Old Ghost Road, New Zealand
52 Mi.(84 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Montana trims his nose hairs with safety scissors, because they’re less dangerous to nostrils than pointy scissors. He learned to ride mountain bikes on some slag piles outside of Pittsburgh, and has since ridden in more scenic places. When he’s not touring with his tiny wife, he lives in a van down by the river between the Pennsylvania and West Virginia border. He writes other things on dirtcruise.com.
The best long single track ride in New Zealand, the Old Ghost Road starts deep in dense, mossy and gnarled native bush and slowly climbs up to a misty high alpine ridge line, passing dozens of waterfalls along the way.
Up high, there’s tight single track, exposure on trail that’s been painstakingly blasted into hard granite, all followed by a ripping descent with sharp switchbacks where you’d better stay on target.
The trail is based on a route that was surveyed for a mining road in the late 1800s, when a gold rush swept through New Zealand. After finding the antique map, the trail’s founders discovered that some of the single track was ready to go— and the rest was hacked in over the years using a combination of trail building machines, dynamite, helicopters, gravel crushers, and hand tools.
It’s an impressive piece of work, the grades are all consistent and mellow, making it one of the most rideable backcountry trails around.
The trail has a swanky system of huts (with fully equipped kitchens), campsites, and helipads. So all styles of ride, from a standard self-supported bikepack, to a multi-day cruise with helicopter food drops, are all possible. Wherever you camp, you’re likely to be visited by wekas, one of New Zealand’s prehistoric-looking native birds. The wekas are famous thieves- so don’t leave anything outside that you don’t want to walk away.
For a two-day ride, the campsite at the end of the first climb at Ghost Lake, is a killer place to stay. It’s cool, comfortable, and has a phenomenal view. The lower elevation campsites are plagued by sandflies- if planning to camp there, it would be a good idea to reserve a spot in one of the huts instead.
The trail ends in Seddonville, an old coal mining town. The pub is the only business in town, but after this epic ride, it’s all you’ll need.
- A well-done mix of tight single track, exposure, views, waterfalls and dense bush.
- The campsite at the end of the first climb at Ghost Lake, is a killer place to stay.
- A swanky system of huts (with fully equipped kitchens), campsites, and helipads.
- Getting robbed by wekas, one of New Zealand’s prehistoric-looking native birds.
- This is a big, backcountry singletrack ride. But compared with North American routes like the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail, the Old Ghost Road is pretty easy going. The surface is well maintained and consistent.
- The trail is maintained by the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust. Make a donation if you liked the ride.
- Book huts and campsites well in advance.
- Be ready for high alpine conditions, although the trail tops out at 4300 feet, conditions are similar to what you’d find above 11,000 feet in North America.
- The weather is unpredictable – New Zealand is a small, mountainous island that’s battered by arctic wind. Puffy coats and rain jackets required.
- If it rains, the trail can be muddy, and the descents will be much more technical when wet.
- Lower campsites are full of sandflies. Bring long sleeves or repellent.
- Five huts and campsites along the route – Lyell Saddle, Ghost Lake, Stern Valley, Goat Creek, and Specimen Point. The huts have water, a kitchen, composting toilets, and bunks. They’re beautiful spots. If you want to stay in a hut, book at least a month in advance at www.oldghostroad.org.nz/bookings/. Tent sites are also available at the huts, and are less popular with local riders (so they don’t take as much planning to get a spot).
- Lyell Campground at the trailhead is a good place to start a trip, the Seddonville Holiday Park at the other end is cheap and has showers.
- Water is available at all the huts, there’s also plenty of filterable surface water on the route.
- No food on route, the closest town to the Lyell start is Murchison, 30 miles away.
- The Seddonville Hotel in Seddonville has good burgers and cheap beer.
Make it a Loop
Another popular option is to loop it from Westport. To do this use the shaded red line on Open Cycle Maps (shown in GPX embed). This utilizes some gravel, additional singletrack, the Charming Creek Walkway, and a stretch of coastal pavement to bring it to around 111 miles (179km).
Notes from established trail:
From the Lyell Campground, start the long climb up to Lyell Saddle, then continue to Ghost Lake. With 3900 feet of elevation gain, this climb will take most (or all) of the first day. But it’s sweet riding- non-technical, and the grade is the most consistent and mellow that you’ll ever find on backcountry singletrack.
At about 3500 feet, the trail leaves the bush and heads into the alpine zone above tree line. The trail here has been blasted into the side of a granite ridge, and it’s rocky and tricky in spots. A mistake here could be fatal.
Traverse the last ridge to the Ghost Lake hut. This is a good spot to camp if you’re doing the trail in two days. The views are killer, and it’s sandfly-free (sandflies can be unbearable in many areas of the South Island). After sunset, Murchison is visible way down in the valley below.
If you’ve got the skills, the descent from Ghost Lake is fantastic. It starts on a boardwalk in the bush, then drops steeply down a series of incredibly tight switchbacks on the side of a cliff. Rip through some muddy, rooty trail, then a steep climb up to Skyline Ridge. The ridge is more tight, technical riding, which finally ends at the Skyline Steps.
If you’re not comfortable with extremely tight switchbacks and exposure, don’t underestimate how long this section will take. It’s much more difficult riding than the rest of the trail. If you make it to Ghost Lake late in the afternoon, don’t try to continue to the next hut that day.
The Skyline Steps are the only unridable portion of the trail. With a loaded bike, they’re hard enough to walk. Saddle on the shoulder is the easiest way to go. A couple hundred vertical feet down, and the trail opens up again. It’s rolling, machine-built cruising the rest of the way to Seddonville.