An important travel route for early Māori, the remote St James Cycle Trail is a challenging journey through magnificent high country complete with soaring peaks, broad river valleys, and rustic farming heritage.
Centered on the vast Clarence and Waiau valleys, the whopping 78,000-hectare St James Station was one of New Zealand’s largest high country farms, dating back to 1862. When it passed into the care of the Department of Conservation in 2008, it became the setting for one of the country’s finest mountain bike trails.
A testament to the farm’s former glories, well-preserved buildings, and fences add a human element to landscapes of overwhelming natural grandeur. Vast valleys flanked by rugged mountain ranges usher riders through golden meadows and sweet beech forest, over crystal clear rivers, into hidden lakes, and past a series of rustic huts offering shelter from the elements. A two-day trip is highly recommended.
While fit riders can complete the St James Cycle Trail in one day, an overnight trip is highly recommended as it allows more time to linger in places like Lake Guyon and enjoy the simple pleasures of camping or rustic huts. Sunset and sunrise are big-time bonuses.
It’s a 13km drive from Hanmer Springs to the St James Conservation Area and Homestead, site of the trail’s main car park and the common end-point for what is essentially a loop. The road over Jacks Pass is a narrow and windy shingle road – allow plenty of time. If you are riding – check out the GPX here
While it’s possible to ride the extra 25km from there to the official trailhead at Maling car park (along Tophouse Road), it’s more common to get shuttled to Maling car park (with the shuttle meeting you at the Homestead or driving you all the way in from Hanmer Springs).
While the trail can be ridden in either direction, the Maling start offers more downhill overall along with favourable prevailing winds.
Experienced backcountry bike-packers should also note that the St James can be linked with The Rainbow and Molesworth Muster rides for much longer and even more challenging adventures. The ride also connects with the on road Hurunui Heartland Cycle Ride route (Kaikoura to Christchurch) with a short 33km section on SH7 and SH7a.
Maling Pass car park—Waiau 4WD Road End
12km, 1–1.5 hours
Those with a sense of adventure will feel pretty excited as they head off on the 4WD track into instantly big-hitting vistas. There are glimpses of Lake Tennyson as the trail winds steadily around the foothills of the St James range, climbing 250m over 6km to reach Maling Pass.
A pretty big reveal from the highpoint (1308m) grows ever greater on the descent, which winds down through alpine tussock and beech forest, and passes an 1889 rabbit-proof fence long-since breached by the bunny brigade.
On the floor of the valley, the 4WD track levels out and comes to an end along the east bank of the Waiau River. If you’re not wowed by now, there’s no hope for you!
Waiau 4WD road end—Saddle Spur Bridge
15.5km, 1.5–2.5 hours
This section of the trail starts out on a purpose-built cycle track that soon emerges into wide river terraces near the junction with the sidetrack to Lake Guyon.
It’s well worth riding the extra 20 minutes or so each way (5km in all) to Lake Guyon hut, as it takes in different vantages of the incredibly pretty lake and surrounds. The old hut is also a particularly nice spot for a break from the bike with the opportunity for a cooling dip – even if it’s just a toe.
Back on the main trail, riders follow the old stock and farm tracks meandering down-valley over the grassy river flats, passing by Little Lake and Muddy Lakes before arriving at the spectacular Saddle Spur Bridge.
A herd of wild horses inhabit this area and can often be seen grazing the river flats.
Saddle Spur Bridge—Scotties Hut
14.5km, 2–3 hours
This is the most challenging section of the trail, with 240 metres of climbing made all the more testing by some rocky and uneven terrain. Some narrow downhill sections and steep drop-offs require particular care, especially as any uncontrolled dismount may see you plough headlong into thorny matagouri.
Having crossed to the river’s western side via the bridge over a stunning rocky gorge, riders are faced with the push over Saddle Spur. Down the other side, the track meanders another 5km or so to Pool Hut – micro-sized and a little bit mousey but well positioned around the middle of the trail.
The trail then crosses the McArthur Bridge and follows an old farm track up a series of terraces before winding steeply to Charlies Saddle. The changing views are to die for; the climb you will survive.
An invigorating descent leads to a bridge over the Edwards River and the hunters’ haven, Scotties Hut.
Scotties Hut—St James Homestead
17km, 1.5–2.5 hours
A 4WD track leads up the meadow-lined Edwards Valley, with the terrain generally smooth save for short stretches of the rocky riverbed and four unbridged stream crossings. A worthwhile 10-minute detour leads to Cow Stream hot springs.
The trail makes its final sizeable climb out of the valley to reach Peters Pass, from where an easy downhill run wends down the smaller but no less beautiful Peters Valley. A series of farm fences signals the approach to St James Homestead, which appears straight out of the pages of New Zealand’s high country farming history. Be sure to nosy around the old farm buildings before you leave.
NO CELLPHONE COVERAGE: Cellphone coverage is lost once you go over Jacks Pass from Hanmer Springs. Due to the remote nature of the trail, riders should consider taking a personal locator beacon (PLB) or hire one from Christchurch – there is no hire option in Hanmer Springs.