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The Heaphy Track is often regarded as one of New Zealand’s greatest multi-day walks – beginning in May of this year, the Heaphy Track will again be opened to mountain bikers. Arguably one of the New Zealand’s most spectacular multi-day rides, the Heaphy Track takes in the top of the South Island over 78 kilometers of remote, backcountry bliss.
The track has been used for hundreds of years – first by Maoris traveling to the West Coast to collect pounamu. Years later in the mid 1800’s, the pack track was born in its more or less current form as gold prospectors traveled the region. In the years following the gold rush, the track became overgrown and was seldom used by trampers. When the North West Nelson Forest park was formed in 1965, the trail again became frequented by trampers and mountain bikers.
In the 80s and 90s, the Heaphy Track was a must-do for anyone after a remote backcountry adventure. In the final year the track was open to bikers, it’s expected upwards of 2,000 mountain bikers rode the trail. Alas, when the park became part of the Kahurangi National Park, mountain bikers were banned.
Years of campaigning has now given way to a three year trial period where the Heaphy is open to mountain bikers from May – September.
Kahurangi National Park is renowned for its diverse range of landscapes. Over the course of your two or three day ride, 78 km ride, you’ll pass ancient beech forests, barren alpine tussock, and the rugged, windswept and nikau palm dotted coastline of the West Coast. Expect giant rata trees, limestone caves, rushing rivers (with trusty swing bridges) and expansive views of the north of the West Coast. Best of all, you’ll experience these varying landscapes on a fantastic single track trail.
The Heaphy Track is mostly considered an intermediate Grade 3+. It’s crucial to remember that you’ll be in remote (and stunning) backcountry. You’ll have to carry all of your gear and prepared for bitterly cold nights. The cold and potential wet weather can easily knock the ride up to a Grade 4 – so at 78 kms, it’s essential you go in prepared with heaps of food, a well tuned bike, plenty of tools, spare tubes, thermal blankets and a first aid kit.
Fit and experienced bikers can do the Heaphy Track in two days while less experienced should take three days. There is no reason to rush as the terrain is a blast and the scenery is unbeatable. Remember as well that you’ll have at most 9 hours of daylight over the winter month.
In an effort to protect the trail, groups of bikers must be 6 or less.
Accommodation along the trail is in DOC managed huts (named below). These quiaint but basic huts sleep a varying number of trampers or cyclists with bunk style accommodation, flushing toilets, gas cookers and coal fires. Bookings are essential through the DOC website at $30 per night.
Heaphy Track Description
NZbyBike recommends riding from East – West and finishing in the epic West Coast town of Karamea, though it’s a rewarding ride in either direction. As it's a coast-to-cost ride, you'll have to sort out transportation from either end. Escape Adventures is offering guided trips on the Heaphy Track as well as transportation from either end. Jim from Remote Adventures is offering a flight service.
The ride is outlined here with distances and expected time between huts – use this as a gauge to determine where you’ll spend the night.
Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut
Distance: 17.5 km Time: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
The Heaphy Track starts with a climb through dense Beech forest to the Perry Saddle. While the climb is gentle, it’s also persistent! A great way to get your legs warmed up for the coming days of riding. From the Brown Hut, you’ll head upstream about 200 metres before crossing a bridge over the Brown River and finding the track that leads up and into the bush.
You’ll have some great views towards the top of the Aorere Valley stretching northwards. On a clear day, it’s possible to see Mt Taranaki on the North Island. Just before the Perry Saddle Hut, a track leads to a viewpoint at Flanagans Corner – this is the highest point of the track at 915 metres.
Perry Saddle to Saxon Hut
Distance: 12.4 kms Time: 2 – 3 hours
From the Perry Saddle, you’ll pass through tussock and more patches of beech forest. It’s a quick cruisy downhill on a quad bike track to Gouland Downs. The valley will begin to widen and reveal the open downs stretching out to the west. Gouland Downs Hut has 8 bunks and a massive open fireplace for those that decide to spend the night here.
Continuing on to Saxton Hut (another 5kms), it’s generally flat as you pass the northern part of Gouland downs with its tussock and winding riverbeds. Saxon Hut, which sleeps 16, is the newest on the track and is named after John Saxon, who surveyed the track in 1886.
Saxon Hut to James Mackay Hut
Distance: 11.8 km Time: 2 – 3 hours
After leaving the Saxton Hut, the track drops to grassy flats beside the Saxton River before starting a groomed single track climb. You’ll pass a ridge which joins the Gouland Downs and the Mackay Downs and marks the boundary between the Nelson Region and the West Coast.
The Mackay Hut has 26 bunks and is an excellent but cold place to spend the night. You’ll have fantastic views of the Heaphy River and the Tasman Sea.
James Mackay Hut to Lewis Hut
Distance: 12.5 km time 1-2 hours
The track leaves the Mackay Hut and you’re greeted with an invigorating and slightly technical downhill to the Lewis Hutt. A couple things to remember here – first, the Heaphy Track is still shared with trampers so avoid the urge to really let loose. This section of the track is also prone to getting sloppy and bogged down, NZbyBike recommends you walk your bike if it’s too soft to protect the trail so bikers can use it for years to come.
As you pass through beech forest you’ll make your way down to the Heaphy River. The beech forest gives way to thicker bush which is more typical of the West Coast. Along the track you’re greeted with glimpses of the Heaphy River before reaching the junction of the Lewis River where you’ll find a hut of the same name.
Nikau palms and sandlflies abound – welcome to the West Coast! The Lewis Hut sleeps 20.
Lewis Hut to Heaphy Hut
Distance: 8 km Time: 1.5 – 2.5 hours
You’ll get your fair share of swing bridges on the ride from Lewis Hut to the Heaphy Hut. When you leave the Lewis Hut, head back up the track for a short distance to a junction - turn left here and ride over a ridge to a bridge which crosses the Lewis River. Follow the right bank of the Heaphy River to another bridge.
The track crosses the Heaphy here and continues along the left bank to the river mouth at the Tasman Sea. You’ll ride through a forest of kahikatea, rimu and rata and really being to feel like you’re on the West Coast. The sounds of the Tasman Sea get louder as you pass more and more nikau palms and eventually arrive at the Heaphy Hut which sleeps 28.
You’ll meet two resident horses at the Heaphy Hut who will entertain you with their ability to push an outside tap with their chins before grabbing a wee drink!
Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai River Mouth
Distance: 16.2 km Time: 3-4 hours
This is arguably one of the most stunning sections of the trail. As you leave the Heaphy Hut, the track weaves through nikau palms with native West Coast bush on one side and the roaring Tasman Sea on the other.
Some of the small streams you’ll pass are not bridged and can be dangerous after heavy rain. Also beyond Katipo Creek is Crayfish (Koura) Point. There is no high tide track and it can be impassable two hours or so either side of high tide – especially when sea conditions are rough. Check tide tables in the Heaphy Hut or Kohaihai Shelter before proceeding over this section.
After you pass Scotts Beach, there is one last small climb to Kohaihai Saddle before winding down through the Heaphy Track’s finish at the Kohaihai River.