Adventure travel: Cycling the Lake Dunstan Trail

Amy Stewart

Dave Tomson shows off the incredible Central Otago cycle trails including the stunning Roxburgh Gorge Ride, the historic Clutha Gold Trail, and the new Lake Dunstan Trail connecting Cromwell to Clyde opening soon. Video / Grant Bradley

Steve Dickinson’s top tips for cycling the Lake Dunstan Trail

Amid the border closures and travel restrictions of the past two years, the Lake Dunstan Cycle trail is one of New Zealand tourism’s pandemic success stories.

Opening in May 2021, a trail counter set up near Carrick Vineyard in Bannockburn had already clocked more than 62,000 cyclists by the end of January.

It’s part of a $26 million strategy by the Central Otago Queenstown Trail Network Trust to ultimately create a 536km continuous system of trails connecting Queenstown and Wānaka, Cromwell, Alexandra and Roxburgh.

Lake Dunstan’s 57km of trail crosses a stunning landscape of vineyards and forest. The track runs along the edge of the spectacular lake with equally impressive engineered pathways.

Although a grade two to three ride most of the way, this is no “easy” trail. The path is narrow in places, with numerous blind corners and steep drops to the river below, and a solid grade 3 section. It’s certainly a challenge, and not suitable for younger children or unconfident riders.

Local operators say they won’t hire bikes for children as the risks are too high. One told me: “this trail is challenging in parts, and you have to look after yourself. You can’t be worrying about your kids.”

If you are going to use an operator for bike rental and drop off, it pays to book in advance.

You can start at Smiths Way and bike through Pisa Moorings towards Cromwell. It’s a flat (grade 1) 16km ride alongside the river with the highway on one side. However, we chose to miss this part and began at Old Cromwell village, which meant we had a just over 40km ride ahead of us.

Cromwell to Bannockburn Inlet: 7km, grade 2

The trail weaves along the bank of the river, lush with trees and bush. It’s a leisurely meander along well-formed trails. If you do want to take children with you, this would be where you would start, but you would need to turn around and come back the same way.

Bannockburn Inlet to Cairnmuir Gully: 11.3km, grade 2-3

We reluctantly biked past Carrick Winery (but we did find our way back to it), on to the other side of Lake Dunstan and back towards Cromwell. As you turn away from Cromwell towards Clyde, the terrain becomes wild and stark. It’s here that the trail’s impressive engineering starts to become apparent. It is either hanging from the rock, cutting into it, or almost going through it. The track edges are stark except for an abundance of wild thyme, which is delightfully pungent when you ride over it. Along this section, there are drainage tunnels (13 of them) that were drilled into the hillside in the mid-1990s to alleviate landslips into the Clutha River. You will know when you reach the gully, as this is where you’ll find the floating coffee and burger barges moored up against the side of the trail.

Cairnmuir Gully to Halfway Hut: 8.4km, grade 2-3

Please don’t count on getting a coffee halfway at the unique boat cafe; it gets swamped! We eased our way past the crowds towards the Cairnmuir Ladder, an aptly named section of the track that would require a near-vertical climb if it weren’t for the switchbacks. Although you may feel like grinding it out to the top, make sure you take time to stop and enjoy the view back halfway up; it’s also the perfect excuse to take a breather. From here, you can see most of the trail you have ridden and the stonework faces of the Cairnmuir slide that was built to protect the river from a landslide. The top of this section is the highest point on the track, so the ride down is a lot more enjoyable.

Halfway Hut to Dunstan Arm Rowing Club: 10.7km, grade 2-3

We thought we had completed the major climb on the ride, but after the halfway hut, it climbs again, this time without the aid of the switchbacks. Once you reach the peak, the ride is downhill again down to the lake’s edge.

The constant issue in this trail is people coming in the opposite direction. It is narrow, and there are a series of blind corners, and, as one of the local operators noted, “There are always ‘numpsters’ who go way too fast”. There is a discussion about making the trail one way – I personally feel it would be a good option, especially once tourists start to arrive in numbers.

The rest of the ride follows an undulating track along the river until reaching the Dunstan Arm Rowing Club and the Clyde Dam, NZ’s third-largest hydro dam.

Dunstan Arm Rowing Club to Clyde Heritage Precinct: 3.5km, grade 1

The ride back into Clyde is a casual pedal along the roadside, past the lower reaches of the dam and into what is considered “Old Clyde”.

The Dunstan Trail is a great one-day bike experience. It can be completed in either direction, but after speaking to someone who had biked it both ways, they recommended starting in Cromwell and finishing in Clyde.

If you are not a regular biker, I suggest hiring an E-bike. Remember to slow down on the blind corners, watch for “numpsters” and keep left. If you don’t feel confident where it is narrow, it’s okay to get off and push for a bit.


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