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Riding the Southern Waikato River Trails

by Ceana Priest | Outdoor Kid

Saddle up for a biking adventure through untamed Waikato landscapes, past historical relics cloaked in vines and broad lakes fueling hydroelectric dams.

The Waikato River Trails traverses untamed Waikato landscapes, once off-limits to riders and spans more than 100 kilometres. But if tackling the five sections between Karāpiro and Ātiamuri Village is too ambitious for budding riders, here are four beginner-friendly, family-friendly options that can easily be ticked off without a long day in the saddle.

Waipapa Section | Maraetai Dams

Discover otherworldly relics from a bygone era on a journey past vine-covered cliffs, through stands of pine trees and alongside sprawling moss-covered concrete foundations. Peer into the towering remnants of an ivy-draped concrete plant, slowly succumbing to nature. With its smooth and well-graded surfaces, this trail is an excellent option for intrepid beginner bikers.

While some slightly steeper slopes might require a bit of pushing, opting for this shorter route of the nearly 20 km Waipapa section trail is well worth the effort.

Old foundations of a six stories high batching plant. Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Picnic under the looming tower, or save the snacks for the caged lookout offering panoramic views of the Maraetai I and Maraetai II power stations. Built deep within a narrow gorge of volcanic ignimbrite, combined, these stations are the largest among the eight hydroelectric power stations along the Waikato River, generating 360 MW of power. After soaking up the stations' energy, leisurely return the same way along pine-needle-cushioned trails.

Need to know:

  • Allow 1 hour return.
  • About 3 km return.

Directions: Turn off Waipapa Road onto the Maraetai Dam access loop road (southern entrance by Finlayson Street). Parking is available a couple of hundred meters further along where the Waikato River Trails cross the road. Bike north on the well-marked trail. This trailhead is about a five-minute drive from the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve.

Note: The entire advanced grade Waipapa section between the Waipapa Dam and the Mangakino Lakefront is 19.6 kilometres.

Maraetai Section | Mangakino Lakefront Reserve to Mangakino Suspension Bridge

Leaving behind the grassy banks of the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve, this well-graded dirt trail heads south alongside Lake Maraetai. Winding boardwalks traverse wetland areas with enormous harakeke/flax and toetoe lining the way. Follow the blue trail poles past the Mangakino Golf Club before reconnecting with the shoreline to pedal through regenerating bush-clad gullies surrounded by exposed rock faces and impressive granite boulders.

The 70-metre-long Mangakino Suspension Bridge. Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Prepare for a few sharpish dips and rises that could have younger riders pushing their bikes. The impressive 70-metre-long Mangakino Suspension Bridge dangling 12 metres above Mangakino Stream is the perfect spot to refuel the troops beneath the shady trees before returning to Mangakino.

Bring the togs for a manu off the floating pontoon at Mangakino Lakefront Reserve, or grab some fish and chips to finish the day's adventures.

Need to know:

  • Allow 1.5 to 2 hours return.
  • About 9km return.
  • Trailhead beside the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve car park.
  • Toilet facilities and playground at the reserve.

Directions: Parking is available at the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve. Mangakino is 53km from Taupō.

Note: The entire intermediate grade Maraetai section between the Mangakino Lakefront and Whakamaru Dam is 12.3 kilometres.

Whakamaru Section | Lake Whakamaru Reserve to Ōngāroto Bluff Staircase

Weave among moss-covered boulders on a narrow forested strip of land wedged between the surging waters of the Waikato River and towering cliff faces lining State Highway 30. From the trailhead at the southern end of Lake Whakamaru Reserve, pedal south on the well-graded trail lined with ferns with views across the river to forested hills.

The Ōngāroto Bluff Staircase. Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Keep an eye out for the overhead sculpture of an acrobatic native pīwakawaka/fantail. The turnaround point is the Ōngāroto Bluff Staircase, where five flights of thigh-challenging stairs await, but upon reaching the top, soak up the bird's-eye-view of an often mist-shrouded valley carved by the Waikato River. This trail is never far from the river, and twisty turns through narrow dirt cutouts provide fun obstacles for reasonably confident bikers to navigate.

Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Tip: Explore the Whakamaru Village heritage trail and walk over the Whakamaru Dam before refuelling at The Dam Café or with pizza at Russmans. Stay the night to stargaze at Lake Whakamaru Reserve; free camping permits are available.

Need to know:

  • Allow 1 hour to 90 min return.
  • About 5.5 km return.
  • Toilets at Whakamaru Village and Lake Whakamaru Reserve.

Directions: Parking is available at the southern end of Lake Whakamaru Reserve. Whakamaru is 46km from Taupō. Alternatively, you can bike from Whakamaru Village (add about 3.5 km one way) or from Whakamaru Dam (add about 1 km one way).

Note: The entire intermediate grade Whakamaru section between Whakamaru Dam and Ātiamuri Village is 26 kilometres.

Whakamaru Section | Ātiamuri Village

Leaving Ātiamuri Village behind, it's easy riding across a vast earth dam before a short detour leads down a sealed road to see the 171-metre-long Ātiamuri Dam in action. Then, the trail dips beneath State Highway 1 before crossing the Waikato River and heads north along mainly flat, well-graded trails.

Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Pedal until little legs tire on this out-and-back option before returning to dangle legs or a fishing line off the wooden jetty near the trailhead, where the peak of the imposing 245-metre Pohaturoa Rock - a volcanic "plug" which blasted its way into existence when magma forcefully emerged through a vent in the earth – is often reflected in the lake's still waters. In its heyday, Ātiamuri Village had nearly 500 homes, a cinema, a canteen and a library to service the power station workers.

The Pohaturoa Rock. Photo by Outdoor Kid.

Need to know:

  • Allow as long as you like, but at least 60 min return to capture a few of the sights.

Directions: Parking is available on Ātiamuri Village Road, Ātiamuri Village. Ātiamuri Village is 37km from Taupō.

Note: The entire intermediate grade Whakamaru section between Whakamaru Dam and Ātiamuri Village is 26 kilometres.

More need to know

  • No dogs are allowed on the Waikato River Trails.
  • Don't forget to slip, slop and wrap while adventuring. Despite the trails providing plenty of forest cover, there are still exposed areas.
  • For detailed trail maps and transport options, Waikato River Trails
  • The Waikato River Trails is one of the 23 Great Rides in New Zealand and part of the Ngā Haerenga - The New Zealand Cycle Trails network.
  • The trails are two-way, so listen out for other cyclists and walkers in both directions.
  • Some parts of the Waikato River Trails have limited cell phone coverage.

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