Old Ghost Road

Durand Coldicott | Mon 10th Apr 2023 14:36

The Old Ghost Road is a 85 km long mountain bike trail located in the North West corner of the South Island of New Zealand. It traverses through the remote wilderness connecting the old dray road in the Lyell (Upper Buller Gorge) to the mighty Mokihinui River in the North. This challenging ride ventures through rugged West Coast landscapes, traversing dense native forest, alpine environments, river flats and deep West Coast valleys.

In 2007, an old surveying map showing a forgotten gold miners road reached the hands of the right people. It presented an 1870’s ‘road’ connecting the remote Lyell Range in the Upper Buller Gorge with the Seddonville Gold Fields at the end of the mighty Mokihinui River in the north. A small group excitedly set off to explore the road to see if it still existed and whether it could be restored to its former glory. As it turned out, the majority of the trail hadn’t been constructed, and what had been constructed required significant maintenance to reopen. Nonetheless, a group of volunteers began the project to resurrect what would later be known as the Old Ghost Road.

In the beginning this group of volunteers had envisaged constructing a tramping track, but The New Zealand Cycle Trail project (Nga Haerenga) was born conveniently at the same time the project was starting to gain traction. Off the heels of the GFC in 2008, the government was looking for ways it could boost employment and growth in regional New Zealand. The New Zealand Cycle Trail project offered significant funding to kickstart construction of ‘Great Rides’ across New Zealand, The Old Ghost Road was one of 22 projects selected at the time. That investment, combined with the generosity of a number of organisations, 100’s of volunteers and a legendary amount of back-breaking trail-building work, saw the 85 km trail completed and opened to the public in 2015.

Moving forward 8 years to the present, and my first visit to the Old Ghost Road. We set out as a group of four to ride the trail in two days from South to North, stopping overnight at Ghost Lake Hut. This is a common itinerary for people riding the track in two days, but many people ride it in 3-4 days as there are huts evenly spread across its length.

The weather was poor at best for our weekend, but spirits were high and the sense of adventure was real. The first 25 km is uphill, gaining around 1,200m in elevation at a reasonably gentle grade. However, with overnight gear loaded up, it’s still really hard work. As we pedalled up, the rain refused to let up, soaking us as we rode and turning the hillside into a constant stream of waterfalls and fords. Despite the rain, the trail remained perfectly rideable, a real credit to how well it has been constructed.

Lyell Saddle Hut. 875m above sea level and a great spot for lunch.

We reached Ghost Lake Hut after about five and a half hours on trail, soaked through ready to warm up in front of the fire. Huts on the trail are some of the finest in the NZ backcountry, the cost to stay in one is high relative to other huts in the DOC network, but when you consider what it took to make the trail, it seems like a small price to pay to have access to the area. Many of the huts on the trail are serviced with compostable toilets, firewood and gas cooking facilities. There is even cell reception in a number of spots along the trail's length.

After Ghost Lake hut comes the fun. 20km of descent ranging from advanced grade 4-5 trail with stomach turning exposure to flowing grade 3 native single track. This is one of the main reasons the trail comes so highly regarded - it is hard to beat a well made trail in the alpine. The views are incredible, the remoteness is ever present and the feeling of scale really hits home.

An hour or two later, you’ve reached the Stern Valley Hut and the bottom of the first major descent. From here, you have a stunning native forest ride as you pedal towards arguably the most spectacular landscape on the trail - the Boneyard. The Boneyard is an unnerving place to ride a bike, where a field of historic earthquake debris features massive boulders the size of houses strewn across the mountain side. The trail zig-zags upwards through the Boneyard where the mind can’t help but think how crazy it would have been to see this landscape form during that earthquake as half the mountain fell apart!

After the Boneyard climb, you reach Solemn Saddle, the high point of the final major climb on the trail and the start of a very fun stretch of grade 3 flowing single track down to Goat Creek Hut. After the descent you are immersed in a towering podocarp forest with a fern-covered floor; a very peaceful place to ride a bike. This stretch of trail continues through to Specimen Point Hut which sits high above the Mohikinui’s surging white waters. This would be an excellent place to spend another night on trail, it is a fantastic hut.

The entrance to the 'Boneyard'. Torrential rain and limited visibility for our visit.

Specimen Point Hut through to the Northern Trailhead is the final stretch on the Old Ghost Road. At only 17 km in length you would be forgiven in thinking it's a quick ride out and the highlights of the trail are behind you. Don’t be fooled. The last last leg hugs the side of an impressive gorge, with the trail cut into the rock face cliffs in places, it crosses bridged streams including the unsettlingly named Suicide Slips, and passes by the occasional gold mining relic. There is plenty of exposure, incredible views and history along this stretch of trail and a very memorable way to end your journey.

Who is the trail for?

Disclaimer, The Old Ghost Road won’t be for everyone. This is a demanding undertaking and should only be attempted if you are a competent rider, with a good level of fitness and a good quality mountain bike. A well maintained mountain bike is absolutely essential, as are carrying tools and having good mechanical skills. It is a backcountry trail with numerous hazards and not the place to venture if you are underprepared.

In saying that, if you do tick the boxes above, this is absolutely a bucket list trip. There is nothing quite like it in New Zealand and it’s a true mountain biking adventure across a really remote section of wilderness.

Distance: 85 km

Elevation Gain: 1,850m

Time: Allow 2 - 4 days

Grade: Advanced

Terrain: Alpine / Wilderness

Location: West Coast, South Island

More information

About the authors:

Durand Coldicott

Durand is the eCommerce leader at Evo Cycles, heading up the website team for the business. He has been in the outdoor industry for the past decade and riding bikes for about the same amount of time. A keen mountain biker, trail runner and hiker, Durand moved to Nelson in late 2019 to have better access to the outdoors. 

Instagram: @durand.nz