The Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand

Mountain views in the distance while biking the Otago Central Rail Trail
Mountains completely surround you as you follow the Otago Central Rail Trail

The Otago Central Rail Trail is a multi-purpose trail (most used by cyclists) that runs 152km through central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand. Over 2 – 4 days the trail brings you to landmarks and landscapes iconic to the region, with incredible views in every direction along the way. As a rail trail it runs relatively flat, making this a wonderfully pleasant way to spend a long weekend.

Where: Otago, South Island, New Zealand
Closest City: Trail starts/ends in Clyde/Middlemarch
When: All year round! While open all four seasons, the trail is easiest to cycle in Spring through Autumn (September through May)
Length: 152km, 2-4 days
Trip Base Cost: The trail itself is free, so all you’re paying for is accommodation and food. You can camp a few places for free, or stay at any of the inns/B&Bs/hostels along the way. Thus, this can cost ~$15/day for food + 0-$100/day for accommodation = ~$45 – $250 for a 3 day trip. You can also hire any of many local companies to shuttle your stuff so you’re not carrying it all with you. This will of course add a cost to the trip.
Additional Variable Costs: camping and or biking gear, bike rental, a flight, accommodation outside the trail, beer, etc.

Otago Central Rail Trail Itinerary and Route

Day 1 – Clyde to Wedderburn, 78.5km

We had a tight deadline of 2 days to finish the trail, so we had 2 long days. The trail is almost entirely gravel, and I was on a mountain bike whose wheels were too small and frame was too big. It was a challenging go, but the slight uphill was hardly noticeable.

Otago Central Rail Trail starting point in Clyde, New Zealand
The start of the trail in Clyde, with two of our haphazardly acquired bikes that would endure two long days on the trail

It rained a misty rain for a while, but it didn’t bother me much and the ride was great.

Otago Central Rail Trail view of a river and mountains in the distance
Misty rain over river views on the Otago Central Rail Trail

The path wasn’t busy at all, passing a few people every hour or so. It was spectacular.

Cyclist on the Otago Central Rail Trail
A lone cyclist ahead on the trail surrounded by pine trees and shrubs

We had stopped at Chatto Creek, which is 25km from the start of the trail in Clyde. After our quick break, we were off again as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds and over the mountains.

Otago Central Rail Trail path towards Wedderburn
The path is made of gravel, and is relatively flat for the entire 152km

Passing trough Omakau another 12km on, we had lunch in this large and empty barn. A picnic of wraps – lots of them – was enough to fuel us for the remainder of the day.

Omakau empty barn building on the Otago Central Rail Trail
Our lunch shelter in Omakau, an empty red barn

In the next few hours, we crossed a number of bridges over lakes and rivers. The skies were grey but our spirits bright, as the incredible scenery never took a break. In this leg of the journey, you will also cross the 45th parallel – congratulations, you are halfway between the South Pole and the equator!

Bridge in Otago New Zealand on the Otago Central Rail Trail
Crossing one of many bridges on the way to Wedderburn

At a steady pace, we reached Wedderburn by 3:30pm. The last 5-10km towards Weddeburn is uphill, so arriving to our accommodation was incredibly satisfying. The sun appreciated our efforts and shone bright against a new blue sky. Beers awaited us at the pub just a short walk away, and it was a wonderful way to spend a night with new friends.

Wedderburn on the Otago Central Rail Trail
Taken by my Danish friend, Helle, I sit and read (or write?) in the glorious sun after a long day of biking

Day 2 – Wedderburn to Middlemarch, 73.5km

We woke up to watch the sun greet the day before setting off on our second and final day of biking on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

Sunrise in Wedderburn, New Zealand
Pinks and purples as the sun rises over Otago

As the second half of the journey would be slightly downhill, it was a great reward for tired legs from the day before. The hours leading to lunch in Hyde felt like flying, as the views did not disappoint and the path was clear. I think these may have been the most scenic successive hours  of my life.

cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail in the early morning
Thick, dense fog that covered the base of mountains looked like vast bodies of water from a distance

It’s hard not to smile when you’re rolling through paradise :).

Happiness and smiles on the Otago Central Rail Trail
Evidence of an uncomfortably large frame – with arms straight out I could barely reach the handlebars!

Dramatic gorges and vast fields at the feet of grand mountains of green and brown; fog that shrouded the hills, rising and falling with the mood of the skies.

Gorge on the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand
Valleys of trees that carved through mountains

After lunch in Hyde, there was that terrible wonderful feeling of never wanting the trail or day to end in combination with the desire to be done. All you can really do is savour the moment and vow to return one day.

Landscapes of Hyde, New Zealand
Changing scenery, always a treat!

Roses n Thorns

Rose (the best part)

Tunnels!! If you’ve ever been deep in a cave and turned the lights off or otherwise experienced complete darkness you may not find this quite as exhilarating, but this was a new and exciting experience for me. On the Otago Central Rail Trail, there are a number of long tunnels. With few others on the trail and making lots of noise it was safe enough to bike straight through, but biking in pitch black was both terrifying and terrific. Not knowing where you’re going, how far you will be blind, where the walls are around you, where the ground is below… A totally unique sensory experience.

Thorn (the worst part)

My circa 1985 mountain bike that was built for someone at least 5 inches taller than I was a challenge. Outstretched to the maximum from hips to fingertips, looking up and ahead became quite uncomfortable quickly. To be fair, I bought it cheap as and sold it again afterwards, so can’t say it wasn’t worth it.

Bud (the new friend)

Though we began as a group of 8 or 10, an avid cyclist – Helle, from Denmark – would be my biking companion for the weekend. With incredible stories and remarkable speed (albeit on a road bike with wheels half the width and a frame half the weight), Helle made the kilometres fly by. This is the beauty of joining groups alone: others who have joined alone are just as keen to make a friend.

Gear and Food List

Gear

I went with a group through the University of Otago, so I was lucky enough to have my gear/clothes transported to our accommodation in Wedderburn. If you’re trying to do the Otago Central Rail Trail in two days as well, it will make your life significantly easier if you arrange the same! Otherwise, you’ll need a bikepacking set-up. Whether that means panniers, saddle bags, frame bags, or simply a pack strapped to a rack (my preferred budget option), it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Depending on where you stay, you may require a cook set and sleeping kit. See my Gear for the Trail list for somewhere to start.

Food

Here are some ideas: Food on the Trail. In general, my days look like this…
Breakfast: hot oats on short days, cold granola with milk powder on long days
Lunch: snacks throughout the day including pepperoni sticks, tortillas, a LOT of peanut butter, granola bars, GORP, and dried fruit
Dinner: prepared dehydrated meals when I’m feeling fancy, or deluxe instant noodles/Sidekicks when I’m not

On the trail, you pass through a number of small towns. Some are nothing more than a barn, but a few have coffee shops and pubs. It’s worth it to bring your wallet along and stop for breaks at these humble and lovely little establishments!

Make it Happen

  1. Understand the route and pick a time of year you want to go.
  2. Choose your route/itinerary: you can easily make this a 4 day leisure trip, and can start from either end. As mentioned, it is as easy to camp as it is to stay in guesthouses/inns. The Otago Central Rail Trail website is awesome for all things planning.
  3. Once that is locked in, book your flights and/or transportation to and from Middlemarch/Clyde.
    • If flying, fly into Dunedin! It’s an awesome University town with lots of life. From there, either rent a car or bus with Intercity or NakedBus to your desired destination.
  4. Book accommodation on the trail and on either end of the trail.
  5. The fun begins! Plan your meals, get your gear in order, and figure out whether you’ll rent a bike or buy one outright.
  6. Get outside and do the thing.

 

Middlemarch, New Zealand at the end of the Otago Central Rail Trail
Rather sad to be leaving but thankful to have experienced it in all its glory
Pin of The Otago Central Rail Trail

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