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The St James Cycle Trail is one of the more challenging of the Great Rides, but is a nice way to get off the beaten track and into the incredible high country scenery of the area. Surrounded by the publicly owned St James Station words such as vast, desolate, isolated and untouched spring to mind, and yet it's only 10 kilometres from the tourist haven of Hanmer Springs.
The trail can be done in a single day for fit and experienced riders, but with several basic huts and camping facilities along the route, it is more common to split it into two days. There is also the opportunity to make the ride a complete loop by adding on a 26 km ride up the gravel Tophouse Road, alongside the Clarence River, or even ride all the way from Hanmer Springs which adds a further 10 km.
The mid-section of the trail is isolated and rough in places so bring plenty of spare tubes.
Maling Pass Entrance to Pool Hut (41 km)
From the car park at Tophouse Rd the trail is signposted. It starts with a meandering trail undulating through the high country grazing land, leaving you wondering what all the fuss is about. Lake Tennyson is on the right but mostly out of sight. It is not long before you begin a decent climb up Malings Pass of about 250 vertical metres as the trail threads its way through the pass and around Mount Stanley. The trail is wide and easy riding, bar the climbing. The descent however is much steeper and will have most riders' brakes burning with a number of deep runoff trenches to be navigated to avoid going over the handlebars. The sections through the native beech forest will have you hooting and hollering with joy.
As you come down the hill the Waiau River sprawls its way across the valley floor. The 4WD trail makes way for newly developed wide single track through scrub, matagouri, and tussock. After 17 km from the trail start you will come to the turn off to Lake Guyon on the left and Lake Guyon Hut, 2.5 km from the main trail. This is the end of the section of the trail classified as intermediate and the beginning of the advanced riding.
From the Lake Guyon turnoff you need to be keeping a sharp eye out for the blue DOC markers showing the trail. In many places the trail is not necessarily well defined and you will find yourself riding over grassy fields or navigating through tussock or matagouri where you could easily pick up a cattle trail and head off in the wrong direction. The track from Lake Guyon to the Saddle Spur swing bridge, the first of two newly developed bridges over the Waiau River, is flowing and great riding. Although the bridge at Saddle Spur marks roughly the halfway mark the ride gets much harder from here and subsequently the second half will take you much longer.
Immediately after crossing the Saddle Spur swing bridge you are faced with a 20 to 30 minute granny gear grind and bike carrying climb up over Saddle Spur. Follow the blue markers as you zigzag up a grassy field where there is no actual trail before an obvious track sidles its way round the spur. There are times where the trail narrows to not much more than a goat track and the steep fall to the left of you makes it pretty unrideable for most riders. Once over Saddle Spur and down the tricky descent the trail once again opens out weaving it's way through a forest of tyre munching Matagouri trees. You will ride right past Pool Hut which is very welcoming for a cup of tea, lunch or an overnight stop.
Pool Hut to St James Homestead (25 km)
Once again you cross over the roaring Waiau River, this time on the Macarthur swing bridge. Be cautious on the decent immediately after crossing the bridge - it is steep and rocky. The hardest part of the ride is however behind you.
After Macarthurs Bridge the trail becomes fast and smooth 4wd and farm track that almost fools you into thinking that it is all plain sailing home. It's not until you get a good kilometer or two of bone crunching river bed with boulders the size of small buildings to navigate through and a nasty climb up over Peters Pass after a long time in the saddle. Three of four switchbacks will have your legs and lungs pushed to the limit.
Once at the top as they say, it's all downhill from here. The trail proper turns right at the sign onto old farm trails into Peter's Valley and onto St James Homestead. Alternatively if the legs and mind are weary the 4wd Edwards Valley road provides a quick relatively smooth descent back to Tophouse Rd and a few kilometers to the Homestead. For those riding back to the starting car park it might be easiest to take the Edwards Valley Rd down to Tophouse Rd, saving you 4 or 5 kilometers.
Whether taken as an epic one day ride or staggered over a few days (with possible overnights in Lake Guyon, Pool or Scotties Huts or other camping possibilities) the St James Cycle Trail will surely become recognised as one of New Zealand's greatest mountain bike rides. It is truly a magnificent adventure and made all the better that the therapeutic Hanmer Spring's hot pools are around the corner to soak away the bumps and bruises.
Approximate distances and St James Cycle Trail ride times:
|Distance||Approximate Ride time|
|Maling Pass entrance car park to 4WD track end||12km||1 - 1.5 hours|
|4WD track end to Lake Guyon Junction||4.5km||30 - 40 mins|
|Lake Guyon junction to Lake Guyon Hut||2.5km||20 mins|
|Lake Guyon junction to Saddle Spur Bridge||11km||45 mins - 1.5 hours|
|Saddle Spur Bridge to Pool Hut||7km||1 - 1.5 hours|
|Pool Hut to Charlies Saddle||5.3km||30 - 60 mins|
|Charlies Saddle to Scotties Hut||5.3km||30 - 60 mins|
|Scotties Hut to Peters Pass junction||10km||30 mins - 1.5 hours|
|Peters Pass junction to St James Homestead||7km||15 - 30 mins|