Waikato River Trail
Ride along the banks of NZ longest river, and discover the Waikato as you have never seen it before.
The Waikato River Trail winds along banks of NZ longest river tying together areas of native bush and exotic forest, as it passes interesting rock formations, beautiful farmland, and views of the the mighty river and the lakes formed by hydro dams.
Trail grades are based on technical difficulty only.
This video was produced by the regional tourism organization Destination Great Lake Taupo. It helps to provide a little insight into the Waikato River Trail, however, it's important to note that the video does not provide an accurate representation of the physical and technical difficulty of the trail and was largely filmed at one short section of the trail.
About the Trail
The Waikato River Trails are a series of tracks that link with a few road sections to form a 105km trail that follows the southern banks of the mighty Waikato River. The trail rides well in either direction. The North end is at the southern reaches of Lake Karapiro near Arapuni and the South end is near the Atiamuri SH1 bridge. The Waikato River Trail provides access to previously unreachable areas on the banks of NZ longest river. The Waikato River Trail winds along tying together areas of native bush, exotic forest, interesting rock formations, vistas of the river and lakes, as well as many historic landmarks. Cyclists will be pleasantly surprised at the beauty of NZs largest river.
The Waikato River Trail is one of the most varied cycle trails. Riders will find a constantly changing environment as they cycle the trail. Some sections have a very rural feel while others are in remote bush, there are small towns along the way and the ever present river is not only beautiful but also packed with history and home to the industry of power generation.
Each section of the Waikato River Trail is named after the lake it follows, and each lake is formed by a hydrodam at the Northern end.
The trail is entirely two-way and rides well in either direction.
|Section||North End||South End||Distance||Grade||Trail Type|
|Karapiro||Pokaiwhenua Car Park||Arapuni Dam||13km (one way )||
|95% easy gravel path|
|Arapuni||Arapuni Dam||Waipapa Dam||34km||
2 – 4
|50% sealed road, 50% off road trail|
|Waipapa||Waipapa Dam||Maraetai Dam||20km||
|45% forestry road, 45% off road trail, 10% sealed road|
|Maraetai||Martaetai Dam||Whakamaru Dam||13km||
|100% off road trail|
|Whakamaru||Whakamaru Dam||Atiamuri Car Park||25km||
|90% off road trail, 10% gravel road|
The closet major town to the North end is Cambridge, 30 mins away. The closest major town the South end is Taupo, 30mins away, which happens the river source Lake Taupo.
Taupo has a small airport, otherwise the next nearest airports are Rotorua, and Auckland. It is 1hrs drive fro Rotorua to Taupo and 4hrs drive from Auckland to Taupo.
You can either have round trip transport from your Taupo accommodation using our Taupo based shuttle service. Or you drive to the end of the section you want to ride and take our shuttle to the various starting points.
Where you park will largely depend on what sections of the trail you plan to ride and how many days you plan spend on the trail.
There are a number of small villages, campsites, and car parks, along the trail that make good parking locations. These are some of the most popular places, from North to South:
- Pokaiwehnua Bridge Car Park (the official Northern end of the trail)
- Little Waipa Campsite
- Arapuni Bolwing Club Car Park
- The Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni
- Jim Barnett Reserve
- Waipapa Dam
- Mangakino Lakefront Reserve
- Whakamaru, at the Dam Cafe
- Atiamuri Car Park (the official Southern end of the trail)
Contact us about the section that you want to ride and we will advise you of the best logistics. Or if you want to ride the full trail ask us about our Package Tours.
The best way to experience the Waikato River Trail on one of our 2 or 3 day Tours that include shuttles, baggage transfers, accommodation and optional extras like bike hire and guiding. There are a number of little known accommodation providers along the way and linking your transport together can be tricky, so we have done it all for you. Contact Us for details.
At minimum, even for a day trip, you will need to take a shuttle to ride the Waikato River Trail, unless you are planing to turn around at some point during your ride back the same way.
The best day trips on the Waikato River Trail:
For beginners and casual riders:
Option 1: Ride from Atiamuri to Whakamaru • 23km • Grade 3
If you want more, ride another 14km on to Mangakino.
Park at either the Dam Cafe at Whakamaru or the Lakefront Domain at Mangakino. Take our shuttle to start your ride at the Atiamuri Car park.
Option 2: Ride from Arapuni to Little Waipa Reserve • 6km one-way • Grade 2
Park at the Rhubarb Cafe and ride the the Little Waipa Reserve. Take our shuttle to back to your car at the Rubarb Cafe. This option is only available with bike hire and minimum numbers. BOOK NOW
OR bring your own bike and park at the Rubarb Cafe and ride to Little Waipa Reserve and back.
NOTE: The Rubarb Cafe is not open Monday and Tuesday. It’s well worth planning to do this ride when the Cafe is open…
For intermediate to advanced riders:
Option 3: Ride from Waipapa Dam to Atiamuri • 57km • Grade 2-4
Park at the Atiamuri Car Park and take our shuttle to start your ride at Waipapa Dam.
Option 4: Ride from Little Waipa Reserve to Mangakino • 65km • Grade 2-4
Park at Waipapa Dam and take our shuttle to start your ride at Little Waipa Reserve.
Option 5: Ride the entire Waikato River Trail in a day • 105km • Grade 2-4
Park at the Atiamuri Car Park and take our Shuttle to the Pokaiwhenua Car Park.
We also offer round trip transport from Taupo for any of these rides.
You can take our shuttle from your accommodation, home, or a common meeting place to the start of your ride and we will pick you up at the end for the return shuttle. We have all the knowledge and equipment to make you Waikato River Trail experience easy.
The Waikato River Trail passes through many remote areas and there is limited mobile reception on much of the trail. We recommend that you carry a Personal Locator Beacon anytime you are riding out of phone reception. If we are providing a round trip / two-way shuttle a beacon is included.
You can stay in a number of places when you ride the Waikato River Trails. Where you stay will be determined by what section of the trail you want to ride.
If you are riding the full trail over a 2-3 day on one out Tours, then you may be staying in Arapuni, Mangakino, or Whakamaru depending on your logistics and number of days.
Accommodation is usually in cottages or basic lodges.
If you stay in Taupo you can take advantage of our Taupo based shuttle service to and from the trail. Taupo is a spectacular place and there are lots of accommodation and options, restaurants, and cafes. Taupo is 2hrs from the North end of the Trail and 30mins from the South end. We provide round trip transport from any Taupo accommodation in our package tours, we can also include the extra accommodation in the package so it really easy for you to book your holiday.
If you are travelling from the North, it might be best for you to stay in Arapuni the night before your Waikato River Trail Trail Tour starts. We can include extra nights of accommodation before and/or after your ride on request.
Ask us for accommodation recommendations, or we can include one of our preferred providers in your package.
Having a guide is a great way to maximise the enjoyment of your ride. The Waikato River Trail is rich in both natural and cultural history and a guide can explain some of this at key locations as you ride the trail. Our expert guides will not only show you way and provide insight into our land, but also teach you some bike skills as we go. With our guided experience you can be assured that you are in the best of care.
ENQUIRE NOW about guided tours.
The Waikato River Trails are a series of tracks that link seamlessly to form a 105km trail that follows the southern banks of the mighty Waikato River. The trails start from the southern reaches of Lake Karapiro and end at Atiamuri Dam on SH1. The trail provides access to previously unreachable areas on the banks of the river. The trails wind along tying together areas of native bush, exotic forest, interesting rock formations, vistas of the river and lakes, as well as many historic landmarks. Cyclists will be pleasantly surprised at the beauty of NZs largest river. The trails can be divided into 5 main sections: The Karapiro Section, The Arapuni Section, The Waipapa Section, The Maraetai Section, and the Whakamaru Section from north to south respectively. (The name for each section is the name of the place at the northern end of each section.) The following is a detailed description of each section:
Section 1: The Karapiro Section:
This 14km section technically starts from Pokaiwhenua Bridge Car Park. The first 5km is a graveled path that undulates following the grassy area between the road and fence line. Another good starting point is Little Waipa domain, a large grassy area with toilets, river access, and a few trees for shelter. The trail continues to head south taking to the more natural river banks, at this stage the trail is very close to the river and the track is a fine graveled surface making for quick riding. There are a few benches and picnic tables along the way so riders can make the most of stopping for a rest. A highlight of this section is the 500m long boardwalk that crosses the Huihuitaha wetlands. Also rock formations and bird life intrigue the rider. The well crafted boardwalk winds through the bush allowing people to enjoy the beauty of the wetland which attracts abundant bird life. Following this there are a few climbs before reaching Arapuni Town. This section of the trail is generally very easy however beginner cyclists will find the hills approaching Arapuni challenging. The reward is a great view from the Arapuni swing bridge (just off the cycle trail) and a break at the Rhubarb Cafe. This biker friendly cafe is worth a visit, it has good coffee, good food, and some memorabilia of the area and the 1929 Arapuni Power Station. Situated just at the North end of Arapuni town only a few hundred meters off the cycle trail itself the Rhubarb cafe makes an ideal start/finish place for cyclists wanting an easy day ride to Little Waipa and back.
Section 2: The Arapuni Section:
This 34km section of trail leaves the swing bridge and Arapuni town. The trail continues to follow the river bank while climbing and descending at times through pine forest and pockets of native bush. Sometimes following the fenceline of the riverside farms the trails takes on a very rural feel. Crossing Arapuni Rd. at the Arapuni Dam the trail then heads on to a little SWDC campsite on the river’s edge. Just before entering the campsite there are a few flights of stairs to go down, and neat bridge over a stream, so be sure to dismount before the stairs and take the time to look at the rock formations that can be seen from the campsite. From here the Waikato River Trails take the tar seal along Lake Arapuni Rd. to the hamlet of Waotu where it takes a right turn onto Waotu South Rd. This road section is quiet and rural with nice farm views. Not long after Waotu the trail turn left into the Jim Bennett Bush reserve. Upgraded walking tracks form the way through this reserve that was once part of the Bennett farm. Back onto the road for a short time before it becomes gravel and narrows to what feels like a farm driveway. The road comes to an end and the trail turn right through a bike gate and up a path in between farm fields to an expansive view of the Waikato River and surrounding area. Riders will feel as though they are at one of the highest points of the region. To the right a large quarry can be seen. The next section of track switchbacks many times down the steep bank to the river. Some riders may wish that there were berms and banked corners all the way down however we must keep in mind that this is a two way track. The trail goes right down the river and follows the lower banks among the native bush for a while and only coming up to the farm edges occasionally. There are some climbs and small bridges crossing streams that run off the banks into the mighty river. The trail borders some pine forest for a little while before arriving at the huge Mangawera swing bridge that crosses a gorge formed by a tributary stream to the river. The bridge is impressive and certainly is a highlight of this section. It’s great to know that bridges such as these have been built specifically for mountain biking. Spanning 80m and suspended 42m above the stream it provides a mesmerizing view of the gorge and Waikato river. The track then continues along the river banks rising higher at times and passes through pine forestry areas while joining gravel logging roads off an on before the descent to Waipapa Dam. 1km before the dam there is a flight of steps where riders will have to carry their bikes.
Section 3: Waipapa Dam to Maraetai Dam:
This 14.5km section graded as “advanced” starts off from Waipapa Dam generally following the route of the Waipapa Rd. It is a gravelled track that takes to the bush between the road and the river and only occasionally coming out to be on a widened section of road shoulder. Cyclists should take caution where the trail come right up beside the road. The trail tends to take the line between the pine forest and native bush on the river banks. There are some climbs and descents along the way combined with switchbacks and more technical sections. The track is a soft pine needle surface in many places so beware of traction but enjoy the smooth feel. Coming out of the forestry area just near Maraetai Dam the the next 3.5km of the Waikato River Trail is sealed. This takes to Waipapa Rd. and merges onto Lake Rd. to enter Mangakino town. Arriving at the Mangakino Domain you will be pleasantly surprised to find a little cafe cleverly made out of a trailer and a covered deck area. Stop for coffee, food, and a nice view of Lake Maraetai. Be aware that the cafe is cash only. A dairy is also found in town if you need other other supplies.
Section 4: Maraetai Dam to Whakamaru Dam:
This 16km section is graded as “intermediate” and again it is mostly a fine gaveled path with only a few steeper climbs and descents. In terms of difficulty, this section is manageable by the vast majority of cyclists. The track first travels past the Mangakino Golf Course and borders some farm land on grassy tracks. Before going in and out of small wooded thickets that include some switchbacks but are not very steep. The river is not far away and there are some huge boulders found along the way (4km from Mangakino) that intrigue the mind toward the geological history. The track becomes fast and flowing for while and just after passing a bike gate and a small motocross track another sizeable 70m swing bridge is found that crosses the large Mangakino Stream. Following high on the river banks the track is easy and undulates gently with large eucalyptus trees clinging to the space between the farm fields and steep river banks. Next we are reminded again of the importance of the power schemes on the Waikato River as we pass by a power works area with many pylons and overhead wires. Joining SH30 to cross Whakamaru Dam there is a footpath to ride on. Be sure to stop on the Dam and look back along where you have just ridden as this is the end of the section.
Section 5: Whakamaru Dam to Atiamuri Dam:
This 23km section heads Eastward following the flow of the Waikato and is graded as “Intermediate”. Remember that this track was originally built as walking track and will have some short sections that beginner riders may want to walk. After crossing some fields the trail joins a dirt access road into another great SWDC campsite where there are toilets and lake access for swimming. Take a minute to feel the water and enjoy the stunning views across Lake Whakamaru and the hovering rock cliffs over the other side. The track then heads into beautiful native bush with many ferns and plenty of bird life. Riders will notice a mixture of bedrock formations, a variety of signs of past volcanic activity including pumice stones floatining in the river and old volcanic rock formations on the hills beyond the river. The track crosses the driveway of Whakamaru Christian Camp which is located on a unique island in a wide section of the river. Look out for the quirky native Pukeko birds around here. Continuing to wind, climb, and descend through interesting patches of native bush right on the river bank, the trail then comes to the Ongaroto steps and lookout. Here cyclists have the option of riding around and up a steep slope for an amazing view. This is a neat piece of rock that stands in between the SH30 and the river. If you take your bike up you will either have to ride down the same side and around or carry your bike down the other side where the stairs are. Later on the trails arrives at Dunham Mobility Boardwalk Reverve. There is a boardwalk suitable for wheelchairs which the cycle trail follows. Be aware of other users please, it is a unique spot and haven for bird life. After this the trail borders a small patch of forestry and a farm field before reaching Tram Rd. If cycling to Taupo on one of our expeditions, riders will turn left and cross the Tram Rd. bridge over the Waikato River. Alternatively if doing a day ride cyclists can ride the remainder of the trail to the Atiamuri end finishing the great 105km of the Waikato River Trails.