Four Days in Taupo
By Paul Smith
Our trip to Taupo was a long weekend away—four days, including travel to and from Wellington. We planned to ride a wide variety of trails: the Craters MTB Park-Wairakei Forest; Te Iringa, an old hunting route through remote Kaimanawa beech forest; the newly constructed Great Lake Trail; and, to break up the journey home, Tree Trunk Gorge, a track through volcanic plateau forest.
Craters MTB Park-Wairakei Forest was a great start to the weekend and welcome relief after a half-day car journey.
We were staying in the centre of Taupo and could ride onto the connecting Rotary trail almost from our door. This trail was a lot of fun—dry, dusty and unexpectedly hilly—perfect to shake out our legs. It follows the Waikato River to Huka Falls, where riders can cross under the highway to access the Craters forest trails. Once in the forest it is easy to get lost amongst the twists and turns. The monotony of pine forest offers no clues to direction, while the immersive nature of the whooping and flowing trails ensures riders are focused on the ride, not their direction. It is a very different experience to Whakarewarewa—more intense and exhausting. We had little more than an hour of evening sun, but managed to spend twice that in the forest, chasing each other around, giggling like kids. We returned along the Rotary ride, exhausted, in fading light.
Te Iringa is an hour's drive out of Taupo in the Kaimanawa Forest Park. It is an old Māori route through the Forest, now used mainly by hunters and a few mountain bikers searching for pristine beech forest single-track. We planned an out-and-back trip, turning around at a riverside lunch stop. Te Iringa trail continues on to a hut, which makes a perfect two-day out-and-back adventure for those with more time. Route finding is easy, there is only one trail to follow. After a kilometre of beautifully undulating single track through native beech forest, the trail climbs relentlessly towards Te Iringa peak. From the first rest stop near the top, the site of the old Te Iringa hut, the trail traverses around the peak, clinging precariously to the hillside, offering exposure and magnificent glimpses of beech-clad mountains. The riding was challenging, to say the least: the easy parts were rideable with care and concentration, but much of the traverse required bikes to be hauled around slips and over fallen trees. But what a descent as a reward: 20 minutes of pure beech-leaf covered single-track. Fast and flowing, yet technical and unnerving—this is what mountain biking in New Zealand is all about. Lunch was well-earned. The 'back' trip wasn't dissimilar to the 'out': the opening climb was a slog; the traverse was just as slow, technical and frustrating; and the final descent was astounding—the roots, chutes and drops that made the initial climb so tough made the descent something else altogether. It was nearly all rideable by those with decent skills and a gung-ho attitude. It was an exhilarating, life-affirming buzz from start to finish. We exchanged high-fives back at our cars, all exhausted from a draining and uplifting day in some of New Zealand’s most spectacular forest.
After the intensity of the previous day, our Sunday ride along the Great Lake Trail was a welcome change. We anticipated a relatively undramatic, but fun ride along a picturesque, purpose-built grade three trail, with ample time to stop for lunch and coffee. And that's what we got. Our ride started with a shuttle to the trail end on Whangamata Road, where we'd follow the Orakau, K2K and W2K trails for 40 kilometres through Kinloch, before riding the road back into town. The trail was wide with a smooth hard-packed surface, flowing corners, manageable climbs and fun descents. As a grade three trail with no surprises, it would be great for MTB novices and it was a big bag of laughs for us—a group of more experienced riders. The views across Lake Taupo were stunning, and lunch in Kinloch was well worth the extended stop. We arrived back in Taupo, after a quiet road ride (albeit into a stiff headwind), tired and satisfied with a relaxing day on the Great Lake Trail.
On our journey back home, we turned off the barren Desert Road onto Tree Trunk Gorge Road and parked up at a remote trailhead on the forest edge. The overwhelming feeling of this Tree Trunk Gorge ride was of unexpected delight. I'd driven past the turn-off countless times, each time muttering about stopping and riding that trail one day. I'm so pleased I finally did. The trail is spectacular: traversing a landscape that feels ancient and other-worldly, but also decidedly 'New Zealand'. It isn't too tough, with manageable gradients and a good surface. Yet, despite its grooming, it is incredibly remote, travelling through gnarled old forest, under rough rock bluffs, across pure streams, and ending with a swingbridge over a dramatic canyon. It is short and sweet, so we ended by making it into a loop—riding out of the forest through the scrub of the high plateau and ending with a short stint along the Desert Road. This sealed detour brought a final unexpected delight—a crossing of Tree Trunk Gorge itself, a deep narrow canyon filled by a thundering river.
Our four days in and around Taupo demonstrated the diversity of riding in the region. We experienced everything from purpose-built Grade 3 trails with expansive lake and river views, through to Grade 5+ routes through immense old forests. Each was worthy of our time and effort, each rewarded us in its own way, all together they reminded us of the beauty, challenge and appeal of mountain biking.