Cycling holidays: tips for seeing Ohakune and Ruapehu by bike

Sarah Bennett witnesses a cycling revolution as Ohakune transitions from ‘Carrot Town’ to cycling mecca

SUMMARY IN SECONDS

Ohakune’s attempt to become a true cycling town began with a group of locals rediscovering a long-forgotten paved road and turning it into a walking and biking trail. All hail the Ohakune Old Coach Road, now 10 years old and regularly touted as one of the best half-day hikes in the country.

Since then, Ohakune has remained pretty much a one-trick pony on the bike front, with the only new trails added being the kids’ pump trail and a short river trail connecting the two ends of town.

The bike, however, exploded beyond the city limits. Ruapehu’s official tourist guide claims there are over 400 kilometers of “epic trails…with rides for all abilities, all year round.”

Much of this falls under the Mountains to Sea Ngā Ara Tūhono Great Ride umbrella, which includes not only the Old Coach Road, but also the backcountry mountain biking classics, the 42-track Traverse, Fishers and Mangapurua .

Stretching to the town of Whanganui, the Mountains to Sea network has eight trails in all, with two more planned. Te Ara Mangawhero will descend Mount Ruapehu from the Tūroa Ski Area, and the other will connect the Old Coach Road to the new Marton Sash and Door Trail near the National Park. This section of trail will pass through the Uenuku iwi Pōkākā eco-sanctuary project, which has just received Mahi mō te Taiao/Jobs for Nature funding.

Lynley Twyman, Mountains to Sea trail manager, is unstoppably optimistic about future developments. “The Reo Maori name for the trails is Ngā Ara Tūhono – connected pathways – and that’s the point,” she says. “And Ohakune is the beating heart of this network. It’s the perfect place to refuel and explore.”

FIELD CONFIDENCE

Synonymous with skiing and its oversized carrot, Ohakune sits at the southern foot of Mount Ruapehu, the highest peak in the North Island and the most powerful of the three volcanoes in Tongariro National Park. It is also less than an hour’s drive from Whanganui National Park.

Ohakune has two ends, the town and the junction, both of which have their own vibe. It’s a five minute ride from one to the other.

LOCATE

Unmissable from most angles, Mount Ruapehu makes it virtually impossible to get lost anywhere around this end of the volcanic plateau.

For more details about the town, including the Old Coach Road trailhead, pick up the free town map from iSITE, which also has individual maps for the Mountains to Sea trails. The official trails website is also excellent, as are the wayfinding trail markers and other signage.

A CITY TOUR

More or less flat with wide streets, Ohakune is a pleasure to walk through. Enjoyable biking trails include the Jubilee Park Trail to Carrot Adventure Park and the Mangawhero River Trail connecting the two ends of town. Look out for Te Pepe Pump Track and the new frisbee golf course nearby.

The Old Coach Road is a must. Mix of singletrack and old cobblestones, it connects Ohakune and Horopito. Hike the 15km trail in either direction if you’re fit, or take a shuttle to Horopito to hike it in a slightly downhill direction.

Allow two to four hours or more for a forest swim and picnic. You’ll want to linger over the two incredible historic viaducts, the spooky tunnel, the excellent storyboards, and the fantastic vantage points. Finish with beer and fries at the Powderhorn.

Roll on the cobblestones of the Old Coach Road.  Photo / Sarah Bennett
Roll on the cobblestones of the Old Coach Road. Photo / Sarah Bennett

FURTHER AWAY

The newest trail in the Mountains to Sea network is the Marton Sash and Door, a neat little hike from National Park Village, a 25-minute drive from Ohakune. Taking around two hours, the 18km trail follows the railway line then climbs briefly to reach a bushy ridge through which a logging tram was built around a century ago. The trail is named after the logging company that built it.

The story here is one of extraction and regeneration, revealed by the salvage of native forest interspersed with experimental exotics as well as various tramline relics including sleepers, pumice cuttings and an old stone dam. mossy logs. A planned series of storyboards will soon share this hidden history, and in time the Uenuku iwi Pōkākā eco-sanctuary project will bring even more life to this special corner of the volcanic plateau.

Lee and Sarah ride the Marton Sash Door.  Photo/Martyn Davies
Lee and Sarah ride the Marton Sash Door. Photo/Martyn Davies

HIGH

From Ohakune, it’s a 20-minute drive up the mountain road to the Tūroa Ski Area parking lot, 1,700 meters above sea level. So that’s your epic sunset sorted.

Off the Mountain Road is the DoC’s short but rewarding hiking trail to Waitonga Falls, the tallest waterfall in Tongariro National Park.

The mountain route is also the first section of the complete 231 km hike from the mountains to the sea to the town of Whanganui. What a way to start – a heartbreaking 18km freewheeling ride over 1000 meters of elevation. Stop, and hold on!

Lee walks down Ohakune Mountain Road at sunset.  Photo / Sarah Bennett
Lee walks down Ohakune Mountain Road at sunset. Photo / Sarah Bennett

EAT

Our new Ohakune favorite is Toastie, a hip grilled sandwich cafe serving Supreme coffee, Six Barrel Soda, and seven different sammies with vegan pastrami, kimchi, and bacon-aise. The “Owen of Ohakune” nails the local colors to the mast with a layer of grated carrot.

Lee slips into a Toastie toastie.  Photo / Sarah Bennett
Lee slips into a Toastie toastie. Photo / Sarah Bennett

The Blind Finch, bakery by day, take-out burger by night, is the spearhead of this competition. Serving really delicious food and staffed by nice people, we visited The Finch four times in five days and that was only because it was closed on Mondays.

DO NOT MISS

Horopito Motors is just off the Old Coach Road trailhead. Known as Smash Palace after the 1970s movie starring Bruno Lawrence, it’s an auto repair business and sprawling vehicle graveyard. The Motor Trade Association aptly describes it as “a tourist destination, a movie set, a museum, a haven for automotive restoration enthusiasts, and a place where the past is slowly disintegrating.” Anyone for a “name, make and model” game?

Horopito Motors, aka Smash Palace, where rust never sleeps.  Photo / Sarah Bennett
Horopito Motors, aka Smash Palace, where rust never sleeps. Photo / Sarah Bennett

HAZARDS AND PRECAUTIONS

The Old Coach Road is no child’s play. While it’s not particularly long or remote, some rickety cobblestones, a weird puddle, and a few short, twisty climbs give it a level 3 (intermediate) rating, so only go if you’re used to riding off road.

CYCLING CITY ASSESSMENT

Turnip and See: There's more to Ohakune than just carrots.  Photo / Sarah Bennett
Turnip and See: There’s more to Ohakune than just carrots. Photo / Sarah Bennett

The O is no longer just about snow. Now the hub of the Mountains to Sea trails – with plenty of bike rental and shuttle services – it’s transformed into an all-season adventure town with an eye on the prize. I’m looking for quieter trails around town please, but the game changer will be Te Ara Mangawhero down Tūroa. Bring it on.

CHECKLIST: RUAPEHU

Start planning at Visit Ruapehu;

Mountains to Sea Cycle Ngā Ara Tūhono Trail

For more travel inspiration, visit newzealand.com/nz.

Check traffic light settings and Department of Health advice before traveling at covid19.govt.nz