including Involution, the Old Ghost Road, Queen Charlotte, etc.

Epic technical riding is the order of the day in Nelson. Photo: Sven Martin

Accommodations and amenities

Nelson is a small but thriving city. This means that there are loads of Airbnb places and hostels available. There are backpacker hostels available from $20 per night, and hostelworld is the place to look. Gravity Nelson have some ideas for bike-friendly accommodation on their page here. There are a bunch of campsites dotted around Nelson if you’d rather stay in a tent. Nelson is the sunniest place in New Zealand, so this isn’t a bad idea, just watch out for their random downpours! If you have a self-contained camper van, you could camp almost anywhere just outside of Nelson. If you’re not too sure about the rules regarding self-contained vans and freedom camping, check this page out.

There are plenty of restaurants, pubs and bars in the centre of Nelson, from cheaper to more expensive depending on your tastes. Trafalgar and Hardy streets are the places to go — most of the food and drink is available around here.

If you suffer a mechanical and get stuck for parts, Nelson has several bike shops that are worth visiting. Some of the better ones include The Bike Station, Torpedo 7, and there will be an Evo Cycles coming soon.

In terms of transport, Nelson has an airport just outside the city, though it doesn’t have any international services. If you’re coming from overseas, the best option would be to fly into Auckland and transfer to Nelson, or fly into Christchurch and drive to Nelson. Christchurch is about 6 hours away by car.