Waikato River Trails

Lester Perry | Mon 11th Jan 2021 11:52

The Christmas/New Year break is great and when the sun is shining it’s an awesome opportunity to get out and explore some of our awesome country. Having been away camping for a week with the family and with the return to work looming I grabbed the final free morning to explore an area that is literally in my backyard (more or less), a section of the Waikato River Trails.

The Waikato River Trails are 105km of trail winding through the South Waikato, winding from Karapiro south, all the way to Taupo.

A 5am wake up is never easy but after hitting snooze a couple of times, the allure of the unknown, and the knowledge that the weather forecast later in the morning was not looking great, finally got me up and going. Porridge, berries, yogurt, coffee and out the door. With all my food and bike and gear packed the night before, the transition from asleep in bed, to driving out the driveway took all of 20 minutes.

My mission for the day was a ride from Waipapa Dam (just 45 minutes from home) to Whakamaru Dam, via Mangakino. My weapon of choice was an old cyclocross bike I’ve had built up in various forms over the last 8 years. Although the Trails are advertised as “mountain bike tracks'' the narrow tyres, drop bars and lack of suspension were only a disadvantage a few times and meant riding some sections with caution rather than near-reckless abandonment, the entirety of the trails would be ideal aboard a Hardtail Mountainbike.

The day began at the Waipapa Dam.

The Waipapa dam has enough car parking for roughly 10 vehicles, and a few hundred meters further south on Waipapa road are more parks and a Toilet. I parked up right at the Dam, jumped on the bike and headed off.

Early morning lake vibes, and damp bush trail.

To begin with, the trail meanders along beside the road, ducking in and out of the bush. Not far in the trail begins its first climb up, right beside the road then ducks back in beside the lake. This section of trail is graded as “Advanced” by the Waikato River Trails standards. Due to the nature of the terrain and the scale of earthworks involved with the trail building through here, there are some steep pinches to get up in areas where it would be near impossible to build a mellower grade with switchback corners to ease the pinch. Grinding up and over some of these hills was a task, and with the temperature warming up as the day got going, it was super muggy - leading me to wonder if I’d brought enough fluid to drink!

Emerging from the shaded pines, onto perfect gravel road.

A couple of the descents kept me on my toes, with some careful line choice needed to avoid the ruts and rocks, particularly with the narrow tyres of my ‘cross bike. Compared to the rest of my route this section was less groomed and somewhat unkempt compared to the more southern trails. From the short sharp up’s and down’s you head into pine forest a couple of times, rolling on either a gravel road or pine-needle blanketed vehicle track, there’s even a short section of single track thrown in to keep things spicy.

Popping out at the Maraetai dam I stopped for a look around, a quick snack on a Clif bar and a look at some of the damn construction relics from back when the dams in the area were being constructed.

Dam construction relics & the road to the Mangakino lake edge.

From Maraetai Dam to Mangakino it’s a 3.5km section on the road, it’s a bummer to be off the trails and on a stretch of road with almost no shoulder, but at least it’s largely pretty quiet and I didn’t see a single car. Mangakino was just starting its day as I rolled into town and down the road to the lake edge. Keen runners and dog walkers were out and about, and a small queue was forming at the Bus Stop Cafe meters from the lake. No time for coffee, I wanted to get into the Mangakino - Whakamaru section of trail before the other trail users and get a clear run at the trail.

Stunning views everywhere!

The next 12km section of trail is graded “Intermediate”, I can only assume it’s been graded as this due to a couple of narrow sections and few small hills. Reality is this trail is almost a footpath, and a majority of it has a nice crushed rock surface - perfect on a cyclocross or Gravel bike. There are a few things of note on the trail, one is the Suspension Bridge halfway in, and the others are the epic lake views, at times I was having to remind myself to watch where I was going as I caught glimpses of the view through gaps in the trees - what a spot!

Popping out of the bush and onto the road for the last few hundred meters to the Whakamaru Dam, a quick scout around, some Clif Blocks and I was on the mission to trace my tyre tracks back to my car - with a quick stop at the Bus Stop Cafe for an overly hot long black on the way.

Whakamaru Dam and the Bus Stop Cafe.

From what I’ve seen of the Waikato River Trails they’re suitable for the entire spectrum of rider - I’d suggest doing some research and looking over the maps and advice on the Waikato River Trails website, then choose a route you know you can handle, in both grading and distance, then next time add on extra length or a higher grading. If you’re within easy driving distance of Mangakino I’d recommend the leg south to Whakamaru for riders who’re totally new to riding trails, and if you’re fitter and more skilled there’s nothing stopping you linking a few (or all) sections of trail together for a big day out.

Check out the Waikato River Trails website for more information.

About the author:

Lester Perry

Lester has been riding and racing bikes of all sorts since his early years. Kicking off the two-wheeled experience on a BMX, then moving on to Mountain Biking (back when one bike did it all). Lester dabbled in Road, and Track racing along the journey. His main focus has been on racing Enduro since 2013, but all the different types of bike in the shed still get used from time to time. Lester is part of the Marketing team at EVO and has been in the bike industry most of his life.

Instagram: @lesterperrynz

Gear used on this trip:

Camelbak Chase Bike 1.5L Hydration Vest
A lightweight hydration pack with enough storage for all your essentials. Stays put even over the rough stuff, and is very breathable.

Vittoria Terreno Dry G2.0 CX / Gravel Tyres
Surprising grip from such a low profile knobbed tyre. Rolls along on really well on gravel, dirt and road.

Clif Bar - Chocolate Brownie
Clif Bloks Energy Chews - Margarita
Clif Shot Energy Gel - Double Expresso With 100mg Caffeine
Clif bars, blocks and gels are the ultimate fuel for your adventures. Small items packing a big energy punch, no need to fill your bag with lots of regular food to keep you fueled.

Kask Valegro Road Helmet
Super lightweight, breathable, great fitting and safe. Not your usual looking helmet but this has become one of my faves.

Shimano Deore XT PD-M8100 XC SPD Pedals
A positive engagement and a nice “firm'' feel when clipped in for maximum power transfer and control. A big step up from my previous Shimano M520’s I've been running for years until getting these XT versions.

Blackburn Dayblazer 800 & 65 Light Set
Safety first, safety second. Even during the day, if I’m riding on the road I’ll have lights on my bike so traffic knows I’m there.