If you like your bicycle tours to be mostly downhill, pass through staggeringly remote landscapes and contain a compulsory jet-boat ride, Leon Hill has the ride for you.
The Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails, located in the stunning Otago region of New Zealand, are two of New Zealand’s newest cycle trails. They follow the mighty Clutha River downstream for 107km of car-free bicycle touring adventure.
The ride starts at the pretty Central Otago town of Alexandra, located on the iconic Otago Central Rail Trail. Stocking up with food and water at Alexandra is essential, as there are no supplies available on the remote Roxburgh Gorge trail until the town of Roxburgh, some 44km away. From the Alexandra trailhead, the trail immediately drops down towards the swiftly flowing turquoise water of the Clutha River and enters the dramatic, isolated landscape of Roxburgh Gorge.
The first few kilometres of the smooth and solid trail follow the willow-lined riverbank, alternating between leafy groves and exposed schist rock slopes. Riders gradually gain elevation up the steep gorge walls into a barren, rocky landscape where literally no stone has been left unturned, thanks to the gold rush that brought tens of thousands of hopeful miners to scour the area 150 years ago. The landscape still bears the mark of the devastation of the mining boom all those years ago, with very little established vegetation on the gorge walls. Riding this section of the Roxburgh Gorge trails feels like cycling across the surface of a remote, rocky planet.
Descending from the barren gorge walls back down to the tree-lined river is handled by a series of flawlessly designed and built switchbacks. Although somewhat steep in parts, the ride along the length of the trail is technically easy, thanks to careful track design and a high quality surface. Down by the river’s edge, riders pass by the remains of schist-rock huts hewn into the earth by miners trying to eke out an existence in what must have been a truly unforgiving environment. The first section of the trail south from Alexandra is only 10km in length, however, the mind-boggling landscapes give the impression that you’re already far, far from civilisation.
Due to land access issues, the trail here is divided into two parts. Riders wanting to ride the full length of the Roxburgh Gorge trail from Alexandra to Roxburgh Hydro Village must take a boat transfer for 12km south along the river to where the trail picks up again. Standing at the small jetty in the middle of nowhere, you would be forgiven for expecting a small pontoon boat to putt up the river to take you to your destination—but this is New Zealand, and it comes as no surprise when a V8-powered jet boat, complete with bike racks, come roaring up the river to whisk you away. Some cyclists have been critical of the mid-trail boat transfer, but there’s a lot more to it that just transporting bike and rider from A to B. The boat captains are a wealth of knowledge about the colourful mining history of the Gorge, making a lot of stops along the way to point out fascinating historical and geological features, as well as allowing passengers to disembark and explore interesting spots along the way.
A highlight of the boat trip is stopping to explore a 100+ year-old riverside inn. The worn floorboards and historical graffiti on the walls are testament to the fact it has seen many travellers pass through its doors over the years and now, thanks to the trail, a new generation of cycle tourers are learning about this largely overlooked slice of New Zealand history.
Back on dry land, the southern section of the Roxburgh Gorge trail climbs much higher up the gorge walls, to around 350m above the river. The views from this elevated vantage point are spectacular, and the landscape changes noticeably—from the mining-scarred lunar landscape, to more forested steep slopes and crags. The nature of the trail changes too—from easy gravel cycle touring path, to very mild mountain bike trail. The trail winds and soars through switchbacks and timber ramps up and down the dramatic gorge walls. Thanks to careful track design and impeccable trail building, the flow of the trail is so immaculate that even a fully-loaded touring bike rider gets to feel like a cross-country MTB champion for a little while. The Roxburgh Gorge section of the trail concludes at the tiny Roxburgh Hydro Village, nestled at the foot of the dam of the same name. This is the first opportunity after leaving Alexandra to refuel with coffee and food, before crossing over the dam wall and starting on the Clutha Gold trail on the opposite side of the river.
Although the end of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail is only a few hundred metres away, the 73km long Clutha Gold Trail immediately has a completely different flavour. The dramatic, unforgiving landscape of the gorge is left behind as the trail winds through much greener and gentler countryside along the Clutha River. Here the Clutha River is much faster flowing, with numerous historic boat wrecks paying silent testament to the understated power of New Zealand’s longest river. While the trail traverses mostly flat terrain, it is seldom dull, with constant twists and turns as riders weave between willow groves and cross small creeks on well-constructed bridges.
Ten kilometres after starting the Clutha Gold trail, riders arrive in the pleasant township of Roxburgh. It’s the first major resupply point since leaving Alexandra and has a wide range of food and accommodation options. Since the trail opened in 2013, Roxburgh has been warmly embracing cycle tourists and as a result the town has a positive, vibrant feel that makes it the perfect place to stop for the night.
South of Roxburgh township the trail continues to duck and weave through open farming land and cool, leafy glades following the rough direction of the river. The sky get larger as the mountains on either side of the river slowly retreat, making for a very pleasant ride along the well-drained trail into the town of Miller’s Flat. Here a small supermarket offers basic supplies for the passing cyclist. One ingenious rider was observed purchasing a pair of cheap woolen socks then converting them into knee warmers to ward off the Otago autumn chill.
Soon after pedalling away from Miller’s Flat, the trail suddenly plunges into the impossibly scenic Beaumont Gorge. It’s shallow, fast-flowing rapids, pebbly shores and towering pines are more reminiscent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains than rural New Zealand.
The Beaumont Hotel, just south of Beaumont Gorge, is a must-visit destination on the trail. A billboard near the trail advertises the hotel as “The Friendliest Pub In Central”, a claim which is entirely justified. This charming historical pub offers a full range of accommodation, from camping sites to king-sized rooms, all at budget prices and accompanied by a huge serve of warm Otago hospitality. The food is hearty (prepared by the resident Icelandic chef), the publican is welcoming, and the views from the front bar are nothing short of breathtaking. It’s the perfect location to stop for the night before cycling to the end of the trail the following day.
From Beaumont, the trail climbs up a mountain range along a historical rail line route, before passing through a long abandoned railway tunnel and plunging down a seemingly endless descent into the agricultural lowlands of Central Otago. The rocky crags and spurs of the highlands are left behind as riders race downhill across verdant, hobbit-esque landscapes into the bustling rural service town of Lawrence, at the southern end of the trail.
Riding onto the busy road at Lawrence comes as something of a shock after the completely vehicle-free 107 km of the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails. Combining these trails with the connecting Otago Central Rail Trail allows riders to complete over 250km of off-road, car-free cycle touring trails through out-there landscapes and hospitable country towns. These new trails make the Otago region of New Zealand a must-ride destination for anyone with a taste for cycling adventure.
Location Otago region, South Island, New Zealand
Skill level Easy
Surface Firm gravel bike trail
Fitness required Low-moderate
Distance 107km (one-way)
Duration 2–3 days
Choice of bike Touring or mountain bike
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