Riding the Great Lake Trail

by Cameron Mackenzie & Ryan Lewis for NZ Mountain Biker / 6 minute read

Winding along the north-eastern shoreline of Lake Taupō you will find an epic mountain biking and walking adventure.

What began as a pipe dream for a crew of local trail builders has evolved into the Great Lake Trail, a 71km grade 3 (intermediate) mountain biking and walking journey that can be done over two to three days.

The trail is broken up into three key sections: Waihaha, Kawakawa and W2K and is rideable all year-round due to Taupō’s unique free draining volcanic pumice soil. The Great Lake Trail is part of the Nga Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trail network.

For the best experience you can base yourself in Kinloch, a picturesque village set on a quiet bay right at the top of Lake Taupō, and ride in an west to east direction starting at Waihaha, ending at W2K. Kinloch is just 20 minutes northwest of Taupō town and makes for simple logistics with various Airbnb options or a handful of bike-friendly commercial B&B’s nearby. Coordinating logistics is easy from here with several shuttles and guides operating out of Kinloch. By mountain bike or foot, the bush-clad trail offers excellent nature-watching, including native birds and even the odd wild pig or deer. Here we have highlighted the Great Lake Trail over three days on bike, basing yourself in Kinloch.

The Waihaha section (30km) is the most remote, so be prepared for an early start. It’s 40 minutes’ drive or shuttle from Kinloch and is the longest of the three sections.  The ride starts from the Waihaha River Bridge and has been built with flowing corners, fun downhills, and some short switchback climbs to keep you honest, but your efforts will be rewarded with postcard-worthy lookouts along the way. Towering volcanic rock cliffs, spectacular views and a waterfall hidden deep in the Waihaha Valley are among some of the highlights on this section of the trail. The final part of the ride drops you down past the sacred Kotukutuku Falls to the remote aquamarine waters of Waihora beach. This is the perfect spot for a swim as you wait for your water taxi to pick you up. It is important to plan ahead as the remote nature of this section requires both a shuttle to the start, and a water taxi from Waihora Bay back to Kinloch. Pack plenty of food and water and take your time to enjoy all the stunning sights and sounds along the way. Be sure to stop at Echo Rock where you could be tricked into thinking you’re underneath a waterfall.

Start day two with a shuttle out to the start of the 19.5km Kawakawa section, just a short 20-minute journey from Kinloch. The first 10km of the trail is a nice gradual downhill which takes you through stunning native wetlands before dropping you into the secluded Kawakawa Bay. This is a great place to stop for morning tea or lunch, and during summer is the perfect place for a swim. You can also camp here. For those that would prefer an easy ride (10.25km), you can book the water taxi back to Kinloch from Kawakawa Bay. If you’re keen to carry on, a 3km climb up onto the Te Kauwae headland is rewarded with sweeping views of the lake and western bays, before you begin the fast-flowing descent to Kinloch.

The W2K section (21km) starts from Kinloch and loops over the eastern peninsula of Whangamata Bay and into Whakaipo Bay. Again, this section has two distance options. The simple loop is a gentle grade 2-3, 13km in length, with a few scenic stops along the route. The headland loop adds on an additional 9.5km and is a little more physical than the main route. The ducking and diving through the trees as the trail twists lengthens the route, but you will find yourself out on the edge of the peninsula with stunning vistas over Lake Taupō. Before setting out be sure to organise your transport back to Kinloch from Whakaipo Bay. There is road access into the bay, so dropping a vehicle there is an option or book a shuttle to pick you up. The other option is booking a water taxi to collect you off the shores of the bay and jet you back around to Kinloch.

All sections of the Great Lake Trail are ridable in both directions, so you can choose to tackle them however you chose. Shuttle services and tour operators are available to provide Great Lake Trail transport links, guiding services and package tours.

This article appeared in the Autumn issue of NZ Mountain Biker magazine. Read the full three-part series here.