Starting on the slopes of a live volcano, this is an epic journey through two national parks, rolling hill country and remote river gorges. It reaches a fitting finale at the deep, blue Tasman Sea.
Rich in natural and cultural heritage, the Mountains to Sea takes in a staggering array of scenery and sights – from historic railway viaducts, the abandoned Bridge to Nowhere, and old-town architecture of arty Whanganui city, to the volcanic and deep forest wonders of Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. A jet boat trip, kayaking and waterfall walks are just some of the extras that can be added into the mix.
Completing the entire trail is a challenging and often remote adventure for keen riders, but its varied sections, shuttles and other services, make day rides easy to organise and enjoy.
- UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park’s volcanic wonderland
- Whanganui National Park’s wild river, deep forest & remote valleys
- rich Māori & Pākeha heritage in marae, little churches, abandoned farms, an historic flour mill & much more
- viaducts & other curious relics along Ohakune’s Old Coach Road
- iconic Bridge to Nowhere
- thrilling Whanganui River jet boat ride
- Whanganui city’s art, culture, cafes & restaurants
- sweet riding on some classic backcountry singletrack
- thrilling 1000m, 17km descent down Mt Ruapehu
The Mountains to Sea is divided into six main sections forming a continuous 199km route, with the exception of an unridable stretch of the Whanganui River. This gap is bridged by a 32km scenic jet boat ride between the Mangapurua Track and Pīpīriki, the northern end of the Whanganui River Road. (The distance including the jet boat trip is 231km.)
The six sections are described below in the most popular order, from Ohakune, on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, to Whanganui on the shores of the Tasman Sea.
There are a couple of alternative sections, the Fishers and Kaiwhakauka Tracks, as detailed at the end of this description. Not officially part of the trail, they are best suited to mountain bikers looking for bonus rides, although both also happily link in to a multi-day Mountains to Sea journey.
The full trail is typically ridden in 4–6 days, but fit riders can whip through it in 2–3. And while the ultimate experience is to ride literally from mountains to sea, a variety of day rides can be enjoyed along its length. Local bike hire and adventure tour companies will gladly help you organise the right trip for you.
Ohakune Mountain Road
17km, Grade 2/easy, 1 hour
What a way to start your Mountains to Sea adventure! From Ohakune town, local shuttles will ferry you up to Turoa skifield, 1700m above sea level on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. On a good day you can see as far away as Mt Taranaki. (Super-fit, masochistic riders can cycle up, of course.)
From there, it’s an exhilarating 1000m descent back to Ohakune along 17km of sealed road; fast riders can make it down in a little over 30 minutes.
There’s a good reason to slow down, however. A series of walking tracks off the Mountain Road allow riders to savour the sights of this UNESCO World Heritage landscape, including the highest waterfall in Tongariro National Park, Waitonga Falls (1.5 hours return; 6 km from the top); Mangawhero Falls (5–10 mins return; 4km from Turoa); and the Mangawhero Forest Walk (1 hr return) and Rimu Walk (15 mins return) that start near the bottom of the Mountain Road.
Ohakune Old Coach Road
15km, Grade 2/easy, 2–4 hours
One of New Zealand’s best half-day rides, Ohakune Old Coach Road follows an historic byway, overgrown and largely forgotten until it was ‘rediscovered’ by locals in 2002. Easily accessible and suitable for riders of most ages and abilities, it traverses Tongariro National Park forest and farmland, with many epic lookouts over the volcanic plateau. Revealed along the way are many surprising and memorable sights – from spooky railway tunnels and grand viaducts, to old bush camps and remnants of the original cobblestone road.
From the start point at Ohakune Rail Station, the first couple of kilometres follow Old Station Road and Marshalls Road before reaching the trailhead where a series of information panels retell the Coach Road’s fascinating story.
From here, the trail then winds up along the old cobbled road into Tongariro National Park passing through ancient forest, including giant rimu and tōtara, spiky mountain cabbage trees, various ferns and feathery toetoe.
The trail highlight is the beautifully restored 284m-long Hapuawhenua railway viaduct. From its span is a splendid view of the modern, 414m concrete viaduct that usurped the old dear in 1987.
The trail continues to reach Taonui Viaduct, half the size of Hapuawhenua and in a state of rusty repair. It’s still an impressive sight.
The trail emerges from a patch of interesting forest, into a pretty meadow near the trail’s endpoint, at Horopito. The settlement is home to the legendary car wreckers, Horopito Motors, more famously known as ‘Smash Palace’ for its role in a cult 1981 movie of the same name. It’s great for a game of ‘name that make and model’ with photo opportunities galore.
Ruatiti Road & Middle Road
45km, Grade 2/easy, 3–4 hours
Ruatiti Road and Middle Road link the Old Coach Road section with the start of the Mangapurua Track. It’s a long and occasionally hilly ride through a rural landscape, along a mix of gravel and sealed road. Although pleasant enough, it is primarily ridden by people completing the whole trail and seldom on its merits alone. (Indeed, many riders prefer to catch a shuttle to the start of the Mangapurua Track.)
Overall, the ride is downhill, losing around 400m in elevation over 45km. However, some steep climbs – especially towards the end of Ruatiti Road – make it best suited to fit cyclists.
From Horopito, Middle Road is signposted 1km south along busy SH4; road-sense is required along this short section
From the turn-off it’s approximately 14km to Ruatiti Road, which meanders beside the scenic Manganui-o-te-ao River for part of the way. Halfway along Ruatiti Road (15 km from the junction) is Ruatiti Domain, where there are toilets and lovely, but basic camping. After the Domain, the road turns to gravel for the final 15km to the start of the Mangapurua Track, on the fringe of Whanganui National Park.
36km, Grade 3/intermediate, 5–7 hours
An absolute treat for experienced mountain bikers, this journey through Whanganui National Park takes in long-abandoned farms, native forest, dramatic bluffs and deep ravines before reaching the Bridge to Nowhere, a graceful monument to early settlers’ broken dreams. The jet boat trip downriver to Pīpīriki is an invigorating way to end the ride.
Super-fit riders can finish in less than four hours but mere mortals should allow considerably longer. When dry, the Mangapurua Track can be a wonderfully flowing and reasonably easy ride. However, it’s no place for novices in the wet, when the sticky papa clay surface can turn it into a bike-busting and soul-sapping quagmire. There are also a number of tricky bluffs to navigate where riders need to dismount and push bikes.
Pick a fine day to ride if at all possible, and check in with local operators, visitor centres or DOC for the latest conditions. As there’s virtually no cellphone coverage, it is also recommended that riders carry a PLB (personal locator beacon) or spot tracker, and let someone know their intentions.
From the trailhead at the end of Ruatiti Road, the trail climbs through farmland and regenerating native bush to the junction with the Kaiwhakauka Track (which traverses an adjacent valley and starts at the memorable Blue Duck Station). A carved tōtara pou here signifies the spirit of ngahere (the forest) and offers symbolic protection to visitors.
It’s a little more climbing to reach Mangapurua Trig where there’s an impressive and touching memorial to the WWI servicemen and their families who settled the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys more than one hundred years ago. Reading up on this history before you ride this trail will greatly enhance your appreciation of this special place, with its gnarled old fruit trees, brick chimneys and other relics often unnoticed except by the eagle-eyed.
Behind the monument is a one-minute scramble up to a lookout with stunning views out across the Whanganui National Park and back east towards Tongariro National Park. Conveniently, there’s a toilet here, too.
It’s downhill virtually all the way from the trig, the trail wending through the remote and rather beautiful Mangapurua Valley in which a series of old farm sites are signposted.
Just how remote and challenging this place was for the settlers is brought home by Battleship Bluff, one of the most striking features along the track. Unsurprisingly, it presented one of the greatest obstacles to early settlers who spent two years blasting a route across the mighty cliff face. Little did they know their labour would serve pleasure-seekers on bikes, several generations down the line.
The Bridge to Nowhere is the final, most powerful and poignant monument to the broken dreams of the WWI settlers. Arching elegantly across a steep ravine, Mangapurua Stream a good 40 metres below, the bridge was completed in 1936 – by which time many settlers had already abandoned the valley. A storm six years later was the final death knell – the road into this remote place was doomed.
An iconic symbol of Whanganui National Park, today the bridge is well used by both Mangapurua Track bikers and walkers, and the thousands of people who visit on guided tours from Pīpīriki, or as part of the Whanganui River journey, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (that’s actually a kayaking adventure).
Just beyond the bridge is a lookout track that winds up above the Mangapurua Stream for elevated, iconic views of the bridge and surrounding bush.
From the bridge, it’s around 3km to the Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui River, where the trail runs out and a pre-booked jet boat transfers riders and bikes downstream to Pīpīriki. Riders should keep an eye out for walkers on this popular piece of track between the bridge and Landing.
32km, jet boat ride or kayak/canoe trip
There are two ways of getting to Pīpīriki, neither of which is on a bike! The easiest and most common is to be collected by the pre-booked jet boat for the invigorating 32km buzz down river (with bikes stowed onboard). Tour operators can also assist you in swapping the bike for a kayak or canoe, allowing you to experience part of the Whanganui Journey – the New Zealand’s Great Walks that’s actually a paddle. Camping and lodge accommodation is available for overnight stops.
However you choose to travel, the Whanganui River is a Mountains to Sea highlight, complete with verdant gorges, gushing waterfalls, tumbling rapids and tranquil stretches of deep, green water.
Whanganui River Road
67km, Grade 2/easy, 7–8 hours
At the tiny riverside village of Pīpīriki, riders get back in the saddle and head south along the Whanganui River Road, or catch a pre-booked shuttle back towards Ruapehu if not travelling onward to Whanganui.
Reasonably fit cyclists can ride the whole road in one day. Accommodation en route, however, allows the journey to be broken into a more leisurely two days. Note, too, that the only shop along the way is a tiny affair at Pīpīriki where ice cream and basic supplies may be available.
While not a technical ride, the fully sealed road is gently undulating and therefore involves a fair bit of climbing – approximately 600 metres over 67km, including a couple of particularly gnarly ascents near the start and finish.
The effort, however, is well worth it, not least of all for the elevated views along the river, but also for the many Māori and European heritage sites along the way. Between them, they tell quite the story of New Zealand’s early settlement, beginning with early Māori for whom the river was a primary highway.
The Whanganui River Road brochure is essential reading for those who want to dig down. It pinpoints and illuminates a series of major landmarks, including Hiruhārama (Jerusalem), a catholic church and convent built at the end of the nineteenth century. The restored Kawana Flour Mill, built in 1854, is also notable.
Around the 40km mark is Matahiwi, a small faming community, and site of the Matahiwi Gallery & Cafe (open 9am–4pm Wed–Sun, October (Labour weekend) to May.
The river road ends with the fairly hefty climb over Aramoana Hill and a well-deserved 3km swoop down to the junction of SH4. It’s another 3km again to Ūpokongaro village, 12km upstream of Whanganui and once an important ferry crossing and riverboat stop. Today, riders can rest and reflect on their River Road adventure with refreshments at the bike-friendly hotel or cafe.
19km, Grade 2/easy, 1–2 hours
The final section of the Mountains to Sea winds beside the lower reaches of the Whanganui River and through the artful city of Whanganui before reaching the Tasman Sea.
From Ūpokongaro, the trail follows SH4 for a short distance before heading off-road beside the river. (Note that extra caution is advised along the highway section, with its speed limit of 100km/h.)
On reaching the city limits, the trail continues alongside the river on cycle paths and urban roads before crossing to the other side via the Dublin Street bridge. Ahead is a lovely riverside boardwalk section into the centre of town passing galleries and sculptures along the way.
Just past the mooring for the venerable paddle steamer Waimarie, Whanganui i-SITE a great place to discover what this vibrant city has on offer.
The trail continues on the riverside boardwalk then detours into backstreets before returning to trace the river to the Tasman Sea through an interesting mix of local industry and seaside suburbia. Follow your nose, or keep an eye out for the cycle trail signage to keep on track.
The Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail ends at North Mole, a moody, driftwood-strewn beach on the northern side of the Whanganui River breakwater.
Head back to the city along the same route or explore the bohemian suburb of Castlecliff with its cafe and galleries.
A day or so in Whanganui is a great way to bookend your journey. It’s one of New Zealand’s oldest cities, rich in heritage, arts and culture, and a satisfying selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and accommodation.
Two alternative legs, connected by 25km of on-road riding, can be combined to form an alternate start to the Mountains to Sea.
The Fishers Track, which starts in National Park village, is a classic downhill track that makes a fabulous bonus, half-day ride but also links to the Kaiwhakauka Track.
The Kaiwhakauka is a challenging but rewarding bike-and-hike that intersects with the main Mountains to Sea trail part way along the Mangapurua Track. This is remote backcountry, with atmospheric and pretty scenery providing just rewards for the effort.
27km, Grade 2/easy, 2–3 hours
The trail start is signposted on the outskirts of National Park village. It begins with a gentle climb through the attractive native bush of Erua Forest before reaching a summit where there are fabulous views of the Tongariro National Park volcanoes behind and, on good day, the near-perfect cone of Mt Taranaki way out to the west.
From here’s it’s a thrilling 520m downhill through lush farmland into the Retaruke Valley. At the end of the farm track it’s approximately 10km along a scenic country road to the war memorial at the junction of Oio Road, the usual pick-up point for pre-booked shuttles.
Riders heading on to the Kaiwhakauka Track should head west on Oio Road; it’s 25km to the trailhead at Blue Duck Station.
It is possible to cycle back to National Park village from the war memorial junction; it’s 23km by road involving some grunty climbing.
41km, Grade 4/advanced, 5–7 hours
(Note: the distance and time provided are for the combined Kaiwhakauka and Mangapurua Tracks: from Whakahoro to the pou junction, then through the Mangapurua Valley to the Mangapurua Landing – the jet boat pick-up point.)
Originally a horse and cart route, then a tramping track, the Kaiwhakauka Track now forms part of this alternate start to the Mountains to Sea. It connects to the adjacent Mangapurua Valley – with which is shares interesting WWI settler history – via a saddle climb.
The trail starts at Blue Duck Station at Whakahoro, on the banks of the Whanganui River, 45km west of SH4 near Owhango. The station is a working farm, so-named for the resident whio (blue ducks); the farm folks are pretty serious about preserving the bird populations and put considerable work into conservation. They also offer authentic, homespun hospitality in both food and lodging. It’s a great spot to acclimatise to the remote vibe before heading out on the Kaiwhakauka.
Despite trail upgrades, the Kaiwhakauka is still a rough-and-ready trail best suited to fit, experienced and well-equipped mountain bikers with no fear of sweat and tears. Much of it is narrow, technical singletrack that can get awfully muddy after rain.
The valley is, however, very beautiful, sporting hidden creeks, lush bush, and pretty farmland, and rustic relics of a bygone era. The fact that few folk travel here adds a feeling of intrepid adventure.
Depending on the trail conditions, riders may well be quite knackered by the time they’ve puffed their way up the climb out of the valley. At the saddle, a carved pou marks the intersection with the Mangapurua Track, a short distance away from the Mangapurua Trig.
A diverse range of trails and multiple access points make it easy to tailor a day trip to suit riders of most ages and abilities, supported by local shuttle and cycle tour operators. Here are some suggestions.
Ohakune Old Coach Road
15km or 30km return, easy, 2–6 hours
By far the most popular day ride on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, this can be ridden in two different ways: as a one-way, primarily downhill ride, best started in Horopito (an easy shuttle drop-off); or as a 30km return ride from Ohakune. Either way, this is a wonderful outing suitable for any competent cyclist, complete with impressive lookouts, ancient forest, excellent interpretation panels, and the highly photogenic 284m Hapuawhenua railway viaduct.
Ohakune Mountain Road
17km, easy, 1 hour
Get your designated driver or shuttle operator to drop you off at the Turoa car park for the exhilarating 17km, 1000m descent back to Ohakune. Maximise the pleasure by stopping to take in the various nature walks signposted from the road, or create a world of pain by cycling up to Turoa rather than hitching a ride. The uphill record is a smidge over 44 minutes (on a road bike of course); as a mere mortal you’ll need to allow at least three hours. This is, however, New Zealand’s only ‘hors category’ climb, so bragging rights are in order for those that make it to the top under their own steam. Note that this is a good-weather ride only (it’s pointless without the breathtaking views), and off-limits during the ski season when the road is hopping with snow bunnies.
36km, intermediate, 5–7 hours
Thanks to its challenging riding, remote air, fascinating history and lashings of natural grandeur, this section of the Mountains to Sea was already a classic, backcountry MTB adventure long before the trail was created. It’s an epic day out for experienced, well-equipped mountain bikers, best started early morning so you’ve got enough time to smell the Mangapurua Valley’s roses and still make your boat pick up. Local bike tour operators are well versed in sorting the necessary shuttle and jet boat transfers.
27km, easy, 2–3 hours
Starting near National Park village this ride through lush farmland lives up to its legendary status with a thrilling 520m descent and epic views. A pre-booked shuttle will ferry riders and bikes from the end of the ride, or it’s a pleasant 23km ride back to National Park along mainly quiet country back-roads. It’s rated grade 2 (easy) but is suitable for most abilities of rider on a mountain bike.
Whanganui—North Mole (return)
14km, easy, 1–2 hours
This leisurely ride is a wonderful way to get to know Whanganui city, starting in the CBD and taking in various riverside scenes, quiet back streets, and the driftwood-strewn beach at North Mole. There are galleries, cafes and other attractions along the way, but with a city map you can explore even further.
Need to Know
FITNESS & SKILLS
The Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail is primarily graded 2–3 (easy to intermediate), with the challenging Kaiwhakauka rated as grade 4 (advanced). There’s varying terrain from concrete bike paths and boardwalks, quiet country roads and an old cobbled road, to smooth gravel bike track and some testing backcountry singletrack.
The terrain and remoteness of the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka sections, in particular, mean that those attempting the full trail should be fit and experienced off-road cyclists.
A number of sections are on public roads where riders should be prepared to meet vehicles. Riders may also encounter stock grazing along the roadside or being moved.
TYPE OF BIKE
A ship-shape mountain bike is essential for all but the most urban of rides (namely Whanganui city). Riders of remote and more rugged sections should ideally have basic mechanical skills and carry a tool kit. E-bikes are permitted on sections up to Grade 3, although consideration should be given to sufficient battery charge. Note that e-bikes, however, are not permitted in National Parks so this includes the Mangapurua Track.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
Although the trail is well signposted, carrying a map will prevent wrong turns, help time your ride for pick-ups, and identify interesting landmarks. For the remote Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka sections, the official trail map and DOC map will suffice, but geography fanatics should consider a detailed topographical map.
WEATHER & RIDING SEASON
The Mountains to Sea Trail is open to riders all year round, even during the winter ski season: if the ski field conditions aren’t great or there’s too much snow on the Okakune bike trails, odds are you can find somewhere else to bike instead.
Riders tackling the remote Mangapurua or Kaiwhakauka Tracks, however, should check in with the locals (e.g. bike operators or Department of Conservation) for the latest track conditions, regardless of the time of year. Both tracks can get very challenging after rain, and wash-outs do occur; high river levels may also make some streams impassable. Riders should let someone know their intended route and expected return time; they should also consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB), available to hire from some local operators and i-SITES.
The weather is particularly changeable around the mountains of Tongariro National Park. It is vital that visitors check the forecast and track conditions before they set off, and carry appropriate clothing for all eventualities, including wet-weather gear.
FOOD & WATER
Some sections of trail pass through settlements where food and drink is available; namely Ohakune, National Park village, Whanganui city and a few settlements along the Whanganui River Road and SH4. However, most of this trail traverses remote country with no food supplies; it is vital to plan ahead and pack more than sufficient provisions.
Water is available in towns and settlements along the trail; there are water sources on the backcountry sections but boiling or treating is recommended. Taking sufficient supplies for the full day is preferable to filling up en route.
TOILETS & CAMPSITES
In addition to public toilets in towns and villages, facilities are dotted at convenient points along the route including more remote sections; in the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys and along the Whanganui River these are located at basic DOC campsites as detailed in their brochure and marked on the official map.
While cellphone coverage is good around main settlements such as Ohakune, National Park and Whanganui, it cannot be relied upon in outlying areas and is virtually non-existent in the wilds of Whanganui National Park.
Plan Your Trip
The Mountains to Sea Trail is located in the middle of the North Island. Ohakune, National Park village and Whanganui are the main towns on the trail, but it’s also close to other great visitor destinations including Taupō, Turangi, Raetihi and Whakapapa.
Summer is the most popular time to ride, which coincides with the peak season for Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. It is therefore recommended that accommodation and other necessary services are booked in advance for December–March; but also in winter when local operators switch their focus to serving snow sports.
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Stretching between Mt Ruapehu and Whanganui city in the central North Island, the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail is easily accessible by road, railway, and air.
Auckland International Airport is 4–5 hours drive away. Regional connections are available from Whanganui Airport, and further afield via Taupō and Palmerston North – both within two hours' drive of the trail.
The trail can be reached via various scenic driving routes around the middle of the North Island, taking in highlights including Lake Taupō, the Forgotten World Highway and Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, and the legendary bike trails of Rotorua’s Redwood Forest. The amazing Timber Trail and Great Lake Trail Great Rides are also within a 90-minute drive.
Nationwide Intercity buses service major towns on and around the trail including Ohakune, National Park village and Whanganui.
Note that in the winter months (June to August), there may be snow and ice on the roads around the Ruapehu region.
It’s also possible to reach the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail on the scenic Northern Explorer train journey that stops at Ohakune and National Park on its way between Auckland and Wellington.
BIKE HIRE, TRANSPORT & TOURS
The trail’s proximity to Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks means there are plenty of adventure tour and shuttle companies able to plan, support and even guide your trip.
The remoteness of pick-up and drop-off points, however, makes it essential to book all transport services in advance.
The main bases for mountain biking services are Ohakune, National Park and Raetihi, plus Taumarunui, which lies betweeen the Mountains to Sea and Timber Trail Great Rides. Not far away, Taupō and Rotorua are also hotspots for mountain biking and off-road cycle tours.
Some companies offer guided and independent trips around multiple Great Rides; Auckland is a popular departure point for these.
Find bike hire, transport & tours
There’s a wide choice of accommodation in the trail’s main towns of Ohakune, National Park village, Raetihi and Whanganui, and in smaller trail hubs such as Whakahoro and Pīpīriki. There are other options dotted on or near the trail, including along the Whanganui River Road.
It’s also possible to camp along the way. There are DOC campsites in Ohakune and Whanganui National Park, and other basic campsites at Ruatiti Domain and Otumaire on the Whanganui River Road. Commercial holiday parks can be found in all major towns and at Pīpīriki.