Guide to the Otago Central Rail Trail

Cycle over the stunning Poolburn Viaduct | Lachlan Gardiner
Cycle over the stunning Poolburn Viaduct | Lachlan Gardiner

The Otago Central Rail Trail Guide Book 

Quick links:
Where is the Otago Rail Trail
Map of Otago Rail Trail
Starting points on the trail
Trail gradient and difficulty
Otago Rail Trail highlights
Best time of the year to visit
History of Central Otago
Landscape and Wildlife
Accommodation on the trail
Popular Itineraries

As the inaugural Great Ride paved the way for 22 more Great Rides across New Zealand, the Central Otago Rail Trail is an iconic cycling destination. It traverses the historic railway line in Central Otago, just over an hour's drive from Queenstown.

Officially opening in 2000, the Otago Rail Trail continues to reign as the most sought-after cycle trail. Many cyclists endeavor to conquer the full 152km journey spanning from Middlemarch to Clyde. With its well-maintained, compacted surface, completing the trail typically spans 3 to 5 days.


Your adventure will include crossing nine railway bridges, as well as passing through three historic tunnels. The trail snakes through the diverse and breathtaking landscapes of Central Otago, offering a unique perspective of some of New Zealand's most serene and captivating countryside towns.

Embark on an unforgettable journey along the Otago Rail Trail, an absolute must for cycling enthusiasts exploring South Island New Zealand and planning cycling holidays in the region.


Where is the Otago Central Rail Trail? 

Located in the South Island of New Zealand, Central Otago is a region approximately an hour's drive from Queenstown. Central Otago is home to some of New Zealand's finest vineyards and famous wineries known all over the world. Between Middlemarch and Clyde, the Otago Rail Trail allows you to ride through the historic country towns without the worry of traffic, making it ideal for recreational cyclists. 

Below is a map following the bike trail and the towns along the way. 

Map of Central Otago Rail Trail

Otago Rail Trail Starting Points 

Clyde to Alexandra  |    8 km
Alexandra to Chatto Creek   |    17 km
Chatto Creek to Omakau  |    12 km
Omakau to Lauder |    7 km
Lauder to Oturehua  |    23 km
Oturehua to Wedderburn  |    12 km
Wedderburn to Ranfurly  |    13 km
Ranfurly to Waipiata  |    8 km
Waipiata to Hyde  |    25 km
Hyde to Middlemarch   |    27 km


Trail Difficulty 

When it comes to cycle trails, the Otago Cycle Trail is graded at 1 - easy for many. Its surface is comprised of compact gravel with a gentle gradient, ensuring suitability for all ages and fitness levels. This trail offers an ideal introduction for novice cyclists and welcoming families to embark on this delightful journey. The trail is typically completed in 4 to 5 days on a regular bike, and 3 days on an e-bike but for a challenge by professionals, has been completed in 2 days. Additionally, walkers and horse riders also share and enjoy this scenic path.

For added convenience and peace of mind, our team of experienced guides and support vehicles are at your service. Should you wish to take a break or skip certain sections along the trail, we're here to assist. Plus, we offer the option of e-bikes, providing a boost when needed. 

To maximize your comfort, consider trying a gel bike seat, which can greatly enhance your riding experience depending on your fitness level.


Otago Rail Trail Highlights 

Historic Landscapes: Cycling along the Otago Rail Trail offers a journey through Central Otago's rich history. The trail follows the path of an old railway line, passing through charming towns, and providing a unique perspective on the region's past. You'll encounter well-preserved historic sites, bridges, tunnels, and viaducts that tell the story of New Zealand's pioneering days. Make sure to grab a headlight as you pass through 3 railway tunnels, the longest tunnel being Poolburn Tunnel No.2 at 229 meters.


Charming Country Towns: Along the route, you'll have the opportunity to visit some of New Zealand's most unique and relaxed country towns. These towns offer a warm welcome to cyclists and provide excellent places to rest, dine, and learn about the local culture. From Middlemarch to Clyde, each town has its own character and attractions, making your journey as enjoyable off the bike as it is on it.  There are many cafes and small businesses situated within the small towns to take a break and fuel up for the next section.  

Poolburn Gorge: Many cyclists consider this section of the Otago Rail Trail to have some of the most dramatic landscapes. This is where 2 of the 3 Railway Tunnels are located. Make sure to bring snacks for a pitstop to soak up the incredible views in the valley. A tip for newcomers: cycling out of Poolburn Gorge Tunnel No. 2 on the Oturehua side, you'll be welcomed by the most spectacular views of the valley and mountain range in the distance. 


Best time of the year to ride the Otago Rail Trail 

Customise the perfect cycle trail experience for any season as the Otago Rail Trail is open all year round. The most popular time of year to visit Central Otago is between November and April but each season offers its own unique charm. Spring is a burst of vibrant colours as wildflowers bloom, and the weather starts to warm up. Cycling during this season is a refreshing experience, with mild temperatures and lamb season. Explore the trail under the clear blue skies and bask in the breathtaking Central Otago landscapes throughout Summer. As autumn approaches, the trail is full of golden tones, creating a picturesque backdrop for cyclists. We've had fellow cyclists who have appreciated cycling during New Zealand's Winter wonderland when the trails are quieter, the snow covers the mountains and you're cycling holiday is full of hot chocolates by the fire and late morning starts. No matter what season you are conquering this iconic bike trail, you should be prepared for any weather at any time of the year. 


History of Central Otago 

Take a step back in time as you travel through the Central Otago region. New Zealand's gold mining era started in the late 1800's and the Central Otago Rail Trail was to be built to transport supplies to and from the goldfields. Although, the gold rush era was over upon completion in 1907, so instead the railway line was used to transport, supplies, wood and livestock to and from Central Otago. As transport developed further into the future with cars and trucks transporting goods, by the 1980's the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust redeveloped the section of the trail between Middlemarch and Clyde to what it is today. The bike trail officially became part of the Nga Haerenga, New Zealand Cycle Trail in March 2012.


Landscape and Wildlife 

Riding along the trail, you'll have the chance to see a variety of native and exotic plants, as well as a variety of birdlife, insects, and wild and farmed animals, many of which are not seen in other parts of the country. Spring is the best time of the year for the lambing season and is a great opportunity for kids to spot newborns as they ride along the trails. 


Rail Trail Accommodation

Unwind each night at a variety of economy, comfort and superior accommodations depending on your requirements and budgets. Central Otago has an array of lodges, BnBs, cottages and motels to choose from. Our team of local experts are always up-to-date with the availability each night and have local knowledge of accommodation styles and budgets to suit your needs.


Popular Itineraries 

Many families and cycling enthusiasts ride the iconic New Zealand bike trail each year due to its easy gradient. All our cycling holiday itineraries can be upgraded to e-Bike and we also have kids trailers and baby seat options. Our most popular itineraries are: 

>> 4-Day Central Otago Rail Trail Self-Guided Trip.

>> 5-Day Central Otago Rail Trail Self-Guided Trip.

>> Add Lake Dunstan before embarking on the Otago Rail Trail on our 5-Day Lake Dunstan and Otago Rail Trail Self-Guided Trip.



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