With the summer drawing to a close, I was keen to try get another bikepacking adventure in before it got too cold and the days too short for extended riding and had my eye on completing the West Coast Wilderness Trail, a route I’d heard only positive things about. If the West Coast is famous for anything, it’s for torrential rain, so blocking a weekend to ride this a month out always had a sense of trepidation that it might be either a sodden couple of days or worse case, a complete washout. In the end, we were blessed with absolutely epic, postcard weather as you will see.

The full trail map is available online here and you can download and print a more detailed PDF version here.

The Wilderness Trail in red

Getting There

From Christchurch Airport, it’s a relatively straight forward drive of just over 3hrs to the start point in Greymouth. Given you literally traverse the entire width of then South Island and travel through alpine passes, it’s definitely worth checking the forecast and that the road is open before you head off. We encountered some mist and drizzle as went past Castle Hill and Arthur’s Pass:

Low hanging cloud and mist obscured the mountains at some points
Cloud hannging over the Waimakariri River as we passed over it

Day 1 – Greymouth to Lake Kaniere (via Kumara Junction)

We were fortunate to be able to park our car up the driveway of a friend, and then loaded up the bikes and had a short 2km bike ride to the riverfront where the trail officially started. With bright blue skies, we were in for a treat for the entire day on the weather front.

The start of the trail – my bike on the left.
Looking up the Grey River in the direction we would head off – an almost windless day.

The trail initially meanders along the riverfront before hitting a coastal trail with the wild Tasman Sea visible in all it’s majestic beauty:

One of the real features of this entire trail was the numerous rivers that we crossed, running from high up in the alps, and coursing their way down to the sea. Some were small, many were large and required significant bridges to cross:

Aside from the weather, the West Coast is also known for the regeneration of the rain forest that is taking place. The Wilderness Trail took full advantage of this, routing through some stunning paths amongst the bush:

As were about to enter Kumara, we passed over the “Kumara Chasm Bridge” and the name certainly lived up to the billing – the photos don’t really do justice to the gouge in the earth and the height of the bridge across it:

Looking down into the Chasm from the swing bridge
A view out to the Taramakau River

Lunch was a quick stop in the historic Kumara Junction township and it was here that I suggested a quick detour off the main route towards the Kumara Cemetery. It was 2.5km off the track, but did have a spicy climb on gravel to get the legs warmed up for what was to come and we spent 20mins wandering around amongst the history. A lot of children died young and numerous parents outlived their entire families, providing further evidence that settler childhood was not easy to survive. As with many old cemeteries in New Zealand, many of those buried there were born overseas, notably Ireland.

I liked this headstone and the historical connections to Patrick’s forebears: it certainly makes it easier to trace family history when it contains this sort of data!

Back on the trail and heading out of Kumara Junction the slow and steady climbing kicked in and the incredible views continued to unfold:

The evidence of the importance (and prevalence) of water on the West Coast was everywhere: from huge reservoirs to flowing rivers with weirs trying to harness the power and energy potential:

Despite all the abundance of water, and having drunk 3.5L already myself, I did start to feel the affects of the heat and some dehydration and was pretty cooked physically by the time we reached the summit at Kawhaka Pass at 317m. It was not particularly high, or even major ascents, but it reminded me when you get the fuelling and hydration wrong, the journey becomes that much harder!

With the colourfully named “Cowboy Junction” closed for business, we stopped for a quick video and photo before heading down to the Arahura river to refuel our water supplies:

The Arahura river below was where we headed next to fill the water bottles

An immensely enjoyable descent to the river through some of the best scenery I’ve ridden in followed from Cowboy Paradise and it was lovely to stop by the cool, clear water in the Arahura river and refill out bottles. Knowing there was only one more short, sharp climb before Lake Kaniere and the campsite for the night it was nice to just soak in the scenery.

The pristine Arahura River

It’s fair to say I was the last one to camp after grinding up the climb followed by a short descent into Hans Bay on the shores of Lake Kaniere. We stayed at the Department of Conservation campsite for NZD$10/person and it was absolutely stunning. Not knowing what to expect, I thought it would be the usual small and modest campground on the shores of a lake. It was surprisingly busy with lots of caravans and motorhomes taking advantage of the incredible late summer weather.

The sunset was absolutely breathtaking with no wind and warm temperatures even at 9pm. An intrepid stand up paddle boarder (SUP) was equipped with a thermometer and told me the water was 21 degrees!

Sunset over Lake Kaniere

Various images of the sun setting over Lake Kaniere

With the campsite set up and dinner cooked, it was time to relax and enjoy the location after a wonderful 85km ride in. Here’s the Strava route:

Day 2 – Lake Kaniere to Ross (via Hokitika)

A relatively warm, still night with no rain dawned into a morning with a few clouds around and a heavy dew. Setting down tents and a quick breakfast done, we were on the road shortly after 8am and into more native bush trails:

There was some wonderful flowing mostly downhill trails that we all agreed would be fun to do without loaded bikes and as single direction tracks only. Combined with this were a few sections on the road where we were able to bump up the average speed, helped by general downhill direction to the coast we were heading in.

In a short time, we were pulling into the historic Hokitika for a “second breakfast” that was welcomed and enjoyable with some added humour and confusion when the young waitress asked us if we would like “souvenirs” with our cutlery when she served breakfast. Perplexed by this apparent “upsell” attempt, we declined, only later realising she likely meant “serviettes” which would have been welcomed indeed!

Concluding breakfast we ambled around the block on our bikes for the obligatory beach shots:

The Tasman Sea looking very calm indeed outside Hokitika
The iconic driftwood sign of Hokitika
The same shot but populated by smelly bikepackers!

We cycled lazily along in the warm sun, stomachs full from a big breakfast, towards the Hokitika River mouth, a patch of water with a notorious reputation but was appearing calm and fine on this Sunday morning. We could see the back of Mt Cook / Aoraki gleaming with snow in the distance as well. Here are two photos of the same stretch of water – the first on the left at the rivermouth looking towards the road bridge and the mountains, the one on the right on the roadbridge looking back towards the river mouth:

With less than 30km to go to reach our finishing point at Ross, we enjoyed the scenery, the bush and the comaradery:

Riding south towards Ross amongst regenerated bush

Following one long, straight (and rather boring) trail along an old railway line that threw the first head wind of the entire ride our way, we arrived in Ross and the destination:

Alan, myself, and Craig at the finish line

With a pre-booked shuttle for 2pm, we had around 90mins to get a bit of food in the shade and recount our favourite parts of the trail. Here’s the Strava route:

Final Thoughts:

I left home on my bike at 6am on Saturday morning to catch the shared car ride to the West Coast and returned at 7pm Sunday evening. For a relatively short 37hrs it felt like I was in a different world, enjoying exercise, friendship and a truly stunning environment that seemed to get better at every corner. Many of these places I’ve been to before, but never by bike, and Lake Kaniere was a first for me (and oh, what a treasure that was!).

Travelling by bike simply offers a different perspective and whilst similar to tramping, allows you to cover more ground in a short period of time. The Trust that has built the Wilderness Trail has done a truly incredible job at it and we were all happy to donate to the upkeep and maintenance when we finished it.

Perhaps what impressed me was the wide range of ages and types of bikes on it. From truly self-supported bikepackers like ourselves, to kids doing only one segment at a time with mates, to others on eBikes and supported by your operators, the trail was busy and being enjoyed by all. I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in an adventure. We did 132km in around 24hrs in total, but I know others have done it over four days, soaking in the scenery and side adventures on offer.