The Otago Rail Trail and A Universal Truth.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rail trail should be cycled in one direction - or the other - only the truly psychotic cycle both.

The Central Otago Rail Trail runs for 150 kilometres from Clyde to Middlemarch in the South Island of New Zealand.  It takes about four days to cycle. Lots of discussion can be found on the internet about whether it is best to ride the trail west to east or east to west. With the highest point roughly in the middle, neither direction has more downhill sections - the disagreement is all about the quality of the views. Whether you begin from Clyde or Middlemarch however the generally accepted plan of attack is to cycle the trail one way. There are a plethora of package tours available which enable you to do this by providing bikes, accommodation, luggage transfer, back-up and return transport.

David hates package tours. There was never any real chance he would go for the package option. His plan was to hire a car (just to be clear here the trail is a "rail trail" - no cars allowed), and having based ourselves at three roughly equidistant towns we would drive each morning to a starting point along the trail, cycle for a few hours, then turn around and cycle back to the car.

Almost every other cyclist we met along the trail thought we were mad. I thought we were mad! We took a 150 kilometre trail, cycled almost 300 kilometres and still managed to miss bits. I can confidently tell you though that having now seen almost every tree, bush, hill, flower, paddock, bridge and cow from both directions it's a great trail and it makes almost no difference whatsoever whether you start from the east or the west.

What is a rail trail -  Rail trails are disused railway routes which have been turned into cycling trails. Since trains don't handle anything other than gentle gradients they are almost universally easy to cycle. The Central Otago Rail Trail is no exception but the trail surface is gravel, not bitumen, so don't plan to cycle more than about 40 kms each day.

Accommodation -  There is plenty of accommodation along the trail, some of it purpose built. The standard varies so book early.  We stayed at Clyde, Naseby and Middlemarch.  Naseby is a charming little village with loads of atmosphere. Although it is 12 km off the trail it is worth the extra distance. We stayed at a B&B called The Old Doctor's Residence.  The owners are lovely people. She made wonderful breakfasts and he would offer to pick up guests from the trail and drive them that last 12 km.

The best part of cycling the trail  - The sense of camaraderie with the other cyclists is just great. You see the same groups of cyclists again and again. By going both directions we would often see the same people twice a day. There is nothing quite like shared pain and exhaustion to create a sense of community. I just loved the feeling of collapsing into a chair for a pub lunch and realising my fellow cyclists outnumbered drivers by about ten to one.

What to take - Apart from the obvious things like bikes, the most useful thing we didn't have was a torch. There are a couple of long, dark tunnels we had to feel our way through.

If you just want a taste of the trail -  Take the trail from Clyde to Alexandra then return via the river trail for a 20 km round trip. The River Trail has lovely scenery and ambiance.

The only advantage of also having a car - After one particularly gruelling, 56km day we just couldn't face the thought of getting on our bikes again in the morning. When we woke up to rain we abandoned the trail for a day and went for a drive instead. The package tour operators put everyone on a schedule which doesn't allow for much flexibility.

Happy cycling!

If anyone out there has ridden the Otago Rail Trail or any others I would love to hear about it.

The beginning of the trail at Clyde

The river trail between Clyde and Alexandra

The trail crosses some great bridges

The 'parking lot' at a lunchtime pub

I loved the 'its all downhill from here' bit

A restored railway station at Ranfurly

Purpose built trail accommodation at Wedderburn

Another great bridge

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  1. Thank you for sharing - I love this one! Surely, I will share it with my hiking buddies and hope to have it on our toDO list!

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the feedback. If you ever get there let me know. It's a great trail. Later this year we are coming to Illinois to cycle some of the paths in that state. If you have any recommendations I'd love to hear them.



  2. Nice post Lyn. Dianne and I have had two road cycling trips on the South Island and many other visits to go hiking and climbing. You've just given us another reason to get over there again!

  3. Thanks. New Zealand has to be one of the best countries in the world for cycling.